Ordinary Places into Extraordinary Spaces

                What struck me the most about the film, Pressing On, was that all of those garages, workshops, and sheds where these letterpress publishers kept and operated their equipment looked a lot like my father’s various storage spaces. Drawers spilling over with tools, tables covered with boxes of barely labeled materials, and a fine layer of oil and grease covering everything, my father’s workspace paints a picture of a man who doesn’t like to get rid of anything. My older brothers liked to joke that the Ark of the Covenant is buried in the back of our garage. And, at first, that’s what the letterpress publishers look like: kleptomaniacs. However, this film shows that these letter presses, while often being discovered in someone’s basement or garage or in the deep recesses of storage, are so much more than just idle pieces of equipment in the hands of prospective publisher. They are artist’s tools, and these chaotic workshops are really more like artist garrets than storage units.

                And that might be what’s really lost by separating artistic designers from the very physical printing process that comes with working with a letterpress. The best thing about chaotic spaces is that you never know what you’re going to find there, what’s going to inspire you. The space in which an artist works affects what is being created. As a writer, I know that I have found inspiration not in the ordinary places of the world (such as the white-walled classrooms that populate many campuses), but in the extraordinary places. The physical printing on letterpress practically begs for an artist recreate the extraordinary onto the page itself, providing scores of material for inspiration while leaving plenty of room for creative enterprise. Nothing exists in a vacuum, so why should book design be created outside the context of the print shop?

[Image Source: https://hatchshowprint.com/] Hatch Show Print’s Signature collection in the Haley Gallery.

                On the other hand, removing the designer from the physical process of printing seems to allow cheaper, faster production, that could ultimately lead to a wider audience than what could be achieved with the highly specified works created on a letterpress. But does everything have to be about cost? The film pointed out that Hatch Show Print posters are still remembered today for the impact they made on advertising, creating stunning visuals. There are some things that have more value than what can be labeled with a price tag.

                So, in the end, I understand why the letterpress publishers collect these presses and equipment, just as I understand why my father cannot just toss aside what he has accumulated over the years. Everything has its value, and the space itself is an expression of that value, even if the Ark of the Covenant isn’t hidden in the back.

Works Cited:

Hatch Show Print, https://hatchshowprint.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, https://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Contemplating Angels: A Critical Response of an Accordion Book

                Author and artist Ulises Carrión sought for “authors to be more attuned to the book’s materiality and impact on meaning” as well as “demand for a breakdown of the system that privileged writing as intellectual labor and denigrated the physical aspect of book production” (Borsuk 141). Just as Carrión would have admired, my nameless accordion book of angels breaks the standard mold of the book, presenting itself as more of a visual book than the mere textual book that Carrión was so disappointed in. Still, I kept some of the traditional aspects of the book when constructing my work, giving it both a front and back cover. As a visual book, my accordion book is composed mostly of images, showcasing the angels and the pages themselves as works of visual art.

An accordion book with images of angels with the pages cut to resemble wings. Text on the inside cover reads: "Four great angels at my bed; two my feet, and two my head".
[Photo taken by Isabel Sicree] My accordion book of angels, standing open upon the wings.

                Though I mostly used basic materials for constructing the book, the images of the angels came from a postcard book I had owned for a number of years. Interestingly, I tore the pages out of another quasi-book to construct my own bookwork. After all, would a book created to be torn apart and sent all over the world not be considered some kind of alternate book type? These postcards reflect a part of my own past in the meaning of the book, both as a kind of scrapbook portrayal in the placement of the images, and as a display of my faith through the angels themselves. In a sense, my book becomes a prayer book, sending messages to heaven upon the reflection of the reader. Just as Amaranth Borsuk says, “books are always a negotiation, a performance, an event: even a Dickens novel remains inert until a reader opens it up, engaging its language and imaginative world” (Borsuk 147). The material nature of this book entices a reflective reader to find his or her own engagement with the images. Just as the postcards remain mostly blank on the back to allow personal messages to be written, so too does my book remain mostly blank on the backside, leaving space for letters and writing to be added.

                In this way, my desired reader would be a contemplative person, someone who peers into the images and faces on the pages and forms his or her own conclusions. I deliberately try to evoke this response from my reader through the irregular shape of the pages of my book. I cut the folded pages to resemble angel wings, and these pages stick out beyond the cover and the images fastened upon them, implying something beyond the mold of the typical book. Likewise, the sparse text that I include in my book also suggests something beyond the book itself, as the poetic prayers speak of angels and saints at night time watching over us, making the mostly black covers of the book resemble the idea of a Bible or a prayer book. Still, the text acts as an accent to the visual nature of the book, allowing each image to converse with the reader instead.

Works Cited

                Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.

The Non-Linear Past of April Katz

Marking Time: Her Days by April Katz, like so many other artist’s books, especially those found published by the Women’s Studio Workshop, integrates the constructive creativity of sculpture into the literary world of books. Just as Amaranth Borsuk explains in The Book, artist books “disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic ‘content’ and engage its material form in the work’s meaning”, so does this artist’s book use its three-way-binding form to reminisce upon the past generations that left notebooks behind (Borsuk 113). However, Katz also disrupts the idea of a book through the way she evokes the non-literary book medium of the calendar and the datebook, incorporating the square blocks from calendars into a poetic discourse. The spiral binding of the datebook is tripled in Katz’s artist book, making the pages open from not only the left, but the right and top as well, with the pages alternating which way they must be flipped, perhaps paying homage to the various datebook forms all at the same time. She also uses thin and clear paper, letting the images and words from the pages fade in and out of view no matter which page the reader is currently reading. This thin paper reminded me of carbon paper, making the office imagery throughout the book, such as the rotary dial phone and the office chair, remarkably vibrant, indicative of an age long gone by to my generation.

[Image Source: https://wsworkshop.org/collection/marking-time-her-days/. Note the three-way binding and transparent pages of Katz’s book.]

And time is vitally important to Katz’s book, just as the title suggests, through its passing and how it is preserved, especially in how Katz preserves the memory of her mother. Maybe that is why Katz uses the triple spiral binding: to show the implicit three periods of time as the past, present, and the future cannot remain linear in Katz’s literary world. In the end, once everything is scheduled and planned just as her mother had with her datebook, only the routine becomes relevant.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.

Katz, April. Marking Time: Her Days. Rosendale, Women’s Studio Workshop, 2003, https://wsworkshop.org/collection/marking-time-her-days/.

Chapbook Holes: Jake Syersak’s Invitation

                Jake Syersak’s chapbook Impressions in the Language of a Lantern’s Wick emphasizes a sense of collaboration in art through both the simplistic presentation of his poetry and the humble form of the chapbook itself. On the outside of the book, Syersak’s title is etched in a personalized touch, gashing throughout the word “Language” as if language is only able to be expressed through the form of art.

[Photo Source: Isabel Sicree. The cover of Jake Syersak’s chapbook.]

Upon opening the chapbook, nothing could have been further from my mind when I saw the tiny font of the text, the rudimentary formatting of the text, and the wide-open spaces throughout the pages. The absence of text seemed to suggest more than the text itself, until I read the book. Throughout his poetry, Syersak emphasizes the unexpected collaboration of artist and viewer, both in the words of his poems and his replacement of every “and” with the ampersand, “&”.  Notably, Syersak tells his reader to “let a solo conversation drip like a faucet all morning into more novel avowals of what a drain wills” (16). He also gives several examples of people drawing over notable art pieces, contributing to something that everyone else has seen as finished. Through his text, Syersak gives meaning to the blankness of his pages, as if he, too, is inviting his reader to color over his poetry. (Since I was borrowing the book, I refrained from such impulses.) Absence is merely an invitation to collaborate and create over top and alongside that which drives your impulses. So maybe that is why, early on in his book, Syersak insists that “there remains a love of remains, of a vital need for holes” (2). As if to illustrate his point, the chapbook is stab bound with bright red thread, drawing the eye to the holes it makes in a poetry book filled with “holes” in the text. I think Syersak would both approve of and encourage the reader who exploited these holes to create new art and meaning.

[Photo Source: Isabel Sicree. The inside of Syersak’s chapbook. Note the red thread binding and the open space on the pages.]

Works Cited

Syersak, Jake. Impressions in the Language of a Lantern’s Wick. Ghost Proposal, 2016.

Snowflakes to Bookbinding

                There’s something satisfying in working with your hands after a long day or week of working with, what feels like, exclusively your mind. And there’s something hypnotizing about watching someone else work with their hands as well, as I discovered when watching a YouTube time-lapse video on bookbinding over this past weekend [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9P07WAbYHs]. Though our class has so far worked exclusively with paperback books, I found the techniques I observed in this video to be illuminating for my own work on my own Japanese Stab Binding Books, as well as how to adapt my earlier understandings of stitching and paper folding to this new art.

                Something that always stuck out to me about stitching and paper folding is the mathematical art of symmetry. The Basic Japanese Stab Binding technique expresses a simple symmetrical pattern achieved through symmetrical action in stitching. The repetitive and reversible patterns made it easy to adapt the technique to other designs, whether in stitching or in the shape of paper. As I stitched the binding of my book, all I could think about how this basic stitching would resemble the combined graphs of the sine and cosine functions with the holes as the critical points. I guess the trigonometric functions stuck with me better than I thought.

                Still, my high school experience with kirigami, or, as I like to call it, the art of making paper snowflakes, allowed me to see the potential modifications I could take with paper shape. Though folding a 45 degree angle against the grain is frustrating, I managed to rip enough sheets to make my triangular book, stitched together with the basic stab binding. Finding the symmetrical points to make the holes took an extra step of thinking, as a pleated triangle isn’t really a thing, but I managed without too much difficultly. It only occurred afterwards that I could have used a ruler.

[Photo: Isabel Sicree.] The bookbinding techniques used for these three projects all exemplify the symmetrical process of both the paper folding and the stitching, as well as its adaptability.

                The methodical nature of paper folding and stitching makes it easy for me to blissfully lose myself in the repetition, but it also makes alternative stitch patterns easy to identify and recreate for me. It’s comforting to know that I can change the paper type and shape, the number of holes, and the stitching pattern itself and still be able to make an adequate book binding.

The Silent and the Spoken

Jorge Luis Borges’ “On the Cult of Books” analyzes how the idea of the book has changed from being a mere substitute for dialogue to being regarded as sacred thing in of itself (359). As an avid reader and an older sister, I have read many books both silently to myself and out loud to an audience, and the experience of reading a passage of Borges’ article both silently and out loud made me recall many looked over differences between the two actions.

For one, reading silently is much faster, something that St. Augustine also realized in his observances of St. Ambrose’s silent reading that, “[if] his time were used up in that way (reading aloud), he would get through fewer books than he wished” (Borges 360). Silent readers do not have to spend time vocalizing every word they read, or even bother with proper pronunciation of unfamiliar names or words originating from other languages (something I personally struggled with). Reading aloud is also more exhausting, wearing down the voice (Borges 360) and taking more energy to convey the meaning properly beyond what the reader personally can understand.

However, silent reading really is strange because oral language must by necessity come first, and the act of reading silently is like a conscious effort to sever the written word from the spoken word that writing was supposed to be supporting. Without spoken word, the written word would not exist, yet the written word seems to now exist without being spoken.

Almost any well-written book can be read aloud given the right circumstances, and some I would dare say should be read aloud. In her Atlantic article “In Praise of the Lost, Intimate Art of Reading Aloud”, Chloe Angyal explains how reading aloud made her relationship with her boyfriend more intimate [https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/in-praise-of-the-lost-intimate-art-of-reading-aloud/263436/]. Within my own family, a family where everyone reads and the walls are covered with books, reading aloud was a kind of bonding experience within the family. When one of us would get too excited about what we were reading, we would dart from room to room so we could read the passage aloud with anyone we could find. Reading aloud really is a way of sharing a love of reading with those you love.

Works Cited

Angyal, Chloe. “In Praise of the Lost, Intimate Art of Reading Aloud.” The Atlantic, October 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/in-praise-of-the-lost-intimate-art-of-reading-aloud/263436/, Accessed 7 Sept 2021.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.