by Sarah Lawson
In a small shopping center in Charlottesville, artists work at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center (VABC) to produce books and other creative projects that will one day make their way into collections across the globe. A program of VFH, the VABC is at heart a community print shop, offering classes and resources for people interested in letterpress, binding, papermaking, and other book arts skills. Artists range from beginners to well-known professionals, and all are invited to work together on an annual group project.
The number of artists participating in the VABC group project varies by year, but typically falls within the rage of twenty-five to thirty individuals who contribute their time, expertise, and creativity. “Collaboration involves risk,” says VABC member artist Lyall Harris. “An artist has to be willing to give up control of the creative process and outcome. But the rewards are huge: we learn so much about ourselves and each other, in addition to new techniques and exciting ways of approaching the same topic or set of parameters. The resulting work is inevitably both unexpected and richer.”
These projects often challenge the very definition of a book, but that’s not rare for book artists who are passionate about the process and the minutiae. In the constant search to break apart the idea of the book as a simple receptacle for content, VABC artists seek to explore its potential as an art object. Indeed, projects such as Notions: A Novel in Objects (2014) rarely resemble the traditional idea of a book, instead telling parallel stories of two factory fires through handcrafted objects assembled in a sewing box.
Another boundary-pushing group project from the VABC was Postmark (2011), a series of postcard-influenced art objects. Other projects, such as the Atlas of Vanishing Knowledge (2012) and the Bookmaker’s Dozen (2013), take a more traditional approach, inviting artists to create a signature of pages to be bound into a book or a series of individual miniature books.
Demonstrating the high quality of the resulting work, these and other VABC group projects have found homes with private collectors as well as in special collections libraries, including Duke University, Skidmore College, the University of Virginia, and Vanderbilt University. Museums and galleries throughout the country and around the world also acquire many of the group projects for their collections.
“I’m constantly surprised and impressed with the amazing work that comes out of the shop,” says VABC member artist Kristin Adolfson. “These projects offer artists an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone. What results are dynamic, fascinating projects as well as a deeper community amongst the artists.”
Most recently, the 2015 group project set out to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and the 20th anniversary of the VABC. The Bad Quarto is a creative interpretation of the pirated version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is thought to have been transcribed and printed (without Shakespeare’s close involvement) in 1603. The VABC’s version was acquired by special collections at Baylor University Libraries, Columbia University, University of Denver, DePaul University, Lafayette College, Stanford University, and University of Washington, among others. The Bad Quarto was featured in Shakespeare quadricentennial exhibitions at the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University, as well as an exhibition in Denver’s Abecedarian Gallery. The renowned bookbinder Samuel Feinstein is even preparing a special binding of The Bad Quarto for the Newberry Library’s Shakespeare Exhibition in Chicago.
Looking ahead, the 2016 VABC group project, Handmade Harvest, is underway as individuals and teams of artists work to create an agricultural themed series of handcrafted books. With plans to complete the project in time for the Raucous Auction on November 18, these unique books will be available as standalone works or as a collectible set.