The Revival of the Book Arts Center

March 15, 2024

02/28/2024 photoshoot with current Bookarts majoring/minoring students with Rebecca Gilbert and Mary Tasillo for article on the history of the book arts center

In 1993, Bruce Bennett was an English professor who taught literature and creative writing at Wells College for 20 years. He wrote and published his own poetry, so the aspect of small press printing interested him. But when he agreed to be the director of a new Book Arts Center, he made it clear to everyone he was complete novice.

“I was happy to learn what I needed to learn to make it a success at the college,” Bennett said. “I essentially followed the advice, and sometimes the instructions, of Bob Doherty.”

The history of book arts at Wells seemed to end in 1948. Forty-five years went by. Then, a new Center of Excellence was ready to be born. And in the beginning, Bennett knew practically nothing about book arts.

Bob Doherty, Printer-In-Residence

The Founder and The Director

A photographer, printer, and designer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the fine arts, Bob Doherty was Wells’ Printer-in-Residence in 1992, which is where he spent most of his retirement, according to his obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Before then, his experience ranged in faculty and administrative positions from all over, teaching graphic design at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and acquiring art as Director of the George Eastman House and International Museum of Photography in Rochester and the Salt Lake City Art Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. He and Bennett worked together to establish the Book Arts Center, but they agreed Bennett was a better fit as the first director because Bennett’s influence at Wells was stronger. Doherty also wanted to focus on teaching students skills in publishing, design, and advertising rather than the administrative duties of running the Center.

“I knew how things worked around here,” Bennett said. “I had a solid reputation as a faculty member, and therefore could work for the Center from the inside. He had worked for museums, art departments, and corporations all over the country, had devoted former students in high places, and he absolutely knew what he was doing, ... although occasionally, he was not a master of tact, which made him that much more fun to be around. That was a time when the college was looking to justify the liberal arts as a practical way to prepare for a ‘life after Wells’ in the ‘real world,’ something he was passionately in favor of.”

From looking at another college, Bennet learned it was crucial to have book arts courses integrated into the general curriculum to have a program succeed. Doherty and Bennett negotiated with Wells administration to market the Center as an asset, but Bennett said they faced skepticism about whether a discipline as “arcane” as the book arts would appeal to incoming 17-year-olds. Even trying to describe the new center as “valuable” gave the administrators other ideas.

“They said, ‘Really? How valuable?’ And everybody said, ‘Oh, in terms of money? Not that valuable,’” Bennett said. “We were worried that the college was always looking for ways to make money, and we thought they were going to see this as a deal in which they can profit. The then-dean said it might be a wonderful subject, but it wasn’t going to help with recruitment. We didn’t believe her, but that was the general administrative attitude for quite a long period.”

The Origin and The History

For funding, Doherty received $15,000 from the New York Newspapers Foundation, but according to his memoir on the founding of the Center, “the terms were that the college would not put a dime into this project.” Luckily, multiple sources lifted the Book Arts Center off the ground in its early years. Alumnae like Jane Webster Pearce ‘32, who had visions and passions for the book arts at Wells, donated her entire bindery to the college. Susan Garretson Swartzburg ‘60 served on the Book Arts Center Advisory Board and laid the groundwork by developing contracts, raising funds, organizing events, and establishing a biannual visiting lecture series. The first Binder-in-Residence, Barbara Kretzmann, taught the first bookbinding classes and organized successful symposiums on binding that “brought some of the country’s leading binders to display and talk about their work.”

The original Washington-style press that Austrian book artist Victor Hammer used at Wells in the early 1940s was on the third floor of Morgan Hall but was “unusable” with all its moving parts frozen, according to Doherty. After getting the Aurora Volunteer Fire Department to move the 1,200-pound press to “a rat hole in Main,” Doherty brought someone in to restore the press to working condition but couldn’t use it in the space he was given. He found a Vandercook press to begin printing, and he and Bennett re-established the Wells College Press to print and publish student’s work, including some work from the college’s Visiting Writers Series, which continues today. Doherty wrote that as the Press’ activities grew, the administration made the decision that the “rat hole, which flooded frequently,” was not the best space for the Center. The Hammer press, the Jane Webster Pearce ‘32 Bindery, and other equipment were brought to the first floor of Morgan, which Doherty described as “marvelous, spacious, and perfectly suited for its new purposes. It was more than I ever anticipated.”

Victor Hammer Fellow Rebecca Gilbert stands with the Washington Press in the Book Arts Center

Historically, Aurora was where Hammer settled in 1939, after fleeing Europe during World War II. He established the Press, printed many historical books, taught book arts to students, and cast two typefaces that are still stored in the Center today. When he left Wells and moved to Kentucky in 1948, the Wells College Press left with him. According to “A History of The Book Arts at Wells College,” four years before his death, Hammer wrote to former Wells College President L. J. Long about his time as a professor that, “As well as I might, I tried to give what I knew. ... Wells College was my first ‘home’ in America, and it is I who should honor it, rather than it should honor me.”

But Doherty knew the importance of Hammer’s legacy. The two met in the early 1960s, when Doherty was teaching at the University of Louisville and brought some of his students to visit Hammer’s shop. Establishing the Center and the Press allowed Doherty and Bennett to also create the Victor Hammer Fellowship. The fellowship brings a book artist to Wells for two years, allows them to teach book arts courses and use the facilities of the Center, and have a type casting apprenticeship at The Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler, a professional press located in Skaneateles. Today, 12 book artists have gained experience at Wells since the fellowship began in 1998.

The Evolution and The Future

Since the early ‘90s, the Center always had a director, sometimes an assistant director, a Victor Hammer Fellow, and at one point, the Advisory Board, a group of book artists, collectors, and enthusiasts from both Aurora and around the country who championed the Center.

When she wasn’t teaching French at Wells, Nancy Gil, former assistant director and director from 2008 to 2014, said she found herself in the world of book arts after taking classes at the Center and working closely with Bennett, Doherty, and other artists at the time. One moment that stuck with her was the tradition of printing the Wells College diploma. Gil said she would receive the first list of names from the Registrar by March, set the names in type, run the proofs, and when the final diplomas were ready to be printed, she would often invite the students she knew to the Center to press their own diploma with the letterpress.

“It was wonderful for a senior, especially one that I'd maybe had in French 101 or for two years of French,” Gil said. “A lot of times, I could encourage my students to take printing or binding, so I kept seeing my French students in the Book Arts Center. When they came in and printed their diploma, I thought that was fabulous, and they did too. It’s a beautiful document. No place else prints their own diplomas. That's unheard of.”

Current Wells students who are majoring and minoring in book arts

Within the last 20 years, Wells has created unique initiatives to promote the Center as a Center of Excellence. The annual Summer Institute has brought talented artists to Wells to teach people book arts in close-knit, intensive workshops since 2005. The book arts minor and a visual arts major with a book arts concentration has also been integrated into the college’s areas of study. According to a list from the College Book Art Association, Wells is one of about 45 schools and colleges across the country that teach book arts. Since his administration, current Wells President Jonathan Gibralter said he has appreciated how both the fine arts and English majors have integrated the Center into their academic experiences and understands the artistic value of the facilities to the college.

“The Center prints our diplomas. They print all of the thank you and birthday cards that I send to thank donors for their support. I have appreciated the many alums of Wells who treasure it,” Gibralter said. “The presses and all the type-set that is used are of great value. While the technology is from an earlier generation in our history that pre-dates the internet and other forms of printing, there is no doubt this is an artistic treasure.”

Today, the Center is led by Mary Tasillo, a book artist with her Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts and Printmaking from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who joined Wells in August 2023. Rebecca Gilbert, the current Victor Hammer Fellow, is another book artist whose work has been recognized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and the Winterthur Museum.

“Mary and her colleagues are actively continuing Wells’ history in a place where creative, intellectually rich, and challenging work takes place,” said Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs Susan Henking. “I will never forget my first encounter with the book arts at Wells. By putting our time, talent, and treasure into this uniquely Wellsian gem, we connect our curriculum to a wider engagement across the U.S. and beyond.”

The future of the Book Arts Center is growing and changing. Bennett said its creation was a confluence of luck. He remembered how Doherty often quoted the words of Victor Hammer, who was known to be more religious.

“He would’ve called it ‘providence,’” Bennett said. “He always said this was meant to be.”

By Emma Vallelunga
Content Strategist | Marketing and Communications | Wells College

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