The BOOKPRESS December 2000

Artists' Books: The Kiss on the Page

Destiny Kinal

    From the one-of-a-kind artist’s book, completely handwrought, to limited editions brought out by leading presses, to the explosion of university-based programs, the field of book arts is in the process of defining itself. As Johanna Drucker writes in The Century of Artists’ Books (Granary Books, 1995),

It would be hard to find a moment in time when there was more interest in the field or more artists contributing their own work and vision to its development.

    At the Wells College Book Arts Center, we found two old collaborators, Terry Chouinard, the director/fellow (following the recent departure of Jocelyn Webb for a fellowship in printmaking in Santa Barbara), and Brad Benedict, cooling his heels until he can get his press set up again in new digs at Midline and Irish Settlement Road. These two go back to a shared past in Alabama’s book arts program.
    Terry’s press, The Wing and the Wheel, which he started seven years ago as a vehicle for his own illustrations, has gained a historical purpose, capturing and printing interviews with the "geezers" of the book arts Terry venerates: seasoned book workers of every stripe, printers, papermakers, typesetters, binders.
    Brad tells us that he’s hauled a backlog of manuscripts east with him, mostly poetry. His new press, as yet unnamed, will carry on the tradition established by his earlier press, Angorfa, for publishing editions interesting on several levels, not the least of them his technical proficiency.
    When Brad visited Ithaca a year ago, checking out the scene before moving here, I bought You Can Eat, a multicolored minibook (Brad sought to brush it off as a graduate school exercise, but seeing is believing) drawing on ingredients from southern, largely pork-based food labels. For $4, I bought two, and sent one to Dorothy Allison author of Bastard out of Carolina. When I ran into her at the Bay Area Book Reviewers annual awards, I asked, "Did you like it?" She grinned: "love it!" Who wouldn’t? You Can Eat is a demonstration of every technique one might use in the printing trade, multicolored, the soul of wit, and a giveaway. Brad told me that he wants his books to be read, passed along. "I never wanted to make books for collectors," the other end of the spectrum from Carole Schwartzott’s small handcrafted artists’ books, which sell in the
low four-figure range to collectors from South Africa to Texas, largely out of Joshua Heller’s gallery in Washington, D.C.
    Carol’s new studio is on the Greater Ithaca Art Trail map, at Midline and Irish Settlement Road in Dryden. Soon after he moved into the schoolhouse in Dryden which serves as his home and press, Brad saw the star on the Arts Trail map and did a double take. "We (he and his girlfriend and colleague Amy Stecher) haven’t even closed on the house, and already I’m on the map?" Schwartzott and Benedict’s studios will be within shouting distance of each other. "I’ve been collaborating with my brother-in-law in Buffalo, master typographer/graphic designer Norton Schwartzott," Carol tells us. (I’m visiting her accompanied by Leslie Kramer, the Sayre/Cape Cod printmaker who heads up the program at Elmira College.) "It’s a dream I had, a press down the street and fine letterpress printer to work with." Carol makes it sound like she materialized Brad, and maybe she did. The alchemy of creative collaboration is strange territory.
    A long running vein of artists’ gold for Schwartzott, artists’ books about artists, began at the University of Buffalo with a lush pastiche titled Savage, on Gaugin’s years in Oceania. Soon after, her entry into a Center for Book Arts competition, a Ted Hughes poem, "That Morning," captured the eye of Joshua Heller, who sold it to Jack Ginsburg, the collector from South Africa, for just under a cool grand. Books on Matisse and Joseph Cornell followed, each exquisitely packaged. Schwartzott’s mock-ups, painstakingly crafted, qualify as fine art. She is working now on The Old Bamboo Hewer, a predecessor to The Tale of Genji, arguably the world’s first novel.
    "The books I make are also beautiful objects to be cherished," Schwartzott told us, stroking the lid of an inlaid box she and Don Taylor, a binder from Toronto, had collaborated on for the Joseph Cornell book, A Dossier of Sorts. She opened a hidden compartment in the bottom to reveal a confetti of stamps, bits of embossed ribbon, miniature watercolors of birds, detritus from the scrap pile of creative frenzy. "I sent these to Taylor to see what he might want to incorporate. Do you see how he picked up on Cornell? Each boxed book has a little collection of these"—she picks them up in her hands and sifts through them—"just loose in this compartment in the bottom of the box."
    As we were leaving, Carol mentioned that she hopes to spend time with Barbara Kretzmann of Cutleaf Bindery in Ithaca, "learning more about binding."

*    *    *

    My own brainchild, the Waverly School of the Living Arts, is a collaboration of fellow artists and writers, in Montolieu, France’s book village near the Pyrenees.
    Last July, I invited Mollie Favour, a landscape "colorist" with a national reputation, and Carole Maso, the leading avant-garde writer and (then) director of Brown’s creative writing program. Their assignment: to fan the fires of fellow writers and artists in peer workshops, and in Carole’s case, to midwife a text for our book Between Two Rivers/Entre Deux Rivieres.
    Each year’s book has been written and produced in place, a challenge that electrified the writers, unused to having such fresh work published. Carole Maso’s exercise for us fit the bill accordingly. Spend three to four hours in one place. Don’t move. Notice everything that happens. After a while, strange things will begin to happen; your sensibilities will become deranged. Start to write when that stage begins.
    The cover paper would be a scarlet Japanese paper with golden desiccated leaves embedded in its long mulberry fibers. The interior paper Rives: Rivers. (Montolieu is also literally between two rivers, the Alzeau and the Dure.) We made our own paper, used cover stock from Brousse, the water-powered papermill in the next village with its ancient bell watermark. As editor, I had to face reducing writers’ texts to fragments that held together with our theme. Setting type, letter by letter, with less than a week from manuscript to bound book, sets its own constraints.
    With our edition of thirty copies in hand we all agreed that peripatetic collaboration-in-place works so well—Why not Ithaca, the Bay Area, Rosendale, any place we could recreate the compression/explosion of writers and artists collaborating to produce a book themed in one place, at one time.

*    *    *

    Fernando Llosa is:
    an artist
    a writer
    a photographer
    a whirlwind
    an essayist
    a book producer
    a philosophical provocateur.
    Llosa was trained as a sociologist. He’s lived in Paris and Belgium, spent eighteen years in Peru and Uruguay working in urban and rural development with the Peace Corps and YMCA International. He’s been in Ithaca for thirteen years. He and his friend Kim Schrag have a pact: that they continue to confront the difficult questions of life on a regular basis, and continue to make a record of their dialogue. Theirs is not a closed universe. Llosa actively seeks out musicians, writers, scientists, philosophers, and artists whose work calls up an answering tug in the two artists. The best art, they feel, will come from people with hard facts about who we are, without illusion. This process—asking the questions, then grappling with them in artistic media—is "full of vitality."
    Llosa produces his books on his computer, prints them that way too. He pastes in original paintings, creates covers from stone, wood, metal. He doesn’t get the "kiss of the type on the page" thing; he only wants to get the words and images out.
    Yet according to Carol Schwartzott, "People who collect books want letterpress. Why? Yes, there’s the kiss on the page, the bite of the impress, it’s the oldest form." Traditional? Yes, but it’s more than that. "The limited edition," Carol continues, "is a logical ground for collaboration."
    And further. "It’s hard for artists to meet people they can work with." In the letterpress studio, they can meet at any hour, "start to feed off each other, get juices going. Learn how other people think, study their creative process."
    Consider this description Jocelyn Webb gave me of the last book she produced at Wells Book Arts Center before joining WEAV in France and from there to Santa Barbara:
    Duty-Free Desiderata: Prose Poems by Stratis Haviaras (founder and editor of the Harvard Review.) Relief drawings by Jocelyn Webb. Sierras Press. Aurora, NY 2000. Binding designed by Jocelyn Webb. Executed by Peter Verheyen. Book is l0" x ll" closed. Bound in Oakdale flax paper over boards with calf vellum spine. Title of book printed on paper underneath the vellum. Title page calligraphy by New York book designer Jerry Kelly.
    The five prose poems are printed in five inch square plate marks, with the images printed in plate marks opposite them. The images began as monotypes using static electricity to help manipulate the ink, then were made into magnesium plates and printed letterpress. The last step painted hot beeswax onto parts of each image, making that area of the image and paper transparent. 45 books in the edition. 30 for sale. $625.
    Fernando Llosa recently produced an homage to Henry David Thoreau, illustrated with his nature photographs. Ten copies of Life Without Principle. Thoreau begins with a promise he will break almost immediately: "I will not talk about people a thousand miles off, but come as near home as I can."
    I’ve made the same promise in this article, purporting to unpeel some of the collaboration happening around book arts in our region, and held to it as well as Thoreau did in l863. Even then, what was happening in France and on the Pacific impinged on life in Concord.
    "I will leave out all flattery and retain all the criticism. Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives."


Destiny Kinal is an artist and writer.

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