Virginia Arts of the Book Center

A peek inside the amazing miniature book Amanda Nelsen created as a response to the deluge of credit card offers arriving in her home. She has included bits of the actual offers as inclusions in her handmade abaca paper.

A peek inside the amazing miniature book Amanda Nelsen created as a response to the deluge of credit card offers arriving in her home. She has included bits of the actual offers as inclusions in her handmade abaca paper.

by Josef Beery
Book artist Amanda Nelsen was drowning in credit card offers arriving with the junk mail at her Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment. She and her husband Will were each beginning exciting design careers. “Free money” offers were coming in at the rate of two to three a day. Their insistent and outrageous claims were hard to ignore. Nelsen set the appeals aside, thinking she would like to measure the extent of this outrageous phenomenon. As the piles and boxes of pointless post grew, she knew that some sort of creative response was beginning to germinate. On an internship away from home, she decided to jumpstart a reaction by papering the walls of a room with the junk mail. Surrounded by the extravagant promises amid seas of fine print, the distinction between the two voices was obvious. One voice demanding attention, the other attempting to hide in a gray background of noise.

Nelsen had literally immersed herself in a room of marketing double talk. Promises of easy money accompanied by pages and pages of threatening yet obfuscated details. Fine print which outlined the very real usurious contracts with which the credit card companies hoped to ensnare the unsuspecting consumer. When agreed to, these contracts could only really guarantee deeper debt for the person hoping to obtain easier access to additional cash.

In tiny, practically unreadable type were the contracts’ real teeth.

“The APRs for this offer are not guaranteed. APRs may change to higher APRs, fixed APRs may change to variable APRs, or variable APRs may change to fixed APRs. Any changes will be in accordance with your account agreement.”

“ZERO PERCENT ON FIRST YEAR PURCHASES. Nine to fifteen percent on purchases thereafter.”

“Your APRs may INCREASE for any of the following reasons: We do not receive minimum payment by the due date. You exceed your credit line. You make a payment that is not honored by your bank. The default APR equals 28.99%”

Nelsen wanted to focus on this “fine print” and create imagery based in these words of deceit. Her solution was letterpress. This medium would allow her to hold these powerful words of deception in her hand and
respond to their oppressive weight.

In 2010 Nelsen applied for a residency at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts to develop a book based on these ideas. She began by cutting words from the contracts in the hundreds of pieces of junk mail into small pieces and adding them to abaca pulp and making her own handmade paper. Now embedded in the paper which would become the pages of her book were actual fragments of the deceptive sales copy and contractural realities.

Surrounded by hundreds of cases of type at the marvelous facility in Minneapolis, Nelsen began setting portions of the text from the credit card circulars in type. In some cases she supplemented the words with illustrations cut in linoleum or small ornaments found in the antique cases of type. Her project began to take real form.

She envisioned an artist’s book, substantial in length at 64 pages, to represent the “Fine Print”. Using the Minnesota letterpresses on a tight schedule, the pages would need to be printed quickly. She designed a tiny format, creating four printing forms of sixteen pages each. Each printing form was printed in two or more colors, which would create a very color-filled book. After printing the two press sheets front and back, she would cut each in half to fold and trim. After printing and trimming she would have four folded sixteen page signatures. One even included a four page fold out.

The appropriate binding for the book was obvious, credit cards themselves would be substituted for binders’ board and carefully covered in fine goat skin. She chose to sew the text pages in four gatherings with three sewing stations (Nelsen had recently completed a program in professional bookbinding at Boston’s North Bennet Street School.)

The resulting edition of three hundred books, 150 on the handmade abaca paper and 150 on machine made Nideggen is still being bound. Early copies are available and one will be on exhibit during the celebration of miniature books sponsored by the Virginia Arts of the Book Center during the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, in VABC’s gallery “Beneath the Art Box” in Ivy Square Shopping Center. You can also see the book on display at Special Collections at the University of Virginia during the book festival.

Amanda Nelsen is the program director at the Rare Book School, the world-renowned program in bibliography offered at the University of Virginia.

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