Andrea here, musing today about making things by hand, and the tactile and visual pleasures of connecting with three dimensions in this digital age. It seems that more and more institutions of learning, from school classrooms to museums of every discipline, are recognizing the importance of object-based learning. Engaging with an actual “concrete” (okay, not literally) entity brings a subject—be it history, art, technology, the natural sciences—magically alive in ways that transcends a computer screen image or photographic reproduction.
I recently had a wonderful first-hand experience in watching this happen. In September, I teamed up to do a special project with a professor who teaches undergraduates at my alma mater how to print on an old-fashioned printing press. It involved creating a keepsake for an alumni gathering, and as it was my bright idea to print it by hand with real type and quality paper—even though 700 copies were needed—the two of us had a LOT time to chat in the press room as we cranked out the pieces one by one. (I fell in love with letterpress printing as a freshman, and did a lot of it, so it was great fun for me to get ink on my hands again after so many years.)
In particular, Richard and I talked about our love of handmade books and ephemera, and how the meticulous craft of hand-setting type, adjusting the pressure of the paper to get just the right impression, keeping track of the ink on the rollers teaches you so many good things—patience, having an eye for detail, and an appreciation of all the little differences in texture and nuance. You really do begin to see things differently when you really pay attention to those things.
He also teaches a freshman seminar on the art of the printed word. The students spend half their time visiting various rare book collections, and half their time learning to handset type and print a personal project. Now, as I also serve as a freshman advisor, I’m always really interested in what the students are doing and thinking, so I was delighted when Richard asked me if I wanted to come along with the class on one of their rare book collection visits.
The curators have fun doing this because they know it’s meant to be a “hands-on” experience. So, when our class (there are 15 students) trooped into the study room, there were a number of treasures lying there on the tables. Each book's history and significance was explained, and then handed around, with the students encouraged to feel the different textures of the paper—and vellum! They were also allowed to thumb through the pages and take note of the illustrations, the different colors, and how they would have to be registered on a press.
I got such a kick out of watching their faces, and the look of excitement as they pointed out to each other certain basics of book design and printing that they had discussed in class. To actually hold and touch incunabula (the term for books printed before 1500) and look closely at the subtle differences in shades of black ink had them mesmerized. I saw Richard light up as one of the students came over to him and began to discuss the serifs on several of the different typefaces. It makes me so pleased to think that these students will always look at a book differently—however unconsciously—from now on, appreciating all nuances, like the type styles, the proportions of the margins, the quality of the paper.
Some of the illustrations we saw were a Durer wood engraving (above right) for a German text, and a mezzotint of Napoleon, (left) considered to be one of the finest examples of the artform ever made, in a French legal book on the Code Napoleon . . . Really amazing stuff. It’s just the sort of experience you can’t get in digital media.
Richard also told me how fascinated the students are by the process of hand-setting type. (You have to really pay attention, as the type cases aren’t arranged alphabetically, but by how frequently a letter is used. There’s a standard layout in this country that we call the California job case. I used to have it memorized so I could set type pretty quickly, but I’m way out of practice. )
They also have to create their own illustrations by cutting a design on a linoleum block,(called a lino cut), which is designed to be type high, so it can be printed. They’re a little intimidated by that, so I’m going up again next week and show them some examples of my student work, as well as some of the really cool books that my artist mother created using lino cuts. (right)
I’m having a ball working with the class, and it’s reminded me how much I like making things with my hands. (Yes, I type on a keyboard all day . . . but that’s different in the ways I just explained.) What about you? Do you like the idea of object-based learning? Do have special things that you love to make by hand?