Lost in Venice: Students study book arts in the printmaking capitol of the world

Sep 21, 2012

Credit Aaron Cooper

Kalamazoo Book Arts Center director Jeff Abshear has spent part of the past decade teaching book arts in Venice to Italian children, but this summer’s trip with was the first time he taught Americans there. Eleven students from the Frostic School of Art and Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University went with Abshear to Venice this summer to study book arts. They attended a printmaking school and studied at a letterpress museum.

Abshear got a Fulbright Research Scholarship to Venice where he studied bookbinding, papermaking and printing.

“After the invention of the printing press, by Gutenberg, in Germany, almost immediately the center of printing shifted to Venice," says Abshear. "For a number of reasons. Venice was one of the first independent republics so they had some political freedom. It was also the crossroads of Europe because east and west, everything kind of went through Venice, either by sea or over land. So Venice was relatively rich and also rich in resources like paper and all the things you needed to print. So, printers there established the first book printing companies. So they have really in Europe the longest established tradition of book printing and there are still lots of printers there. Even modern, industrial printing…a lot of it is done in the Venetian region.”

Abshear says, for the Western students, the book arts assignments began before the overseas trip.

“They worked here at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center making handmade journals," he says. "So every student made a hard cover book to take with them to use as a journal for writing, drawing, collecting collage elements to commemorate the trip. Then, we also produced a book while we were there. Every student selected a piece of writing from their journal which we set in hand type and printed pages. Each student also made an etching, a suite of etchings, so the resulting book included etchings, the letterpress printing was passages the students had written about their experiences in Italy and we sewed the whole edition together and now every student has a copy of that book. It’s called Lost In Venice.”

In the audio above, you can hear Leah Ruesink reading from her journal entry in the book Lost in Venice. Ruesink is an elementary education student at Western.

“I hope to incorporate book arts somehow into my degree," Ruesink says. "I have to do a thesis for my senior year so I hope to do something about book arts for that. And, books relate to education, they are kind of the foundation for education, so I thought I could take a lot from the trip.”

WMU graphic design student Aaron Cooper was also on the summer trip to Venice. He wrote his journal entry in Lost in Venice while he was on a train to Verona. Cooper says the sense of history in Europe really affected him.

“As art students, we are required to study art history. And, I think it’s important, but, up until this trip and being where the art was created, it just didn’t matter to me," he says. "And now I see, even though their inspirations for creating art may have been different than ours, religion or politics, we still have very valid reasons for making art. It’s not just art for the sake of making art, it has a purpose.”

Aaron Cooper and Leah Ruesink were among eleven WMU students who studied book arts in Italy over the summer with Jeff Abshear, director of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center. Their exhibit called “Book Arts in Venice” will be on display at the KBAC through September 28.