Today I printed the final impressions for my wood block and letterpress children’s book, Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child. I printed the first layer of the title in copper ink, then moved my type just a touch and overprinted in black, to make a shadow on the words. I cranked the Vandercook proofing press at Zygote Press today for perhaps the 12,000th time.
I found myself slowing down as I got close to the end, to enjoy the labor toward the completion of something that’s been in the works for almost three years. Literally making a children’s book—writing the rhymes, drawing the pictures, carving the wood blocks, setting the type, printing the words and blocks on a manual letterpress machine, stitching, and binding an edition of 100 copies—has been many things: a labor of love, a learning process, a blow stricken for the Old School. It’s also been a manufacturing job.
We’ve heard this kind of language from the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture for years: Artists and performers are the makers of our culture, laboring long and hard to make the objects and performances that make our lives worthwhile. It’s particularly true for artists who make objects. Consider Brinsley Tyrrell, firing glass on steel to make his stunning Ohio Landscapes. Or Stephen Yusko, artist in residence at Rose Iron Works. Or consider my sister, Toledo resident Kathleen Gill-Slee, whose Sherwood Inn Pottery has steadily increased production of functional whimsy in clay to meet demand.
Making a children’s book from start to finish drove the point home for me personally. I’ve written about the work of artists and the way they build culture for a long time, but it is another thing to labor at a physical object for years and bring it into the world.
The people who see these prints on the walls at William Busta Gallery will see them as art objects, and they will think about them as pictures with rhymes. That is how it began for me, too—as words and pictures in my head. But as the images began to build up on these sheets of paper—and certainly as I began to stitch them into signatures—I began to think about making Common Household Rhymes as a manufacturing job.
Consider this cat, Olga. She stars as the long-suffering “grey cat,” waiting, not quite asleep in her slanted patch of sun. She’s 15 years old, and for most of that time was chased mercilessly by our other cat, the late Pablo, AKA “the black cat.” She is a much happier cat now that Pablo is gone. But let’s stick with Olga, shall we? She makes for a good demonstration of the way these pictures are built, one wooden block at a time.
I drew the whole picture first, on a piece of wood that would become the black background plate. That image serves as a map for all the rest.
I printed it several times, so I could transfer the shape of the cat, pillow, and sunlight onto other plates. Then I carved all that out of the black image to leave the empty space behind.
When it was time to print the color plates, I used the black background as a map to register the color blocks in their proper locations.
In this case, I printed the black background first. I wanted the effect of the sunlight shining across the room, the pillow laying on top of the bed, and the cat laying on top of the pillow. So that’s the order in which I piled up the patches of ink.
When I printed the light, I mixed opaque white ink in with the yellow so that it would have a little more substance: you can see through it, but there’s no question that you’re looking at yellow.
Once each block was registered, I’d print about 115-120 of them. I printed extras because I knew there would be mistakes.
Once the printing was done–all 17 pictures, all 83 blocks, plus the words– I cut the sheets to size, stitched them into signatures with linen thread and fabric, then bound the whole package in acid free, archival boards with cloth. All of which brings me back to those labels I printed today. Attaching those is the the last bit of and hand work.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, that is part of the point. This was an old-school, Cleveland manufacturing job. Sure, it’s about cats, and mice, and riding your bike, and adults staying up late. It’s also about work. Making a book this way in the 21st century is striking a blow for individual capacity and control. For kids learning to read in the early 21st century, holding a book manufactured entirely by one person using mechanical processes is an exotic
experience. When my kids and yours read this, I hope they connect with the fact that one person did it, from start to finish.