Thoughts on Bookmaking by Claire Van Vliet of The Janus Press
MacArthur Award–winning book artist Claire Van Vliet founded the Janus Press in 1955 and over the course of more than six decades has created some of the most exceptional and innovative fine-press books in the field. A particular emphasis of the press has been poetry, and among its many titles, the Janus Press published The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court by James Schuyler in 1976; this beautiful edition is included in Poets House’s project Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution, which features digital scans of rare chapbooks from the 1960s to the early 80s, accompanied by essays and multimedia. Here, Van Vliet describes her process and her ideas about bookmaking.
To read a book is an act of opening—we open it and are open to what is inside—we expect to receive from a book. This is an unusually receptive atmosphere for a contemporary artist to work in. The reader is open, curious, untethered, wants what is inside the book. I think this is because the scale is intimate and the act is unselfconscious for those who like to read.
All the physical components of a book can act as facilitators for the essence of the text. They can engage the senses and widen the comprehension of the text—ideally, without interfering in any way. Reading a book is a dialogue, and the more the reader is encouraged to bring to the act of reading, the better it is for the author.
What the reader encounters first is the book’s binding—this (usually) rectangular box with three openable sides.
What color is it? Does it feel like what is to come? The hands will hold it and feel it—soft, hard, rough, smooth, heavy, light—during the time the book is being “read.”
The paper acts much the same way as the binding—through the sense of touch as each leaf is fingered, turned—smooth, soft, hard, stiff, pliable, opaque, transparent. Likewise, the type can be an emotional cue—a voluptuous type like Palatino might not be appropriate for war poems.
The placement and spacing of the text along with the shape of the page visually control the movements of the eye. What is the character of these movements? Flowing, jerky, quiet, fast? What shape is the unprinted part of the page? Tall, narrow, wide, simple, complex?
Paper has become an increasingly important component for the Janus Press, which started working with Kathryn and Howard Clark in 1976 at Twinrocker Handmade Paper and continued after 1984 with Bernie Vinzani and Katie MacGregor in their paper studios. I have used pulp-painted imagery and specially designed papers that have made new non-adhesive pop-up and binding structures mechanically possible.
I have found that book ideas come from both the literary and visual worlds. Sometimes I have an image sequence in search of an author, and often a text triggers visual ideas. The sequence of ideas is often quite muddled, but there is a sense that action can begin—words, images, scale, and materials click, fall into place, and a book emerges. A handmade book can be any shape the text and image need. It interests and challenges me that a book may be capable of incorporating several forms; hand-held with pages in sequence, stood and spread out sculpturally, and hung scroll-like.
When you work by hand, you have the luxury of time, which allows the materials to tell you what they want to be. I wait for the work to take form—it can’t be rushed. It feels right when all the components fall into place and need to be together.
I like the collaborative aspect of edition bookmaking. Texts push my work toward places that I would not think of on my own, and working with other artists opens broader opportunities for design and structures. Also, there is a pleasant comradeship that naturally occurs with coworkers once the production systems are worked out; conversation is ruminative in a way that is absent in most contemporary work situations.
I look for book ideas that can use what Janus Press can do—that is, make books by hand.
Claire Van Vliet is a renowned book artist who founded the Janus Press in 1955 and has produced groundbreaking innovations in the book arts field for more than six decades. She is also a prolific painter and printmaker. In 1989 Van Vliet was honored with a MacArthur fellowship, the first ever awarded to a book artist. More recently, Van Vliet was recognized with the Frederic W. Goudy Award. The Janus Press is based in Newark, Vermont.