Devon Muhlert: Reviving the Book Arts in the Okanagan
In one variation of famous last words, Canadian futurist Frank Ogden once penned (or more likely keystroked) the volume called The Last Book You'll Ever Read. Many books have come and gone since then.
Bibliophiles, those who love books to excess, count bookbinders and book artists among their numbers. Just don't call those who make books by hand bookmakers. The dignified mantle of history rests lightly upon them, and manual bookcraft has changed little from the early letterpresses.
Famous last words also occurred when Innes Cooper, an Armstrong bookbinder in the traditional vein, had said regretfully at a previous interview, "Bookbinding is a dying art." Reminded of his comment recently, he lit up like an illuminated page. "There's been a rebirth, in my eyes. It's quite a big thing now, there's quite a few good bookbinders out there."
Despite (or maybe due to) his 80 years, Cooper has about him a robustness and pleasure in his active life. Neither his enthusiasm nor his face have faded since our last interview years ago.
Like Cooper in Armstrong, Vernon's Okanagan College instructor Jason Dewinetz creates books. Twenty-three, in fact, through his nine-year-old company called greenboathousebooks. Dewinetz is also a top Canadian book designer.
The line between a bookbinder and a book artist is somewhat blurred, and the boundaries often overlap. Cooper could be considered representative of bookbinders, and Dewinetz of book artists. Bookbinders are tradespeople who apprenticed on the presses and can repair historic books. Book artists and/or designers like Dewinetz often supply their own content and work out a suitable artistic container for it. Calligraphy, typography, paper-making, and other elements vary.
The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild lists 79 members across Canada, a conservative estimate.
Publisher and designer Jason Dewinetz with books "under glass"
Letterpress technology may not have changed much, but there has been a sea change in the conception of books. "Fine craft" is an evolved name for the gray area between fine art and decorative craft. Differences in purpose also count. Fine art often draws out deep thought, whereas functional crafts are made to be used, and books straddle both worlds. Experimental poetry accounts for much of the content of book arts.
With his colleague Kevin McPherson Eckhoff who also assists with greenboathousebooks, Dewinetz staged a show called Small and Fine-Press Handmade Book Exhibit. Besides displaying their own work at Vernon's artist-run Gallery Vertigo, they had borrowed books widely from other small presses.
Handmade books are similar to art prints in that they are produced in numbered runs. The creator applies for an ISBN number, and a copy stays on permanent record in Ottawa's national archives.
Artistic books reflect the vagaries of personal thought, their design limited only by the producer's imagination and skill. In all likelihood, all of us have made at least one booklet in school by punching holes and tying a ribbon through them, or folding sheets of paper and then sewing along the fold.
Some books displayed at the show were just as spontaneous as school-inspired ones, but also in evidence were the meticulously crafted ones for which book arts are revered. A large one contained poems by Pocahontas, crafted by Jim Rimmer of Victoria. In a delightfully natural touch, images of cedar boughs decorate the cover, created by painting real branches and then printing them. Woodcut prints are also popular for illustrations, an echo of early volumes.
Some books at the show were minimalist, meaning tiny and barely readable; others minimalist in design, like folded papers esconced in a cardboard case. One that fascinated Dewinetz was a tall and skinny book which opened from front and back. "I still haven't figured out how they made this," Dewinetz said. He opened it normally, then opened it again from the opposite side to reveal a second viable book.
Some items were under glass, "valued at between $500 and $5000," Dewinetz explained.
Made for love, not money, no market for art books is readily apparent. Individual collectors usually can't afford them, so they choose maybe one coveted book or poet per year. University special collections and libraries are the main purchasers of known and emerging poets.
Dewinetz got started after co-hosting four evenings of invited guest readings at Okanagan College with his erstwhile professor, John Lent, now Dean of the College. "We thought it would be informative to commit the readings to paper," Dewinetz said. They gathered them into the The Greenboathouse Reader, named after Dewinetz' summer living arrangements at his family's cabin on the lake. Not entirely satisfied with the end- product, Dewinetz resolved to learn more about book arts.
When he later enrolled in a University of Alberta master's program, serendipity found him. His professor Mike O'Driscoll knew of Dewinetz' interest in bookcraft and also knew that the university had just acquired 94 boxes of handbound inventory from Black Sparrow Press.
Book arts flourished in the '60's, and Black Sparrow led American publishing in exquisite Letterpressed and handbound works.
Influential print-maker Antonio Frasconi was also active then. Having emigrated from Uruguay to the U.S. in 1945, he almost single-handedly revived woodcut print art. Folding his prints accordion-style on Japanese paper, they featured funky animals and suns. It was Frasconi's way of passing on his own early love of books to his children. To the dismay of later art collectors, he usually made only one copy.
By the '70's, costs had escalated and many small presses went under. Never cost- effective, creating handbound books as a business became prohibitive.
After the U of A acquisition, O'Driscoll offered Dewinetz the work of cataloguing it. The 94 boxes over which Dewinetz then pored spanned Black Sparrow's hey-day complete with hand-written correspondence between poet and editor. Dewinetz exulted in unearthing the treasure trove.
Handling unique books for a year and a half fueled his passion for historical book design and improved his own. That was no idle boast, because starting in 2003, he won the National Book Design Award four years running. This year he joined the jury.
Aspirants for the National Book Design Award serve as a marker for how the craft has ballooned. Ninety publishers sent 3,270 entries. Thirty-four prizes were given, but some firsts were withheld because the entries were deemed not up to snuff.
"In the last ten years, there's been a huge resurgence in letterpresses," Dewinetz said. "There's no money to be made, it's just a passion. It's an urban myth that you can make money doing it."
It's also not an easy field to enter. "Trouble is, those presses stopped being made 60 years ago. You just can't get them anymore. The set-up for this cottage industry is completely cost-ineffective, even if you could find one of those presses."
Dewinetz lucked out, once more at the right place at the right time. In 2002 he met Carol Peters, who used a Vandercook letterpress. She needed a website, which Dewinetz provided, so they traded skills and he apprenticed with her.
A large part of the apprenticeship consisted of the physcially demanding maintenance on the press. When, due to illness, Peters could no longer use the press, she promised it to Dewinetz.
He shut down greenboat-housebooks to allow himself a year to build proficiency on the Vandercook. In 2009, arising like the phoenix, greenboathousepress will evolve from greenboathousebooks. In a rare reversal, technology is going backwards, and Dewinetz couldn't be happier. The yet unbirthed greenboathousepress already has a full slate of projects lined up for 2009.
The book exhibit was a teaser for a new program set to debut at Okanagan College in the fall, called "Diploma in Writing and Publishing". Besides creative writing, it focuses on the business side of writing. "We'd discussed this for five years. It's hard to compete with UBCO, and it's a way to set Okanagan College apart. We're building on what's already good in writing at the College."
Innes Cooper's emphasis is somewhat different. He also loves telling stories, beginning with his move to Armstrong. "I must have six or seven thousand books," he said. " It took a truck to move my stuff when we moved here, and another truck for the rest of the household." The twinkle in his eye intensifies. "And my truck was bigger!"
Cooper's teacher in Victoria was Courtland Benson, whose praises he still sings. "Courtland was good then and he's better now. He's gone to lots of courses. He went to California for six months to learn how to make the tools, and to England for two years to study. European apprentices take courses for seven or eight years, which includes studying how to make, repair and rebuild old maps."
The oldest item Cooper ever refurbished was a 1750 history of England. When it was done, it could have come straight from an 18th C bookstall. The English friend who had inherited the tome was so grateful that he offered it to Cooper, who declined saying it should stay in the friend's family.
Cooper is also an author with Armstrong: 100 years of Lacrosse. He planned to press 100, but the club wanted to publish it for him. When copies arrived back from the offshore Chinese printer, Cooper found them of dubious quality. He started pressing his own, then realized each cost him $60 in materials alone.
Occasionally he still makes boxes, but has now retired from his avocation, which he hopes that his soon-retiring son will take over. Revisiting his first love, Cooper spends his days playing music with friends and recording the results.
With his meticulous manner of working, Cooper never made a dime from bookbinding but his enjoyment in the craft made up for it. That, and the pleasure others found in his work.
A distinctly 21st C twist on crafting books has lately emerged. Eckhoff, Dewinetz' fellow instructor, aims with his book art towards an environment-friendly conclusion.
Known for his portraits created with dense lettering on old-time typewriters, Eckhoff was recently launched at Gallery Vertigo as artist-in-residence, where he displayed a product poised to self-destruct. In making it, he slides his new book creations into the oven and pulls them out "toasted", complete with grill marks, so they decompose faster.
"I was doing two others, but the kitchen got so smokey, I had to stop." He grins. "Those other two, I buried."
If that seems like a non sequiter,
it may relate back to his opening remarks at
In the spectrum strung between restoring books and burying them, perhaps the explanation is that bibliomania struck, an occupational hazard. Perhaps it is 'the gentle madness' when written missives become more remarkable for decay than for content. They called Gutenberg crazy once too, and Frank Ogden (of the Last Book You'll Ever Read), has made greater leaps of logic than book-burials.
Observing the painstaking work, the patience and perseverance, and the knowledge that quality has longevity, one concludes that all are worthwhile lessons for today.
Book art clings to lasting values in a world that values little but shortcuts.
So why the resurgence of book arts now? Quirky enough to tickle contemporary fancy, the field retains the reassurance of tradition and combines it with post-modern artifacts that often resemble books. Simultaneously, it's both history and it's the cutting edge, lending itself to direct handling.
For book artists to continue creating works on spec with huge investment but minimal revenue could be considered gambling. But don't call them bookies either. The professionals that can trace their roots and occasionally a product back to the Middle Ages love the creative process and its result, a piece of literate art that can encompass the best of both the old world and the new.
It's the closest we've come to a time machine.
Innes Cooper: Resurrecting the PastIn early publishing, dates were omitted, but Russel's England is approximated at 1750 because the printed "s" still resembled an "f". Cooper estimates that only 500 were printed. Dismayed at its dilapitated condition, the English friend who had inherited it sent it to Cooper, doubting that even he could resurrect it.
Cooper started by washing its pages. "Not a big risk. There was a lot of rag content in pages then. I'd tested a page to make sure the ink wouldn't run. No one really knows how paper was made from rags in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, but there was no acid content."
Once dried, Cooper sewed the large pages into signatures, or folded sheets. This paper was so heavy that only two sheets made a signature because otherwise the spine would hold too much bulk. It was a time-consuming prospect.
Once assembled and sewn, he passed linen tape under the outside stitching, popped it in a vice and rounded the back by hammer. The cover and new leather spine were applied with glue and pressure, on top of which he glued, for authenticity, the ancient cracked and dried leather one with gilded title.
Then he added his name and the materials used on the back endpaper, as well as samples of materials before replacement. "If someone 100 years from now wants to know what the original looked like, now they can."
Finding materials is a problem. The soft, thick, mold-made papers that take an impression well must be imported from Italy, Germany, or Japan, which runs into thousands quickly when shipping costs exceed expensive paper. Cooper bought most of his stock when his teacher Benson ordered in bulk.
Book leather is generally goatskin from England or India. It requires thin leather to prevent wrinkling at the corners, and binders pare it down further with a planer.
A project that Cooper found the most interesting was the earliest known book north of San Francisco, about Meare's voyage to the northwest coast. An acquaintance had shown off its coverless pages. "I'll buy you a coffee for that," offered Cooper and the exchange was made.
The original owner had worked for Astor, and upon leaving Astoria for Fort Vancouver, a final check of the woodshed had uncovered two volumes. One was complete and the other was the raggedy one restored much later by Cooper.
Seventeen books also benefitted from Cooper's editing, especially manuscripts from older relatives. Hailing from the Kootenays, he's long collected and bound Kootenay newspapers, making regular trips there. Those and 3000 photos of the Slocan later, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Kootenay people and events and he now fields calls from around the world. He'll hear, "You lived there then, did you know my dad/mom/grandpa?"
"Of course I did!" is the response as he fills in the blanks for someone else.
Knowledge finds a home in Cooper's bookcases, but also in the head of this passionate lay historian of great patience and multiple talents.