University of Utah’s Book Arts Program energizes a culture celebrating the printed word’s lasting value1 Comment Published by les December 13th, 2011 in Art, Business News, Communication, Community Dialogue, Education, Fine Art, Salt Lake City, SLC, Tourism.
‘Print is not dead. It is not even dying, at least not yet. Think of print like an overweight beast, shedding excess weight. The result is a leaner, more defined, more beautiful experience.’ – Kassia Krozser, 2010
Ingenuity never is scarce when it comes to the final student projects at the Book Arts Studio at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. For example, ‘Hubbub,’ was an imaginative collaboration of two sisters – Amber and Hayley Heaton – who produced a book of poems that replace simplistic, unrealistic abecedarian sentences (e.g., ‘A’ is for ‘apple) with emotionally engaging representations (e.g., ‘B’ is for ‘bumble bug’) that clearly signal broader, more familiar spectrums of life experience. Letterpress printed, the book incorporates the classic elements of wood block and type, rubber-based ink, linocuts, and hand-sewn binding. Produced in 2004, the book is still available in limited edition through several boutique sellers.
Some projects emerge as unique tributes to the memory of a loved one, such as a book containing meticulously executed Xerox transfers of old photographs representing the home property of a student’s great-grandparents. And, yet other projects defy conventional 2-D forms. Tiny Chinese scrolls tied with a ribbon are placed in an equally tiny test tube. Another is a four-letter-word scramble flexagon. In the just concluded semester-long letterpress course, each student was expected to produce a printed, folded piece of paper which then would be added to an origami masu class portfolio box.
While students are encouraged to create works simple enough to produce multiple copies for their peers and teachers in the program with the same precision employed in the prototype, the process is complex for the decisions it involves – paper, color, size, text placement, visual intent and iconic effect, to name a few. In fact, every course assignment hinges on the same precepts of how form fulfills function: “The folds must contribute to the communication of the idea” or “the book format should be instrumental in the communication of your intent.”
The University of Utah’s book arts program, which includes the fine-press limited edition releases of Red Butte Press, has gained an excellent reputation since the press was established in 1984 and the course activities were initiated in 1995. Marnie Powers-Torrey, managing director and instructor, played a prominent role in the founding of the College Book Art Association in 2008, which now has 19 member institutions from around the country and will be holding a conference next month in San Francisco.
The state board of regents also is expected to approval the school’s book arts curriculum as an academic certificate program. Barely more than a handful of similarly accredited undergraduate programs in this discipline exist around the country.
“I am an educator and a printer who, along with my colleagues at the Book Arts Program and Red Butte Press, both impulsively and philosophically believe in the lasting power of the printed image and word,” Powers-Torrey says, adding that as the digital age continues to be immersed in our lives, the enrollment of students and community members in the program courses has increased steadily.
The scope of expression evidenced in the student projects should hearten anyone who worries about the side effects of total digital immersion. Passion and personal engagement underscore the hunger to become, as Powers-Torrey explains, a modern renaissance person who values the skills to analyze critically, distill context, and synthesize the elements of form, content, and design. The art of creating a book form parallels the writing process in every manner.
Perhaps, as Krozser has written, we’ll be able to distinguish which stories can be chronicled in every imaginable format, which stories lend themselves best to the digital media, and, finally, those which are best suited for the pace of turning the page in a beautifully crafted printed book.
Recently, Art Spiegelman, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, explained, “So, if I need a textbook that’s going to be out of date because of new technological inventions, you’re better off having it where you can download the supplements or the update. If you’re going to read a quick mystery model to keep you amused when you’re traveling, it’s fine.”
In other words, it’s not a question of business viability. It is a question of lasting artistic value – for an individual who decides which books will be essential to his or her lifetime personal library. That is the impetus of the Red Butte Press, which has produced exceptional limited edition works that steadily increase in value. Many of these books, which often take two to three years to produce, start at $650 and some editions run upwards of $1,500. Many runs only include between 100 and 150 copies with a few running up to 400.
One of the most stunning examples is ‘Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known,’ a collection of poems by Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Solynka who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. In this edition, the poems – originally published in 2002 – are set in an edition featuring a quartet of original color woodcuts by Robert Kleinschmidt, an artist who has deeply inspired Powers-Torrey’s commitment to the art form. The book’s unusual wire edge binding also features boards covered in Japanese Kyosei-shi handmade paper. A small number of deluxe editions also were produced that are covered in suede.
Red Butte Press releases always bring together artists from around the nation as well as the globe. Victoria Hindley, who designed the Samarkand book, also led the project for an edition of Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Firebird’s Nest’ which features four linoleum cuts designed by Alfredo Benavidez Bedoya, an Argentinean printmaker. Bound in yellow ostrich leather, the drop-spine box, designed by hand as well, is covered in black silk.
When ‘Something Lived, Something Dreamed: Urban Design and The American West’ featuring an original essay about sustainable architectural design by William McDonough, was released in 2004, the production involved more than 50 skilled artists from six states with Hindley once again serving as designer. The cotton paper came from an Italian mill while the book covers were made from a single sycamore tree that had been reclaimed from an urban construction site.
Two Utah woodworkers fabricated the covers, which also featured recycled aluminum, while the text was printed on a handpress dating to the middle 19th century. The book, which came to 125 copies in the production run, included hand-inked letterpress monoprints by Chris Stern and hand binding.
The book was acknowledged with many awards including the American Institute of Graphic Arts 50/50 honors in 2006 as one of the 50 best designed books of the year. More significantly, McDonough’s essay, which has not been published elsewhere, has formed the foundation for many discussions around the country for gaining a seminal understanding of the form and function of sustainable urban design.
Red Butte Press selections always emphasize the extensive collaborative nature of the work. At the centenary of Wallace Stegner’s birth, Red Butte Press released a book containing the author’s famed essay ‘To A Young Writer,’ as well as new text by Wendell Berry and Lynn Stegner. The book’s production was a prominent choice as the University holds Stegner’s archives and the project involved collaborators not only at the school but also from Indiana, New York, and California.
This was the second Stegner issue by the press, which released a 1995 edition of his ‘Wilderness Letter.’ The centenary edition run, which included three original engravings by Barry Moser and was bound in wood, cloth, and calfskin, was limited to 125 copies.
As for the students, the book arts studio provides an instructive change of pace from the now-conventional digital environment where pressing buttons and clicking cursors facilitate information gathering and distribution. Located on the fourth floor of the library, the studio invites students to calibrate and finesse their tactile and physical movement capabilities, working with equipment that demands a firm yet gentle lift, jerk, or press.
Depending upon the required skill level of the course, students set letterpress type, where each character is a unique piece of metal, by hand. The studio has gradually amassed a collection of rare fonts and styles that otherwise might have ended up in scrap heaps or in storage lockers to be forgotten. Students respect how old-school technology gains a new lease on life as a form of artistic expression.
The book arts program, which received one of the city’s Mayor’s Artist Awards at this year’s Utah Arts festival, has been a primary force in establishing a worthwhile presence for the hands-on printing enterprise in Salt Lake City and in the surrounding area. These include Sycamore Street Press, Birdbrain Press, Saltgrass Printmakers, and other numerous independent artists who’ve established their creative livelihood throughout the country. Staff members also have worked extensively with the Utah Humanities Council and other organizations on a variety of public festival programming.
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