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The Secret Book | research and creative discovery | Clemson University

The Secret Book

Peter Kent

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The black linen-covered book is a field guide to Tillinghast’s imagery of the age-old struggle between chaos and order. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.


A hijacked work of art grows rampant and weed-like into new art.

The first time I met David Tillinghast, at Starbucks, we chatted about woodcraft and archery. An artist and a scribbler, we sat sipping coffee, swapping stories. At the time, I did not know that Tillinghast had created the Secret Book. And he didn’t know it either.

There is a secret book at Clemson. Maybe not so secret. Hundreds of students know about it. They have all had a hand in making the book into what it has become, transforming it from its creator’s artistic vision into crowd-sourced journal for graduating seniors. It has become a tradition, a rite of passage, to write a passage or leave a memento in the Secret Book.

From the book:
“You spend 4 years trying to get out of this place and the rest of your life trying to get back. There really is something in these hills.” Courtney Nations, 10/21/10, Class of 2010

Cooper Library keeps the book on restricted circulation. Students have used it so many times that the book has gone through four rebindings. Often it ranks among the most checked-out library books in the monthly circulation reports, especially at the semester’s end. English instructors use the book as an example in English 103, first-year composition. One made Tillinghast’s work part of a scavenger hunt exercise for her class.

The book comes with a curse and it includes a clue used in solving a puzzle that led to a cash gift for a newlywed couple. It’s a mystery how the tradition started—no one lays claim to it—and problematic in its perpetuation. Is it a willful act of destruction or the realization that public art ultimately belongs to the public?

From the book:
“Rules. You may tell anyone of the existence of the book, but no one the location or call number. You may give 5 (five) people hints on where to find this call number on campus. Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Unsigned

“You don’t know about the Secret Book?” Denise Woodward-Detrich asks, as though I should have known about it, the way we all should have known about the five mass extinctions in the history of Earth. No, the book isn’t the reason for my visiting her in Lee Hall, where she oversees the Lee Gallery. I have come to find out about the miniature silo. To the people who can see the silo from their windows in Barre Hall, it looks like an abandoned agricultural totem, and they are mostly clueless to its purpose or provenance. Woodward-Detrich laughs. “The silo and the book are connected. You need to meet the artist David Tillinghast. He’s a sculptor, got his master’s here and lives here; his father is an author, retired from the English Department.”

A talk of two vessels

“Do you remember me?” Tillinghast asks.

I nod, lying. We sit at Starbucks, again, and talk. He is lean and long-limbed, with lanky brown hair framing a face serious but open to laughter. His eyes would lose him his shirt at almost any poker table, and, as we talk about the Secret Book, his face goes through page after page of emotions—bewilderment, outrage, resignation, delight.

“The silo and book are linked,” Tillinghast says. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.

The students coined the name Secret Book. Tillinghast knows the volume as one half of P211. t45, the title of his campus public art project installed in 2001. The other half is a brick-and-brown-metal, twenty-one-foot-tall silo. Together, the pieces are Tillinghast’s view of the relationship between agriculture and written language. Embossed in a deep brown-red on the original book front cover, P211 .t45 is a Library of Congress call number, ascribing it an address in the history-of-writing collection.

“The silo and book are linked,” Tillinghast says. “Growing crops led to settlements and a way to record harvests and distribution. But the connectedness is more than recordkeeping. Agriculture is a way of organizing nature in fields and rows. Writing is a way of organizing ideas, experiences and events. Nature, from cells to cities, is organized.”

There also is meaning in the “two vessels,” Tillinghast adds. Both the book and silo are containers filled with meaning.

The silo looks empty, but embedded in the floor is a bronze disc with “Cooper and P211 .t45” set in raised letters and numbers. When viewers position themselves to read the legend, it aligns them for the next step in putting together the pieces.

Before the new Academic Success Center arose and broke the line of sight, the silo’s slit portals aligned to point precisely to the reference section bookshelf on which the book was placed. But that was before it became so popular that the librarians moved it to a shelf behind the circulation desk and restricted borrowers, faculty included, to a two-hour checkout.

Chaos and order

The black linen-covered book is a field guide to Tillinghast’s imagery of the age-old struggle between chaos and order. He collected weeds in wintertime, particularly thistles, from roadsides and unkempt patches, and arranged them to create spare assemblages, prickly with brittle stems, sharp leaves, and dried seedpods, pressed like botanical samples set as silhouettes.

“Weeds are nature’s wild antagonists to crops,” he says. “They create tension and relentlessly grow, symbols of nature’s independence in spite our efforts to control it. The tension between the wild and the domesticated is part of human nature.”

Stark black-and-white images evolved as Tillinghast ran the unbound pages repeatedly through a copier, accreting layer on layer of ink, adding depth and weight to the images. He has kept the proofs and a failed version of the book, which he refuses to let me see. “It tried to please an audience. I did not want that.”

Tillinghast rubbed two of the pages with red dirt from the region. There are also drawings of the silo’s rooftop ribs and flashing, an homage to Renaissance architect Brunelleschi’s dome, one of Tillinghast’s favorite artists. Finally, there is one page with two words: “field” and “join.” Tillinghast says the book of symbols is a symbol itself of “a field of pages joining together to make a book—a whole, a oneness, no separation between nature and our making.”

The original book is intriguing—what you can see of it. The Secret Book has nearly obliterated P211 .t45. Personal notes, famous quotes, snippets of songs and poems, wisecracks, witticisms, truths, lies, boasts, smut, smack, doggerel, drawings and photos, football ticket stubs, pennies, buttons, Post Its, playing and business cards, and hundreds of names and dates, a gushing orange hemorrhage of young hearts and minds. The impact is sacred and profane, something less than a canticle to Clemson but something more than the scrawl on a beer joint’s restroom wall.

From the book:
“I spent 2 hours looking at this book so now I will probably fail my exam tomorrow.” Unsigned, 7/27/2011

Students see nothing wrong with what they’re doing. “He should be honored that we have chosen the book to be a tradition,” writes one student in an email. The sentiment is repeated in other emails. I have asked the librarians to invite students to email me; a handful do. Their views are fairly consistent: They do not know who the artist is. They do not know the book is art. Most say they like art and many say they do not know there are artworks on campus. They have found out about the book mostly from Facebook or from other students.

“You have no clue how valuable this is to us,” one senior says at the library. Seniors are the ones who are supposed to sign the book, according to tradition. Woe unto undergraduates who make their mark too early. “If you are an undergraduate and sign it, you will not graduate,” says Katherine Mercer, a library student aide, who graduated last semester.

From the book:
“I found this and now I’m haunted…” Talia Kahoe, 8/26/12, Class of 2016!

Mercer has signed the book and has been given a special distinction. Students who work in the library can select a book to have a bookplate attached commemorating their service. Mercer picked the Secret Book. She knows that her bookplate is as vulnerable as the book. “It will get written over, but I’m okay with that, because that’s what happens in the book.”

Tillinghast expected a notation or two. In the back of the book, he included a few blank pages for the seekers to sign and date their discovery of the art installation. “Maybe a few dozen, at most,” he says. In the 2005, he stopped in to see if anyone had signed the book. There were lots of signatures, including ones by family members. “The pages were filling up. I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t do anything about it.” He did not return until 2013. The second visit staggered him. “The pages had become palimpsest in reverse. The monks in the Middle Ages scrubbed the pages of ancient texts to write their holy words. What the students are doing is writing over the pages, eclipsing my images. It’s the same thing—one wiping out another.”

From the book:
“Twelve days to graduation…here it goes….” Katherine Helen Dantzler, April 28, 2013, Class of 2013

It was like a cancer claiming his book, and Tillinghast was whipsawed by emotions. “I was angry at first. Then I wanted to do something like take the book back. I thought maybe I could fix it, or wipe out what they had done, or figure out how to market it, maybe sell prints or T-shirts and make some money. Now, well, I am thinking about what’s next.”

Some people want Tillinghast to do a second volume. “This one is falling apart,” says Fredda Owens, circulation librarian.

“We have added blank pages, but the book isn’t in great shape, and we can have it rebound only so many times.” The original covers are now in a slipcase pocket as part of a new binding.

Public takeover

Art professor David Detrich (Woodward-Detrich’s spouse) was Tillinghast’s adviser, and Tillinghast was Detrich’s first graduate student. Detrich leads Atelier InSite, a program whose goal is to sharpen the university’s vision of what it wants from public art.

David Tillinghast revisits the miniature silo he created on campus. Like its companion piece, the Secret Book, it is vessel of meaning. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.

“Artists who create public artworks deal with additional pressures,” Detrich says. “Public response to the work can be dramatic.” He mentions, for example, Richard Serra, a sculptor whose Tilted Arc in 1981 blocked easy access New York City’s Federal Plaza and was so despised that local officials had it removed in 1989.

If art is about evoking response, Tillinghast’s art has succeeded. But it has been a Prufrockian experience for him. He tells me he has not decided about making a second volume of P211 .t45. “No, it’s become something else,” he says. “Maybe without the signatures and other items the book would remain a dark cave. It’s interesting that while my original book is self-destructing, the new signatures create the new book. The very thing that destroys the book gives it life. The overlapping signatures are like torches illuminating the cave walls.”

While working on this story, I was in the city and stopped by the New York Public Library to ask a question.

“No, we don’t have a secret book I know about,” answered the librarian. “But we do have a disappearing book.”

Before I was allowed to see it, the librarians in the rare book room explained the rules, which include no permanent markers—only pencils—and no bags or satchels, just paper or a computer. On a long, dark wood table, under a pool of lamp light, librarians set out Agrippa in its stone-textured, slate-gray plastic case. Agrippa (a book of the dead) was created in 1992 by writer William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh, and publisher Kevin Begos Jr.

A cryptic cult classic and scholar’s fetish, it is a poem about childhood memories by Gibson on a computer minidisc set to erase after one reading, inset in Ashbaugh’s book made of light-sensitive paper and ink meant to fade away. Eighty-five copies were made; the library’s copy is thought to be in the best condition, much to the author’s displeasure.

“Gibson was in here a few weeks ago and asked to see it,” said a librarian. “He was disappointed that we had kept it so well.”

Tillinghast chuckles as I tell the Agrippa story. “A disappearing book,” he says. “What a concept.”

Later in an email, Tillinghast, who feels a bond with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” sends me a quote from the poem: “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Peter Kent is a news editor and writer in Clemson’s Public Service Activities.

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