McKinley Arts and Culture Center hosts an exhibition of books made by university art students
“I want to give them as much flexibility as possible—I get things that aren’t even books,” says Bob Blesse, who teaches book s at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I want them to be creative.”
Blesse runs the Black Rock Press, an old-school letterpress print studio, housed in the ground floor of the Jot Travis building on the UNR campus. Ken Carpenter started the Black Rock Press in 1965. Originally, the Press was founded to print limited editions of letterpressed broadsides and books. In 1970, Carpenter decided he wanted to share the printing process with students and started teaching small classes, where he taught traditional letterpress. This was the beginning of what is today’s book arts program.
The press lived in Getchell Library prior to its current location and officially became part of the art department in 2006. Blesse came to the University in 1981 to become head of Special Collections and began helping with the letterpress and limited editions. When Blesse took over the press a few years later, he began teaching the letterpress classes, putting more emphasis on making books.
Book-making may seem like a lost art, especially with today’s idle chatter about the book being dead—or at least reincarnated as other forms like the Kindle, the iPad, or any media meant to be viewed on a screen. It may seem like a pointless argument since most of us still read books—the kind printed on paper. And isn’t there something different about the way you experience a book? Not only the content but also the design becomes important to that experience. The tactile quality of the book in your hands and the time-space shift that occurs in a unique way for every reader are all part of it.
Fit to print
There is only one Black Rock Press class taught each semester, mostly using two Vandercook presses with a Columbian as backup. The quality and variety of work produced is impressive. A sample of the student work created over the past year is now on display at McKinley Arts Center—two galleries full of artists’ books and broadsides.
“On that marquee on Keystone [Avenue] it says ‘Black Rock Press Students,’” says Blesse. “What more could you want? Most students don’t get that opportunity.”
Walking through the exhibit, the diversity of the pieces is striking. Different binding techniques have been employed, including accordion folds, simple long stitches, and pamphlet bindings. The materials used are numerous—rusted tin can lids for covers—and the forms vary from fanciful to practical. One book is even shaped like high-heeled shoes.
Ashley Robison, who took two semesters of book arts, created a book called “Dog Eat Toy,” in which she took pieces of chewed up dog toys to make the covers. The back cover is a box with a clear window that reveals the stuffing that is probably from the inside of the toys.
As a photography major, Robison thought that photography, as a medium on its own, wasn’t working the way she wanted it to and wished to work with it differently. She had a photography project in mind for a long time that never manifested itself until she took the book arts class.
“It came together when I had a format to put it in,” says Robison of “Dog Eat Toy,” which she created during her first semester of book arts.
“I really think it’s important for people to document themselves. My books deal with more of a personal level and personal experiences,” she says. “I will definitely continue to make books forever.”
Ashley Westwood, who recently graduated with her BFA in painting, took the class out of curiosity.
“I’d heard so many good things from different people about book arts,” she says.
One of Westwood’s pieces in the exhibit at McKinley Arts is a book that incorporates wool, sewing, paper cutouts of sheep, and monoprints. The piece stands out because of the surprising combination of materials and its appeal to the sense of touch.
The class took a visit to the university’s Special Collections to look at examples of contemporary book-making. “The books that were more textural were more appealing to me,” says Westwood. “I love the tactile quality.”
Throughout her time in the class, Westwood was able to incorporate her other art forms of painting and printmaking into her book work and was also able to explore a more sculptural aspect. She plans to continue to make books as part of her artistic process.
Another photography major, Harmony Hilderbrand, was able to incorporate her main artistic form into her book projects, as well. Not only did photography inspire her broadside—emblazoned with the words “I shoot people” and an image of a camera—it also played a large role in her cookbook journal. Hilderbrand grew up in a family of bakers, the tradition handed down to her through her mom from her grandmother. The book incorporates recipes that she baked throughout the semester, photographs from the various baking sessions, and memories from various moments spent in the kitchen.
“The cookbook was a way for me to honor my grandmother, and baking was also something I could do to relieve stress throughout the semester,” she says. “I’m working on a continuation of that cookbook that is more in-depth and also explores family history and heritage.”
Another piece in the show was created by Sue Duerksen. Duerksen, a painting student, made a book titled “Simple Cold Remedies” that is covered with the sides of a Kleenex box and has a small box of tissues attached to the side.
“Swine flu was going around, and it seemed like everyone was sick all the time,” explains Duerksen. “I decided to take all of the home remedies I could gather and create a book.”
Duerksen first became interested in book arts when someone described it to her in an art history class.
“It’s nice to have a cross discipline,” says Duerksen. “It brings together what you’re doing. I didn’t really use my painting in the class. It was more of a marriage between my interests in history and literature. I had a former life as an engineer, and it appeals to the constructing side of my mind.”
The craft, attention and handmade quality come through in the work in the exhibition. Essentially, every aspect of the art is taught to the students.
“They learn bookmaking from the ground up, so to speak,” says Blesse. “I’m amazed at the work they do.”
The students’ enthusiasm also shows in the creativity of their projects. Many of them cite Blesse’s encouragement as a large part of their inspiration.
“Bob really promotes your ideas for what they are,” says Robison.
“The part I liked the most about book arts was that it was nice to take a step back into the history of books and the evolution of printing,” says Duerksen. “It’s nice to take a step backwards instead of forwards in terms of technology.”
There is something embedded into the letterpress impression along with the ink—each book and broadside tells a story deeper than the text or image on the page.