What would William Blake have made of the Kindle, I asked myself the other morning during a private viewing of the Artists’ Book Collection at Southern Connecticut State University’s Buley Library. According to Tina Re, curator of the eighty-book collection, it was Blake who created the first artist’s books when he and his wife, Caroline, wrote, illustrated and bound books such as Songs of Innocence and Experience. Their venture beyond authorship into design, self-publishing and self-distribution remain hallmarks in the realm of artists’ books today.
“The artist’s book can be purely visual or text, one of a kind or an edition,” Re says, as we walk among tables of books as fans, venetian blinds, flags, accordians, and origami structures, to name a few. “It can take the form of the traditional codex – the book as we know it today, with binding on one side and pages in progression on the other side – or many others. Whatever the case, it’s very much about the artists having control over every aspect of the book.”
Wavy-haired and bespectacled, Re (rhymes with “Fey”) displays the quiet intensity you would expect from a Special Collections librarian. Under constant state budget constraints, she’s been amassing this collection for only three years. It serves mainly as a multi-disciplinary teaching collection for faculty and students, and is presently available to the public largely through private arrangement.
We stop at a book called Aunt Sallie’s Lament, a collaboration between poet Margaret Kaufman and Claire Van Vliet of Janus Press. The words of a Southern quilter printed on thick, colored uniquely-shaped pages that layer and interlock with each other, the book is a harmonious blend of text, image, color, structure and craft.
Next we come upon a portfolio box housing Direction of the Road by Ursula LeGuin with Foolscap Press. It's the story of an oak tree standing in the road, and is a limited edition artist’s book incorporating anamorphic art, first recorded in the west by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485 in a drawing in his Codex Atlanticus. An anamorphic woodcut of an oak tree, intentionally distorted on one axes, becomes proportionate when we view it through an included standing cylindrical mirror. The reflection of the oak tree provides a backdrop to the book itself, which is printed letterpress on white linen paper with fabric leaves pressed into the paper.
“Listen when you read,” Re says to me. And as I turn the pages, the linen paper rustles, like leaves in a breeze. It feels as if we are standing directly below the tree.
I am hooked. I fully comprehend the urge to create a book in its whole, not just as author, but as designer, illustrator, papermaker, typographer, photographer, printer, illustrator, calligrapher, and bookbinder.
Re said that she had similar responses after a recent open house of the collection. Students came up to her demanding to know more about bookmaking and printmaking, and talking about DIY, steampunk and the huge popularity of Esty.com, the site to buy and sell handmade items. It appears that this generation brought up on tactile-less text on the computer, cellphone and Kindle screen are starting to get back to the basics.
William Blake is surely resting easier in his grave.