ST. JOSEPH, Minn. (AP) – The deluge of digital in our everyday lives seems to be unstoppable. E-readers and tablets are increasingly popular.
What, then, will become of the book, a durable technology that has contained and conveyed knowledge for centuries?
Much, say some professors at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
Staff in the art, history and English departments and Literary Arts Institute have worked to create a minor in book arts, an art form that attempts to transform what’s possible from a book, the St. Cloud Times reported.
Established in fall 2011, it’s believed to be the only such minor at a Minnesota college outside of art schools. The course draws on rich experiences of the nearby Saint John’s Bible project and resources of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
Membership in the national College Book Arts Association, a national organization, has exploded in recent years. Its membership has grown 1,319 percent, from 31 in 2008 to 440 today. Its institutional members have more than doubled.
At St. Ben’s and St. John’s, there are classes in papermaking, printmaking, computer art, publishing and editing, basic design, art of the printed book and history of the book.
“There’s apparently a real strong interest here in the book as an artifact, as an artwork,” said Rachel Melis, associate professor of art and co-coordinator of the minor.
For the most part, students in the book arts minor stumbled upon it, because it’s so new. The schools are just starting to see people seeking out the program.
When professor Scott Murphy got involved, they expanded the program to include papermaking and printing. Students learn techniques as well as theory and history. The classes use a full book arts studio donated to the schools 15 years ago. The program also requires an internship with a letter press print maker, a paper maker, or a designer.
“It helps them see this isn’t just an academic idea, this is a concrete activity and that the two go together,” Melis said. “Internships help students also see how strong the field is.”
Murphy’s handmade photography is an elective in the book arts minor. Students create photography in nontraditional ways, drawing on techniques from the past combined with today’s technologies. Digital methods are being used alongside analog techniques.
Jeff Rathermel, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, thinks a lot about the creations.
“In terms of artist books, they’re much more than just words and pictures, it’s about everything that we do … put into the creation of the book, we think about and we want to reinforce that content,” he said. “So the texture of the paper, the colors that are being used, the font, the binding style, the shape, all of those decisions are important … and that’s what separates us from an e-book or something that’s simply digital.”
Book art has the potential to engage a viewer for a longer time than a painting or print.
“In doing that you can slowly reveal your ideas, the content of your work. It’s an intimate experience that you’re having with your viewer, the reader,” Rathermel said.
Melis’ path perhaps illustrates a possible future for graduates. As a kid she loved picture books. Initially, she thought she wanted a career writing and illustrating childrens’ books. In college, she discovered people make books for adults that have really elaborate illustrations.
“I realized … the audience I wanted to communicate to were adults,” Melis said. “I could communicate more through combining images and text and handmade paper and book binding than I could on their own.”
“(We’re) so used to seeing the book as the transmitter of information that we don’t really examine the book as a piece of technology,” said Mark Conway, executive director of the Literary Arts Institute. That’s one of the things students in the book arts minor do: examine the benefits and deficits of a remarkable technology that has lasted so long, Conway said.
St. Ben’s graduate Anna Boyer is interested in book arts and returned to the college to create a small broadside that will be included in the admission packets of next year’s accepted students. She made the paper, designed the plates and made the prints.
“I like the tactile quality of the printed page and of the press itself,” Boyer said. “It’s all made by hand. … Things can be changed along the way.”
“You’re always problem-solving a press,” she said. “There’s always a solution.”
Part of the work was done digitally as well.
The fact that St. Ben’s and St. John’s is involved doesn’t surprise many. It was the monks in the Middle Ages who copied and preserved manuscripts.
“We keep running into our own history,” Conway said.
The convent also has a history of being self-sustaining, by, for example, making its own paper. This summer, the sisters grew flax to make paper.
“Benedictines have always been at the center of the preservation of history and knowledge, book arts themselves,” said Tim Ternes, director the Saint John’s Bible project.
“By commissioning the Bible, it revives that tradition,” Ternes said. “The Saint John’s Bible is the Cadillac of the book arts.”
It’s created using traditional tools and materials and is a fine example for students, he said.
But the Bible also required the digital – Skype to connect artists across oceans, computers to design and lay out the Bible, email to plan.
“That shaved off years of work,” Ternes said.
The process took 15 years and the Bible still remains unbound.
Students also have access to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library’s examples of early printed books and more recent rare books as well as a huge photographic archive. It has more than 130,000 complete manuscripts.
“When you put all those pieces together, it makes it a pretty unique place to work,” said Columba Stewart, executive director of the library.
The Minnesota Center for Book Arts knows of only two similar organizations across the country, one in San Francisco and the other in New York. There are also a number of smaller book arts organizations throughout the country.
“We’re dedicated to using the book format as a means of expression,” Rathermel said. And they have a very broad definition of “book.” It has to start with the essence of a book: a contained narrative. It can fit in the palm of your hand or be as large as an installation or a suite of printings. The nonprofit offers programs to youth and adults in the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota.
“We’re the largest and most comprehensive in the country,” he said.
The center is seeing more higher education institutions across the country putting together book arts programs, including masters’ programs, either independently or as part of an interdisciplinary program.
At the center of all of the work in the book arts program is the question surrounding the changing role of writing and books.
“What’s a book going to look like in 500 years?” Murphy said. “Where does analog fit?”
“In terms of digital books … people kind of ask me if the book is dead,” Rathermel said. “I think it has a new life, in terms of a greater appreciation for the object.”
A lot of people believe the field is growing precisely because digital books are gaining ground, Melis said.
“Maybe it’s a craving … the relationship between turning a page,” Melis said.
“This very elegant piece of low technology is almost perfect. The book itself, it’s portable, it works when the power goes out … you can share it,” Ternes said. “At the same time, it’s very fragile … you drop it in water and it’s gone.”
“I don’t think it’ll ever go out of style,” Ternes said.
Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com
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