Putting Words on Paper, One Letter at a Time
How often during the day do you text message friends or family? How does that technology impact the content of those messages? TMI, TMOT. The explosion of information in the digital age has created a revolution in communication, but it's not the first, and it probably won't be the last. In 1450 Johannes Gutenberg created a buzz with his movable-type printing press and the bible that bears his name. Communication, in print or online, is an ongoing synergy of art and technology.
New Technology and Old
"We all seem to be seated between two cultures, electronic and paper," says Professor of English Gerard NeCastro. "Both have their advantages. While we do most of our research and communication with computers, we still need and use paper-- for official documents, letters, notes-- and, most importantly, books. Book Arts at UMM gives you the best of both worlds. You get to create books both electronically and by hand. You get the chance to express yourself artistically through new technology and old. The digital age is forging ahead, but at the same time, there is a great resurgence of letterpress printing, and it's great to have the opportunity to do both."
Book Arts students create entire volumes on the computer screen. Students are working with Professor NeCastro on the next edition of The Binnacle, UMM's Literary and Arts Journal, selecting the works that will be included. They will then design the volume, edit the works, and print the pages at the U Maine Machias Press using digital technology. They will then cut and package it in its unique boxed format, all by hand.
Students also create entire volumes by hand. Under the guidance of Professors Robert Froese (English and Creative Writing) and Bernie Vinzani (Art), they're producing an edition of Dick Miles' new volume of poetry, Boat of Two Shores. The process begins by working with the poet in selecting, ordering, and editing the poems. Next they select the type font-- the actual individual lead letters-- that will be used on one of the three letterpresses in the Book Arts Studio. Working with a composing stick, each line of poetry begins to take shape, one letter at a time. The process is not all that different from Gutenberg's, over 500 years ago. Once all the individual pages are printed, they're gathered, collated, stitched, and bound into volumes. Each will be signed and numbered. Each is a work of words and art.
The Book, Culture, and Knowledge
Books are vehicles of change. They inform, incite, challenge, persuade, and entertain. Some of the best do all these things simultaneously. Randall Kindleberger's course History of the Book introduces students to the concept of book history. Like most courses in the Book Arts program, the approach is interdisciplinary; the technologies of writing, printing, publishing, and bookselling are studied in the context of the historical role of books in society.
How have governments, religions, and other institutions sought to control books to advance particular agendas? How do books contribute to social and political change? How do literacy patterns, levels of education, gender, class, or religious beliefs affect how books affect individuals? In this "Information Age" how is communication produced, packaged, and processed? These are just some of the questions explored.
"We explore the historical impact of literacy and its expansion in modern times," says Kindleberger. "We look at how reading-- and readers-- have changed. We analyze the role of reading in our own lives. I want students to become alert to the impact of something we most often take for granted."
"I do a bit of lecturing. Students share the results of individual research on several small projects and one larger project. We examine physical books-- online and in the flesh-- to observe changes in the technology of book production (Gutenberg's invention of moveable type is only the most famous), the layout of the page, typography, and much more. We try to find connections between the design and production of the book and its function. Who created it? Why? Who was the intended audience? Books contain information beyond the letters on the page, but you need to learn how to decipher it."
In the Beginning Was the Word
The Book Arts program at UMM is "text driven," to use Professor Vinzani's term. The letterpress printing process, from paper making, hand setting type, printing, and binding is balanced with a focus on the words that grace the printed product. This emphasis on literature-- content-- as well as the book as a material object is what sets the Machias Book Arts program apart from others (mostly post-graduate programs). The fact that the program is part of the English department is entirely intentional.
Professor of English Robert Froese is a writer and teaches a number of writing courses, including Techniques of Fiction, Screenwriting, and Writing and Publishing Seminar. He brings his experience as a published novelist, A Dark Music and The Forgotten Condition of Things to the classroom and to the Book Arts program. His approach is both literary and practical; his seminar includes the how as well as the what of getting works published.
Misty Mazerolle is an Interdisciplinary Fine Arts major working with Professor Froese on her senior project, an illustrated novel. She first had the idea for the project her second semester at UMM. Since then, through course work and independent study, she's developed the idea into a reality. Froese sees her work as a perfect example of how the Book Arts program crosses disciplines, broadens horizons, and pushes students to follow their dreams.
Magic by Unnatural Means
"Misty Mazerole's book, Magic by Unnatural Means, is a nice example of what an artist can achieve by envisioning a work across disciplines and across media. The book, intended for young adults, combines engaging characters in a richly imaginative plot. She is illustrating the story herself in watercolor and is designing a typeface to embellish its opening pages and chapter headings. The book is a genuine page-turner."
Professor Froese gave Misty the tools to transform her book concept into a reality. "The most challenging part of Magic by Unnatural Means was going back and refining the areas that needed work. Rob helped me gain the insight to step back and look at my writing from a different perspective, which is something that all writers need to learn how to do. His support through the entire project really gave me the push I needed to give the story my all."