An Interview with Diane Samuels, creator of The Overstory by Richard Powers Handmade Scroll

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. What if you have tens of thousands of words to depict? Artist Diane Samuels handles more than a hundred thousand in her scroll The Overstory by Richard Powers, recording the titular novel in microscript on a field of vibrant colors and textures. In this unique and creative work, Samuels honors Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story through both pictures and words. Stunning in concept and exceptional in scope, the scroll is a fabulous and entirely unique work of art, on display in the Arnold Arboretum’s lecture hall exhibition space from October 14, 2022 to January 30, 2023. 

When extended, Samuels’ scroll of The Overstory reaches 160 feet. This dimension was a conscious decision for the artist, as it is the height of a small coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirons), emblematic of the trees that figure prominently in Powers’ novel.

Through words, drawings, woodblock prints, and vivid shades of inks, silks, and papers, we rediscover a book—a book of many colors, transformed by and within the art itself by Samuels. Believing art is inherent in the written word, she honors that artistry and allows us to see thousands of words become new again through The Overstory by Richard Powers.

All photographs are by Thomas Little.

art scroll stretched out, vaious materials, colors, tiny script
The Overstory by Richard Powers, Trunk detail in progress, copyright Diane Samuels

Q: You have visited the Arnold Arboretum and know the novel The Overstory. How do you think the scroll you created in response to the book relates to the Arboretum and its mission?

A: I had heard of the Arnold Arboretum [Samuels lives in Pittsburgh], and when I read about the Sequoia sempervirens in The Overstory, I was curious about the genus. Through my research, I discovered that Metasequoia glyptostroboides [dawn redwood, also a member of the Cupressaceae or cypress family along with the coast redwood] seeds had been distributed in Pittsburgh through the Arnold Arboretum. I immediately felt a connection to the Arnold because there are dawn redwoods close to where I live. This past spring, I took a tour at the Arnold, which I loved and found it gave more depth to the book.

I noticed that the care and attention you [Arnold Arboretum] pay to every detail of the collection you have, is parallel for me to the care and attention that Richard Powers pays to every word and every detail of his work.

Diane Samuels

Powers’ work and the Arnold’s work are both collections of extraordinary thoughts and living things. He writes about connections—the connections of the tree roots with the soil through mycelium (root-like structure of fungus found on soil, network of threads), various other connections in nature, and between plants and people. Standing on the soil at the Arboretum, I felt very connected in my head to the book, and in my feet and body to the plants.

…to have the opportunity to show the work here [at the Arnold Arboretum] seemed like a kind of homecoming for me.

Diane Samuels

Art detail, vaious colors, scraps of fabric, tiny white lines and text
The Overstory by Richard Powers, detail, mycelium, copyright Diane Samuels

Q: There is an obvious texture you achieve with individual pieces—weaving lines, stratum of text, cut and torn papers—that conveys a very physical sense, akin to the surface of a tree, the bark.

A: Exactly, with bark it is almost like lots of little pieces assembled into one thing, and all those pieces make a shelter for the tree. In my art, and in the writing of Powers, lots of disparate elements are assembled together. The book is the protector of the words like bark protects the inner fragility of the tree.

Q: What attracted you to using The Overstory for a scroll?

A: I have been a fan or Powers’ work for years. I find that what he writes gives me entry into worlds that I might not have known about. The Overstory, particularly, resonated with me on so many different levels, the connections to all things from mycelium to activism.

It [The Overstory] was the right book at the right time, and I thought I would love to do this book.

Diane Samuels

The activism in the book resonated with me in a number of ways. With my husband, I started The City of Asylum in 2004 to provide sanctuary to writers who aren’t able to safely practice their work in their home country. Powers is on the advisory board, so protecting writers is important to him. In his own work, he writes about protecting the world and nature, the fragile relationship between people and nature, and the relationships between people with each other.

Q: Why was it important for you to include every word of text from the book?

A: There are two reasons. The second is that I know a viewer might wonder why I write every word, and they may think, “I need to read this book.” My advocacy is to get more people to read, and this is an essential book.

The first reason is that I have been hand transcribing for many years. The first book being The Odyssey. Homer’s work is a classic coming home story which I started a few years before City of Asylum was created. What does it mean when someone can not go home? Each book for me since has had some relationship to City of Asylum.

Aritst bent over art scroll and working
The Overstory by Richard Powers, Artist, Diane Samuels, scroll in progress, copyright Diane Samuels

Q: How do you feel your approach to art offers a successful interpretation of nature as it relates to The Overstory?

A: As I gathered materials to use, I considered files of drawings I did decades ago. My goal was to recycle and reuse in order not to cut down more trees. The bark like parts are the over painted drawings, ripped and layered.

Each little piece of bark painted-over-paper has a little bit of my history, and a history of the tree the paper came from.

Diane Samuels

There is a time scale to the paper itself. I added an additional substrata of silk, with mulberry paper as the ground for the woodblock prints on the reverse side from the text. The mulberry references the mulberry tree, grown by the father of one of the book’s main characters.

Art scroll mostly curled up, images of leaves and colorful design
The Overstory by Richard Powers, Trunk and Back of Trunk, copyright Diane Samuels

Q: The Overstory deals with nature and the human relationship to nature. How do you relate to the themes you take to be inherent in the book?

A: Powers talks about mycelia, those connecting threads below the soil and the relationship of human beings to nature. I have been to the redwoods. I have stood in front of the giant and seen what tiny little specks we are compared to trees.

There’s a great deal of humility that I felt [at the redwoods] and also reading Richard Powers’ book, and in the books I have transcribed and built.

Diane Samuels

Writers are artists. I can’t write, but I can make shrines to what others write and I can celebrate writers, the same way I want to celebrate Sequoia—things that are larger than me.