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Where the book is also art

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The Oak Knoll Festival was a celebration of cutting edge book art.

A tactile, sensuous experience.Photo: The Oak Knoll Fest
A tactile, sensuous experience.Photo: The Oak Knoll Fest

Ithought I had seen enough good examples of the finely printed book and knew something about the world of the private press, but nothing prepared me for the sublime beauty, integrity and artistry of the books by the printers and bookmakers exhibiting at this year’s Oak Knoll Fine Books Festival at New Castle, Delaware: this is book art at the cutting edge.

Fine press work

Not only tiny print runs of five to 25 copies letterpress-printed on handmade paper, and designed, illustrated and printed by just one printer-artist. In many cases, the paper itself was made from conception by the printer. These master book artists are papermakers, typesetters, engravers, printers and publishers all at once. I was too awestruck at first by such fine press work to pick up and examine them until I heard an exhibitor say, “They won’t bite.” “This is the best fine press book fair in the country,” one of the exhibitors said to me, “which is why I have been coming here since it started.”

The Oak Knoll festival and symposia is usually an October affair, and this year’s theme was “The Fine Book in the 21st Century”. Many distinguished names in book art were present here — designers, printers and scholars whose work I had followed and admired — the festival was giving me and other fine press pilgrims a chance to meet them at last. I have come to love the look and feel of mould-made paper (for their “superior, beautiful surface texture, clear watermarks and stunning deckle edges”), so I set off now around the exhibition looking for bookwork that had used this surface.

The Bicycle Diaries, “one New Yorker’s Journey Through September 11th”, contains seven multi-coloured wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec and is “printed on Zerkal mould-made paper.”

Schanilec, whom the Grolier Club describes as “the foremost contemporary artist in coloured wood engraving”, spoke to me of The River , a work in progress that he had brought to the exhibition. Each morning he gets on his little boat and sails on the river he lives close to. When he returns, some of what he felt and saw that morning is sketched and noted. One time he became interested in how pelicans on the bank prepare to fly; the take-off motions are recorded in a wood engraving which was on a large proof page before me — one of the most stunningly beautiful colour illustrations on paper I have ever seen — and the paper texture further pronounced its brilliance.

Many fine press books are also collaborations between various book artists. Take the example of another superb work in progress from Abigail Rorer (another acclaimed illustrator and master book artist) and The Lone Oak Press: On the Hunt for the King of the Alps . The text is by the British plant explorer Reginald Farrer writing of a “journey to the Alps in his quest to see in situ one of his most beloved plants, Eritrichium nanum , also known as The King of the Alps. This 32-page book is…set in 14-point Monotype Van Dijck by Michael and Winifred Bixler and illustrated with seven multi-colour engravings by Abigail Rorer. The typography is by Michael Russem, as is the printing of the text on Zerkall papers. The binding was designed by Daniel Gehnrich and carried out by Amy Borezo.”

My fondness for the livre d’artiste book is somewhat limited — the book that experiments with folding book structures “that curl and hang and swirl and explode the boundaries of what a book is and can be”.

I’m more drawn to the presswork I saw displayed here — where a worthy, beloved or esoteric text is selected and given expression in fine print. Like the large format edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from Deep Wood Press: “with 36 original drawings by renowned artist Marc Castelli… three hand-coloured drop cap letters and a four-panel centre throw-out of drawings.  Composed in Dante type and printed on Hahnemuhle Biblio paper.”

The Fine Press Book Association (“an organisation of individuals interested in the art of fine printing, formed with the goal of promoting the appreciation of beautiful books and printing skills”) describes this coming together of classic text and presswork as “the matching of worthwhile texts with significant images and artistic expression through the structure of a book.”

The private press book is not to be confused with the deluxe, limited edition which is often just a plumped up version of a trade edition printed in large numbers. There’s no book-work aesthetic or philosophy there. It is far from the ideal book.

But here, everywhere you looked, was the ideal book that William Morris spoke of. The fine press printers and artists work on just one book (that is, one single individual copy) for several years; that’s the labour and craft and time that goes into making one copy when you start from making the paper or the woodblock or cutting a metal type so you can hand-print and hand-bind it.

A different experience

Jerry Kelly, one of America’s most distinguished fine book designers and calligraphers, speaking at the fair said the fine press book has never been in competition with trade editions, and certainly is not going to start now as trade publishing turns digital.

The fine press book has always offered a different experience of the book — a tactile, sensuous one that celebrates and furthers the art and craft of the printed book. But new technologies have also aided fine book making — even the earliest fine and private press printers, observed Kelly, William Morris to Frederick Goudy to Bruce Rogers — used whatever technology was available to them to turn out a better fine press book.

The Oak Knoll Fest symposium featured seven eminent panelists in the book art field who looked at the future of fine printing in a digital age – the availability of hand presses and paper, material and equipment for fine bookbinding, how technology will help or hurt methods of wood engraving and metal illustration, and what to look for in collecting fine press books as they evolve and change, and continues to be, as in the past, the truest, most resplendent expression of the printed book now and in the future.


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