Peter Newland ’67, center, and his wife, Robyn Johnson, right, talk with Antonia Keithahn, assistant director of Disability Support Services, about their donation of artists’ books during an open house in the Penrose Library.
Peter Newland ’67, center, and his wife, Robyn Johnson, right, talk with Antonia Keithahn, assistant director of Disability Support Services, about their donation of artists’ books during an open house in the Penrose Library. (Photo by Nhi Cao '20)

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Peter Newland '67 and Robyn Johnson have shared their love of artists' books for nearly 25 years. Now, they are sharing that love — as well as their collection of dozens of the handcrafted works of art — with the Whitman College community.

In October, the Penrose Library accepted the first of an ongoing donation of artists' books from the couple. The Newland-Johnson Book Arts Collection is housed in the Whitman College Northwest Archives, but its use as an academic tool spans the campus.

"We're lucky, being in a rural location and a small town where we don't have big museums, so having an incredible collection like this come to us is pretty special," said Associate Professor Nicole Pietrantoni, who teaches book arts and printmaking in the Art Department.

Interest in artists' books isn't limited to art students, either. Pietrantoni's book arts classes are composed of students from majors across campus. That's one of the things about the books that also appeals to Johnson and Newland.

"They cross all disciplines," Newland said about artists' books. "There's no major at Whitman College for which there aren't artists' books that could appeal to those students as an idea of how they might want to express their own inquiries."

An artists' book is an art form that is often forgotten, Pietrantoni said, but one that has a powerful history and a growing presence in modern art. The books often challenge the definition of what a "book" is, but they tell stories while playing with form, texture, text and materials. The books are meant to be held and opened and turned as well as read.

"The creativity that comes through in artists' books is inspiring-especially the unique forms and structures." Johnson said. "I love both the visual and tactile nature of artists' books."

Whitman's book arts program began with Keiko Hara, who taught at Whitman from 1985 to 2006. That history and the continued commitment to teaching book arts was one of the reasons Newland and Johnson chose Whitman as the recipient of their collection.

"We visited Nicole's classes and observed the enthusiasm of the students as they saw the possibilities for their own creativity," Newland said. "We like Whitman's approach to the open archives, and how classes are encouraged to come in and handle them."

The couple visited the college in October and presented some of their favorite items to one of Pietrantoni's book art classes.

"I was struck, observing the students interact with the books. You could see the wheels turning in their heads as to how they could adapt that structure or that idea, as to how they could translate that into their own creations," Johnson said. "That is really one of our primary reasons for donating the collection - to ignite the students' own imaginations."

The college had about 100 artists' books in its collection already, said Ben Murphy, archivist and head of digital services at Whitman, including a few created by Newland. While the final total of the donation won't be known until it has been completed (and Newland and Johnson have said they will likely continue to acquire books for their collection that will eventually end up at Whitman), the initial donation includes about 40 works.

"I think it is exciting. This size of a gift makes a bigger impact here than it would to a larger institution that already has a well-developed book arts program," Murphy said. "For us, it's really an impact in the amount that it enables us to grow these collections."

In addition to the donation of books, which will be spaced out over several years, Newland and Johnson also have created an endowment to support acquisitions of additional works, hosting events, and preserving and storing the collection. In addition, both the Northwest Archives and Department of Art are investing in intentionally acquiring more artists' books, particularly those that deal with the environment, Spanish-language or books by Latinx artists, as well as other works created by regional artists.