Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Artists and Chronicle Books

Being invited to speak at Moe's Books last night as part of an event called "The State of the Book Arts" reminded me why I wanted to make books in the first place: I wanted to be published, have my work out there and available to everyone. And for cheap. 

In the 1980s we had photocopy machines that helped us reproduce mass quantities of work, which was cheap, but it looked cheap, too. Although I continued (and continue) to send out stories and poems to magazines, it seemed faster to bypass a traditional publisher and produce the work myself. At that time, I became reacquainted with letterpress printing at California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts where I teach), and found that setting type by hand and printing it via letterpress looked so much better than photocopying. Through making my own books I could merge art and writing and crafting: all activities I loved. And I could do it for only the cost of the paper. This kind of work distinguished itself as well, since the handwork could not be mass produced.

The dot matrix printers we laughed at morphed into high-quality laserwriters. Technology became more sophisticated; publishers had access to new processes. 


Parisian Encounters; Aunt Sallie's Lament,
Souvenir of San Francisco

And Chronicle Books took notice of book art and in 1993 printed Aunt Sallie's Lament, a text by Margaret Kaufman that Claire Van Vliet had originally designed and made as an artist's book. (You can go see both versions in the Mills College Library special collections department.) Why start there? Claire Van Vliet brought book arts into bright public light; a printmaker, papermaker, and founder of Janus Press in 1955, she was awarded a MacArthur in 1989, the first and only bookmaker ever (and since then every book artist keeps asking, "Where's mine?"). 


Parisian Encounters

Chronicle Books continued the newfound excitement with book art and produced work from established book artists such as Charles Hobson (Parisian Encounters: Great Loves and Grand Passions, Leonardo Loves Baseball, Seeing Stars: Shining Star Light) and Dorothy Yule and her sister Susan Hunt Yule (Souvenirs of Great Cities: San Francisco, Souvenirs of Great Cities: New York, Souvenirs of Great Cities: London, Souvenirs of Great Cities: Paris). The books were printed in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds that a single book artist can comfortably make. They were marketed and distributed by someone else. Soon, every book artist had a prospective Chronicle project behind a shy smile, hoping for recognition.
Aunt Sallie's Lament

The commercially printed book is essentially a revision of the original. In a playwriting class, Brian Thorstenson used to ask, in reference to revisions, "What do you gain, what do you lose?" You gain a wider audience. You lose the tactile quality. Aunt Sallie's Lament suffered with the change of material. It is meant to evoke a quilt, which by nature is soft and textural: the original used a variety of handmade papers. The wonderful cutout design remained, however, and the repetition of the engaging poem becomes more of the focus in the Chronicle version. The words stand strong. Which leads to an interesting realization: my reason to make books in the first place was a desire to share literary content, my writing.


Top: Left Coast Press edition; Bottom: Chronicle Books

The initial buzz in the book art community may have waned, but Chronicle continues to publish visually interesting work. I finally have an idea that isn't a revision of a previous book exactly, but a re-envisioning of it. Like the Yules—who created new slipcases to replace the double spines they employed for the letterpress versions—I'm thinking now of the slick paper and the capacity for full color printing as advantages. And, like the blogs and Sidewalk Story, my print-on-demand book, I am designing directly for the new medium.


Left: Chronicle Books;  Right: Left Coast Press edition

1 comment:

Velma Bolyard said...

i've long been a fan of chronicle books. i always am amazed that people come to making books to share writing (first) before the images or the haptics of the book! i've used your books on making books as guides so many times...