The Book Arts Program

Learning how to use a letterpress or other vintage printmaking machines ties one into a continuous history of printmaking that has existed for centuries. Walking into the Book Arts Program is like traveling into a decades old newspaper printing plant. Gigantic letterpresses and nipping presses dominate the front room where students and community members engage in the centuries-old process of inking large rollers to apply fresh ink on a poster, or tightening the clamp on a nipping press to bind a book. Near the back of the room, students plot out and design projects with rulers, squares and compasses instead of staring dead-eyed into a ubiquitous hub of iMacs. Public relations and studio coordinator Amber Heaton says, “We aren’t a museum, but more of a practical use space. It is part of our mission to keep alive those technologies in a time when they are not really necessary, but they can create this kind of space where people can learn how things used to be created.”

The Book Arts Program at the University of Utah was established in 1995 and serves as a connection into the world of physical printmaking. The program exists, first, to teach students and community members about printmaking technologies and alternatives such as letterpress. Second, it provides access to expensive and hard-to-find equipment for those enrolled to fearlessly explore the world of tangible printmaking. The program also seeks to challenge the definition of a “book.” The Book Arts Program offers semester-length classes through the Art and Art History department in Letterpress, Book Making and Artist Books. The program also offers a variety of workshops and classes for community members interested in exploring printmaking with intensive four-day classes and weekend workshops.

“Some community members who take [the Book Arts Program] are artists exploring the book as a structure, as a format to presenting your artwork. Sometimes people are interested in learning how to bind books, some are scrapbookers,” says Heaton. While ostensibly part of the art department, Heaton relates that many English and creative writing students take the classes to learn how to publish their material without going through a publishing house.

Aside from teaching print history and creating a space to create books and prints on antiquated machinery, the Book Arts Program offers an Artist’s Book class that focuses on exploring how the form of the book can be interpreted and manipulated. Many artist books rely on context in order for viewers to fully digest the “bookness” of their creation. Claire Taylor, studio coordinator, says, “’What is book arts’ is the same question as ‘what is art’. You can probably argue anything can be a book.” Artist books sometimes stretch even the most liberal interpretation of what a book usually looks like, conveys, or means. Managing director Marnie Powers-Torrey says, “[An artist book] carries some kind of implication to some kind of relation to a book. It is more than a book [as a] container for words, it has some sort of visual ramification. It can be sculptural: an object that is just appreciated as an object, but is not meant to be handled, but somehow communicates the feeling of a book.”

Instant Everything, Constant Nothing

Creating a space where people can reconnect with centuries-old printing technologies is more than a nostalgic yearning for the past. For many it represents a way to reconnect with the feeling of actually creating something tangible—a job that gets your hands dirty. David Wolske, creative director for the Book Arts Program, left his job as graphic designer to pursue printmaking as a career. “When I first started printing, I felt an immediate connection to the physical labor that is involved because I was actually constructing and building something.” He says, “On the computer you do that to a certain degree but there is still a disconnect between your hands and the object because the object is virtual.”

Only two floors below the Book Arts Program lies a machine that is the antithesis of physical printmaking. The Espresso Book Machine works in a similar manner as the Starbucks version of the drink that shares its name. Pick a title from a cache of digitized books, push a button and the whirling mechanisms within the machine spit out a paperback that is perfectly bound but completely standardized. The physical act of grinding a coffee bean or printing and binding a book have been replaced with something uncomfortably sterile and detached from the physical world. The structure of the book is closed, and no options in form, font or cover art exist.