RUTH LAXSON: Hip Young Owl

A retrospective exhibition of over 50 years of work by Atlanta artist Ruth Laxson, is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, January 26 – March 30, 2013. Curated by Marcia Wood, proprietor of the Marcia Wood Gallery and JoAnne  Paschall, formerly of Nexus Press, the show includes early paintings, woodcuts, etchings, drawings, handmade paper constructions, sculptures, mail art, and artists’ books, spanning a long and varied artistic career from the early 1960’s to present. At 88 years of age, Ruth Laxson is still making playful, pithy and relevant art and is still that “hip young owl.”

Ruth at home

At the opening reception nearly 400 old friends and new visitors attend. A life’s work is celebrated, and a very special person is honored.

The RISD Library is privileged to have over 30 of Ruth Laxson’s artist books plus her bookmaking process archives. Among these materials are research notes and scraps of factual information on a number of topics found in her work; social issues, gender, race, history, mythology, science, mathematics, technology, religion, and the arts. Process pieces include preliminary sketches, collages, mock-ups, make-ready, printing plates, test prints, and extra printed pages. In addition there are slides of her work, a sound recording of a performance piece, journal articles, gallery announcements, and correspondence. Researchers are welcome to come and immerse themselves in Ruth’s thought-provoking, visually exciting, playful, and very relevant world. And exhibition catalog for this retrospective will be forthcoming.

posted by L. Whitehill Chong

Paper: Indispensable Substrate

Currently on view in the library is an exhibit focusing on the indispensable material that artists have used for centuries…Paper!  Most people think of paper as mainly made from trees, which is still pretty much what most of our ordinary paper for daily use is. But did you ever think about what paper was made of before we started using trees? This exhibit shows examples of precursors to the paper we know today, showing the development of surfaces for writing and mark-making from parchment and papyrus to paper made from plant fibers and even old rags. Both European and Asian paper-making techniques are highlighted, with examples of paper-making moulds and deckles, as well as specimens of fibers and sheets. Different kinds of paper have been used to create decorative papers for bookbinding and printing, using such techniques as marbling, block printing, folding and dyeing as in Japanese Itajime papers, Japanese marbling or Suminagashi, and paste papers. Handmade papers have been used in many artists’ books and a selection of student-made books is on display.  Hand Papermaking, a journal devoted to the creation and study of handmade paper has produced a series of portfolios featuring specific image-making techniques, all using handmade paper.

As a substrate for much of the world’s writing and art-making, paper still has the ability to captivate and inspire, to record and dispense ideas, and to add a subtle but satisfying tactile element to communication.

All RISD Library exhibitions are open to the public 8:30 am to 7:00 pm weekdays.  This exhibit will be on view through July 8, 2011

posted by L. Whitehill Chong

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

The Wandering Book Artists visit Providence

Gypsy Van parked on North Main Street

Peter and Donna Thomas, book artists from Santa Cruz, CA made Providence one of their stops on a cross-country book tour in their handmade gypsy wagon.  Peter, who’s specialty is handmade paper, and Donna, who’s delicate watercolors grace their handmade miniature books, are also known for their research on handmade papers of other cultures, letterpress printing, leather binding, decorative painting, woodworking, metalwork, carpentry, hiking the Sierra Nevada Mts., and their fondness for ukulele music.  This year they began their travels in March and will finish up in October before heading back to Santa Cruz for the winter.  Along the way they have stopped at many book artists’ studios, book arts centers and collecting institutions to give lectures, workshops, take workshops, make collaborative prints, and show their handmade books to prospective buyers.

Peter and Donna Thomas

On August 18th, they came to visit RISD and Brown librarians, a real challenge for an SUV pulling a rather roomy colorful gypsy van in downtown Providence.  After much searching, they were able to find a place to park their vehicles on North Main Street, beside the small Roger Williams park.  With an open door to visitors, they welcomed any who were curious enough to ask for a peek, or at least ask for more than change for the parking meters.

We spent a delightful two hours in the van, looking at all their miniature books and hearing stories of their travels.  The inside is quite comfortable and has all the amenities (except for a shower) one could need to feel quite civilized, while on the road.  In fact, there are so many wonderful decorative touches both inside and out that the van is really an incredible work of art.

Cozy interior

The miniature books that Peter and Donna make are often filled with sayings and writings of John Muir, the 19th century naturalist who was responsible for making Yosemite a national park and promoting the creation of national parks all across the country.  As avid hikers of the Sierra’s, the Thomas’s pay tribute to those beautiful wild places of nature that they have grown to love.  Adventure is in their blood, and this latest tour of the country is evidence of a dream becoming reality.  It was so difficult to see them drive away.  It was all I could do to keep from running after them and crying, “take me with you!!!”

Looking at artists' books inside the van

Special Collections has several of Peter and Donna Thomas’s books in the artists’ books collection and more will be coming this fall.  If you would like to read more about their adventures, take a look at their blog and follow their travels: lwc 9/10

Paper and Book Intensive

Held in a different location each year for the past 27 years, PBI is an intense and packed two weeks of classes  focusing on the book arts, papermaking, printing, printmaking, and conservation.  Whether you are an experienced book and papermaker or a beginner, it is an excellent way to jumpstart your creative impulses.  This year PBI was held July 11-22, 2010 at the University of Maine, Machias and a total of 10 classes were offered to approximately 70 participants.

This was my first PBI and I was fortunate to be able to attend with RISD professor Jan Baker from the Graphic Design department.  Each participant selects two classes  for the first week and one class for the second week and the schedule is “intense”.  Folks were from all over the country (a few international as well) and ranged in age from their twenties to sixties.

Classes were taught by experts in their fields and were small enough for occasional one-on-one assistance.  Late hours were spent in the studio with the instructors and fellow students and a great spirit of mutual support and bonding resulted.

There were also interesting and informative evening presentations by the instructors and invited book artists.

On the Break Day between sessions, field trips were made to visit the studios of local book and paper artists.  Ancient parchment making techniques were demonstrated by Pergamena, a family of tanners since the 16th century.

Next year the Paper and Book Intensive will be held May 16- 27, 2011 at Oxbow, an artists’ residency near Saugatuck, Michigan.  Whether you are new to the book and paper arts or not, you will feel right at home with the folks at PBI.  You will acquire new skills you never thought you would be capable of learning and have a life-changing experience.  Once hooked, you’ll want to return again and again.

Session One: July 12-15, one morning class and one afternoon class

Paper Sculpture, taught by Frank Brannon of North Carolina, explored different processes for forming three-dimensional objects using a variety of fibers. Students made very organic shapes sometimes incorporating found materials in the structure.

Japanese Natural Colorants for Paper, taught by Tatiana Ginsberg from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, experimented with natural dyes from plant materials. Brushing techniques in single or multiple layers on unsized handmade papers were used as well as folded and dip-dyed techniques.

Readdressing the Built-In Groove Case, taught by Deborah Howe, collections conservator at Dartmouth College Library.  Two variations on this reinforced binding were taught, including a variety of endsheet techniques, spine reinforcements, spine coverings, and sewn in endbands. These types of bindings originated in Germany and were often used to create a sturdy but flexible covering for small publications.

Movables in a Book Format, taught by Emily Martin from the University of Iowa Center for the book, focused on volvelles, an early movable structure. Students made an assortment of movable devices and created an album to store and display them, using a Claire Van Vliet woven binding structure.

26 Letters, taught by David Wolfe of Portland, Maine, examined letter forms letterpress printed with wood and metal type and woodblocks. Layers of letters transformed type into image. Each student printed an edition in order to create a class portfolio of all the prints.

Session Two: July 17-20, full day classes

Beyond Inlays and Onlays: Tactile Books, taught by Melissa Jay Craig, formerly from the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, used found objects to embed in board covers and pages   Thick inlaid pages were then bound with a “checkerboard spine” binding to form a multidimensional book.

Pressure and Relief: Techniques in Letterpress Printing, taught by Ellen Knudson, special collections curator and instructor from the University of Florida, experimented with low relief materials printed in various methods on the letterpress to give layered and textured images. Collagraph relief prints were printed directly on the press bed type high, and pressure prints were achieved by mounting thin shaped  paper under the press cylinder packing.

Can You Match This?, taught by Katie MacGregor, a papermaker from Whiting, Maine, explored recipes for coloring handmade paper to achieve specific tinted or intense colors. Students kept records of the formulas and paper fibers used, enabling them to reproduce the same colors in the future.

Late 18th Century French Binding Structure, taught by Jeffrey Peachey, a conservator and toolmaker from New York,  reconstructed a typical full calf leather-bound French binding. This very traditional structure included sewing signatures onto cords, paring leather, coloring the text block edges with vermilion, sewing endbands, and decorating the leather covers by brushing or spattering chemicals.

Copper as Matrix, taught by Yana Van Dyke, associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, concentrated on the materials, tools and techniques for intaglio printmaking on copper. Students explored drypoint copper engraving tools using roulettes, needles, stylus, burins, and the rocker for mezzotint. Hard and soft-ground etching techniques as well as aquatint for half-tones were also used, creating layered prints.    lwc 07/10