The Book Arts Program: Technology Doesn’t Die, It Becomes Art

"What is book arts' is the same question as 'what is art'. You can probably argue, anything can be a book," –Claire Taylor. Photo:

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. 

We live in a world where most products are created for instantaneous mass consumption. The ability to produce things cheaply and quickly drives the bottom line of what is acceptable artistically. For John Andrews, who switched to the program from the English department, the ability to labor over the tedious is liberating. “It feels fun going back in time and slowing yourself down to where it is not so easy. You don’t take for granted automatic spacing. You have to think about decisions of where words line up on the page. Everything is in your hands. It is empowering that way,” he says.

In many ways the Espresso Book Machine and the Book Arts Program existing under the same roof represent the dichotomy of creating art in the digital age. On one hand, the rapid increases in digital technology have made creating music, film, and print a much easier, inclusive and casual process. Running parallel to the digital world, however, is a resurgence of artists, musicians and filmmakers returning to tactile means of production: recording analog when it would be cheaper to do it digitally, and choosing to spend hours on a letter-pressed poster rather than a print from a LaserJet.

Taking the Power Back: D.I.Y and Letterpress

According to Wolske, a fundamental shift took place when he switched from graphic design to letterpress. “When I was working commercially, I would do the design and then hand it off to somebody else to produce it. Too often I had the experience of the final artifact not being what I intended because there were so many intermediaries involved,” he says. With full control over the means of production from inception to printing, the means of printing itself became an exploratory vehicle. “With the DIY ethic in letterpress and screen printing, I get to be the planner, the designer, the artist and the printer. I handle all of it. I can plan a project out so it looks exactly the way I see it in my head, or I can approach the press with a mindset of a painter or a sculptor where I am creating spontaneously,” says Wolske.

Ryan Perkins, owner of the small-run screen printing company Big Fun SLC, says, “I feel like if anyone else is trying to direct me in some way, it just lacks some kind of spirit … There are so many things when you are printing that you didn’t anticipate that were going to occur in the printing process and they are beautiful. If you can, you try to reproduce them in
the future.”

Notable Alumni

The Book Arts Program has served as a launching pad for many local artists like Perkins who use the skills they learned in the program every day in their artistic endeavors. It is no coincidence that many artists actively engaged in the Salt Lake art scene are Book Arts alumni. For most, the classes in letterpress were their first interaction with the world of printmaking.

For many students, going through the program means finding equipment and space to continue creating art in their chosen field. Some artists, like John Andrews, who co-founded the thriving Copper Palate Press, create presses of their own, purchasing used letterpresses and buying studio space. Others, like Perkins, translate

what they learned in the Book Arts Program to a much more micro scale. Perkins screen-prints all of his posters and ephemera on a rolling desk in his apartment. After he is done printing, he rolls the desk out into the sun to be exposed and then washes them out. “It is a little bit helter-skelter, but it works,” Perkins says.

Future Possibilities

There are a variety of upcoming Book Arts classes and workshops happening now until the end of the year. Many of these classes are taught by visiting national and international artists. The Book Arts website provides a calendar of all upcoming events. For example, on September 24 and 25, they are offering a workshop on creating books with pages created out of Plexiglas, metal, wood, and glass.

As the gap between the commoditization of information and tangible, lovingly produced art pieces like a letter-pressed poster widens, the Book Arts Program will continue to be a haven for those who thrive on the visceral connection that physical printmaking provides. The Book Arts Program serves as not only a link to past technologies, but as a community where radical reinterpretations of books and the DIY ethic is fostered and encouraged. Wolske’s letterpress teacher used to say, “technology doesn’t die, it becomes art.” When technology erases our ability to feel like we have created something real, the conscious creation of art may be our only retreat back into the material world.

Anthony Olson cleans a press before preparing to print. Photo: With the DIY ethic in letterpress, I get to be the planner, the designer, the artist and the printer.