After breakfast in Decorah we headed for Stockholm, Wisconsin to visit Gaylord and Brenda Schanilec. Gaylord is a wood engraver, letterpress printer, maple syrup maker, and fisherman who's books draw their unique power from a close examination of his natural surroundings, a method Brenda refers to as playful science. In two of Gaylord's recent books, Mayflies of the Driftless Region and Sylvæ, he has treated the observation of the mayflies he uses for fly fishing or the trees on his property as his starting point, and allowed the content of the book to grow and gather around his findings. For his current multi-volume work titled The River he is engraving specimens of fish and mussels that he catches in Lake Pepin, a natural swelling of the Mississippi River near his home in Stockholm. For this purpose he has outfitted a motor boat with an observation tank, a drawing table, a small library, and a cabinet for his camera equipment. His goal is to eventually catch every species in the lake. As he collects, records, and engraves specimens for the first volume, he simultaneously collects historical narratives about Lake Pepin. The various passages he gleans from these narratives will form the text of the book. Although our work is very different, I feel a great affinity for Gaylord's process—Sylvæ made me first consider appending notes to my alphabetical works.
can engrave on wood with more delicacy than I can draw with ink and
this entire trip grew out of my desire to take an engraving lesson with
him. When I first brought the idea up he said, "I can show you how to
use the tools but I can't imagine you'll want to invest the time to
become an engraver." While it is true that I am not interested in making
traditional wood engravings using what Gaylord calls the "flurry of
lines" technique, I am interested in involving more autographic
processes in my work. As long as I know one of the greatest living wood
engravers, I might as well learn to use the tools from him. The
engraving lesson, though, was only part of the draw to visit Stockholm.
Every year or two Gaylord comes for a visit to stay with us in New York
and I have come to regard him in an urban setting. He talks about
cutting down trees or catching mayflies but his stories remain abstract.
I have never seen him in his native surroundings. His description of
his property as being two miles from a town of 80 people is not
something I can easily visualize. Similarly, when Gaylord began work on
the River project I told him that I used to do a lot of fishing when I
was a kid. I don't think he believed me. Our knowledge of each other was
limited by urban settings—it was time for a visit.
our way north through Iowa, both Annie and my cell phones lost
reception at the Minnesota border (perhaps that's what they mean by
"driftless region"). Gaylord had suggested driving up the river on the
Minnesota side and then crossing into Wisconsin at Wabasha or Winona.
Shortly after merging onto routes 14 & 61 in La Crescent, Annie
pointed out the passenger window and said "That's a really big
bird." I turned my head to see an enormous bald eagle keeping pace with
us. Somewhere just north of La Crescent we had crossed the less clearly
marked border into Oz. My excitement at seeing a bald eagle in flight
was soon tempered when I noticed that they were everywhere—sitting in
trees, circling high above, criss crossing their feeding trough, the
Mississippi. After the fourth or fifth eagle sighting I had become jaded
enough to wonder if the bald eagle is to the Minnesotan what the pigeon
is to the New Yorker.
With an hour or two to spare
before we were scheduled to arrive in Stockholm, Annie and I decided to
lunch and take in the sights of Wabasha, Minnesota. Entering the town
limits we learned that Wabasha was the location of the film Grumpy Old Men,
suggesting that the iconic scenes of ice fishing from said movie may
have been filmed on what I had thought of as Gaylord's lake. Prior to
arriving, Annie had queried the town on her iPhone and discovered that,
in addition to our various dining options, Wabasha was home to the
National Eagle Center, a sight not to be missed. After a delightful
lunch of grilled cheese, salad, and Cheesy Chicken Tortilla Soup at
Stacy's Kitchen, we trudged through the rain to the Eagle Center. I had
assumed the Center would consist of a series of dramatic dioramas,
patriotic soundtracks along the lines of "American by birth, Harley
rider by choice", and some pay-as-you-go binoculars, but the first thing
I saw on entering the Center was a young woman with a gigantic eagle
perched on her hand. I suppose I should have been excited but my first
impulse was to flee. In a contest of strength or will, I would surely be
defeated by such a bird. Is it even legal to keep a bald eagle captive?
I steeled myself, paid the $16 entry fee for two and cast myself into
the fray. The picture below will give you a good idea of what I look
like when I think my eyeball is about to be plucked out by a huge,
Wabasha, we crossed over into Wisconsin. The river bridge eases into a
causeway on the Wisconsin side and travels through a diverse wetland,
with shaded eddies, tall grasses, and verdant trees arched above secret
pools. Just like my experience in Iowa, I didn't know what to expect but
my expectations were wrong. When we hit solid land in Nelson we paid
"Smiling Bob" a visit at the discount liquor store and picked up a
bottle each of Santa Margherita Chianti and Knob Creek bourbon as house
gifts. At the checkout counter I noticed a bottle of maraschino
cherry-colored liquor called "Ice Hole" with a surprisingly moderne
label. We chose not to sample it but I bet it has kept a lot of
solitary ice fishermen company in their shacks. After a bit of a drive,
we passed by the designated turn off at County Road JJ in favor of
touring through the town of Stockholm. To our surprise, the town sign
listed the population at 66 rather than the oft-remarked 80.
and Brenda's land is perfect for an artist in the same way that it is
probably all wrong for a farmer. Their house and out buildings are
perched on the peak of a hill from which their property falls away into a
ravine. There is just enough flat land for the four buildings, a
kitchen garden, a small orchard, and a regulation tennis court. Grading
downward in all directions are their woods. In addition to being the
source of his book Sylvæ, the woods are where Gaylord taps his
syrup trees (a distant cousin of the money tree) and where he and Brenda
go morel hunting in the spring. Prior to arrival, Gaylord made it clear
that a morel hunt was in the offing. Of the four buildings on their
property, one houses a printshop, one a wood working shop, and one
exists solely to store and kiln-dry wood. Gaylord's printshop is roughly
six times the size of mine and, as is true for all printshops, it is
just a little too small to fit that one last piece of equipment.
Gaylord's wood loft.
next morning we set to work. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I had
never seen someone engrave in wood before our lesson. In all of our
conversations about engraving, Gaylord has been insistent that he can
only teach me how to hold the tools, the rest is practice. What I found
most informative about the lesson, though, was watching the pace with
which Gaylord works with those tools. I have always imagined that the
fine white lines of wood engravings are made with a continuous, fluid
movement, making the precision with which people like Gaylord engrave
seem otherworldly, or at least unattainable. Instead, the process is
extremely slow and measured, each line engraved one tiny bit at a time.
In many ways the pace reminded me of complex vector drawing on the
computer, though of course with very different results. Every time I
began to cut I had to check myself to slow down. After thirty minutes of
messing around, Gaylord showed me how to shorten the gravers to the
correct length, packed up a selection of his homemade wood blocks for me
to practice on, and began getting the boat ready. The lessons I will be
taking on this trip will be concise sessions that I will follow up in
correspondence. Since returning to New York I have begun engraving a
block and as I progress I will proof it and send prints to Gaylord for
Gaylord showing me how to hold the graver.
Master and student at work.
Next we set out for Lake Pepin for an expedition on the boat. Since Gaylord began work on The River
I have been hearing certain names recur—Lake of Tears, Point au Sable,
and Point No Point—names that seem more likely to pepper the notebooks
of Meriwether Lewis than the blog of a friend of mine. Point No Point
has been a particular curiosity to me. It is such a graceless name that I
cringe every time I hear it, making me want to see it all the more.
True to form, it was fascinating, the only true geological tropme l'oeil
I have ever seen. Motoring north up the lake after a brief mussel
hunting excursion on Point au Sable, Point No Point came into view and
remained, without ever changing shape, as we progressed up river. The
point never came to a point but always looked like one. Until, suddenly,
we crossed the perspectival barrier that revealed the point for the
gentle bend that it is. Crossing the lake to the Wisconsin shore,
Gaylord set me up with rod and reel and nearly fell off the boat with
disbelief when I actually caught a fish: an enormous white bass that is
sure to be a record breaker.
Gaylord on the boat.
Casting a line.
Un-hooking the record-breaking bass prior to release.
next day it was time for the hunt. Brenda had made fresh morels for
dinner on both nights of our visit thus far and the stocks were getting
low. I have never met a serious book person who does not also love food
and there are few more appropriate activities for printers to engage in
(when not printing, of course) than to hunt for food. In fact, for many
printers it seems that printing is what one does to fill in time between
eating. After tooling around the shop all morning, Gaylord, Brenda,
Annie, the two dogs, and I packed off to hunt the elusive mushrooms.
To cap our visit off, Terry Belanger, Director Emeritus of Rare Book
School, and Dan DeSimone, Rosenwald Curator at Library of Congress, just
happen to be visiting the bookseller (and Gaylord Schanilec
bibliographer) Rob Rulon-Miller in St. Paul. They drove down for a
studio visit and to join us for dinner at Pepin, Wisconsin's world
famous Harbor View Restaurant. After a sizable and delicious serving of
food, Annie and I turned in to bed for our last night in Stockholm.
Rob Rulon-Miller and Terry Belanger looking at books in Gaylord's printshop.
Dan DeSimone and I deep in conversation.