A Life with Cancer: Martha Hall's Artist's Books INTD 3001: Health, Culture, and Society - Fall 2020

Introduction to Special Collections & Archives

Special Collections & Archives is a department of the Bowdoin College Library that houses rare books, manuscripts, and the College Archives.

Want to learn more about SC&A? Watch this brief introduction with Marieke, Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian:

The term artist's books refers to publications that have been conceived as artworks in their own right, unlike an art book, catalog or monograph that tend to showcase artworks created in another medium.

Bowdoin's special collections has over 600 examples of artist's books that exemplify a range of subjects: literature, social justice, ABC books, gender, poetry, and more.

Martha Hall's work was some of the earliest artist's books acquired and collected for Bowdoin's collection.

Martha Hall (1949-2003)

Martha Hall (1949-2003) was a Maine-based book artist, writer, weaver, and business owner and executive, whose creative work focused largely on themes related to her fifteen-year struggle with breast cancer—living with the fear of dying; creating in order to heal; understanding one's own legacy; and appreciating and living fully each day. In 1989, a week before Hall received her MBA with honors from Dartmouth in 1989, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite the uncertainties, Hall forged ahead with an ambitious new career as a marketing executive at American Express. She lived in New York City during the week and commuted home to Maine for long weekends to see her family and undergo chemotherapy.

Following a reoccurrence of breast cancer in 1993, Hall underwent high dose chemotherapy in Maine, an autologous bone marrow transplant at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital, followed by radiation. Exhausted both physically and emotionally, Hall left her job in New York City and returned to Maine full-time in order to spend more time with her family and with her writing and art. She joined the staff of L.L. Bean developing marketing strategies, and continued to be employed there until her illness forced her to retire in 2000.

In 1995, Hall began serious and concentrated study of the visual arts. She attended a paper arts workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, the first of several workshops she would take at the school in Deer Isle, Maine. In 1996, she completed her first book arts workshop, a course with Rebecca Goodale and Dennis Gilbert, and created her first artist's book, The Raven. Over the next few years, Hall would develop close and collaborative friendships with several of Maine book artists. In 1998, she moved to Orr's Island, Maine, a place that would inspire and comfort her as she battled a second reoccurrence of breast cancer. In 1999, she entered the BFA program at the Maine College of Art, but following a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, opted to not complete the program and instead focus on creating and sharing her artist's books.

By the early 2000s, Hall's reputation as a book artist had grown considerably. She exhibited in New York City, Massachusetts, and Maine. Hall worked diligently to place her works in academic institutions where they could be viewed and handled by the public, cancer patients, and medical professionals. Her hope was to educate people broadly about what it means to be a cancer patient, and more specifically, to inspire health care provides to improve the way they interacted with patients. Hall articulated her process and desires in the documentary "I Make Books" which the Maine Women Writers Collection at University of New England produced in 2000.

In late 2002, Hall collaborated with Martin Antonetti, then the curator of rare books at the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, to develop the exhibition "Holding In, Holding On," a major retrospective of her work. Hall worked tirelessly on selecting works, writing text, and developing the catalogue, even while continuing to produce new works and entering the final stage of her illness. The exhibition opened at Smith College in Fall 2003, a few weeks before Hall's death on December 5, 2003, at the age 54. Following her death, the "Holding In, Holding On" traveled to Bowdoin and Wellesley colleges and to Yale University.

Look at the following FIVE artist's books and come to class ready to discuss what you observed, discovered, and have questions about.

As you engage with the images and video, consider the following questions:

  • What does the book look like? How does this relate to your concept of what a book is? What might this book be like to read? Or to hold? How might this compare to reading you do regularly?
  • How does the book move? How is the information organized?
  • How does the form of the book inform your understanding of what the book is about? What is this book about?
  • Is there anything you want to know more about to better understand this book?
  • How does looking at these materials inform what you’ve been reading and discussing in class?
The Raven, 1996
Images of Martha Hall's "The Raven." Orr's Island, ME: self-published, 1996.
"Jane, with Wings," 2001
Images of Martha Hall's "Jane, with Wings." Orr's Island, ME: self-published, 2001.
"Tattoo," 2001
Images from Martha Hall's "Tattoo." Orr's Island, ME: self-published, 2001.
"Five Doctors Speak: July 7-16, 1998," 2001
Images of Martha Hall's "Five Doctors Speak: July 7-16, 1998." Orr's Island, ME: self-published, 2001.
"Prescriptions," 2002
Images of Martha Hall's "Prescriptions." Orr's Island, ME: self-published, 2002.

Questions? Contact Marieke at mvanders@bowdoin.edu or set up an appointment to chat online!

A Recognition

SC&A, like all archives and special collections libraries, is the creation of human beings who have collected, organized, and described things in ways that reflect personal, cultural, societal, and institutional biases. Although we strive to preserve and present collections in a manner that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in the collections, we acknowledge that our systems are neither neutral nor perfect. We encourage you to let us know if you encounter materials, descriptive language, or practices that are offensive or harmful, particularly those for which inadequate context or warning is offered. We are committed to modifying and updating our descriptive practices to use respectful and inclusive terminology and appreciate your help in this work. We look forward to supporting you in your research and learning together.