Thursday, April 26, 2012

Midwest Craft Pilgrimage, Iowa City to Decorah

Leaving Iowa City on Wednesday, we took an hour's drive due west to Grinnell to have breakfast with Bruce Whiteman and Kelly Maynard. When we arrived, Bruce was in full cooking mode, tending a pan of herby thirty-minute scrambled eggs that, when served, blew our collective minds. (Farm fresh eggs have become a competing sub-pursuit of this trip. Each new freely-laid egg that we consume is accompanied by tales of the One-That-Has-No-White, the egg that is little more than a tumescent orange-yellow yolk. To experience this much-remarked Ideal Egg has lodged in my mind as one of life's lofty goals.) After sopping up the last of our breakfast we looked at books for an hour before heading back on the road, winding our way north east through the Iowa countryside to Decorah. I have never been to Iowa before this week and prior to arriving I had a hard time conjuring an image of what we would find. At every turn the towns, the landscape, the food, and the people have primed our visit with delighted surprise. In conversations with other visitors the most frequently mentioned feature of the Iowa countryside is "CORN!" but in mid April the fields are just being planted, meaning there are no corn rows to obscure the view. Driving through Iowa at this time of year is to be enveloped in a variegated pastiche of brown, chamois, and a thousand different greens, punctuated with red barns and blue or silver silos, light-gray grain elevators, green and yellow tractors, brown black and white livestock, gamboling deer and red wing blackbirds, all arrayed against a plan of man-made vertices, softened by the gently rolling fields. Iowa is a beautiful place, with or without the eggs.

Annie and I on the road in Iowa.

Chamois, green, brown.

The goal of the day was to visit David Esslemont and his family in Decorah. David is an artist, letterpress printer, book binder, and contract farmer who has been making a series of calligraphic paintings, or calligrams, in recent years. I first met David in San Francisco in October 1990 when, at Joyce Wilson's behest, I picked him up from the airport. David was visiting from Wales and was scheduled to address the Colophon Club as part of an extended stateside tour. I was barely nineteen years old at the time and I took an instant shine to David—he was passionate and fun and he referred to his Heidelberg cylinder press as the "Rolls-Royce of presses," rolling his "R"s a little too long for emphasis. At the time he was in charge of the historic press, Gwasg Greynog, and his tales of the Welsh countryside filled me with romantic visions. After a few days as his informal San Francisco tour guide I did not see him again until 2007 when, at the CODEX Book Fair, I heard the same rolling "R" when he asked over my shoulder "Is that young Russell?" Since I had last seen him, David had left Gwasg Gregynog and moved to Decorah. As we corresponded after our reunion, the stories and pictures of David's new home conjured similar bucolic images as the stories he told me of Wales nearly twenty years earlier. Few stories attracted me as much as those of the wood-burning pizza oven he and his son Tom had built from the mud of his fields.

Immediately upon arrival in Decorah we set to "work." Through a lazy afternoon we stoked the pizza oven, played a little soccer, took a walk around the property, looked at books, drank wine, and eventually sat down to eat trout pate on home made bread, David's award-winning chili, beautiful lettuce greens, and fresh pizzas.

 The next morning we gathered some eggs from the hen house, ate breakfast, and hit the road for Stockholm, Wisconsin.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Midwest Craft Pilgrimage, Day 2

We began the day with home made bread, jam, and local farm eggs at the Brown Street Inn before being picked up by Tim Barrrett to visit the University of Iowa's Oakdale paper research facility; a component of the UI Center for the Book. Although the primary reason for my visit to Iowa City was to enroll the Book Arts students in the Fine Press Book Association, I have been eager to meet Tim and get his insights into some of my handmade paper issues. During the making of Specimens of Diverse Characters, which I printed on Velke Losiny's beautiful cotton paper, a number of unforeseen problems arose due to the variety of processes I put the paper through. I have used handmade paper on a number of books in the past but I had never asked so much of a single paper as I did in Specimens. The principal issues I encountered dealt with the amount of surface sizing on the virgin sheets and, after successive dampening, the lack of remaining sizing. Before dampening, the sized paper received large areas of ink coverage surprisingly well but fine lines, particularly in smaller sizes of type printed from photo-polymer plates, looked slurry and experienced an unacceptable level of ink gain. The gelatin sizing also, as was apparent after dampening, imparts a somewhat plasticine surface to the virgin sheet that is less attractive and tactile than the surface that appears after dampening. After dampening, the paper, however beautiful in texture and touch, lost a good deal of the "rattle" (typified by an inner density and a pleasant snapping sound when flicked between the fingers) that is helpful for ink transfer and reminiscent of the older, classic handmade papers that I love.

Tim and I looking at a stack of dried sheets at the Oakdale facility.

Before meeting with Tim I assumed that the issue was one of too much surface sizing over fibers that were too short, like those found in short cotton linters, or fibers that were not beaten for a long enough period of time. Tim's researches, though, have revealed that a significant amount of classic handmade paper's hardness and snap derives from the use of gelatin sizing and that the sizing also contributes to the paper's durability and stability over time. Of particular interest in his recent research was the discovery that there was considerably more sizing in 15th century papers than there was in paper in subsequent centuries. Gary Frost informed Tim of Szirmai’s assertion, backed up by historical references, in his The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding, that many 16th century printers were ordering un-sized waterleaf sheets and that the sizing was added after the printing. The post-press addition of sizing would make the papers more durable for binding and more resistant to ink-bleed when people wrote in the margins. This is interesting to me because it relates to my experience of the Losiny: I needed the lack of sizing for the paper to print the way I wanted but afterward I would have liked some (not all) of the physical attributes that the sizing imparts to the finished sheet. When Annie and I return to New York I am going to send Tim some of the rejected sheets from Specimens to experiment with re-applying gelatin sizing.

The loft drying system (above) and fiber cook pots (below) at Oakdale.

After visiting Oakdale, Tim brought us back to the campus to meet up with Sara Sauers for a tour of the Center for the Book. Sara teaches letterpress printing at Iowa, has her own press (check out her new book for the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare's Sisters), and was the person with whom I arranged the visit. The Center for the Book facilities are built into the North Hall, a former secondary school that has been cleverly re-purposed, most notably the former men's locker room which is now the wet floor of the student papermaking studio. We took a look around, met and re-met up with other instructors at the Center—Emily Martin, Sara Langworthy, Gary Frost, Lauren Faulkenberry, and Julie Leonard—and then got together with the students to show some books and talk about the FPBA. As has been my experience at the other university programs I've visited so far, the Iowa students are engaged and serious. Before I began visiting MFA Book Arts students last fall I was worried that the proliferation of academic book arts was going to be a passing fad. Instead, with each one I visit I am more hopeful for the future of the handmade book. The remainder of the day was divided between various dining experiences with Sara, Sara, and Tim.

Sara Sauers and I at the student printshop at North Hall.

Showing books to students in the student papermaking studio at North Hall.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Midwest Craft Pilgrimage, Day 1

Today we head off on the first leg of our Midwest Craft tour, flying first to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and heading on to Chicago via Iowa City; Decorah, Iowa; and Stockholm, Wisconsin. Along the way Annie and I will visit with the MFA Book Arts students at both the University of Iowa and Columbia College, Chicago; drop in for breakfast with poet Bruce Whiteman; spend an evening with artist, printer, and farmer David Esslemont; take a wood engraving lesson and go fishing with Gaylord Schanilec; visit Paul Gehl at the Newberry Library; and dine with a group of Chicago book people at Robert McCammant’s house. At the end of May we will finish the tour with a drive from New York City to Chicago, visiting Mina Takahashi and Marco Breuer in Oxford, New York; Walter Bachinsky and Janis Butler in Shanty Bay, Ontario; Bob and Freddy Baris in Carrollton, Ohio; and ending up back at the Newberry Library for a weekend of events surrounding the American Printing History Association’s Lieberman Lecture.

The purpose of the road trip is to learn from craftspeople who are proficient in a technique in which I have little or no practical experience: wood engraving, pochoir, papermaking, and hand press operation. I am not setting out to try to master any of these crafts but to understand them better, in the hope of broadening what is possible in my own craft. As with any niche community, private press printers are spread out over a large geographic area and, more often than not, tend to live in rural settings. For a New Yorker it is not easy to connect for long periods with other printers. To study with them and to see how they integrate their craft with their lives, you have to visit them in their natural habitat.

Our first stop is the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Tonight we'll gather with faculty and students at Sara Sauer’s house. Tomorrow, we’ll take a tour of the papermaking and printing facilities and meet with the students.

On the plane wearing the optivisor.

Annie with bears at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Midwest Craft Pilgrimage

On Monday, Annie & I set out on the first leg of our self-styled, midwestern craft pilgrimage. Arriving in Cedar Rapids on Monday afternoon we will proceed directly to Iowa City for an informal gathering at printer Sara Sauer's house. The next morning, papermaker Timothy Barret will pick us up and give us a tour of his state of the art hand papermaking facility. From there we will tour the University of Iowa's Center for the Book & meet with students in the MFA Book Arts program.

On Wednesday we will drive up to Decorah, Iowa where we will spend the evening with artist, printer, and prize-winning chili cooker David Esslemont and his family. Last year, David and his son made an outdoor adobe pizza oven & one of our objectives (perhaps our primary objective?) is to obtain plans and advice on how to build one for ourselves.

Thursday morning we will head on to Stockholm, Wisconsin for three days with Gaylord and Brenda Schanilec. While there, Gaylord will give us a two day lesson in multi-chromatic wood engraving and, weather permitting, we will spend the third day on his floating observational platform (ie. boat) in Lake Pepin.

Next stop is Chicago for a few days with Paul Gehl and Rob Carlson, a visit with Inge Bruggeman and the students at the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts. A final dinner with Bob McCammant of Sherwin Beach Press ends leg one of the tour.