DSC01082Nobody ever has fun on our annual trip to Wilson's Prom.036035034032029


    More about craft, and me, and the weather

    Here’s something I read the other night after I finally took my sorry, sad-sack self to bed:

    David Trubridge (interviewed in the most recent issue of Dumbo Feather): …..That’s where I think craft is so important, because imbedded in craft is the model of caring. It’s not producing stuff to sell, to make a profit, to keep the shareholders of the business happy. It’s making stuff because you want to make it, and you care about making it, and you use the best materials and processes because you want it to last. It’s innate in craft that you care. I think that is really important, that we should elevate it more and give it more attention and place in our lives. 

    Yes, I thought, yes. It is about care, and attention, and if that sometimes spirals into a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with perfection, well, then that’s the cost of caring. I feel a bit better about this now. Thanks, too, to those of you who sent messages of support and solidarity. At risk of offending former therapists, I find Twitter just as efficacious as psychotherapy.  


    And, for Melbourne readers, something else I read recently which might strike a cord:

    This is how Romans cope with the cold: every year everyone declares ‘it never gets this cold’ and in this way, even though it gets this cold every year, enough rhetorical heat is generated to get through the unseasonably seasonable cold. You are better off in a seriously cold place like England. – Geoff Dyer. 

    Sound familiar?

    Let me tell you all about quartz

    In my first year of secondary school Science, each student was randomly assigned a rock or mineral as a research project. Others had diamond or emerald or ruby; mine was quartz. Turns out, almost everything is a kind of quartz, and my assignment turned into an encyclopaedia of quartz, with a chapter on each kind and hand-drawn illustrations. My parents drove me to Geelong (a good hour away) to meet with a friend of my grand-aunt who was a rock collector. This old man gave me rock samples for a display case I’d made out of a plastic shirt box. 

    Later, I continued this obsessiveness with a Geography project on the Mallee (a geographic area in my state) which included chapters on the Mallee root (don’t ask) and the Mallee fowl. I got a C on this assignment because I was three days late handing it in; I’d spent weeks getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to work on it. In History, I was asked to collect 20 newspaper articles on apartheid in South Africa and to write a paragraph on each. I became overwhelmed by the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’d collected, didn’t hand in anything at all and got a shameful 52 for the semester. 

    I’m telling you this because I’ve been thinking about perfectionism; about the fine line between working on the edge of one’s abilities and being in way over one’s head. Mulling over the role of perfectionism in my own life is of course just part of broader, more generalised brooding over How To Live, and the internet has lots of ideas about this. I’m particularly taken with the programs at London’s School of Life; I’d like to commit myself (in the psychiatric sense) to a long-term residential stay. The School’s blog directed me to Richard Herring’s series on Bad Habits, which, in his opinion, include procrastination, lateness, laziness, perfectionism and workaholism. Unfortunately, the links to procrastination, lateness and perfectionism appear to be busted, so no help there. 

    Then I happened to read a piece in the NYT about a man’s re-evaluation of his father, years after the father’s death. A man who, for intents and purposes, was difficult, erratic and, basically, mad was, the author now sees, driven to this by the sheer frustration of managing his maddeningly obsessive compulsions. Ironically, the author discovers another side to his father through correspondence with one of his father’s underlings at the paper where the father was a senior editor. It becomes clear that in his role as editor, his obsessiveness was an asset; at home, a severe liability. 

    I’m guessing that all of us grapple in one way or another with these kinds of issues? Big picture/small picture, forest/trees, it’s hard to keep it all together. I can spend absorbing hours moving letters micro-millimetres around a page, or wondering about the use, under- or over-, of the comma, when all sorts of other aspects of my life are chaos. I guess what I’m circling around is the discomforting idea that the things that I’m good at (discerning gradations of ink, re-arranging paper fibres, judging something to be square) might not be evidence of skill so much as evidence of the worst aspects of my personality. Or maybe not the worst exactly, but not great. Hmmm. Where is this going? How about you? Is perfectionism the dark underbelly of craft? Are your neuroses reflected in the type of creative work you choose to do?

    I’m dying to rifle through the filing cabinets at Sterling Cooper.

    They had problems, too

    Tucked into my copy of The Undergraduate and the Graphic Arts by Ray Nash, graphic arts educator and historian, are two clippings advertising the talk Nash gave for the Heritage of the Graphic Arts series at Gallery 303, The Composing Room, 130 West 46th Street, NYC, on 23 April, 1969. 

    This series grew out of the activities of the Typophiles, under the stewardship of the remarkable Dr. Robert Leslie. (Erin Malone’s wonderful research first introduced me to Dr. Leslie years back.) Apprenticed to the great Theodore Low De Vinne, Leslie continued to work in the printing industry while he put himself through medical school. Appointed McGraw-Hill’s first industrial doctor, Leslie lost his eye in a chemical explosion at their printing plant in Manhattan. Giving up medicine (his wife, obsetrician and gynecologist Sarah Greenberg, the “Angel of Williamsburg”, claimed there was only room for one doctor in their marriage), Leslie returned to the printing industry, soon opening The Composing Room, a typesetting business, with linotype operator Sol Cantor. Leslie championed the work of European emigrés fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, launching their American careers in his magazine PM (later re-named A-D.) His gallery was the first to showcase graphic and typographic art in the US. Late in life, realising a long-held dream, he established Uncle Bob’s Paper Mill in the Negev Desert, Israel, producing paper made with mitan, a locally-grown fibre. An enthusiastic Typophile, he instituted trips to places of typographic interest that he dubbed “junkets”; the attendees “junketeers.” 

    Ray Nash, eminent teacher at Dartmouth College, gave his talk about 16th century printers and their methods at Leslie’s gallery. One of the clippings I have advertising his talk features a formal photo of Nash in profile, and the wonderful headline: They had problems, too.

    Before MS Excel

    The Universal  Mono-Tabular Broach (US Patent Numbers 2153890-2338940) was, according to promotional copy, “the most versatile an inexpensive rule form system ever devised.” It is “a machine with punches that may be spaced to broach horizontal metal rules so that vertical rules may be inserted to register most all kinds of forms within two minutes or less.”

    The Universal Mono-Tabular Corporation (706 Olive Street, Dallas 1, Texas) addresses her customers on the last page of the machine manual: 

    It is our sincere desire that you shall always derive from your Mono-Tabular Broach the full measure of service, speed and ease of production that we have earnestly built into it, and with the installation of this equipment in your plant, we trust, will be the beginning of a very pleasant business relationship between us. 

    May it grow closer as the years pass. 

    I almost blush to read this.

    I love type specimens

    Words In Their Hands

    Every year we set out to produce a book; a supernumerary book, contrived to fill no long-felt need but simply to give pleasure – to ourselves in the making and to our many friends in the reading. 

    This sentence, so full of generosity, opens the preface to Words In Their Hands, a book privately printed at the University Printing House, Cambridge in 1964, “For Friends at Christmas.” This lovely tradition (lost in the commercial publishing world?) continues amongst so-called “private” printers and is, in a way, the mark of such enterprise: the complete freedom of a press of one’s own. 

    Grant’s Bookshop is closing and when I saw the sale flag whipping against the front door, I knew I was going to spend money. Years back, my father gave me some type specimen books he’d found at Grant’s; inside, receipts identified them as having belonged to John Gartner, a well-known figure in printing in Melbourne, before his death in 1998. His massive book collection was sold primarily by Kay Craddock, but odds and ends continue to trickle though the secondhand book market. Knowing a little about his interests and travels, I’m sometimes convinced I’m holding a Gartner book when I find something I think fits with what I know about him. Sometimes though, as is the case with Words In Their Hands, I don’t have to guess: his bookplate is pasted inside. 

    It’s a beautiful book. The photographs are by Walter Nurnberg, who specialised in industrial photography. The essay is by Beatrice Warde. The book celebrates the printing house’s move to new premises, but rather than showcase new innovations (of which there were many) the photographer has focussed on the expressive actions of skilled hands through every stage of bookmaking. Beatrice Warde, who, one must admit, can get completely swept up in her own exultant rhetoric, writes “But what the living skilled hand represents, in a printing office, what it singularly symbolises in every quick, cautious pounce or prudent grip, is that whole sense of responsibility for something fragile and precious which is the very soul of the House itself.” Reading this book now, and looking at these pictures, I can’t help but wonder about the maddening paradoxes of modern manufacturing, which are not new: they were as present in 1964 as they are now. Perhaps the only difference is that in 1964, at least one commercial operation sought to celebrate the supremacy and necessity of human skill rather than simply manage it. 

    Of special note: there’s no girl printer, but there is a girl gatherer, collating signatures with a rubber finger-beak. 

    And to end: there’s one place still available in my letterpress workshop next weekend (18 & 19 April.) Details here.

    Note left on the notepad beside my studio door, before the notepad was stolen

    Another post about the weather

    I wrote this last Friday:

    My worms are dead. When I asked my neighbour if his lovely weeping alder is deciduous, he answered: it is now. I checked the newspaper online for a current temperature reading only to see that my friend’s bookshop is on fire (a suspected exploding air conditioner.) It’s the third day over 43C; today it reached 44.2C (111.6F)


    I couldn’t continue. Too hot; my laptop burning into my sticky thighs, my brain unable to form basic, expositional sentences. I wanted to memorialise sprinklers (their typewriter-like staccato, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwackthwackthwackthwackthwack) but couldn’t. Wanted to point you to this lovely quote (“Love the winter. Do not betray it. Be loyal.”) but how could I? I was dying; the initial frisson of excitement long over. It felt apocalyptic. 

    Then, as I left work today, it was muggy and overcast, like a day at the coast just before a storm hits. Big leaves were flying off the trees, swirling and eddying all along Swanston Street. So now it’s autumn? Say it isn’t so.

    Making photogravures in the bush

    Athletes talk about flow; about being in the zone, losing oneself in the moment, being perfectly in sync with one’s activity. I’m no athlete, that’s for sure, but I spend quite a good deal of time in yoga and meditation hoping for flow, trying to relax into it: sometimes I can, sometimes not. But I found it again this weekend making photogravures out in the bush at Baldessin Press. Something about the absorbing rhythms of testing, inking and proofing are both deeply engaging and deeply relaxing to me. And it can’t have hurt to be in such a beautiful, special place: a bluestone studio in the bush, the energy of other artists at work, insight into techniques that spark my imagination. It was such a joy to be a student again. It’s been a long time since I’ve made anything without a preconceptions about the result or pressures to be done by a certain time or to please a client. This is something I struggle with as someone who runs a creative business, albeit a part-time micro-business. How not to smother the joy in making things with my anxieties about pleasing others, paying the rent, getting the job done on time? 

    It made me think too about my own workshops, and whether or not I focus too much on the students completing their projects at the expense of their experimenting with the process. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it was helpful to have the experience of learning something for the first time again, an experience I’ll remember the next time I teach.  

    The weekend was also filled with memories: of the long, hot summer months Holly and I spent working on our book, of the formative time I spent at Yolla Bolly (where I had my first glimpses into a magical book-making life), the distinctive smell of ink and processing polymer plates. But it also brought back memories of myself when I was new to all this, how inspired I was, how motivated to follow every lead, to find out everything I could possibly could about anything print-related. I remember being mad at myself that I didn’t discover letterpress until I was twenty-five years old. All those wasted years before! This past weekend revived that person, in both the enthusiasm and the pre-emptive anxiety. Nearly thirty-eight, and I didn’t know about this? Life really is far too short. 

    Silvi is a wonderful teacher, and she and the rest of the Baldessin co-op (Tess, Rob and Lloyd) make the press a very welcoming place. (See lunch above.) I made and proofed six plates, all of which I was happy with, which was remarkable really. After Silvi’s Photoshop tutorial, it became patently clear that I was blessed with significantly good dumb luck, given my ham-fisted handling of my images files. I plan to test this dumb luck again in the very near future.