Using the library's withdrawn materials, Columbus artists create works responding to James Thurber's captivating World War II-era book

James Thurber called The Last Flower a “parable in pictures.” Written in a hotel room one night just after the start of World War II, Thurber dedicated it to his daughter, Rosemary, “in the wistful hope that her world will be better than mine.”

The Last Flower reads like a picture book for adults, or a proto-graphic novel. Thurber opens the story with armed soldiers charging forward as he describes “World War XII” and the destruction it left in its wake, wiping out the world as we know it — save for one flower, which eventually inspires the resurrection of beauty and goodness and the structural hallmarks that make up a functioning society. Which leads to governments and boundaries. Which leads to war and chaos and more destruction, save for one last flower…

The original manuscript of The Last Flower is currently on display in sequential order in the Main Library’s Carnegie Gallery, enabling visitors to walk alongside the walls as they read Thurber’s words from 1939 and see his pencil and eraser marks while contemplating the alternately hopeful and depressing narrative.

Thurber’s granddaughter, Sara Thurber Sauers, partnered with the library to display the work, on loan from Rosemary herself. At the same time, local artist and curator Stephanie Rond was looking to hold the third edition of “Art Unbound,” an every-few-years exhibition that invites Columbus artists to make new pieces out of the library’s withdrawn and donated materials, which would otherwise be recycled. Normally the artists aren’t given a theme, but this time Rond asked 25 artists to respond to The Last Flower in their “Art Unbound” pieces.    

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“One of the strengths of Columbus artists is that they really think about things. It's a highly intelligent community. So I invited them all the way back in March, and Sara was kind enough to give them a PDF [of The Last Flower] so that they were all able to read it and start processing it,” Rond said. “They all processed the message in a way that I didn't even expect. … Some of them were able to see the dark or the light, but then some of them focused on one little, tiny sentence.”

In Dan Gerdeman’s “From the Eyes, Mouth and Mind of a Child,” which uses a collage effect of paper and encaustic paint to depict a girl and a flower set against a background of chaos, the artist focused on a particular line from the book: “One day a young girl who had never seen a flower chanced to come upon the last one in the world.” In the accompanying artist statement, Gerdeman wrote that “someday we will listen to and embrace the innocence and vision of a child.”

Lisa McLymont, meanwhile, found a musical score titled “We’re Sharing this Planet,” which provides the backdrop for a pink and green flower made of more sheet music. In a less tactile approach, Andrew Ina’s work is displayed on a screen; the artist created a stop-motion animation with images sourced from books on ancient civilizations, nature and more.

The process wasn’t always easy on the artists. The Last Flower is heavy source material, and for some of the artists, the pieces reflect that weight. Queen Brooks was open about those difficulties in her artist statement for “ghost games continues,” which she created using toy Army men, billiards triangles and three balls with the words “Greed,” “Power” and “Fear.” “This has been the most difficult art piece that I’ve made thus far in my career. It took me to a dark place of reality and challenged my faith and hope in humankind,” Brooks wrote.

“[Brooks] has been making work for 40, 50 years. She honestly had a really hard time with this piece and at one point felt like she couldn't complete it because she was processing it so much,” Rond said. “I think it’s just amazing.”

“It is a difficult discussion, and I feel like these artists were very vulnerable and brave to agree to do this,” Rond continued. “They have created quite a lot of work for the public to unpack.”