By Donna Lucey
One of the crown jewels at Virginia Humanities, the Book Arts studio at the Virginia Center for the Book, just celebrated its twenty-fifth year. Over the course of its existence, the studio has hand-printed inventive drawings, broadsides, collaborative books, cards, woodcuts, linoleum prints, and all manner of typesetting projects; at the same time the work has helped untold numbers of people see—and feel—the power of words and imagery.
The heart of the studio is “slow technology,” as Johanna Drucker called it. An internationally renowned artist, writer, and bookmaker, Drucker was an influential early member of the small, independent organization that began its work in the bowels of the McGuffey Arts Center in downtown Charlottesville. It was an inexpensive space in which to operate enormous nineteenth- and twentieth-century printing machines—marvels of gears, moveable parts, and cranks—that were being offloaded by the University of Virginia’s printing office after changes in printing technology and the computer revolution had made the equipment obsolete. Faster was better, but something profound was lost.
Josef Beery, a founding member of the studio and a well-known graphic designer in Charlottesville since 1983, found digital technology boring by the mid-90s. He missed his old drawing tools and the feeling of making a handmade object, so he attended the Penland School of Craft in the North Carolina mountains to learn old printing techniques. His first instructor was Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., a Black artist who would have a lasting impact on Beery—and on the Book Arts studio decades later. Reflecting on his introduction to the printing process Beery says, “My life was so changed by just working with my hands and being with other people working with their hands.” To pursue this newfound interest and “enraptured with letterpress,” Beery thought he might have to move to North Carolina to continue his study of old printing techniques, some of which dated to the mid-fifteenth century and the creation of the Gutenberg Bible. As luck would have it, he found others in Charlottesville who shared his passion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, others steeped in modern technology found their way to the hand-crafted book program. Among them: Calvin Otto, a retired industrialist in the printing industry, who also co-founded the Virginia Festival of the Book, and Kristin Adolfson, a graphic and web designer from New York who was looking for something “more tactile” than digital technology. Garrett Queen, the current director of the Book Arts studio, worked in an old print shop as a kid and knew the workings of letterpress printing machinery; but after college he managed large-scale production of books and magazines. Early on, he began designing computerbased page layout systems for his company to speed production, including one system that could generate 1,700 original newspaper pages in a seventy-two-hour production cycle. (Asked how many he could produce with letterpress printing, he laughed and said, “one, if we’re lucky.”) Early member Frank Riccio, a professional illustrator who worked for publications like Gourmet and Sports Illustrated, served on coordinating committees that helped decide on themes for collaborative annual projects. An indefatigable artist, Riccio kept illustrated minutes of the meetings, sketching group members mid-discussion. Some years after his death, the Virginia Center for the Book established the Frank Riccio Artist-in-Residence fund to support an annual visiting book artist.
In 2019 Josef Beery’s old mentor, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., became the first Riccio resident artist. Kennedy worked with community members and students ranging from kindergarten to university age. He graced Charlottesville with exhibits, workshops, and nearly 10,000 letterpress posters with thought-provoking messages and aphorisms collected from local residents. In light of the still-traumatizing racist events that had unfolded in Charlottesville in August 2017, Kennedy’s program, entitled “Finding
Wisdom,” was a healing moment, and his residency a huge success.
The Book Arts studio’s current location at the Jefferson School City Center has enhanced the program’s ability to devise more public-facing activities in the future—to engage and take advantage of the diverse voices and skills in the community. In celebration of the studio’s anniversary, member artist Kristin Keimu Adolfson was commissioned
to create a commemorative print honoring its quarter-century in the practice of the art and craft of bookmaking—and creating a community dedicated to the delights of slow technology. The print is available for purchase at the Virginia Center for the Book’s online store.
To learn more about the Book Arts studio, sign up for a class, or purchase a print, visit VaBookCenter.org.