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Report of a Symposium

First Annual New Jersey Book Arts Symposium

A Sense of Place and the book arts contemporary perspectives

"Book Arts and a Sense of Place": Report of a Symposium

reprinted from Newsletter of the Guild of BookWorkers, Issue number 104, February 1996; by their kind permission.

Concluding a year that seemed determined to convince us that The Book is not dead, but, instead, experiencing greater freedoms from the burdens of conveying quotidian data (now eagerly assumed by the Internet and other bodiless electronic media), the John Cotton Dana Library, at Rutgers University in Newark, sponsored a day long symposium, "Book Arts and A Sense of Place," on October 13, 1995. Susan Swartzburg, Preservation Manager, and Michael Joseph, Rare Book and Jerseyana Catalog Librarian, both at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, organized the symposium, which was held at the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. Lynn Mullins, Library Director of the Dana Library, acted as host.

The morning program consisted of individual presentations by six New Jersey artists and craftspersons, who were chosen to participate because of the widely recognized quality and continued forcefulness of their work in a variety of disciplines encompassing what is generally thought of as the book arts. These were (in order of presentation), Alexandra Soteriou, paper-maker; John DePol, wood-engraver and illustrator; Barbara Henry, printer and graphic artist; Maria Pisano, paper-maker and book artist; Carol Joyce, bookbinder; and Iris Nevins, paper-marbler. The diversity of their presentations highlighted the diversity of their skills as well as their complementarity.

Alexandra Soteriou enriched an account of her far-flung travels through India in search of traditional papermakers and paper-making techniques with a dazzling selection of colored slides. As a consequence of her exposure to India, she said, the purpose of her own work has evolved away from being "on the wall" art for a small audience. Now she works to place beautiful paper in the hands of all people for ordinary purposes. John DePol put out examples of his wood-engraving as he shared anecdotes of his almost fifty year career as an illustrator. Matching his extraordinary skilfulness, Depol's humility and easy grace captivated many of the Rutgers students for whom the symposium represented an introduction to the concept of book arts.

Resounding the biographical theme, though in a slightly more formal vein, Barbara Henry gave a paper (with many asides) on the impact of place and people in her wordless picture-books, while showing slides of the forceful linoleum-cuts she designed and printed at her Harsimus Press. Referring to herself, humorously, as "schizoid," she also surveyed a differently demanding set of responsibilities she has as Master Printer at Bowne & Co. Stationers, a letterpress print shop at the South Street Seaport Museum endowed with one of the finest collections of nineteenth century foundry type in America. Also following a prepared text, Maria Pisano walked through the printmaking techniques she used in her one-of-a-kind artist books and reflected upon how, among other influences, immigrating to the United States as a young girl conjured up fantastic, memorable images and sharp ambivalences she sought to capture in her work. Imagery, inspired by her distant recollections of auratic Italy, suggested a parallel between Pisano's relationship to place and Soteriou's, implied in her descriptions of how India refreshed her sense of artistic calling. In addition to viewing slides of her books and photographs, the audience listened raptly to Pisano's recitations of her poetry.

Introducing herself as the daughter of James Joyce, who was, himself, the son of James Joyce, Carol Joyce boasted of being a simon-pure Jersey girl, whose decorated bookbindings reflected the natural beauty of the New Jersey countryside. Her slide presentation evinced a finely tuned collaborative facility for complementing the styles, methodologies and intentions of a number of traditional and non-traditional writers, photographers and artists. Iris Nevins concluded the morning program by profoundly lamenting the difficulties of paper-marbling, yet, nevertheless, dramatically reasserting her commitment to traditional marbling patterns--whose intensity, over the years, has colored even her dream life. Nevins's quest for lost technologies capable of reproducing intricate designs and effects have led her, she explained, into dreaming (dream-places?) of receiving various solutions, as detailed and explicit as a textbook, from marblers of the past--in illo tempore--and suggested a correspondence with Barbara Henry, whose dreams of an immortal race of fey creatures inhabiting the Jersey coast inspired her series of haunting illustrations (rendered in linocut), "The Sea-People."

Confessing that she feels more like a chemist than an artist, Nevins parsed the variables involved in the marbling process, all of which militate against effectively reproducing any given pattern; after she had finished, she showed a modest selection of slides which convincingly demonstrated an ability to render with extraordinary accuracy marble patterns from the early and late nineteenth century.

The modesty, commitment, intensity, talent, self-sacrifice, accomplishment and perfectionism shown by these six highly individual book artists combined to make the morning program a success. Susan Swartzburg began the afternoon program by sharing a broadly contextualizing work-in-progress on the history of book arts in New Jersey, which highlighted (appropriately) the pioneering efforts of John Cotton Dana to develop collections of press books and other specimens of book arts at the Newark Public Library. Dana, claimed Swartzburg, made significant and lasting contributions to our admiration of bibliographical artifacts, and his spirit and energy remain to guide us through the perilous times ahead. Yet, Swartzburg noted, many of the accomplishments of New Jersey book artists have not been documented, much less studied, and much spade work remains to be done. She urged anyone possessing information about New Jersey book arts, from colonial days to the present, to contact her.

A panel discussion/question and answer period followed, intermittenly focussed on the symposium's theme, the book arts and a sense of place, in which audience members were encouraged to join in: excerpts are reproduced here. (Initials refer to the participants listed above.)

Question: Thirty years ago we were told that transportation and tele-communications were combining to make the world smaller; has the world finally grown so small that we are now nowhere?

Answer: AS suggested that the place, or r?le of artists in a more closely-connected world has actually expanded, since they are now capable of reaching larger audiences. She confessed (it seemed to me, sheepishly), "I keep in touch with my Indian villages via e-mail."

Question: Then, if we are actually somewhere [although we haven't defined where we are yet], where is our audience? Are they somewhere, too? For whom are we doing our work?

Answer: MP, astutely interpreting the question to imply that art may or may not reflect the culture of a particular place, and therefore, be geographically restricted in its appeal to a particular peoples, replied that a receptive, sympathetic audience could be found anywhere. She argued the universality of art by describing the sensitive reception of her own one-of-a-kinds among people of divergent backgrounds. In effect, she reiterated the consensus of the panel that book-artists (and book-art) spoke to, and hence, belonged within, the global village.

Prompted by MP's earlier offer of the tunnel as a metaphor to describe her work as an environment leading from one place to another, I posed the question, "Where is our work taking us?" CJ voiced the sentiment of the panel by replying, "We don't know. That's why we do it." The question, "Do we create our own studios within the art we create?" elicited an echo of this romantic view of art (was it Rilke who said "poets are the bees of the invisible?"); CJ replied that she prefers to look beyond her own studio walls. "It's the long view that stretches the mind for me." IN agreed, adding, "The land outside my studio revitalizes me." BH and JDP both agreed that their studios were hopelessly a mess.

Bob Mahon, a photographer, asked the panel to reflect upon their training and education. I rephrased his question by asking, "To what degree are we enslaved by the past?" CJ felt that the traditional seven year apprenticeships must have been confining, but contemporary book artists develop in a freer, less restrictive environment. "We learn as we do things." AS replied that methodologies of the past rather than the end result interest her. Instead of being captivated or defeated by the past, she feels "historical processes can be used to create [one's own] focus," and therefore, the past becomes a source of personal liberation, of a more intense life. IN gave a more shaded response. Because she has undertaken to keep certain marbling processes alive, she does feel a responsibility to the past. She perceives an aesthetic and also historical justification for her efforts: The marbling technologies possess value and meaning and "someone should preserve them." It is her place, which IN has chosen for herself, to preserve them.

Returning to the notion of book as place, I asked: "What happens in a book?"

Alice Weld, a painter and curator at the New Jersey State Museum, replied "Understanding." Others at the table suggested that nothing happens inside a book. Bob Mahon captured the essence of that remark by adding that whatever happens happens inside of the artist, or inside the beholder of the book art. In a sense, his Zen-like response subverted my question since it made the book disappear. I sought to restore the being of the book by asking, "What is the ideal book?" JDP immediately replied, "a book with lots of engravings. By me!"

Alison Weld, assistant curator at the Jersey State Museum, responded to the panel discussion, and to the morning's presentations, with a rather unexpected and provocative set of remarks. She noted differences between artists and book-artists; book artists are concerned with craft, fine artists are not; book artists are concerned with making beautiful objects, fine artists are not; book artists have a notion of history and tradition, fine artists think of history in terms of the last 20 yrs, 50 yrs at most; book artists are concerned with quality; fine artists are concerned with content. "Where is the avant garde in book arts?," she asked.

SS replied that, when she turned 25 she became bored with the lack of substance in fine art (meaning lack of craftsmanship or control over medium), and looked to fine books instead. Debra Weier, book artist, asked pointedly if the term 'avant garde' was not too confining and even passe. BH recalled that when she was in art school she felt painting was becoming a contest to see who could be most minimal, and that she grew frustrated with the kind of art that required "a book by Clement Greenberg in order to understand or appreciate." She decided to put down Clement Greenberg and make her own books, instead. She implied that she, and others like her, fled into book arts to escape the tyranny of hierarchicalism. Alison Weld, having touched a nerve, chose to remain silent; with the question of the relationship between art and book art (and the larger question of the value of book art) pending, the symposium ended.

--Michael Scott Joseph

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Guild of BookWorkers