A couple of years after completing design college, I spent many days traveling to an out-of-the-way island in Greece named Lesvos, home to an extraordinary private collection of livres d'artiste (French artists books). Due to a misunderstanding with ferry timetables I had only half a day to indulge myself in the treasure there instead of the expected 3 or 4 days.
Regardless of the haste required, moving through the Teriade Collection was a formative milestone in my book design journey. As I went silently, slowly, almost reverentially from small room to small room, surrounded by Matisse, Miro, Leger, Picasso, Ernst and Chagall, I grew misty eyed; so completely overwhelmed by the beauty around me.
For the last fortnight I have been on another journey. I have been an eager (read 'slightly excitable') participant of the the 7th Australia and New Zealand Rare Books Summer School held by the State Library of Victoria. (Every other year it happens in NZ). And though I didn’t shed a tear, I do feel like I've had a homecoming of sorts; a closing of the circle inspired all those years ago in Greece.
My first week-long ‘workshop’ of summer school was called ‘Artists' books, zines and other collaborative ventures’. It was a mixture of classes at the SLV and site visits to various relevant studios and collections. The learning curve was steep. The SLV has an excellent, comprehensive collection of 'artists books' managed by the ever-welcoming and knowledgeable Des Cowley. There’s a distinction between artists books and the livres d’artiste I saw in Greece. ‘Artists books' are instigated and created by the artist as part of their art practice. Livres d'artiste are usually instigated by a third party – often an entrepreneur, a publisher or curator. (Some of the better known publishers of livres d'artiste were Vollard, Kahnweiler, Skira and Teriade).
We spent a few hours inside both the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University and the print room of the National Gallery of Victoria. We handled prints by Eric Gill, (actually printed by the man himself). We 'ooh-ahhed' over The Warncliff Hours, an illuminated manuscript from 1475; saw some of the first woodcuts ever made in Albert Durer’s Apocalypse (dated 1498 – woodcut was only invented in 1493!) and cooed over William Blake’s exquisite engravings from 1796, Night Thoughts: Or, the Complaint and the Consolation. And that was all before the tea break!
I discovered Ed Ruscha and his seminal Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and turned the pages of Carolyn Frasers exquisite The Extinguishing of Stars. We filled the studios of artists, Bruno Leti and Nicholas Jones and used Thommo the Human Photocopier at Sticky Institute zine shop as part of the 2012 Festival of the Photocopier. We had speakers aplenty – all passionate experts from the book arts – and all accompanied by the soundtrack of the outstanding Professor Sasha Grishin, Head of Art History at ANU. (What SG doesn't know about art isn't worth knowing) and Des Cowley, (what DC doesn't know about books . . .).
My second week of summer school had a change of pace but was a perfect compliment to the first and takes me back through time again, to the trek I made in the early 1990s to meet Mike Hudson and Jadwiga Jarvis at the Wayzgoose Press in the Blue Mountains. I have their #35/45 Samuel Pepys broadside staring at me from behind my computer screen. It’s letterpress perfection.
Week two, 'The poetics of printing on the iron hand-press', was guided by the unassuming book-binder, designer, lecturer and print-maker extraordinnaire from Ampersand Duck, Caren Florence. What a week this was going to be? With assistance from the unflappable book arts lecturer Trent Walker, six of us learned some of the exhaustive disciplines of letterpress using the facilities of Ancora Press based at Monash University, Caulfield. You can check out some pics from Carens blog listed below. (How on earth Caren found the energy to blog all that after the long days we were having, standing up all day, hunched over the type cases and squinting at 10pt Bembo, is a complete mystery.)
With permission from local poets Claire Gaskin and Jordie Albiston, we each handset and printed a poem in a limited edition of 12. There were no dogmatic design rules to follow which meant there was ample room for experimentation and play. There were drawers and drawers of type, ornaments, decorative caps, rules and wood type. There was paper to tear, ink to roll, leading to cut, proof-reading to check and check . . . and check. Book design heaven! We could choose between using the big mama Albion iron hand press or the Ha-Mar tabletop press (one of only 5 in the world). With a stunning interlude visiting the studio of printer and poet Alan Loney from Electio Editions, and a day spent whetting our appetites over some of the letterpress highlights in the SLV collection including several by Caren, we somehow managed to finish our edition just in the nick of time for a well-earned glass of bubbly at the summer school finale.
It's been a fortnight spent with kindred spirits, lively discussion and inspiration by the truck-load. I'm exhausted and buzzing with much to ponder and much, much more to learn.