Thursday, October 31, 2013

Grimoire: Spell That

On the Halloween special for the radio program Says You, one of the questions was "In which room would a witch keep a grimoire?" The contestants were slightly baffled. One said "the bat room." Eventually, the answer was uncovered: the library. A grimoire is a book of spells or a "textbook of magic."

If you do an online image search you will find everything from games to manga to handmade books to rare books from the 18th century that contain the word "grimoire." Obviously, lots of people know what it means (Buffy the Vampire Slayer does). Or, at least, they have their own interpretation. One website explains that the word derives from the word "grammar:" a set of symbols that together form sentences. A grimoire, then, would be an explanation of how to combine symbols to make magic. Another source mentions that one kind of grimoire was the "founding text of Rastafarianism."

Since a friend's birthday is Halloween, I had to make one for her.
  • Distressed Cover (Posted here)
  • Tea and walnut ink-stained pages, torn (These techniques, different colors—I also scratched into the paper with a skewer)
  • Quotes from Macbeth (Witches scene) scanned, flipped, and transferred with Ad Marker Blender pen (Posted here)
  • Coptic binding with a Curved Needle (pp. 174-177 Making Handmade Books)

Ready for spells, charms, clippings, recipes or dreams.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Jess and Poltroon Press

Critical Dreams, printed and published by Poltroon Press in 1986, is the only known published book of Jess’s writing. The dreams themselves (from the 1950s and 60s) were previously published in two magazines, as short pieces often are. I spoke to my longtime book arts colleague, Alastair Johnston, co-proprietor (with Frances Butler) of Poltroon Press, who graciously lent me a copy of the book. After I read it, I emailed him my comments and questions.

Q: Did you know Jess? What drew you to this text? What compelled you to want to print it? 

A: I had never met Jess, he was a reclusive artist, but I knew Robert Duncan with whom he lived in a Victorian in the Mission District of San Francisco. I found these dreams in Open Space magazine (a little magazine published at Gino & Carlo's bar in North Beach for a quarter), which also published his cut-up of Dick Tracy called Tricky Cad. When I visited him at home with proofs I was surprised to meet a large affable guy with a military demeanor, kind of an Ed McMahon type (though not necessarily to Duncan's Johnny Carson!).

Q: The dreams reminded me of writing by Bruno Schulz, an artist known more for his book  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories than for his art. I often wonder about what Bob Glück said to me about the “art brain” of an artist who writes, that it provides a different way of seeing the world. Do you see any connection to Schulz or to an “art brain” in how the text was written?

A: Not to Schulz particularly. Artists who also write are often ignored as writers (Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Paul Klee all wrote poetry) and I thought these pieces were worth preserving. Jess is or was an important figure in the Bay Area literary and art scene, not unlike Bern Porter who was also a nuclear physicist before turning to art in the 1940s.

Q: What kind of risk did you feel when you took on Jess’s dream writing? How closely did you work with him? What was his reaction?

A: No risk since I never made any money, or much money, from publishing poetry. At the time I was teaching at UC Davis (as was Frances) so we had enough income to finance projects such as this one. We mainly communicated by postcard and letter. (Recently I copied them all for someone who is putting together a book of his letters.) Jess was happy and really liked my work on this book.

Q: Regarding the design choices, you mentioned that you chose to honor his original line lengths—which were long—but that a reviewer complained about both that and the ragged right edge, saying it was hard to read. My experience was that it slowed me down, which I appreciated. When lines are too short I think the tendency is to read them too quickly. You were working from typescript, where the letters are monospaced, so of course setting the text in metal type, where each letter has its own width, makes it look different anyway. What was behind your decision to keep the lines as they were?

A: As you say to preserve the original breath, even though it was typewritten. And as you note it is sometimes good to be slowed down in reading. If I had justified it with twelve words to a line it would have read as prose and lost his breaks and pauses which are part of the experience of reading it. Also I chose tightly leaded Ehrhardt to keep a nocturnal feel. "The adytum of the luminous obscure," as Peacock put it.

Q: Because you told me this story about the line-length police, I thought I would read the book with an eye out for poetry, where line breaks really matter for the rhythm and for continuation or disruption of thought. I ended up feeling that the line breaks were necessary as they were, that something surprising came on the next line. I picked two random lines from the first page:

visitation. The scene is late afternoon on a large estate or a revival
meeting camp…

…I’ll lay you across
my checkrd apron…

Any other comments on the line breaks here or in general?

A: They do look bad in places, damn the typewriter! Ehrhardt is also a highly condensed type so it completely altered the lines; I suppose Stymie would have more closely approximated the original but it's not a good reading type. Wise after the fact I suppose I could have put in a note saying why the lines look that way, but I got revenge on Fine Print whose reviewer griped about it. They said something like "with the beautiful paper and superb printing it does not add up to the exquisite book it could be," or words to that effect. So I blurbed it as "beautiful paper … superb printing … exquisite book"—Fine Print.

Q: What about the punctuation—Did Jess use the upside-down question marks? The words in flipped parentheses? How much interpreting did you do when you designed the book? What kinds of choices did you make that might seem invisible to the reader?

A: None as I recall, I carefully followed his work to the letter.

Q: Color seems important in the dreams. I went through the text to see how his artist brain depicted color and to see if we could get an idea of his writing style.

checkered   glittering crystal   blackred cana   opalwhite cala   black seaweeds   streetlamp’s yellow circle   rich autumn brocades…ochres…browns, puce, mossgreen   silver hammer   pearlsilk robes   black hair   black squares   wet red footsteps   white cat   spidery black   milky opal eyes   green pastilles   wine-dark   fire opal   grey, rough, stone buttress   satiny silver   black furnace   amber   charcoalviolet sky   deep peacock   pitchblack   marsred   purpleindigo   mercurious silver   sulphurous gold

How did these inspire you when choosing materials and colors?

A: "Winedark" of course is Homer. There's a richness in his vocabulary which suggested the imperial purple I used as a second color (for the hieroglyphic "Aunty I"). Frances, who has a keen color sense, most likely came up with the cover material combinations, I don't remember now.

Q: In 1986, photopolymer plates weren’t a viable option, although we could send away for zinc or magnesium plates. What do you think is the best use for photopolymer plates now? Anything you’d like to try or that you might have done with this book?

A: I used a zinc for the frontispiece. I think of text printed from photopolymer as "Faux letterpress"— there's really no point unless you are too lazy to handset something, or a "graphic designer" comes to you with their cruddy widely letterspaced 6-point Copperplate Gothic caps saying things like they love the "kiss of letterpress" (when what they want is deep throat). Once it's set (on a computer) you cannot really do any fine tuning, and I always like to see what I am doing on the press, then go in and make tiny changes to the spacing. 

Q: I know that you love type, teach typography, and have an amazing collection of type, but have you ever been interested in printing text from handwriting?

A: I have printed three or more books by photopolymer, but as I said it's a sign of laziness: they were jobs and it was a cost-cutting move, I prefer Linotype where possible if handset is not possible. I printed some calligraphic drawings of Brion Gysin by zinc (in the Auerhahn bibliography) & a book cover by Arne Wolf that was also calligraphed. I planned to do a collab with Arne (I studied calligraphy with him, as did Frances) but like so many other projects, it never happened.

Q: According to a recent exhibition catalogue, the 1962-64 title image was originally used to illustrate Robert Duncan’s 1951-52 poem “An Imaginary War Elegy” in their Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950 -1953. How did it become the frontispiece for Critical Dreams? Where did the image on the prospectus come from? 

A: The artwork was owned by a collector named Stephen Burton: someone told me about him and I wrote and asked if I could use the drawings. I didn't know about the "War Elegy" appearance. Book of Resemblances was supposed to be Auerhahn but Robert hated the printing of the prospectus by Hoyem and withdrew it. So of course I knew I had to have a solid black without overinking the blocks!

Q: I was struck by how many landscapes and architectural structures were described: arbors, towers, stairs, abysses, black and white tiles. I like to think that a book is both like a room and like a film and I began wondering what would happen if one of the dreams were made into a multicolored tunnel book, for example. But then I realized that structure and visual depiction of what was already in the words would detract from the text rather than enhance it. Comment on this?

A: I always feel that overthought formats detract from the content of the book. Most of my work is in a straightforward sewn and cased format. If I play around it's on my own projects. We've used orihon and Coptic structures where the project seemed to require it. Frances has made pop-up books. I couldn't envision this as a tunnel book, or on clearprint or anything else like that. Now if Jess had given me collages or offered to illustrate the book with collages I would have completely rethought the format, I am sure. But I like the tall page with the dense clumps of type mostly at the top.

Q: Any closing comments?

A: I asked Jess about reprinting Tricky Cad and he said that Chester Gould's [creator of Dick Tracy, from which the work is derived—yet, radically changed] lawyers would pounce on it (Copyright laws are different now). What I really hoped was to collaborate with him as an illustrator and we talked about doing something from Joyce (whom we both love) like The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies, but he was always too busy and I didn't push him. Also, it would be very uncharacteristic for Poltroon to do a literary reprint like that. Kind of a cop-out.

Thanks to Alastair for a cup of tea and talk, answering my questions, and loaning me Critical Dreams so I could really appreciate it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Visit to the San Francisco Public Library

Field trip! Took my CCA class to the top floor of the San Francisco Public Library to taste the Book Arts & Special Collections department. Special Collections Librarian Andrea Grimes was our guide through a few books from each: Robert Grabhorn Collection on the History of Printing and the Development of the Book; Richard Harrison Collection of Calligraphy and Lettering; Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor; and the Little Maga/Zine Collection. A few highlights…

Aldus Manutius and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499—and reprinted in 1545 by his son Paulus Manutius). A controversial book, for its time, with a few sexually themed illustrations made from extremely fine lined woodcuts. Even the shape of the text is suggestive in some places. Books printed before 1501 are called "incunables." The plot of the bestselling 2004 novel Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason revolves around the Hypnerotomachia.

Cosmographia is a printed book from 1574 with volvelles and a Renaissance map. Vellum covers.

The 20th century letterpress printed book Manhattan, by Amy Clampitt, woodcuts by Margaret Sunday, printed by Kim Merker of Windhover Press at the University of Iowa, 1990. Lovely poems with minimalist abstract images in several colors that evoke movement, maps, jazz, and the city.

Calligraphy and exquisite illustrations on vellum by Marie Angel. Word has it that she never used a magnifying glass, even in her 80s. This is the original that was reproduced in the book Fables de Lafontaine, 1981. Her details are brilliant. Her book Painting for Calligraphers shows her process beautifully and makes you understand how composition and circular movement is so important when pairing text and images.

Lettering for Alchimie Du Verbe (Alchemy of the Word) by Arthur Rimbaud, written out in 1988 by master calligrapher Thomas Ingmire, who is also working on the St. John's Bible. A major show of his works is at Columbia College Chicago Center for Paper and Book Arts until early December. You can view the exhibition brochure here.

Andrea wrote later, "Author and artist Carl Maria Seyppel called his works 'Aegyptische Humoreske' and 'Mummiendruck' (mummy prints)." She speculates that they were printed as a parody, to mock the idea of what a book should be. They looked like they were aged and made of papyrus, including a seal on the cover. He was certainly interested in his materials. Seyppel lived 1847-1913. More info at the end of this essay.

And a treat: signs painted for the library by the artist Margaret Kilgallen, when she worked as a page and book repairer in the Preservation Department, now part of Book Arts & Special Collections Center. They have preserved these originals (painted on doorskin and reused wood signs); and made facsimiles that  are still posted in the Technical Services Department.

note: this post was corrected and revised 10/30/13

Monday, October 21, 2013

Everything Is…

I really don't know what more to say about this other than this mantra is giving me hope right about now. Of course, we could look at it as depressing, too, but in either case, we can find a way to be grateful.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Secret Belgian Binding Goes Sculptural

The Secret Belgian Binding (originally named Crisscross by its creator, Anne Goy), is a versatile structure that begs to be experimented with. You can change the colors of the threads in the weaving pattern, paint the covers, collage them, cover them with bookcloth. I photocopied a copy I had of the Why Cheap Art? manifesto from Bread and Puppet Theater and used it as my covering material, both over the main boards and over board scraps. I sealed it with acrylic gloss varnish. My post on Secret Belgian Binding is here. Instructions are featured on pages 159-161 in Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Carpet Sample Meets a Two-Piece Box

Came home last week to find a door hanger ad for a carpet company that featured an actual sample of the carpet. We liked it, couldn't throw it out, so for fun I made this box celebrating the carpet square.

The construction is based on the instructions for the Two-Piece Box or Candy Box on page 226 of Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms, using the measurements below. My carpet sample was 3" square (75 mm).

Materials: There are only 10 pieces. Start with (2) 4" square (100 mm) boards for top and bottom. (4) Top walls are 1 1/2" deep (37 mm) x 4" (100 mm). (4) Bottom walls are 3 1/4" deep (80 mm) and start with them 4" wide and trim the boards as per instructions in the book. 

Normally, you can make a recess or inset in the lid by peeling out layers of the board (p. 217), but the carpet square was too deep. I had to build one.

Once the lid is built, you will measure covering material so the raised boards and slightly down into the recess will be covered. (Starting with step 9, page 227). Your carpet square or whatever you like will hide the edges of the covering material this way.

Instead of another covered board for the bottom, I glued a square of book cloth to cover the exposed edges.

So there it is. In this case, the covering material is Velin Arches paper (formerly Arches Text Wove) painted with FW acrylic inks. Techniques for painting paper are in Painted Paper: Techniques & Projects for Handmade Books & Cards.

I suppose it could use a miniature armchair, but I think I like it unfurnished.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Crazy Little Thing Called Competition

Do you want to get better at your craft? Do you want your art and name to be recognized and do you want to be paid for your work? Sounds like the beginning of a self-help book. The problem is that there are only a few slots available and far too many people who want them will get them: a publisher may only be able to publish ten books that year; a collector may only want to buy one sculpture. How do you increase your chances? I can't say I've found the answer—if there were a cure, we would all know it by now. But I do know a couple of things to try: a) want to get better, I mean really better, at what you do and b) know the market and understand your competition. However crazy or jarring it sounds, if you want fame or fortune (on any scale), you have to compete. You are competing.

I want to stress first that if what you are doing is a hobby, then you can just enjoy it, keep doing what you love, get better on your own schedule, give yourself personal deadlines if you want them: no pressure. I've loved to dance since I was a child, taken lessons most of my life, but I knew I never wanted to work at becoming a professional dancer, being the best, becoming known, or make money from dancing. It was nice that practicing helped me get better, but I didn't want to work hard beyond classtime and I didn't want anyone to yell at me to improve (and I witnessed some teachers who did this). I just enjoyed going to class and dancing.

Writing and art have always been different. I've wanted to be a professional. I want my art to sell. I want to have my stories published by someone else. I'm willing to work hard and try to figure out how. There may be a little subjective luck involved—we are dealing with a publisher's or collector's taste, for one thing—but these fields are competitive, whether we like it or not. We may read in the news that someone's art was seen on Etsy and now it is manufactured and sold around the world, but that's rare: that's why it's news.

Grad school or serious classes or reading instructional books are a great first step. You can learn how to read, see carefully, analyze, learn what to look for, and learn about how different artists/writers approached their craft and what subjects they chose. Reading biographies of artists and writers helps, too. How did they do it? But until you start reading or seeing your competition here and now you may not completely understand what's at stake. When you put yourself in the position of curator, editor, or buyer, then it becomes clearer how the works are competing for your attention, and through this, you may be able to understand how your work needs to be strong enough to get the attention of others. You may not know if your work is fresh until you see a hundred others that are similar.

When you familiarize yourself with contemporary work, you will find that there are stories everybody writes, collages that everyone makes. It is both comforting and scary to see this. Comforting because you know you are part of a human collective with similar needs, scary because you think you are being original, and maybe you are being original for you but not new to the rest of the world. As an undergrad I was told that you can't make art in a vacuum, and now I can see why. Only when you see two or more stories or artworks side-by-side, in competition for your attention, can you really begin to understand what you need to do. Why does one work and not the other? How do they both work, but differently?

Occasionally, stories are written in a fresh and moving manner. This should be the goal. I've found that published work and artwork in galleries is all over the place, qualitywise and subjectwise. This is more a reflection of a certain kind of taste, something the editor or curator is looking for in a work. For my own magazine, I decided that I wanted to publish work that is both written well (i.e. every word is carefully chosen, each sentence has a nice sound) and that has a subject that either has a plot or a point. Describing something interesting is a great first step. Shaping the material into a story with a point is what's needed. At the moment, I am watching a squirrel in the oak tree hanging upside down at the edge of a swaying branch and foraging. It is funny to watch and it may be the beginning of a story, but it is not a story yet. To propel this into a story, I might start asking: what if we had to stand on our heads to get our meals; how we might twist ourselves into knots getting something we want; or I might think about a person who is just holding on, just getting by.

As an editor, now that I'm reading what writers are trying to get published at the same time I'm trying to get my own work published, I am re-evaluating my older works. I'm guilty of some of the same kinds of introspective stories with no interactions, for example. So I'm searching for the ones that stand out, that I think are different from the majority of stories I'm reading. I'm also working hard to redo my earlier works. They may be interesting enough to read, but many don't have a clear plot or point yet. Back to work.

You have to decide that you want to get better, that you want to be chosen, that you want to be the best, and you have to do the research: evaluate why you think one piece is stronger than another—how does one grab the viewer's attention? Will you make money or get known by doing this? Will starting a gallery or magazine help? The odds are against it, but it may help you to see both the gems and the flaws in your own work and it may inspire you. You have to analyze and understand your competition. But despite whether or not you are chosen, by being aware of what is being made around you, you can still sustain your creative self and grow like heck.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Sgraffito Process for Ceramics on a Bowl

Here is the sgraffito process for the bowl of Mixed Knots I made as a wedding present. 

Starting with the bisqueware and some drawings to work from

Painting three coats of the dark color (in this case, black or Black Lab)

Painting three coats of a light color (Sweet Pea)

Painting the inside with Rockin' Red

Drawing lightly with regular pencil, then carving with the needle tool and brushing away the crumbs

Highlighting some of the knots with a tiny brush dipped in Orange Crush, Arizona Sun, and Orange Peel, Mash (oh, I get it, M*A*S*H, like the show about the Korean war: Army Green), and Leap Frog. (Who gets to name these colors?)

Drawing inside with ceramic pencil

Not satisfied with the ceramic pencil over the glaze and painting it over with Black Lab—A few dots in Mash between the kinds of knots—The rim painted with Arizona Sun.

And…You're Fired!