Books as joyful objects

Happily, even in this digital age, books remain a vital part of our lives. For many readers, books are joyful objects, appreciated as much for the experience they deliver as for the information they contain. While there are many beautifully designed and satisfying books available from modern commercial presses, none can quite compare to the appeal of a book handmade by artists.

For centuries, book pages were painstakingly set by hand, printed one sheet at a time, then sewn together with a needle and thread. In Ashland, Cathy DeForest offers writers a chance to publish their work in this classic form, and book lovers a rare chance to experience a handmade book.

Recently, DeForest published the work of Sarah Flowers, a naturalist and poet who wanted to letterpress her poems in a book. With the help of SUNbook Arts bookbinder Sabina Nies and graphic artist Brenda Cornett, Flowers was able to create "A Solitary Harmony," her rich volume of nature poems that is both a visual and tactile pleasure.

"It's a beautiful way to publish your work," Flowers said.

She requested DeForest print 100 volumes of her book, and she donated a volume to the Ashland Public Library, in part to give patrons the opportunity to hold a letterpressed book, something many people would not have a chance to do otherwise. The proceeds from the other books will go to a nature conservation fund.

At Ashland Public Library's author night, Flowers read her poetry, and DeForest discussed the creation of Flowers' book and the letterpress process.

Letterpress printing is a term for printing text with movable type in which the raised surface of the type is inked and then pressed against paper to obtain an image. Letterpress is the oldest method of printing with equipment, and has recently experienced a rebirth as a modern art form. In 1454, Johannes Gutenberg started the wave of mass book production in Germany with the invention of movable type used in the printing of his elegant Gutenberg Bible.

In this way, a reader experiences a book through its unique visual and tactile impact, made possible (in contrast to digital type) by its physical presence on the page.

Perhaps it is because so few of our basic goods are made by hand now. As computers become more ubiquitous people appreciate the craft of bookmaking. The tactile aspect of letterpress first attracted DeForest to the art and technology.

"I was so taken by the 3-dimensionality of letterpress. It is an exquisite presentation of image and text," she said.

Sabina Nies uses old-fashioned bookbinding skills, including hand sewing the bind, to help writers turn a book into a lasting work of art. During the discussion of letterpress printing, Nies explained how she hand threaded and knotted 100 copies of the heavy binding of Flowers' book. The entire process is time consuming and often physically demanding.

"You definitely get a good workout," DeForest said.

DeForest, who also prints broadsides, frame-worthy prints of a single poem, for the Chautauqua Poets series, says letterpress printing remains a potent medium in which to celebrate language and art. Originally, broadsides were sheets of paper printed with news, proclamations or theater announcements placed on the broad side of a building.

"Now, they are a popular way to produce a single poem," she said.

DeForest recently has created broadsides of poems by poets Alberto Rios, Ted Kooser, and Robert Pinsky.

"It's always a risk designing something for someone else's poems," she said. "But everyone has been happy with them so far. There is something wonderful about the work of the hand."

Deforest invites visitors to her gallery to see the letterpress at work, and experience a hand printed page with their own senses.

Gallery DeForest is located at 270 Fourth St., Ashland, across from the Peerless Hotel.

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