What I love about writing is the imagination: the play with language, the weaving of words into story. Being born and raised in the South guaranteed that I’d be a storyteller of some kind, and a compulsion to make art soon led me to making handmade books.
I discovered letterpress printing as an undergraduate and fell in love with the process. It was one thing to write stories, but it was something entirely different to hand-set metal type, print the pages, and make a physical book to house those words.
That was in 2000. For years I traveled in circles–do I want to focus on writing or focus on art? For me, the intersection was artist books. For those who are unfamiliar, letterpress printing uses technology that began with Gutenburg and was finessed in the first half of the 20th century with the likes of Vandercook and Chandler & Price.
It’s manual type-setting: that is, placing single letters one by one to build words on the page; it’s hand-carving images into linoleum and wood blocks. It’s arranging all letters and images backwards so that they print right-reading; it’s printing folios on an ancient printing press, folding them in half, and sewing the printed pages into a book form.
The result is this whole narrative object that a reader can touch and hold–and experience in a sensory way.
It was that physicality that had me first enraptured with letterpress printing. I loved all the processes, from carving wood blocks to rolling the cylinder to print pages. When I learned to make handmade paper, it truly became a process of making from start to finish. It meant that I could print my own words and have total control of what the book looked like.
There was no editor or art director to revise my vision. And of course, there were these incredible handmade elements that you just don’t see in mass-produced books. The variety of structures are endless: you can make a book that is as much puzzle as it is text. To read a handmade book is to feel the leather that someone pared with hand tools, to see the slight impression of ink pressed into paper, to feel the texture of the page that came from cotton or flax. It is to experience some of what the maker felt as she built this object. It is a sensory feast.
There’s something magical about making a book this way, to pull sheets of handmade paper, to sew images and words together with a needle and binder’s thread. There is a physicality to the finished object that gives the words more weight, and there’s a commitment to the story. I’ve written this text, sure, but now I’m about to invest weeks upon weeks into giving it a real form that readers can hold in their hands. This is not something you do with a text you like; this is an investment you make in a text you love and admire.
And how that book feels in a reader’s hands is so important. As a book artist, you make decisions about which papers you want to use–which fibers will make the paper behave the way you want it to: will it be crisp and translucent, revealing layers of story all at one time? Will it be heavy and plush, with a surface you want to touch over and over as you read?
Naturally I began by printing my own stories: sometimes single lines of text, excerpts from stories, fragmented memories that are akin to memoir. Sometimes readers call my work “poetry,” but I would never call myself a poet. I was just wrapped up in the love of making art, and finding a way to weave my texts into it. Often the images for my books came first, and the writing was secondary. Sometimes vice-versa. But it seemed that one couldn’t exist without the other.
I actively seek out collaborations with other writers. I love the process of making books and physically printing words on paper, but I sometimes lose interest in my own words. There’s a delight that comes in combining brain power and imagination with someone else, and on occasion I come across a text that I just fall in love with and want to make into a book.
Now that I’m setting up my own studio, I hope to collaborate more often with other writers. Living in a remote part of the mountains, I don’t always have as much interaction with other artists as I would like. Sometimes I struggle with working from home and finding enough inspiration when I’m hunkered down in my remote part of the world. Hence I seek out other writers and artists online, at conferences, and at the occasional craft school or print shop to give me the momentum to keep going during the doldrums.
For me, letterpress printing combines all the things I love about books. In an age where it feels like digital is taking over, something this physical is refreshing. Sometimes I think the renewed interest in letterpress and artist books is a response to the surge in all things digital. Certainly the digital world has its perks for writers, and has given a presence to many voices that might otherwise never have been heard; but for me, letterpress printing does the same thing. It does so in a smaller sphere, but with far more attention to materiality and a kinetic experience with your reader as she holds your work in her hands.
Lauren Faulkenberry lives in Whittier, North Carolina. Her handmade books have been shown both nationally and internationally, and are held in Special Collections libraries in the U.S. and abroad. Her children’s alphabet book, “What Do Animals Do on the Weekend?” was published by Novello Festival Press in 2002. Lauren holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College and an MFA in Book Arts from The University of Alabama. She currently divides her time between freelance writing and teaching workshops in the book arts, and operates under the imprint Firebrand Press.
facebook page: Firebrand Press
website with porfolio: www.firebrandpress.org
personal blog: therightsideof30.blogspot.com