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He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . .  8" X 8" color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . . 8″ X 8″ color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

When my kids were little, their teachers celebrated One Hundred day—the 100th day of school each year. They marked the little scholastic holiday by bringing in 100 of something—100 pennies, 100 beads, 100 paper clips, 100 origami cranes, 100 marbles, 100 cookies. The idea was to give the kids a connection to the abstract figure, to give them a visceral sense of what that order of magnitude was. It’s easy to lose track of what big numbers mean if you haven’t actually seen what they represent.

I dive deep into the numbers in the hours I spend standing at a printing press, making the pictures that fill my books. In my new project, a wood block and letterpress book called A Pocket Full of Change, there are 20 pictures made with no fewer than 100 wood blocks, plus 33 additional blocks of magnesium, linoleum, and brass tool, all registered into colorful scenes. The book comes out this week, Friday night at Tregoning and Company.

One block for the sky

One block for the sky

I’ve been printing this book for about 3 years, one block, one color at a time. Let’s just say I know what 100 is. I know what 1,000 is. Indeed, I know what 10,000 is. Printing all those blocks, plus the pages of text, I figure I’ve cranked the Vandercook proofing presses at Zygote Press and the Morgan Conservatory more than 18,000 times.

The words that occur to me as I make each picture is that they are “built,” or “constructed.” One block for the sky. One block for One block for the clouds. One block for the pavement. One block for the light shining down. It goes on like that, until the whole picture comes together. There’s a moment of suspense, printing the black block over the top of the whole thing, hoping everything is properly aligned.

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

It’s all been a drum roll leading up to this Friday, when we open the doors and I let people see the finished book for the first time: 20 pictures telling the story of a boy who goes out on his bicycle and puts all the money in his pocket on railroad tracks to be run over by trains.

Jake took his bike

and a pocket full of change

and he pedaled down the block

til he was out of shouting range.

Come out and see it, bring the kids, and be sure to say hello. I’ll be at the opening from 6 to 9 pm. Tregoning & Co. is at 1300 West 78th Street, in the 78th Street Studios art complex in Cleveland.

Here it is on Facebook. See you there!

 

One block for the sun shining down . . .

One block for the sun shining down . . .

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IMG_20141122_214232Sometimes you need a change of context to continue evolving: different scenery, ideas, tools, or language, or all of the above. I got a big dose of all that printing at the Grafikwerkstatt in Dresden, Germany. The result was two print projects unlike any I had ever undertaken before.  The Grafikwerkstatt lithographer Peter Stefan got to the crux of one key change when he noticed that I was printing the chaotic marks of a cutting board.

“These are marks from life,” he said. “Not about life, but made from life.”

That captured not only a critical aspect of this collection of poems, 2014-10-14 12.01.22Elementary Science, but also a moment of printmaking evolution for me: This is not a children’s book. The fine lines of my Exacto knife weren’t descriptive of anything, weren’t an illustration or any kind of picture, but graphic material made in the process of life: the lines of a cutting board, printed as the pale green background for a book about living and dying.

It took two presses to make this book: a Karl Krause relief press for the wood blocks, and a small hand press for the movable type.

I wrote the poems in Elementary Science years ago, in 2007–a memorial to a dear friend who died too soon. David Cornicelli passed away in 1999, 15 years ago this December. He remains a formative person in my life, and the lives of several friends. 2014-10-16 13.17.11

The poems are built upon the classical elements – Fire, Earth, Air, and Water– and deal with things that mattered to us. Anyone who knew David, and especially anyone who knew the two of us together, likely knows we spent a lot of time contemplating fires. Our friends also know that we once helped to recycle a stone barn and used the rocks to build a passive solar heated extension to a centuries-old manor house, Caer Llan, in Wales. Relevant to that, we shared an appreciation for labor, and the life of cities. Our closest friends knew that I learned to play music with him, 2014-10-16 13.09.06 and the best of times for us involved loud and shameless improvisation, mostly in basements and attics. And finally, that we shared an understanding of natural life cycles, especially watersheds. Riding on those ideas, these poems are about they way life consumes itself on the way to death: Fire, earth, air, water: fate and inevitability, the most glorious and saddest of truths.

David would have appreciated that this was printed during a residency in Germany. He would have appreciated many of the same things about the city of Dresden as me—its age, its history through the twentieth century, from the World Wars to the fall of Communism, to the resurgence and the confluence of cultures going on there now. IMG_20141021_144610

He’d also appreciate this: I made just 20 copies of this book, most of which I will give to our friends. One, though, I will metaphorically deliver to him in the same way his body returned to dust. One day when the time is right and the right friends are gathered, I’m going to pass this on to him by throwing one of the twenty copies into a fire. To David. Delivered by fire. Somewhere in Ohio.

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One sheet of paper, one little letterpress book

It’s not magical: It’s just elegant. The single sheet book form is old-school simplicity. One sheet of paper printed on one side, cut and folded to make a little 8-page booklet with no glue or stitching.

It’s a great form to photocopy, or to make a PDF so that anyone anywhere can print it out and make their own, as the folks at Printeresting are doing with their Rum Riot Press exhibit. 

But all that elegance is made richer if you make the book with a letterpress machine.

And as it happens,  next month I’m teaching an introductory letterpress class at Zygote which will show you not only the basics of movable type and printing on the Vandercook Proofing Press, but also how to make these little books.

Vandercookin’

If you’re curious about letterpress, you should take this class. If you know a bit about letterpress and would like to see some innovation re: laying out forms in the press bed, you should take this class. You can sign up here.

We’ll use a custom chase, which simplifies what could be a complicated layout by giving you little windows in which to organize your words and pictures.

As you can imagine, this little booklet is a beautiful way to lay out a sentence you love, or a few lines of poetry, or a short comic, or whatever you can fit into 8 small pages. My plan for my class project this time is to lay out simple statement that gives this blog its name: A bicycle . . . is a gyroscope . . . that takes you places. Hope to see you at Zygote Press!

 

 

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I got a great deal on some particle board the other day.

A few months had gone by since I finished my last binge of a letterpress project, so I figured it was time to start working on a new one: another children’s book, printed with wood blocks and movable type.

Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is a classic odyssey, a trip to the stars and back. It’s the story of a boy at a drum circle who is surprised when, by the force of rhythm blasting out the back of his djembe rocket – he takes off into the sky and finds himself soaring above his town, eventually touring the constellations. Then, when he comes back and tells the drum circle beaters where he’s been, no one believes him—even though they saw it with their own eyes.

The print and the plate

One day Jacob was at the drum circle, pounding along with the big kids. The bonfire burned, and the air shook with sound, and except for the moon and stars, the sky was just about as dark as it gets.

Jacob had a new djembe. Just got it the other day. And so he came to play.” 

Along the way there are references to principles of physics, and to the classic children’s story Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It’s mostly un-metered, but it falls into 12/8 time for a refrain of vocalized rhythm that ought to be fun to read with kids:

With four of eight blocks printed

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TAH

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TEK 

As this description makes clear, the story is already written, and in fact it has been complete except for tweaking a word here and there, for a couple of years. What I mean by ‘start working” on Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is to start making of the wood block pictures, and printing them. Which for me are one in the same process. The pictures don’t exist in any form until the blocks are carved and printed together.

The particle board isn’t for carving the pictures, but as a base for the carved block. They have to be the same height as Foundry type, which is a very precise nine hundred eighteen thousandths of an inch high. Most of my letterpressing friends probably know already that if if you glue some quarter-inch Shina to some five-eighths particle board, and add a couple sheets of paper beneath it on the press bed, that gets you pretty close. The Home Depot doesn’t carry five-eighths particle board, but Loews does.

“He knelt over the top of it, like on horseback, and he continued to pound out beats.”

It takes eight blocks to make this picture. I’m telling myself right now that most of these pictures will not be that complicated. Most will not have both glowing fires and moons. Still, this book will certainly take well over 100 blocks to make the pictures. I’m printing them one by one. Before I finish this post, I will have one picture complete, and a story ready to go, and this big stack of particle board and Shina plywood waiting for me to draw the rest. I’ll be at this for years.

And so it begins.

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William Busta’s gallery was on Murray Hill Road in Cleveland’s Little Italy, so I know it was way back in the nineties when I walked in one day to check out his book show. It was there that I learned how to make this simple book out of a single sheet of paper. You print or photocopy on one side of a single sheet, then fold and cut just so until you get a little book.

That form has been a favorite of mine for years, mostly because of its simplicity. But I also like the economy of it, and how gracefully the modest format presents a simple idea: a short poem, or even a single sentence broken into phrases.

So when I learned to set type and started printing on the Vandercooks at Zygote Press, it wasn’t long before I went back to the little, single sheet structure to make little books.

Vandercooking

I’ve refined the process quite a bit, and in June I’m offering a two-day class at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory and Education Foundation. Over the course of two days, each member of the class will work hands-on with type and printing blocks to make an edition of his or her own little book.

If you’ve used a letterpress machine before, you know that setting up type for a project like this would be a significant challenge, probably involving lots of trial and error. Each block of text has to be aligned to print in the right place on your sheet, so that once it’s folded and cut, everything is positioned properly on your pages.

I’ve created a “chase” to make this process a snap, and that idea is the central feature of this class: making your book project easy.

A “chase” is a metal frame used to lock type or printing blocks in place on a press. I’ve made a couple of these out of wood. They look like divided windows, and the spaces are measured precisely to lay out your words and pictures so that they print exactly in the right place to make one of these little books.

Do you have a favorite poem? A beautiful sentence you’d like to pass on to your friends? This is an elegant way to package a simple thought that anyone can carry in their pocket. The next little book I make in this format is going to echo the sentiment of this blog: A bicycle . . .  is a gyroscope . . . . that takes you places.

The class is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10 at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory & Educational Foundation, 1754 E. 47th Street, Cleveland, OH 44103. For information, call them at 216-361-9255. Or just sign up online by going to their website. I hope to see you!

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Beneath the nameplate, dies for each letter line up to cast lead type.

This is not the first line of an industrial joke. Among the countless mechanical miracles that came between the invention of moveable type and electronic publishing software like WordPress, there came something called the Linotype machine.

A linotype machine is the marriage of a typewriter keyboard with a metal casting plant: the operator would sit in front of the keys and type out lines, and the machine would cast them in hot lead for printing. A printer would take each line of freshly cast lead type from the machine, put it in a galley with more lines of cast words to be rolled with ink and printed on paper. Newspapers and all manner of publications once got into print this way.

The marriage of a typewriter with a casting plant.

Entire lines of text composed by a keyboard and cast as a single block of lead were a big step up from foundry type–which required the type setter to pick up individual letters one by one out of their compartments in a drawer  to spell out words. With a Linotype machine, the operator could essentially type out the entire lead plate.

To simply say what the machine does–casting words in lead as the operator types them–doesn’t begin to capture the mechanics contained therein. Zygote Press director Liz Maugans and I saw one in action while touring Madison Press, where Cleveland letterpress guru Frank and his partner continue to run a collection of machines dating to the early twentieth century.

Precisely cut teeth, like the ones that make the right key work in the right lock, help each type die find its proper place in the magazine.

Their shop is not a museum but a living repository of marvelous obsolescence–a couple of modest rooms in Lakewood, packed tight with printing presses, type, and collateral contraptions all as precise as they are old. They keep them in operating condition and use them for printing jobs still best done the old fashioned way: die cuts, folding, perforating, some sequential numbering.

But even in those rooms the Linotype machine is something special. In order to do its job it has to not only melt lead into a mold known as a die, but it has to be able to change the dies in real time, according to whatever words the operator types.

For this to be useful at a newspaper, the machine needs incredible capacity, all managed mechanically, without any help from a computer: It needs to manage not just the 26 letters of the alphabet, plus numbers and punctuation, but also italics, different sizes of headline type, and more.  Each individual letter is a separate die for casting lead. They need not only to line up in the proper order,

Drawers full of letter dies are tilted diagonally to help keep them in order.

but after casting a line, they need to return to their storage places in the “magazine” so that the next time the letters are typed, they are ready to fall in line again–in an order as infinitely variable as language itself.

To understand how this happens, it helps to think of those machines that sort coins: Kids have them as piggy banks. You drop a handful of mixed coins into the hopper, and the machine sorts all the pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters in to their proper tubes. Of course  with coins, this can be done simply by size. With 26 lower case letters, 26 upper case letters, plus numbers and punctuation, it’s a bit more complicated.

The Linotype machine handles this massive sorting job a little bit like locks recognize their keys. To open a lock, it takes a key with teeth and grooves cut precisely in the right pattern to move the lock’s tumblers.

Type dies lined up for casting words.

The letter  dies in a linotype machine each have a set of teeth precisely cut into them, so that when they drop back  into the top of a magazine, they are gravity sorted into the right slot–the one that precisely lines up with their subtle patterns of teeth.

These are primitive processes compared to what goes on when we brush fingers across a touch-screen to move pictures or words, or go from one computerized function to another. But the physical reality of these mechanical machines makes them every bit as captivating as an I-pod. Plus, they sound better. It’s no little speaker rattling out that ka-chunk-a-chunk noise; it’s a massive convolution of brass and steel.

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Promoting art in Cleveland is a challenge. That’s the context for the launch this week of the Collective Arts Network Journal, which is at the moment a one-time, promotional publication created by Zygote Press and a collective of 28 visual arts organizations, with support from the Ohio Arts Council.

CAN Journal is their response to the fact that media coverage of the visual arts in Cleveland has dwindled significantly–even as Cuyahoga County has seen arts activity revitalize neighborhoods, and despite the fact that the voters decided it mattered enough to create a public fund to support artists. Despite all that, Cleveland artists have a devil of a time getting much press–at least in print. It’s edited by yours truly.

I wrote this observation in an essay for CAN Journal:

“Consider what the NEO arts scene has lost just in roughly the last decade: Dialog Arts Midwest, Northern Ohio Live, Angle, ARTefakt, Urban Dialect, The Free Times, and Avenues–all of which dug deep into the local arts scene–are gone. For a while, all those existed in addition to what we have now. Shows and performances—even in small galleries—got covered. Previews were written. Personalities were explored.” It’s not like that anymore.

The Plain Dealer–the biggest local fish– typically ignores Cleveland’s visual artists and small galleries. They did recently start running reviews by Douglas Max Utter once a week, and they deserve some credit for that. But it wasn’t long ago that they had an Arts section every day, with interviews, features, and plenty more reviews–especially of the visual arts. They’re now down to the Sunday arts section and the Friday magazine.  When I was promoting Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child, I was only able to score a listing.  I do have to complement PD Friday listings editor Mark Rapp for following up with a question as he put my listing together. Thanks, Mark. Mad props.

Not everyone is so thorough. As most of the region’s visual artists know, the local so-called “alternative weekly” might run a listing of your show. Or they might skip it. In the case of my show at William Busta Gallery, they skipped it. They also skipped Barbara Polster’s video projection, which opened in the same gallery, on the same night.

Fortunately, there’s a collection of other media outlets that does what it can to pick up the slack. And on that front, Common Household Rhymes dominated Cleveland’s fragmented media landscape.  My little blitz began with a Cool Cleveland video, which I made myself:

As you can tell by my hair, making children’s books is a very serious subject.

Next, and on the same day, came a segment on Around Noon, WCPN 90.3FM’s daily, noon-hour arts magazine. Hosted by the positively musical Dee Perry, and produced by the understated Dave DeOreo, it is beyond question the last great

Dee Perry, host of WCPN's Around Noon

stronghold for Cleveland area arts coverage: almost an hour each weekday featuring guests in live interviews and performances.   That gives them enough air time to have real conversations with as many as 15 artists and performers each week–conversations long enough to actually tell a story.  Those of you who love me enough will click this link over and over, listening to this for as long as they see fit to keep me in their archives. Go to about the 19th minute. That’s where I start talking.

Of course I can’t forget the hyper local media. My friend Francis Killea –a prodigious cyclist who blogs at vagrantasacloud.blogspot.com  wrote this feature for the Lakewood Observer. It’s packed with thought and information, rolled out with great care.

Locking in type with quoins and furniture. Photo by Francis Killea.

The Observer papers, it must be said, can be a great resource for visual artists–if you use them. Jim O’Bryan’s citizen journalism empire has expanded far beyond its Lakewood birthplace and now has franchises in Cleveland Heights, Collinwood, Euclid, Bay Village, and elsewhere. If you are trying to promote your local art show and fail to submit an article to the Observer paper that serves your community you have missed a what has become a rare opportunity in Cleveland–the chance to tell your story in print.  All you have to do is meet the deadline. If you don’t have a friend like Francis to do the writing and photography for you, just do it yourself.

Back in the digital world,  reporter Cory Shaffer wrote this piece for Lakewood Patch, AOL’s venture into hyper-local, online news. Patch is delivered every morning by e-mail in several communities around Cleveland. Like Cool Cleveland, the delivery right to the audience’s  in-box is a big plus. So don’t forget to pitch your stuff to Patch.

But the biggest arts media coup in Cleveland might be scoring time on the local PBS affiliate, WVIZ’s weekly arts magazine, Applause. I’m grateful they found my story worth telling in video, especially because they did a fine job.

Applause is a very rare thing these days–a locally produced, weekly TV show that focuses not on car crashes, sex crimes, and weather, but on people making and doing things around Northeast Ohio. It’s an arts magazine exploring some of what makes this a great place to live.

Dennis Knowles, the producer for my Applause segment, invested a lot of time and care in putting together the piece. After spending about 3 hours shooting video and talking in December, he came back after Christmas to follow up. Clearly he cares about the details that will help him tell a good story.

For some reason, the “embed” function on the Applause website will not actually embed the clickable video. So we’ll just have to be content with this link.

For the moment, if you’re promoting an arts show in Northeast Ohio, that’s all there is. But things could improve. I get to go back on WCPN’s Around Noon tomorrow, along with Zygote Press director Liz Maugans and artist/critic Douglas Max Utter to talk about the launch of CAN Journal–which all of us involved hope will eventually become a quarterly platform to let people know what’s coming up on the Northeast Ohio visual art scene.  So if you’re reading this before noon on Tuesday, tune in to 90.3 FM.

And then on Thursday, when CAN Journal actually hits the streets, be sure you run right out to your favorite local gallery and pick up a copy.

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