The Good Book

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007

“In my class,” says Walter Feldman, “I don’t want to have sausages.” A professor of visual arts, Feldman is also a maker of books, though not the kind you’ll find on sale at Borders. He teaches the ancient craft in a yearlong workshop called The Art of the Book, a seminar that is closer to a class in painting or sculpture than to one in publishing or library arts.

It may seem an odd course to be teaching at a time when some people proclaim the book obsolete. (“Oh, no!” Feldman exclaims, shocked at the suggestion.) But Feldman sees bookmaking as both an end in itself and a means to something broader. His students learn such technical skills as paper making, printing, and binding, all with the goal of making something beautiful, an artistic creation that’s as much at home in a gallery as in the hands of a reader.

To encourage his students to open their imaginations, Feldman never hands out a syllabus (“That would undercut the whole idea of the creative aspect of this course,” he says). He has few hard-and-fast rules, teaching students to define what a book is as broadly as they can. During one class session this fall, for example, a student presented a series of photographs with no apparent narrative. “It’s true we’re pushing the boundaries of a book, but it is a book,” Feldman told the class. “If it’s not a book then what the hell do we have a cover for?”

Year after year, Feldman draws students to his class from all kinds of disciplines. Art concentrators, engineers, and mathematicians all scramble to get into the bookmaking seminar. The reason is not just that they want to make fine books; The Art of the Book is also a class in thinking in unconventional ways, an adventure in creativity and experimentation. “I’m teaching them about love and self-discipline,” Feldman says with typical romantic flair, “and empathy and desire to achieve. That’s what I try to do.”

Early in the fall semester Feldman demonstrates the basics of printing and binding. The eighteen students learn to carve a block of wood and cover it in black ink. They then learn to roll the letterpress, which transfers the image onto a sheet of paper. As soon as they have mastered this, they discover that bookmaking doesn’t require a press. Some of the students choose to make prints by hand; others opt to paint, draw, or silk-screen images. Some students even download images from the Internet, resulting in a union of modern and ancient technologies. Some of the students hand-letter the text for their books; others prefer to type, and some books have no words at all. Feldman also teaches an assortment of hand-binding techniques. One of the simplest is accordion binding, in which a single sheet of paper is folded in an accordion and glued to a book cover. The students also learn to sew pages together with thread and ribbon tape. Feldman grades students on the progress they make. “Never do I make negative criticism,” he says. “They need to feel the freedom to try.”

FELDMAN, who has spent half a century on the Brown faculty, will retire at the end of spring semester. However, he is so devoted to The Art of the Book that he will continue to teach it. He purchased his own letterpress in the early 1980s and established a printing company, Ziggurat Press, in his Benevolent Street home. He has since collaborated on limited-edition poetry-and-art books with a number of faculty members, and he has been illustrating the Brown course catalog for decades. Feldman says that all these endeavors make him a better teacher. “When you’re enthusiastic about your own work,” he says, “your enthusiasm spills over with the students.”

On a typical afternoon in November, Feldman weaves around a fluorescent-lit studio on the second floor of the List Art Center offering suggestions and compliments to his students, who are now in the middle of their third project. The assignment is to make a book based on the broad theme of conversation and correspondence, a concept devised by teaching assistant Jessica Ritter, who is a graduate student at RISD.

Wandering about the room, Feldman takes on the role of problem solver, helping one woman, for example, who wants to use embossed metal for her cover but worries it will feel too flimsy. Feldman suggests that she cut a window into a traditional hard cover and place a strip of embossed metal inside.

A week later, the books now complete, Feldman gathers the class around one end of a worktable for a group critique. The first to present is Amy Komarnicki ’03, whose elegant sage-colored volume opens to pages that are not really pages at all, but envelopes folded in half. Inside each envelope is a blank sheet of writing paper. “Terrific!” Feldman says. The idea, Komarnicki tells the class, was to make a vehicle for writing letters to her future husband.

Jessica Theroux ’03, meanwhile, has created a miniature book titled Strange Birds: A Meeting. It combines colored drawings of birds with a sentence of text from a friend’s letter. The book is accordion-bound, with no spine connecting the twin red covers. “This is the classic Japanese binding,” Feldman remarks.

At the end of the two-hour session Mollie Zanoni ’03 presents the most unusual project of all. She has fashioned two sewing-machine drawers into boxcars, each of which holds a scroll cut from a brown paper bag and attached to posts that, when rotated, unroll the paper. She’s typed a book excerpt onto each scroll. Zanoni says her intention was for the narrative to roll along like a boxcar. “I like very much that you saw the boxcars in the drawers of the sewing machine,” Feldman says, offering advice on how to make the scrolls move more easily. “If you had built them yourself it wouldn’t have been as good.” Zanoni tells her classmates that earlier in the semester, she feared the project didn’t fit the definition of a book. But, she says, she now knows that, as a work of the imagination, a book can be whatever you can dream it to be.

Emily Gold Boutilier is the BAM’s senior writer.

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