My whole project started about 5000 years ago when I bought a copy of Under Milk Wood off a clearance table in the bookstore of the first of the many colleges I’ve attended. Back then, I had no idea Dylan Thomas had written it as a radio play; I only knew I liked the cover and the title. When I found out about the BBC Radio version, I bought a copy of it and then listened to it about six-and-a-half million times. My favorite line the first time I opened the book is still my favorite line now. It comes when Rosie Probert’s ghost is speaking to Captain Cat about how she’s losing touch with the living world. She describes how it feels to go into the darkness by saying, “I have forgotten that I was ever born.” If my project has a central idea (and that’s a big “if”), then the idea is about forgetting. Or, actually, as it evolved, my project is about struggling to recapture fading memories and trying (and failing) to make sense of conflicting narratives. But it started with the image of a ghost telling a living person what it felt like to fade away into limbo.
Of course, projects usually start in more than one place, like everything else. One of the main inspirations for the content of Notebook is this 1895 house in an old neighborhood in my hometown. This was where my great-grandparents lived for about 40 years. The house is still there, but of course it’s not remotely the same place as it was. The people who live there now probably have no idea, for example, that the top floor bedrooms were where my great-grandfather had his library of several thousand books on every subject under the sun. They also probably don’t know about the jars of homemade wine in the dirt cellar, or the huge amount of expert sewing that happened in the back bedroom downstairs. Anyhow, I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and after my great-grandfather died, I got to explore his whole library over the course of one amazing summer. He had a Multigraph machine for running off church bulletins, which was fascinating operation all by itself, plus a globe with parts marked “Unexplored,” and volumes of poetry next to histories next to pretty bad mid-century novels. That’s when I started to learn about the deep past of my family, about how books are made, and about how printing works. Most of all, I think that’s when I first developed a massive interest in fragmentary images and information. Because, extensive as it seemed, Papa’s library was also confusing, contradictory, and full of gaps. I mean, I guess how disorganized everything was in those crowded bedrooms could be frustrating, but to me it was instead intriguing to see all the weird juxtapositions of genres and styles, which led in all sorts of interesting new directions you might not go in if things were all ordered in a sensible way.
When I started to really think about my content, I thought first about doing a book on my great-great-grandfather, who died in 1917, but almost died in 1864 during the Battle of Atlanta. I wasn’t so much interested in his service to the Confederacy, since I have zero sympathy for the Confederate cause, which is for some reason hard if not impossible for folks to believe about a Southerner. Still, despite my extreme disagreement with the reasons for why he fought (and, yes, I know all the arguments, excuses, and apologias), I have always been intrigued by his pretty eventful war record, partly I guess because that’s a boy-type of thing to be interested in, but also because it could have all happened some other way. Meaning, after he was shot near Atlanta, he was told by a Union doctor that he would definitely die fairly soon of his wound. This was before he’d fathered any of his twelve children. So a lot of the people I knew growing up could have just as easily never existed. I could just as easily never have existed. Which I know isn’t a super profound thought. But it’s not a completely trivial thought, either, that a little ball of lead could have cut a bit deeper and severed a whole family line. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen for thousands of other families that might have continued but never did. So I wondered if my book project could capture that idea, somehow.
I then started to think about the people who might not have existed, about all their different personalities, their myriad likes and dislikes, how their voices sounded, and the various ways they moved through the world. The people in this picture, for example, are all gone now (my grandmother—top left—died the day before I defended my thesis), but at least they once lived and had an effect on the world. With their passing, though, our family has lost access to an immense amount of lore. All kinds of anecdotes are gone, memories of moments and places, names and faces, myths and legends. So I thought a lot about that, about how to do a book that might communicate some sense of loss, maybe by way of a random collection of fragments of text. All of which sounds like a more straightforward process than it was. Instead, it was a confusing, vexing, up-and-down type of process. Which I guess is normal, according to everything I’ve learned in art school over the last several decades.
The family picture, by the way, was taken one Christmas in the front room of my great-grandparents’ house.
Early on, I had to go ahead and figure out the formal side of things, partly because you have a year to do one of these projects (and the clock’s not ever your friend in your thesis year), and partly because that’s how I usually work, by getting the whole thing going at once, even if I’m not sure yet about all the different aspects. What helped was, because I’d been thinking about my great-grandmother so much, I remembered a lot of her quilts were made in this kind of blocky patchwork way…which kind of reminded me of the pages of a book. What helped even more was that I had recently inherited a bunch of the actual quilts she made way back in the 20th Century, so I could get them out and study them. This was probably the main influence on the design of my book. It just seemed like the right way to proceed, to plan on the pages conflicting with each other the way the quilting pieces do (albeit in a pleasing way) in these photos.
I also wanted my book to seem cluttered (although the finished result looks less messy than I’d planned). For one thing, thinking about my great-grandfather’s library, I realized that my studio was about the same size as one of his book-filled bedrooms and that I had managed to replicate some of how it felt to be up there with all of the junk that I apparently like to accumulate. For another, looking at this shelf above my drawing table gave me the idea (again) that it might be interesting to mix disparate things together, somehow, even if I might not do it in a Rauschenberg-style way, exactly (mostly because you see it so much everywhere else). That’s when I figured out that I would use a bunch of different linocuts, old and new, along with a ton of collagraph plates and as many polymer plates of various pieces of text as I could manage.
So then I made a mockup of the book and the box using all the materials I’d settled on during the earliest phase of planning. I ended up with a 6-section, 24-folio book with a wrapper, which would give me 92 pages (minus the 4 hidden by the wrapper) to fill with whatever I could fill them with. This meant that each book would require a minimum of 4 runs per folio (2 front, 2 back) to get all the colors, layers, and textures in the book I wanted. And, yeah, it dawned on me pretty quick that this meant I’d be living at the press for about 95 thousand years.
The first step in the actual production process, then, was to tear down all the paper. I did this last summer while watching (or mostly just listening to) several seasons of MST3K. The paper is all 70lb. Mohawk Superfine, which I chose because it reminded me of the paper my uncle had in his infamous giant paper hoard, which I used to sometimes get to use for stuff as a kid. Plus I’d printed with it a ton before and liked it for my kind of work. I think I ended up with about 2000 sheets (I lost count toward the end). I needed about 1500 for “good” prints and the rest for proofs. Meanwhile, I chose Arches for the cover, because I wanted it to be pretty sturdy and also wanted to draw on it so that each of the 50 books would look different.
I made several new lino blocks and gathered up a few blocks from old projects. This picture shows 24, but really I used about 32 or so.
As I explained in my earlier post about the writing process, I filled 55 4″x6″ index cards with text, then scanned them all and put them through Illustrator to arrive at usable TIFFs. I combined these into a PDF in InDesign, then sent the PDF to Mr. Geoffrey LeePard, who did an excellent job turning it into a negative, which is that immensely long sheet of plastic in the picture above. You use the negative to make polymer plates, which I was able to finish doing by December of last year.
I printed my whole thesis at Studio 150 in Gordo, Alabama. This is an excellent not-for-profit workshop run by Glenn House, Sr. and Kathy Fetters. It took me about 10 weeks total to print everything. But it was awesome to work on this Number 4, which is the best Vandercook I’ve ever used (and I’ve used dozens, at least). I’ll always be grateful to Glenn and Kathy for putting up with me looking like I was going to live in Gordo forever.
My working method was to print linocuts and collagraphs on every sheet, then to go back over that first layer with either more linocuts or polymer text. I changed the orientations of the blocks a lot and worked in about 20 different colors. I didn’t have a plan for which block would go under which piece of writing, but instead just printed whatever felt right to print on a given day. I tried, in other words, to “paint” at the press, even though painting and printing are two wholly different things (aren’t they?) and I’m probably wrong to describe how I work as anything remotely like real painting. Still, I wanted to have the maximum amount of freedom to improvise page designs on the fly, which is not always the usual way of printing. So I had to grab some kind of different word for it and at the time “painting” seemed semi-right, at least.
I’ve (informally) studied Brazil’s literatura de cordel tradition for a long time now and was happy that the workspace at Studio 150 ended up looking like an oversized market booth for a while. At one point I had about 500 sheets on strings going every which way above the presses. I wish I had a better picture to prove it, but when you have to make several thousand impressions (like, about 7500 last time I counted) as fast as possible or not graduate, then you don’t think about stopping for photos all that often.
Although it might sound like I didn’t have a serious plan for doing this work, it was always important the whole time to keep an endless (and often harsh) self-critique going. I pulled a million proofs, for instance, and trimmed them down and sewed or stapled them into mockups of page spreads, just to see if I was right about the direction things were heading. Usually it seemed I was, but a lot of adjusting and mind-changing that happened along the way. Of course, the proofs looked kind of awful in the early stages, but I knew from the outset that I would print really bright at first, then tone everything down with darker, more opaque layers. I ended up with some weird color combinations, but since they remind me of the weird colors of old quilts, I’m okay with most of them.
This is where I was in December, 2012. At this point I was about ready to start printing all my polymer plates. Midnight, meanwhile, was like noon to me from the beginning to the end of my thesis year.
I wanted the pages to contain barely-decipherable or wholly unreadable pieces of writing, and also wanted some pages to be completely blank, to represent gaps in memory. But when I made a few mockups with unprinted sheets, they looked too bare next to busy pages full of linocut lettering. So I printed several dozen sheets in solid colors, so that the blank pages actually contain information, yet are still effectively empty.
All through the winter, I worked on boxes for my books. This middle-of-the-night activity took place in my workshop at home, which is a workshop I’d built the year before starting grad school. I’d been making these primitive pine boxes for years, but to make 50 of them in a consistent way was a pretty enormous challenge. One thing I learned was, it’s critical to use an incredibly sharp chisel…
Although it is also critical to use vast amounts of caution when you’re sleepy and therefore recklessly pointing sharp chisels at soft parts of your body. Fortunately, this injury, dramatic and messy as it looked at the time, was easy for the emergency room folks to fix and didn’t stop me from getting my work done, although it slowed me down more than I would’ve liked. And now I have a lovely scar to remind me of the halcyon days of yore. Even if it still hurts a little, all these months later.
I finally got around to trimming and collating all my sheets late this last winter. To make sure every book was as different as possible, I scrambled up the order of the sheets and shuffled the sections. That way, no two readers (assuming they’re looking at different copies) can agree on which passage occurs where, or what passages are thrown together on a given spread. Normally, in an editioned book, every reader can be reasonably confident the copy in their hands resembles a copy in someone else’s hands. But I wanted Notebook‘s readers to be uncertain about this. Why? Because uncertainty is part of the entire narrative concept, maybe even the main part.
I was sewing right up until my deadline of March 1, 2013. From the very start, I knew I wanted to do a non-adhesive binding. I thought about various options, but in the end chose to use a link stitch because I wanted the book to feel as if it might fall apart, even though it shouldn’t if I bound them all the right way. This was part of my whole idea, that the book should seem fragile, that the pages of fragmentary sleep-talking should seem as if they might someday fly off in different directions into obscurity.
Then I placed the books in the boxes I’d made and all of them fit exactly how I’d planned, which is one of the bigger miracles of this project. Each box has a hand-lettered title in keeping with my usual old aesthetic of making everything in a primitive sort of way.
And that’s it. If you want to read more about it, even though it’s really just the same information in a more organized form, you can view the PDF of my final paper here. If I had it to do all over again, I would completely do my project in a whole other way. But that’s how it is with projects: you always leave them knowing how much farther you have to go is a bigger distance than you thought before. Or that’s how it works for me, anyway.