Kickstarting a Lasting Passion for Books

40th Anniversary | Books & Literature

<p>Two Sweet Briar College students, Katie Holloway and Sally Toms, learn to set movable type at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center.>

Two Sweet Briar College students, Katie Holloway and Sally Toms, learn to set movable type at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center.>

A partnership between the Virginia Arts of the Book Center and Sweet Briar College proves that the slow art of printmaking and the digital age are more compatible than you might think

By Caitlin Newman

Two Sweet Briar College students, Katie Holloway and Sally Toms, learn to set movable type at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center.
Two Sweet Briar College students, Kaitlyn Holloway (left) and Sally Toms, learn to set movable type at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday. Do you know where your college student is?

At a time of day when many undergraduates are sleeping off an all-night study session or battling a hangover, the staff of Sweet Briar College‘s Red Clay literary magazine are more than an hour’s drive from the Amherst campus, in the unassuming basement of an art supply store in Charlottesville. Wooden cases filled with heavy, lead type dominate the space, while an industrial Vandercook printing press stands in the corner. The scent of letterpress ink—somewhere between house paint and turpentine—perfumes the air. This is the Virginia Arts of the Book Center (VABC), a studio and print shop where community members can study the slow arts of printmaking and bookmaking.

It might surprise you to learn that college students would voluntarily surrender a semester of Saturday mornings to learn the centuries-old technique of letterpress printing. But the VABC internship, a semester-long series of classes taught by Charlottesville artist Josef Beery starting in 2012, soon became a regular part of Red Clay‘s activities—while the young women became an integral part of the VABC’s community of artists, lending their twenty-first-century savvy to help the organization secure a crowd-funding coup.

“I put it at an awkward time for them,” Beery admits with a knowing smile, but that didn’t deter students like Sally Toms. A 2013 Sweet Briar graduate who was among the first Red Clay staff members to work at the VABC, Toms was drawn in by what she calls “the magic of the VABC.” “For a lot of us, that was our first real encounter with grown-up artists who weren’t just visiting [Sweet Briar],” she said. “They were living and working just down the road from where we were. It was great to share that environment and learn from being in their presence and seeing them work and having access to the same tools that they did.” With Beery’s guidance, she and her classmates printed broadsides of poems by Sweet Briar alumni and writers at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony in Amherst. And the design of Red Clay‘s Spring 2012 issue, with a perfect binding and a gatefold cover, was inspired by the hours the students spent immersed in the history of the book.

Toms, a studio art major, was inspired to continue working with the VABC even after the semester ended. To satisfy an arts management requirement, she and another student, Kaitlyn Holloway, interned with the center’s director, Garrett Queen. They quickly became experienced in one of the most crucial components of managing a nonprofit: fundraising. The center needed more equipment in order to serve its growing community of artists, and its workhorse, the Vandercook, was in need of repairs. So Toms, Holloway, Queen, and others submitted a project proposal to Kickstarter, a website that allows its users to discover and fund creative projects—in this case, a series of miniature books. To articulate the VABC’s mission and goals, and to capture the ineffable spirit of the distinctive community space, Toms created a video featuring the center’s most active members.

When the campaign ended on September 5, 2013, Kickstarter users had pledged $10,293 to the VABC—exceeding the VABC’s $6,000 goal by more than 70 percent. The proceeds are going toward two Chandler & Price pilot presses, for students to learn on; a Kingsley hot-foil stamping machine; a guillotine paper cutter; a Heidelburg windmill press; and more. It’s equipment that anyone in the community has access to, including Toms herself. “Now that I’m out of school and out of that teacher-classroom setting where I’m constantly getting feedback on my work, being in a place like the VABC is invaluable,” she says. “Other than sending pictures via text message to my old roommates, I can’t get that kind of feedback. So I feel like I’m going to be visiting the VABC for a really long time.”

About the Author

Caitlin Newman is associate editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. Visit the Virginia Arts of the Book Center website to learn more about their classes and projects.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.