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I make books by hand with a variety of traditional letterpress equipment, in collaboration with writers & artists in Bangor, Maine. I moved here in 1987, when my spouse secured a teaching job at the University of Maine. Portland is my hometown. I’ve been lucky to be able to teach a range of classes & workshops around the state. It’s important to pass along the knowledge other folks have taught me over the years. Book arts is a rich field for self-discovery.
In1979 I bluffed my way into the Typography class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, taught by the venerable Walter Hamady. A friend, who was one of his MFA students, coached me what to say. Students had to show a portfolio to professors to get into graphics area studio classes. I didn’t have one. My pitch was that I knew quite a bit of graphics art history. One of my book “heroes” was Harry Duncan of the Cummington Press. Hamady knew him & shared my admiration for his books. That seemed to win him over.
I fell into a tub of butter, getting into that first class. Most of my classmates were MFA print students. I was in way over my head. There’s something about Book Arts that makes folks generous taking a newbie under their wings. I still work with many of the classmates from that first class. Collaboration is one of the vital lessons we learned together in that tiny classroom. Hand-setting metal type, printing on cylinder proof-presses, book binding, paper making, even type-casting are some of the other things.
Hamady never printed at school. He brought into class the books he was working on at his home studio, out in the countryside. He introduced us to writers & artists he collaborated with, when they visited him. That was invaluable. He loved to mark our galley proofs with a sharp red pencil. He had a shrewd eye for letter-spacing improvements. It was intimidating, at first. You began to see how things fit together within the confines of columns of type & page spreads.
Typographic letterforms have their own integrity to honor & obey. What you see printed on the page is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Handling type with my hands is critical for me. It takes time to set type from a case into a hand-held composing-stick. As you read the text, & pick the letters, word by word, line by line, design ideas begin to percolate in your mind. Harry Duncan said it was returning the words to your ears. It’s a vital part of the creative process for me.
I still use metal types to print my books, but I do have their digital equivalents on my computer. That allows me the freedom & luxury to set the whole book right from the beginning, so I can play around with page spreads & book dummies. Inevitably you run out of key letters, setting type by hand—t’s, h’s, e’s, if you print poetry. You have to print, break the type down, lay it back in the type case, & begin again. That takes valuable time.
My Epson ink-jet printer is a new challenge for me. Many of the papers I use in my books have ink-jet equivalents & the inks are archival. Everything I’ve learned making books the last 40 years can be expressed in a new way. I’ll still collaborate with writer & artists, combining letterpress & ink-jet printing. The cylinder proof press acquired in 1980 was considered surplus by its owner. Half my metal type is secondhand. My shop is 18x19’ small, over the garage we built. It’s loaded to the gills with the tools I need to make books. You make do with what you have on hand.