Friday, April 11, 2008

Vandercook At Last

I spent my last afternoon in New Zealand at Green Bay Press in West Auckland, playing with a beautiful Vandercook press.

About six weeks ago I met Beth Serjeant completely by chance when my family wandered into a workshop Beth was teaching at the Ponsonby Art Station. Beth and I discovered we shared a passion for letterpress and had one of those urgent, intense conversations that MUST be continued in a more appropriate time and place. I rang her up a few days later and asked if I could come and meet her Vandercook press before I left the country and she graciously agreed.

Beth welcomed me into her garage turned print shop which is dominated by the big flatbed press from the 1950s but looking very modern to my eyes, accustomed as they are to century-plus old platens. I've been desperately keen for ages to have a go with a Vandercook- they are the favourite of many of the letterpress printers whose work I admire on the internet, especially in the United States where they seem much more common than in the Antipodes. The attraction for me is the big flat bed which can print any size paper, up to huge posters.

Beth let me pull a few prints of some type she had already set up in the press, so now I have some idea of the basics. The rollers turn on an electric motor, but each paper is pulled through manually with a satisfying full-body motion of the handle. I do like the physicality of printing. Beth says that when she first acquired the Vandercook it was like an arranged marriage and she thought it might make a good bench for her workshop. Fortunately a visit from Claire van Vliet who fiddled about with the press and got it up and running turned the arranged marriage into a love affair.

The text I printed was a Karakia mo te harakeke (Maori prayer for harvesting flax) printed onto flax paper. This seemed like a blessing on my journey, as in the next few days I will begin learning to make handmade paper with Australian native plants. Other blessings from Beth included the gift of an excellent printer's apron and sharing chocolates sent by Claire, with the surprise fortunes: 'Live your dreams' (me) and 'Be nice to a stranger' (Beth). I feel like I have found two life-long (or long-lost) friends in Beth and the Vandercook.
After we finished printing and cleaned the press we had a show and tell of some of our own work and some of Claire's that Beth has in her collection. I had seen a page of Beth's book Visionary earlier in the exhibition at the Auckland City Library- now I got to leaf through the whole big work, reading the poems by various New Zealand poets illustrated with Beth's colourful lithographs. It was a luxurious afternoon of book arts indulgence, pleasantly serenaded by Beth's son, Andrew, playing guitar in a nearby room.

I was exhausted and overwhelmed from my intense preparations for the huge journey beginning the following morning, so we spent our last half hour together quietly drinking tea and listening to a tape of Claire being interviewed by Sharon Crosbie when she visited NZ for a symposium in 1993 (the fateful trip that awoke Beth's Vandercook). Two descriptions from Claire leapt out for me, articulating my own feelings about artist's books in a way that I haven't been able to before: "the book as a stage setting for the content" and "the book as a physical facilitator of the meaning of the text".

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