Watts Program: Transformations of the Book

To start off the Spring 2011 series of workshops and lectures for the Charles H. Watts II Program in the History and Culture of the Book, students from Brown and RISD learned first hand about contemporary handmade artists’ books and fine printing. The first presentation was given by Rosemary Cullen, Special Collections Librarian at the John Hay Library on February 16th. Students were shown examples of artists’ books from their collection of over 400 titles. Many of these books, fabricated by hand, stretched the boundaries of traditional book structures and materials and a lively discussion of what made them a “book” instead of a sculpture followed.

On Friday February 25th students were shown a selection artists’ books from the Fleet Library’s collection of over 1400 titles, by Laurie Whitehill Chong, Special Collections Librarian and Curator of Artists’ Books. These books, also varied in concept, structures, materials and craft, were first read aloud or performed followed by an an in-depth discussion and analysis of each book. When it comes to “reading” artists’ books, there are so many layers of meaning. Exploring how each artist used images, text, materials and structure to communicate to the reader proved that the possibilities are endless.

Following the presentation in the RISD Library students then went to the John Carter Brown Library where RISD Professor Jan Baker, of the Graphic Design department, showed student made artists’ books from her own classes. Participants were invited to look over the books on their own and select one that they would present to the group. Seeing the quality and integrity of student work helped the current students to feel that making a book of their own was possible.

On Saturday February 26th, students were treated to a special workshop given by Steve Miller, printer extraordinaire, book maker and director of the Masters Program in Book Arts at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. In this workshop, held in the type shop of RISD’s Design Center, students learned how to print a “Sandragraph” on the letterpress. A Sandragraph, created by Harry and Sandra Reese of the Turkey Press, is a fabricated low relief printing plate that is made to be type high. When printed, this plate creates a textural abstract design or subtle image that forms the background to subsequent layers of printed type and image, adding depth to the printed page. It also makes the text and images less isolated and stark against a pure white background. Creating a Sandragraph involves simple materials such as a piece of MDF board, acrylic gel, muslin, and all manner of low relief bits of paper, string, cardboard or any other textured detritus. Students got to make a sample plate, set up the plate on the press, learned how to lock it in, ink the plate and print. In the process, Steve gave many useful tips for printing and also showed many wonderful examples of printed broadsides and books that incorporate Sandragraph prints. One of the many take-aways from  Steve’s workshop was that spontaneity and playfulness in printing can work very happily with the demands of precision.

In the afternoon, Steve Miller gave a public lecture back at the John Carter Brown Library entitled “21st Century Letterpress and the Artisan Book”. Steve spoke of his career as a printer, having studied with master letterpress printer Walter Hamady of Perishable Press in Wisconsin. Following grad school he established his own Red Ozier Press with Ken Botnick and moved to Manhattan to set up shop. Miller sought out various poets and writers such as Alan Ginsberg, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isamu Noguchi, Billy Collins, and Octavio Paz, to make small printed chapbooks of their works. Later he moved to Alabama where he developed the MFA Book Arts Program, which he directs. In the past several years Steve has been recording interviews with book artists and poets and this series of podcasts is available on iTunes. He is also proprietor of the Red Hydra Press at the University. Steve is one of the co-founders of the Paper and Book Intensive, an exciting two week series of workshops and classes in the book and paper arts.

Steve spoke in depth about his own journey as an artist, calling himself a “floaty poet boy” with a passion for poetry and printing. He feels his mission has been to awaken authors to the joy of the printed page and to establish a long term relationship with them. This was clearly evident in the samples of collaborative book projects he brought with him. Printing for Steve represents magical moments of attention where he is totally focused on every detail of a print.  In Steve’s words, “it’s not a single ‘ah ha!’ moment, but a long slow ‘aah haaaa….’ action.” It’s all about the making of a printed page, the very foundation of the artisan book.

In his long career he has worked with many  notable artists in the field of book and paper arts.  He talked about the work of Hedi Kyle, who has contributed so many innovative book structures to the field, Carolee Campbell of Ninja Press, who has been printing fine books for nearly 25 years, and Harry and Sandra Reese who started their press about the same time as Steve in the late 1970’s.  Paper is the substrate of all fine printing and as interest in the hand printed page grew in the 1970’s and 80’s, the need for quality handmade paper led to the founding of two important paper making establishments, Twinrocker Paper in Indiana and Dieu Donné Papermill in New York.  The demand for quality type and the casting of new type faces was met by such companies as Bixler Press and Letter Foundry in upstate New York.  Small museum collections of antique presses such as John Horn‘s in Arkansas provide important models for reference and research for the contemporary printer, often assisting them in troubleshooting the mechanics of their own antique working presses. In support of book artists and printers, there are many long standing educational institutions and book arts centers across the country that Steve mentioned as well such as the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina where Steve frequently teaches and recently redesigned their state of the art letterpress studio.

It was a rich and full weekend immersion in all things “book art”.  Thanks to Steve Miller, we got a taste of the depth and variety of contemporary artists’ books and fine printing and a clear message that the “artisan book” is here to stay.  Though the artisan book has and will continue to go through changes, it has a strong legacy of passionate and focused practitioners who continue to influence the book arts with their collective wisdom and experience.  The handmade book is alive and well and it is through collections of artists’ books at Brown and RISD, and instructors like Jan Baker and Steve Miller who are training the book artists of tomorrow, that the legacy will continue.

Many thanks to Lisa Long Feldman, coordinator of the Watts Program, to the John Carter Brown Library and Staff, to Rosemary Cullen of the John Hay Library, and to the RISD Graphic Design department for all they did to make this weekend possible.

posted by Laurie Whitehill Chong

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