Continuity, Change and Collaboration
This story begins in 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical printing technology. Gutenberg’s improvements centered around his invention of the matrix, a hand mould (usually of copper) employed in the hot metal casting of the individual letters used to form each word of the text that would be printed. The matrix was created by hand carving, in the desired print style (font), a steel punchcutter from which the matrices would be made. It was rare for one person to have the skills to do all of the steps involved in printing a book: designing the type, cutting the punches, casting the type, setting the type, printing the words, and binding the finished product. By the mid-1800s, type setting and printing became more mechanized, eventually leading to the elimination of metal type for most printing tasks, which are now done via offset printing on aluminum plates
Fast forward to 1979, when Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press was started by artist Julia Ferrari and her partner Dan Carr (1951-2012), poet, type designer, typographer, teacher, punchcutter, and New Hampshire State Representative. Among Dan’s many achievements, he taught himself to punchcut the type he wanted to use for the hand-printed works published at Golgonooza. In 1991, Dan was advised to visit France’s Imprimerie Nationale, where hand-printing techniques had been maintained since the printing works had been established in 1538 under François 1er. Dan’s self-taught punchcutting skills impressed the people at the Imprimerie Nationale, who viewed his determination and polymathic enthusiasm worthy of their further assistance. Because he was already advanced, in just fifty hours at the Paris headquarters, Dan managed to learn the additional techniques he needed to know, such as how to cut the more difficult capital letters. The Imprimerie Nationale appreciated Dan’s genius so greatly that they took the unprecedented step of giving him some of the tools he needed to perfect his skills, and create the type faces that he would design and use in his printing.
By 1997, Dan became the only person known in the world to be able to do all of the steps required to hand-publish a book of his own writing. He and Julia formed “Trois Fontaines Press” to publish their limited edition books. Dan designed a new font, “Regulus,” named for the star that was “rising through the trees when his first alphabet was created.” For their 1997 book, “Gifts of the Leaves,” Dan composed the poems, designed the font, punchcut each letter, cast and set the type, printed the text, and bound the books. His partner Julia was an integral part of the process not only in binding, but adding her art work of monotypes, etchings, dry points, and soft ground images that were “created independently of the poetry and that revealed her inner life through symbolic shape language.”
Meanwhile, since 1989 Kim and Philippe Villard had been making white-line color woodcuts, a process first refined in Provincetown, MA., circa 1915. In Kim and Philip’s collaborative process, Philippe draws and carves the lines on a single woodblock and Kim does the painterly hand printing. When Dan and Julia were on vacation in Boothbay Harbor, ME, they chanced upon the Villard’s notice offering instruction in white-line woodblock printing. Because of that class, a close friendship was formed, which lead to a collaboration between talents.
- The Villards’ first “Art Colony Edition” of handmade books came out in 2004, featuring their color woodblock prints with five typeset pages designed, set and printed by Dan and Julia. Half the text was printed and the trays of set type were stored at Golgonooza Press scheduled for a seconded run in 2010, half way into the Villard’s projected 10 volume set.
Back in Paris at the Imprimerie Nationale, all of the skills that Dan had mastered were being maintained by different men, each of whom specialized in only one technique, such as punch cutting or binding. Working in two or more departments was not considered a possibility. By her talent and persistence, Nelly Gable managed to break into the all-male world of punchcutting and became one of only three women working at a higher level in France’s national printing works . She soon came to hear of Dan’s genius and to later meet him. Despite much initial resistance at her work site, over an additional eight years Nelly learned all of the other skills for making letterpress books with hand cut type. This achievement meant that she and Dan were the only two such multi-talented people known.
In parallel, Dan designed three other type faces, taught typography and its history at Keene Univ. NH, and give workshops on punchcutting and letterpress printing. He and Julia created other hand-made poetry books, including in 2008 “Reach of the Heart,” which turned out to be his last work before his untimely death in 2012.
In 2010, as Dan’s health became weaker the presses slowed and eventually stopped at Golgonooza, the Villard’s project understandably postponed. The prognosis that their friend and project mentor may not live to see the completion of their artists’ book series was eclipsed. This difficult time brought the artists together, to another level of art - the art of living and dying.
In the fall of 2012 five months after Dan’s passing, Julia Ferrari and Kim Villard managed to roll the long silent presses at Golgonooza and hand print the required pages for the remaining volumes in the Villard’s series. This was a turning point, and emotionally powerful experience for both women, as the studio hadn’t been touched since Dan fell ill. Amongst his unfinished projects, photo’s of the fallen poet punctuated the eternal aspects of continuity, change and collaboration.
For Julia to begin again she planned a pilgrimage and in the spring of 2013 made a trip to Europe, retracing Dan’s 1991 journey *. Dan had not been forgotten at the Imprimerie Nationale, as their doors and ateliers were once again opened to an innovative American. She started by learning how to hand cut lower case letters, working closely with Nelly Gable, from whom she plans to learn how to cut upper case letters as the bridge of collaboration reconstructs.
These efforts came to a crescendo the weekend of July 19, 2013, during which Nelly Gable (and son) were present with Julia Ferrari of New Hampshire at the Boothbay Harbor home and studio of Kim and Philippe Villard. They shared fond memories of Dan Carr, with Julia reading some of Dan’s superb poems from their hand-made books. It was a further meeting of the minds and hearts to help maintain and build each other’s strengths, as well as to plan how to keep these disappearing, foundational arts alive.
Thus, due to the creative efforts between and by Dan Carr and Julia Ferrari, Kim and Philippe Villard, and Nelly Gable, these ancient and complex skills have been shared and are being passed down, instead of becoming lost. Nelly has helped to change the work situation at the Imprimerie Nationale. The persistence and talent of artists make it possible (in an ever-changing and more mechanized world) to continue the traditions of hand-made letter press printing and artist books.
Dean Silvers, July 2013