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Neutrons Protons: Book people

Editor’s Note: NolaVie presents this guest blog series from Neutrons Protons, a New Orleans-based literary publication that believes well-written stories, and a good dose of humor, have the power to change the world. The next issue comes out May 1. Here. editor Sophie Johnson talks her love of books, book arts, and book (arts) people.

I am a book person. I don’t mean that I am well-read. I am, in fact, not particularly well-read. I can’t quote any Tolstoy, and my all-time favorite books were written for children. When I say I’m a book person, I mean that I’m into books the way other people are into fine cuisine or jazz music. Give me a nice, old bound edition and I’ll swoon over it like you’ve handed me a few thousand dollars. I don’t even care what it’s about most of the time. I look at the spine to see what kind of binding the book has. I smell the pages to get an idea of the sort of ink that was used. People who have seen me do this describe it as “really weird.”

Weird as it may be, I am not alone. There are plenty of people who appreciate the artistry of the book just as much as I do, if not more. There are hundreds of organizations out there dedicated to nothing but book arts — everything from the Miniature Book Society to Meister der Einbandkunst (German for “Master of the Book Cover”). The Tumblr site “F*** Yeah, Book Arts” has nearly a thousand Likes on Facebook. It’s not uncommon for the posts on “F*** Yeah, Book Arts” — featuring complicated bindings and long-lost paper-making techniques — to receive tens of thousands of re-blogs.


I’ve known about this vast network of book-loving weirdos for years because, in college, I minored in Book Arts. I quickly learned that my penchant for peeling back spines to salivate over the sewn signatures was not uncommon for a vast underground society of (mostly introverted, fairly private) people. But I had felt pretty isolated as a book person in New Orleans. That is, until last January, when I heard about Baskerville.

According to its Facebook page, Baskerville is “a brand new, classically-inspired letterpress printing and book arts studio in New Orleans, [including] a public studio offering shared equipment and workspace to member artists, and education to the broader community.”

Baskerville opened its doors on February 8, with a big studio-wide party, which I gleefully attended. It was better than I could have imagined: There were old letterpresses in every corner; the entire place smelled like ink and paper; and, best of all, the room was packed with crazy book people, just like me.

One of them was Amelia Bird — an indescribably beautiful woman with long blondish hair and a closet full of terrific vintage-inspired outfits. Bird is a co-founder of Baskerville, and she’s magnetic. She talks about books with a kind of quiet giddiness that makes you cling to her every word.

Bird went to Iowa to pursue her master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing.

“I learned a lot, but I wasn’t crazy about the competitive writing atmosphere,” Bird said. Meanwhile, she “kind of wandered into” a bookbinding class that was offered at Iowa and promptly fell in love.

“I loved the balance between skill and precision and openness and process and decision-making and talking to people that came with making books. I loved how meaning was conveyed literally and textually and visually and structurally, all at once. I felt like it brought together a lot of things to me that didn’t feel as open with writing,” she said.

Bird’s work is powerful. She makes the kinds of books I wish I could show to people who don’t fully understand what I mean when I say “book arts.” She showed me a project she’d done based on an old day journal she found at a little farm auction in Iowa. It was a twice-a-day journal that a woman had kept religiously in the 1940s, writing a sentence about the weather, the children, or the crops. Bird told me she’d found the journal and had grown obsessed with it. She created polymer plates of some of the handwritten pages, and then took excerpts that spoke to her and set them in type to juxtapose. The result is this wonderfully delicate little tome: a testament to the unexpected poetry of a forgotten way of life.

When Bird finished her graduate program and came to New Orleans, she was hungry to join forces. Within a few months, she found Angela Driscoll and Yuka Petz, who had started an organization called SIFT in 2011. SIFT stands for “Structure, Image, Form, Text,” and (as they put it,) starts with book arts and “radiates outward,” with an “aim to facilitate exploration and dialogue of interdisciplinary arts.”

Just this month, SIFT unveiled an enormous exhibition at Press Street’s Antennae Gallery. It’s a pair of shows called “Parameters” and “Diversions,” and I say it is enormous because it is a highly interactive and deep exhibit that requires a lot of time and attention to fully unpack.

Driscoll’s work is made up of everything from artists’ books to drawings to installations to video to sound. She has taught classes at Loyola and given time to Press Street and the Antennae Gallery, all in between her work helping to found SIFT.

And recently, despite the rush of pulling together the final details of her exhibit, Driscoll met with me a day before “Diversions” and “Parameters” opened to give me a preview and tell me about SIFT. When we sat down to talk, Driscoll took on the measured professionalism of a person being interviewed. But when she took me upstairs to show me “Parameters” — featuring “work from national and local artists who use chance experiments, media or process restrictions, and conceptual rules as boundaries or guidelines to form their work” — her entire demeanor changed. Clearly passionate about the work she had helped to curate for the exhibit, Driscoll moved around the space ignited, with something to say about each piece.

Details from the Least Popular

Neilson’s Details from the Least Popular

We stopped for a while at a piece called “Details from the Least Popular,” by New York-based artist Heidi Nielson. The work is a shiny, perfect-bound book that includes detail areas from the hundred least popular images in the Hubble Space Telegraph image gallery from 2012.

“I think it’s just so fascinating,” Driscoll said. “I mean, sure, some of them are boring, but some of them are so amazing! You wonder why they’re the least popular.”

For Driscoll, books are just one part of a much larger world of possibility when it comes to art.

“I like the intimacy of it. I like how it’s sort of something that forces someone to spend time with it, because otherwise you don’t really get to experience it, and it has a density because of that. You can’t just walk by it and glance at it,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot of room to explore the ideas of time and sequence in these arts. Not that I don’t totally geek out over a beautiful letterpress or anything, but I think for me, what I personally love about what artists can do with some of these art forms is that idea of combining text and image and sequence.”

Bird loved working with Driscoll and Petz at SIFT and wanted to extend the work she did there — to go deeper into the processes of book-making.

“The boundaries of the actual book form and the sort of set limitations of the materials and size and process feels really relieving to me in some deep way,” she said. She wanted to bring her love of that structure to a physical space and an organization, and so (with enthusiasm from some printing press partners), Baskerville was born.

At the opening party, I awkwardly schmoozed with tons of book-loving nerds and felt finally at home. I noticed a whole table of books assembled by this one guy who was flitting around the party with a typewriter. His name was Ben Aleshire, and he described himself as a street poet.

Sophie Johnson's watercolor of Aleshire

Sophie Johnson’s watercolor of Aleshire

I was intrigued by Aleshire. When I asked him for an interview via e-mail and suggested it be by phone, he wrote back that he only had a landline, and besides, he hated doing phone interviews.

“I’ve done interviews over the phone, and it always feels like being blindfolded and bellowing about something you truly love across a canyon to another person who is blindfolded,” he wrote.

So I met him at a coffee shop on a sunny day, and we walked to the Bayou to sit and talk about books. On the way, he started unwinding his life story for me, which sounded like something out of a pulp paperback novel from the ’60s. He’d traveled across the world after high school in lieu of college, moved back to the states to fall in love with poetry, and gone on a whim to California with some friends to be a part of a “sort of rag-tag circus.” He doesn’t have a computer or a cell phone; has spent the last year archiving original Allen Ginsburg poetry in an unassuming dank saloon; and just spent the winter sleeping in an uninsulated puppet theater near the train tracks, which he described as being a “completely wonderful experience.”

For Aleshire, bookmaking is as utilitarian as it beautiful. He started making books because it was so much cheaper than self-publishing through an online hub and yields products of higher quality.

“People write their manuscripts on a computer and then they push a button and it uploads to this robot factory in Illinois or wherever, and this factory of robots poops out however many books that they order. So there’s this corporation making this massive profit off of people’s hopes and dreams of being published,” he said.

Aleshire has done most of his bookmaking in Vermont, where he grew up. He talked to me about a place called Green Door Studio, where there’s a program for Iraq war veterans with PTSD to turn their old battle uniforms into paper as a form of art therapy. He started his literary magazine Salon in Burlington, where he scrounged for materials and resources to produce each issue at the cost of a handful of change. The magazine itself is gorgeous — he generously gave me a copy — the paper is beautiful, the cover is letter-pressed, and the whole thing is sewn in a perfect two-signature bind with a pretty paper overlay.

But for Aleshire, book arts is about more than just being pretty to look at.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly online and plugged in, what I’m really interested in is slow art,” he said. “Art doesn’t have to be this instantaneous, digitalized thing. It doesn’t make it better for the environment either. I think it’s really a fallacy that to go green you have to stop using paper. The myth is that without paper there are fewer resources being used, but think about the resources from the imperial devastation of Africa and East Asia. Where do you think flat screens come from?”

I asked Aleshire if book-making was a form of activism for him. “It’s not saving the world or anything, but at least it’s not telling any lies,” he said. “Traditional book arts is a slow, long process. To make hundreds of books it takes a community of people sitting around sewing, talking. It’s amazing when people get together and actually talk to each other these days, and book arts can be an avenue for that.”

That’s when I remembered this entire network of people who like books as much as I do. They’re everywhere, it turns out. We are all people who crave the interactivity that a book provides. We want to hold words in our hands. We want language to get mixed up with art and to come together and to beg us to pay attention.

I asked Bird if she thought book arts was a growing field in New Orleans.

“I think it’s growing everywhere,” Bird answered. “The aesthetic has caught on. I also think that that aesthetic comes out of a nostalgia for physical objects and old-time techniques that are not really a part of people’s everyday lives anymore. And when people find them there’s a spark, and you can see it in people.”

She was right, of course. She saw it in me, and I saw it in her, and we saw it in everyone who turned out to Baskerville’s opening party and beyond. Maybe we live in a world full of book people, who don’t even know that’s what to call themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’re a person who secretly smells the glue in used book stores, or who sighs over marble-endpaper, don’t worry — you’re in good company.


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