What’s a writer doing at Art Camp? I pondered that question as we traveled up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crossed Quincy’s wide meadows, and bumped along the dusty road leading into Feather River Art Camp. My head had been down for so long, pushing toward the finish line of a novel, that art camp sounded impossibly crazy.
Then I saw the offering of Bookmaking taught by Rhiannon Alpers, a book artist and letterpress printer at San Francisco Center for the Book. My objections evaporated. How would it feel to make a real book with my hands compared to the long haul of novel writing? The lure was tantalizing. I could write in the afternoons; I wouldn’t break rhythm. Like a guilty wife taking a lover, I signed on.
My first glimpse of camp in a wood dotted with old-timey buildings was reminiscent of childhood, and I quickly saw that most of the workshops were held outdoors. The scene resembled a Sherwood Forest of artists, setting up tables and stringing lights in the branches. The afternoon sun filtered through the trees, Spanish Creek called to swimmers, and the wind sent the pines to singing. When the dinner bell rang, off we trooped to the Chow Palace. That night the temperature dipped to 37 degrees and we slept in rustic cabins like babes under down comforters.
On the first morning, Rhiannon, a tall, striking strawberry blonde with a soft voice, took control of our group of eight on a deck under the trees. We arrived with basic supplies; she brought paper, thread, wood, needles, leather scraps and paint. Clumsy at first, I fell under the spell of completing one task at a time: measuring, cutting, folding, painting and sewing. I soon realized that the craft of bookmaking is a blend of geometry and artistic vision. Rhiannon’s direction was precise, her artistry astonishing.
By week’s end, I made two books that I loved. No matter that the pages were blank—they were smooth and creamy, scored and folded by my fingers; the wood cover didn’t have a title—it was sanded and painted, embellished with a driftwood handle that I had found on a beach in Baja; the binding had no glue—it was hand-stitched in bright orange thread in an intricate Coptic stitch pattern.
When we left camp, I had a tantalizing invitation from Rhiannon to visit the Center. My first impression as I walked under the bright red awning and through the door into the spacious building on DeHaro Street was that this grass roots, non-profit is a book arts’ mecca, and a wonderland for writers. Here, the glory of letterpress printing and book binding is in full renaissance. Workshops are offered, internships shape careers, and artists re-invent the concept of “book.” And best of all, for writers like me, the in-house printer program provides an opportunity to discover affordable fine press printing.
Now, on September 7, a limited edition memoir, My Moveable Feast, illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Fiona Taylor, will debut at the Center. The journey has been a collaboration from the beginning: Rhiannon guided the concept, Fiona produced the drawings to accompany each vignette, and together we stood by while Annemarie Munn, a printer in residence, set the type and operated the Vandercook cyclinder press, an enormous black beast that clanks and wheezes, the smell of ink rising off its body.
The result is a pristine book that is beautiful and handmade. And that novel I was writing? Dreaming Mill Valley will launch in October in digital print and e-book form. But it is my experience at the Center with the generous and talented staff that brought My Moveable Feast to life in the time-honored letterpress tradition that offers a bedrock of inspiration and leads me on.Promi