Navigating Sarah McDermott’s “Channel & Flow”

June 4, 2014 by

This is the second of two posts about our Art-in-Education Artist’s Book Resident Sarah McDermott’s project Channel & Flow. If you missed our first post, catch up here.

DSC_2088Until the folding, collating, and sewing began, it was hard to visualize exactly where Sarah McDermott’s book project, Channel & Flow, was going. Laid out in folios, a curious, wavy, letterpress printed form ran across the sheets, abruptly stopping and starting and changing color and size. But by bookmaking magic, once the binding began–with help from studio manager Chris Petrone and interns Liz Cunningham and Emily Ritter–the fragmented narrative coalesced, and Tripp’s Run emerged.

Channel & Flow, an edition of 50 books finished just two weeks ago, documents Sarah’s attempts to follow Tripp’s Run, an urban stream in Fairfax County, VA. Following World War II, Tripp’s Run was channelized to accommodate rapid suburban development–and negotiations between the stream’s natural course and human intervention have played out ever since. Recently returned to her native Arlington, Sarah tried to walk along the stream but couldn’t actually follow it; her access was constrained by infrastucture and property.

“I encountered the stream as a series of discrete units,” Sarah writes in the book’s sparse opening text. “This book is a representation of two miles of the run as I saw it, both as flow and as fragment.”DSC_1544DSC_1967Sarah marries the form and content of Channel & Flow in a way that mimics her own path of discovery. The book’s page turns and gatefolds represent how the stream has been contained and disrupted by the built environment: each panel offers a different visual vignette, distinct from but connected to the pages before and after it. By turning and folding out pages, we, like Sarah, encounter the fragmented yet persistent stream. Abstracted as an undulating plane of various greens and teals, Tripp’s Run swells as it spills out from under a bridge, contracts as it squeezes into pipes running under a backyard, and gets obscured by flora. And just as we think we know where it’s going, it bumps into the gravelly grey of a parking lot, disappearing entirely and reemerging in the next panel somewhere new.

DSC_2192Distilling the stream down to only its most essential graphical elements, Sarah renders objects in simple, flat lines and uses hand-drawn text to recall the signage dating mid-century infrastructure around Tripp’s Run. In an otherwise muted palette of olives and khakis, selective pops of silkscreened color reveal some unexpected surprises along the way, taking us past a birthday party, the Quarry Inn, and a man pruning a shrub.

It’s an adventure in itself getting oriented within this book, where perspectives compete, horizons shift, and some things–like a building or some trees–are depicted not as actual objects in space, but as textures that evoke brick and branches. Piecing it all together is an exercise in slow reckoning. With minimal text and a hand drawn map near the end of the book re-grounding us in space, Channel & Flow is like a contemplative, pocket-size guidebook for going off road and getting a little lost; for learning to look and really see; for reconsidering the spatial negotiations we make to live alongside nature.

DSC_2330Sarah writes at the book’s closing, “Despite the changes of the last century, Tripp’s Run persists in some form, a presence we experience like an echo, appearing and disappearing, most reliably visible as the negative space inside an environment that has been built under, over, and up to its edges.”

Can’t wait to add Channel & Flow to your collection? Lucky you! It’s now available in our Bookstore. For more of Sarah McDermott’s work, visit her at and check out our previous blog post. See lots more pictures of her book’s production on the WSW Flickr.