Saturday, August 2, 2014

Studio Visit: The Morgan Conservatory

Papers handmade at the Morgan Conservatory
In anticipation of my next post, I stopped by the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland last week, wishing to get the lay of the land before I review their current show. Many years ago, I learned letterpress printing at the Annis Press in the Wellesley College Library, which has a well-known rare books department and a book arts program as well. Setting type by hand and printing on hand-made papers was stimulating to the senses and the intellect in a unified way I hadn't experienced before. Such a labor of strategy, technique, and imagination! 

My introduction to paper and printing was in the vernacular of fine printing—limited edition books, each copy of which is a work of art in itself, bound with expensive, elegant materials.

Fine printing: Bible page by Eric Gill, type designer,
typographer and illustrator

The constant tension is whether these books may even be handled let alone read, for even the most beloved texts are tantamount to art prints in such exalted forms. If Rembrandt made a book of many plates, would you be allowed to sit back and read it? It's status as fine art outweighs its content as material for your mind to wander over. Oily fingers must not touch.

When I became a fine artist myself, I made books by drawing and hand writing on whatever paper came to hand, insisting on the democracy of the book. 

The idea of book arts lives in a much more expanded world, though, than the exquisite sphere of fine printing in which I was lucky to learn the the traditions. It is with gratitude and joy that I've followed the career of Melissa Jay Craig , who so radically interprets the idea of the book—form and content—that it's a minor occupation in itself to follow her. She is showing in the exhibition that will be the topic of my next post.

I visited the Morgan Conservatory in Craig's hometown, expecting it to be rather like the Annis Press at Wellesley. My mind was filled with an image of a stately building with Ionic columns. A Morgan Library.

Ann Starr, 1999, "The Man Who Invented Genius," artist's
book. 12 of 23 pages, ink on note paper, 2 x 3"
I quickly recognized that it's not that Morgan. The building is functional, industrial, workmanly, backed up across vacant lots to the former May Company's warehouse. Founded in 2009, it is a 15,000-square-foot former machining plant.

The Morgan Conservatory doesn't contain any library of rare books. Rather, it preserves the practices of paper making, letterpress printing, and all the resources that encourage their advancement from antique into every conception of the future. There's no sense here of Don't-Touch, but of experimentation and growth amidst watery slops and the intoxicating scent of printer's ink.

I was invited to wander around and to investigate freely. People were working or pausing to eat a mid-day sandwich, and all happy to answer a question. This is a social sort of studio with few enclosed spaces, where people are happy to work collaboratively and, in fact, often need an extra hand. I'll try to show you what I saw in my meandering around this wonderful place. I hope it entices you to go, and to keep up with their active schedule of shows.
The neighborhood is light industrial mixed with working class homes; the interior of the Conservatory is industrial space subdivided into areas for gallery, administration, paper making, and printing. None is entirely blocked from any other; a sense of collegiality and cooperation prevails.

The exterior of the building has been incorporated as an important part of the paper making facility. It has a large, lovely garden planted mainly with kozo, the paper mulberry tree. They grow kozo to favor the desired stems, which are stripped of bark, its fibers eventually being softened and pulped to become the basis for various forms of Oriental papers. 

The Conservatory's kozo garden is being expanded with the launch of an Eastern Papers Studio. The garden isn't just a farm, though, but a wonderful sylvan experience in the city. Pots of hibiscus, marigolds, and short, red dahlias decorate the patio. Their brightness will linger on past the summer when their petals will be used to dye the studio's handmade papers.

A walkway into the garden's  meditative space is marked by an ancient-looking archway, surely the sacred survivor of fire in an important building. Or, perhaps it was part of a very old ceramics kiln. 

But no, I learned that this is a construction made entirely of paper, relinquished to the Morgan from a sister institution. Here it stands in the kozo garden all year, through everything the lake effect weather can hurl on it, enduring like the brick and stone that it is not. Ah, the book arts! Artists at the Morgan Conservatory see paper not necessarily as sheets.

Inside, there's an exciting sense of possibilities delivered by the openness: It's bright, high, decorated by new work, and very utilitarian. Works of paper art destined for "Contemporary Artists & Eastern Papers" are temporarily draped, hung, or laid out around the area like a casual abundance of precious materials, contrasting with the exposed pipes and beams of the working space. One feels invigorated by the sense that all energy expended here must be productive: There are no closets, no hidden spaces, nothing but loss of concentration to get between an artist and her work.

One is constantly reminded that individuals are part of a working community here. Interdependency is highlighted by safety reminders and notes about maintenance of shared facilities. 

paper on drying racks
moulds for making paper by the sheet
The paper making area is a wet world filled with mechanical beaters for pulping fibers, basins in which the fiber is lifted onto the screens of moulds to form sheets, and felts onto which they are laid out once formed. The room is full of drying racks on which individual sheets rest while the air circulates around them. It's a wonderful room of specialized equipment that most people never experience.

At the Morgan, while one can purchase by the sheet handmade papers made to specification not only of size, but of fiber content, much of the paper work taking place is not for printers, calligraphers, or bookbinders, but for sculptors or conceptual artists. They are not necessarily making papers that are sheer, even, and meant to take ink without bleeding. They may be more like industrial workers, making papers stout enough to hold shapes, not to crack, warp, or shrink.

A large and crowded area of the Morgan is devoted to letterpress printing. Letterpresses use "cold type," or type that is set by hand from metal punches, each with one letter of the alphabet, upper or lower case, in a particular font. The artist "sets" the type with metal or wooden spacers that secure the distances between each letter, word, and line of the text. All the text and spaces are made tight in a form that is inked. Paper is pressed against it to gain the impression. Depending on the age of the technology, the press may require manual re-inking with a roller between every impression, or it may be mechanically self-inking. 

Typesetting is painstaking. Texts are set from right to left. Once the job is done, the printer must disassemble the many tiny elements and return letters and spaces  correctly to their places in type drawers, "minding their p's and q's" (not to mention their b's and d's) so the next printer will not end up in a disheartening, dyslexic alphabet soup.
Typecases and printed broadsheets
The space of a letterpress always  smells pungently of ink and the solvent that washes it away. Fans are always on the keep the noxious fumes from collecting. In a period when this work is artisanal rather than industrial, there's no doubt that the odor is a kind of perfume, or an indulgence like absinthe, to be enjoyed in sips, in knowledge of what you're doing.
Sorted type for distribution
into drawers