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The New Jersey Book Arts Symposium is an annual daylong event on the first Friday in November that presents contemporary work by living New Jersey book artists and considers issues of current relevance to practitioners within the field of the book arts, and to the cultural perception and definition of The Book. Besides its distinctive focus on New Jersey, the NJBAS also distinguishes itself by looking at work in all aspects of the book arts--the ongoing practice of traditional arts, such as typography, book-binding, paper-making, calligraphy, illustration and book-design, alongside the innovative production of "artists' books," "bookworks" or "book objects." As well as showcasing the work of contemporary artists, the NJBAS includes panel discussions and academic papers on the history-(ies) of the book. A non-profit event, the NJBAS is supported by the Rutgers University Libraries, although charges a nominal entrance fee (discounted for Rutgers staff and faculty). Students are given free admission although required to register in advance.

Faces: to remember or forget, by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson; (photo: MSW)
Faces: to remember or forget, by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson; (photo: MSW)

A Little History

The annual New Jersey Book Arts Symposium began in 1995 when Susan G. Swartzburg and Michael Joseph co-curated Book Arts in New Jersey: Seven Contemporary Perspectives, an exhibition including examples of handmade paper, paper marbling, wood-engraving, binding, graphic art, and artists' books, at Special Collections and University Archives, in New Brunswick. In collaboration with Lynn S. Mullins, the Library Directory of the John Cotton Dana Library, Rutgers-Newark, they organized a symposium at Dana A Sense of Place and The Book Arts: Contemporary Perspectives, featuring all but one of the New Brunswick artists. Elizabeth Ann Watkins, Dana Exhibitions Librarian, and Kathleen McShane, adjunct design professor, created a second complementary exhibition.

The Mighty Hackensack, Beátrice Coron
The Mighty Hackensack, Beátrice Coron

A second symposium and exhibition was planned for the following year, however, tragically, in September, shortly before the date arrived, Swartzburg contracted a rare respiratory illness and died. With a lot of help from Swartzburg's friends and colleagues, Joseph and Mullins were able to proceed with the symposium as scheduled: Book Arts and Education, or, Preaching What We Practice, proved to be more than the sucess d'estime of the previous year, which was due in part to the advance publicity coordinated by Karen Crisalli, of the Bookbinders Warehouse, who had joined what was now the Symposium Committee (Mullins and Joseph) as a Business Manager. The Dana Room housing the symposium overflowed with attendees, including student 'drop ins,' attracted by the crowd.

A second room with an A/V feed was quickly set up to handle the overflow (an example of the helpfulness and dedication of the Dana Library staff). Vendors contacted by Crisalli had set up tables in the pleasantly winding gallery where the display cases showed off examples of artists' books, hand-made paper, and book design, and this space now served as an extended auditorium; the voices of the speakers could be heard from here almost as well as in either room.

A crucial element in the Symposium's success was the support of The Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions (then the Rutgers Center for Innovate Print and Paper). Gail Deery, papermaker at the Center and a close colleague of Swartzburg's, presented on the use of papermaking techniques in her art work, and professor Brodsky delivered a summary of and response to the day's discussions--a role she assumed on a regular basis in 2000.

The beauty of the Dana Library exhibition was also an important factor in the decision to make The Symposium a recurring event. Swartzburg had hired an artist to curate the second exhibition, to relieve the burden on the library staff, for which Mullins then assumed responsibility. She continued to retain artist/curators to make the exhibitions in her library artistically perfect. The exhibition became so popular, people who didn't attend the Symposium would arrive for the opening, and during the first few years, the opening celebration would last until 7:30 or 8:00.

The program for the second Symposium has a line for "Master of Ceremonies, William J. Dane, Supervising Librarian and Keeper of Prints and Posters, The Newark Public Library." Mullins had enlisted him to introduce the morning speakers, but Dane prefaced his introductions by exhibiting and telling anecdotes about artists' books from his own collection, which he had carried down the block in shopping bags. Dane masterfully served as "Master of Ceremonies" until 2008, the year he retired from the Newark Public Libraries (after 62 years).

For its third meeting in 1997, The Symposium instituted The Book Arts (var. Artists) Jam, at which attendees could share work of their own, and this became a part of every successive Symposium. The Dana Library houses the world-renowned Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS), whose offices are on the same floor as the Dana Room where the Symposium and exhibition are held. Therefore, a 'jam' seemed the obvious and right coinage. The term "book arts jam" is now in widespread use, but it had its origins at the Dana Library.

In 2001, at its seventh meeting, The Symposium asked Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson to serve as Artist-in-Residence, a position that Mullins had been contemplating for some time. Wilson made sketches of speakers and audience members, which Joseph scanned and mounted on the Web. Wilson has documented the event as artist-in-residence for every year since then, in recent years sharing the artist-in-residence position with Asha Ganpat.

Following a succession of talented artist/curators that began in 1995 with Kathleen McShane and continued with Maria G. Pisano, Sheena Calvert, Denise Mullen, Andrea Honore, and Sharon Matt Atkins, in 2002, Karen Guancione became the Symposium's official curator, an office she held until 2006 when she was replaced by Amanda Thackray. Thackray has now been curating the exhibition for a decade.

Mullins retired before the 2007 Symposium, and in her absence, the Symposium Committee took on a very different look. Joseph became Founding Director, and Guancione, Artistic Director. Her assignment was primarily to assist him in selecting artists (which Joseph had been doing independently since Swartzburg's death in 1996). Guancione's directorship has tipped the balance of the Symposium further in the direction of artists' books. With input from the Committee--now, Judith Brodsky, Amanda Thackray, Asha Ganpat--and others, Guancione and Joseph select the theme and artists and set the program for every Symposium--although, on three occasions, one of the regular attendees has volunteered to shape the program as Program Chair.

In 2003, Constance Woo, then the Head Librarian at Long Island University, organized a program on collecting; in 2006, Ann Montanaro, a collector of American pop up books and founder of The Movable Book Society, organized a program on pop up and movable books, and in 2010, Barbara Henry, printer/graphic artist/poet, a program on typography.

A year before Mullins retired, in 2005 Ralph Ocker, who had served as business manager after Criselli left in 1998, retired. Ocker had enlarged on Criselli's business model, bringing in more vendors and soliciting materials at a small fee from vendors who couldn't attend. His support provided The Symposium financial reach and flexibility. For a number of years, he would also sponsor a dinner in the winter for the Symposium Committee at which artists for the coming event were proposed and a theme selected. In August, he would mail out a "Save the Date" card composed and designed by his wife, the writer Christa Ocker. A quiet, modest man, he never once spoke at a symposium: yet Ralph Ocker was indispensable to the Symposium's long run of success.

2010 witnessed the final New Jersey Book Arts Symposium to be held at the Dana Library. Ironically, it was Research and Reverie, organized by Barbara Henry, one of the original 7 artists at the Contemporary Perspective Symposium in 1995.

The Symposium convened one last time in Newark at the Robeson Galleries, in 2011, at the invitation of its director, Anonda Bell. Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of The Symposium in 2012 when storm winds battered The Paul Robeson Arts Center in Princeton where it was to be held. In 2013, The Symposium arrived in New Brunswick, where it has been held ever since. That marked the first year video captures of the Symposium were made and made available in RU-Core, the University's digital repository.

In 2014, Rutgers University bestowed the Rutgers Medal on artist/printmakers John Ross and Clare Romano for their longtime support of The Rutgers University Libraries and of the New Jersey Book Arts Symposium. Ross had spoken in 1999 (#5) and Romano in 2000 (#6), and both had attended many symposiums. In addition, Ross had donated his own artists' books, printed at The High Tide Press, to the Rutgers Book Arts and Artists' Book Collection, and facilitated other donations. In acknowledging Ross and Romano, the University recognized The New Jersey Book Arts Symposium, and, indirectly, the contributions of the over one hundred artists who had spoken at previous symposia as well as the librarians, curators, collectors, businessmen, faculty and students who had contributed their time and talents to this most communal of enterprizes.

The award ceremony was the climax of The TWENTIETH Anniversary New Jersey Book Arts Symposium. The Rutgers University Libraries Scholarly Communications Center captured the ceremony on video.

In 2016, the Symposium introduced new Library Director, Krisellen Maloney; in 2017, the Symposium introduced new Director of the New Brunswick Libraries, Diana "Dee" Magnoni. In 2018, the Symposium introduced the new Associate Director of Special Collections and University Archives, Sonia Yaco, who shared her work as a sculpture who uses detrital objects. These additions have deepened the relationship of the Symposium to Rutgers, and the New Brunswick Libraries, and are indeed a cause for celebration. But there have been offsetting losses as well. John Ross and Clare Romano passed away in 2016 and 2017. Our longtime artist-in-residence, Marcia Wilson passed away on August 4, 2018. To begin the 2018 Symposium we had a moment of silence to honor Marcia, and to honor the victims of terrorism and gun violence who had lost their lives in the weeks preceding the Symposium, and to recognize the existential threat to our species posed by global warming. The political activism that had been an undercurrent in earlier symposiums became more explicit in 2018 as speakers and attendees wore pink sashes bearing political messages, e.g. "Save Mueller," "Lock Him Up," "Resist Persist!" The 2019 highlighted diversity and community, including Ioulia Akhmadeeva, a Russian-Mexican artist with whom Karen Guancione collaborated in Pátzcuaro, and Maria Veronica San Martin, a renowned Chilean book artist, as well as Jas Graf and Suzie Tuchman, students who studied with NJBAS instructors, and Maureen Cummins, who spoke at Resistance, in 2008. Twenty-five years after its founding, The New Jersey Book Arts Symposium continues to grow and innovate, demonstrating both the strength and reach of New Jersey book artists. Also, Michael Joseph, who co-founded the NJBAS with Susan G. Swartzburg in 1995, and has been its director since then, announced his retirement from Rutgers.

Web exhibitions of several early symposia have been created and are still available: Education and the Book Arts, or, Preaching What We Practice (#2, 1996); Res Ipsa Loquitur, the Thing Speaks for Itself (#5, 1999); The Seventh INTERNATIONAL New Jersey Book Arts Symposium (2001); and Styles of Collecting, Styles of the Book (#9, 2003). Links to all of the New Jersey Book Arts symposia held at the Alexander Library (2013-) are available at NJBAS Videos.


For more information about the Symposium please contact:

Sonia Yaco

Rutgers University Libraries

Associate Director, Head Special Collections and University Archives