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Lives of the Artists, W.S. Merwin 2013

This is a single, long poem by W.S. Merwin, whose poetic voice has been described as “streamlined poetic diction that unerringly separates and recombines like quicksilver scattered upon a shifting plane, but which remains as faithful to the warms and cools of the human heart as that same mercury in the pan-pipe of a thermometer.” (James Merrill) It is the second book by W.S. Merwin to be published by Ninja Press, the first being The Real World of Manuel Córdova in 1995.   


Lives of the Artists was inspired by actual events in the lives of two young men living on the Great Plains of North America during the Plains Indian Wars of 1861-1890; one, an orphaned Arapaho boy named Frank Henderson and the other, a Northern Cheyenne warrior named Little Finger Nail. Both recorded their past and present histories by drawing in “ledger books.” It was a time when Plains Indian ledger book art was quickly beginning to replace the centuries-old practice of painting on hide: recording battles and feats of valor on buffalo robes, and tipis; painting their hide shields with potent symbols to provide supernatural protection.


Little Finger Nail’s drawing book was strapped to his back when he was killed by U.S. Army troops on January 22, 1879. Still intact but torn through the bottom by bullets, the book is now on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Frank Henderson created his drawing book in 1882 at Darlington, a Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). It remained intact until 1988 when it was taken apart for exhibition. Each page was then sold separately.


Twelve multicolored drawings accompany Lives of the Artists. They come from a 1988 facsimile edition of Frank Henderson’s drawing book. They were scanned and printed digitally by Karen Skove Chu using Epson UltraChrome K3 inks.


The type is hand set Van Dijck with Gloria for the display, printed letterpress on Frankfurt, a Zerkall German-made paper. The binding is Hahnemühle Ingres paper over boards with a spine of French burnt umber goatskin. The paper has been hand marbled especially for this edition by Pamela Smith with additional pigment applied at the press. A second inner cover holds the text, which is sewn through the spine with linen into a granite-colored Belgian flax paper, handmade at Cave Paper.


There are 72 signed & numbered copies in the edition along with an additional 7 hors commerce.


12 inches by 5.75 inches. (The size of Frank Henderson’s original drawing book.) 36 pages.