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November 6, 2008
By Patrick McDonnell
With the publishing industry in a freefall and the nation’s economy in upheaval, appreciating the simpler joys of book arts, typographic design and letterpress printing might seem a cliché or even a sentimentalist’s reverie.
Yet Bob Blesse, leading the move of the 43-year-old Black Rock Press this fall into its new home on the lower floor of the Jot Travis Building, is enthusiastically using the humble, but carefully crafted book as a means of creative expression. Blesse’s eye-catching broadsides, for example, invite close examination, a real look at the entire form of the book as not just text, but exhibition-quality art.
A campus institution, Black Rock Press —founded in 1965 by Kenneth Carpenter, a librarian at Getchell Library —has introduced Nevada students to the practice of traditional printing technology with its metal type and intricately designed handpresses. The book arts curriculum is a program in the University’s Department of Art. But from 1970, with just one press, until this past August it was located in the campus’ 46-year-old Getchell Library, where Blesse and his students worked on the second floor.
Joined this year by associate Katy Govan, a master of fine arts student and art department graduate teaching assistant, Blesse’s program offers the twice-weekly beginning class, which is an introduction to book arts and the history of bookmaking. On the first day of class, nine students learned and practiced their book arts skills, but Blesse is confident more book aficionados will join the program, now that it has additional space.
The new, converted Black Rock Press facility, Blesse says, is almost four times as large as the space at the now-closed Getchell. Its prior use was for the Associated Students of the University Bookstore, now in the Joe Crowley Student Union.
“We have room now for additional equipment,” says Blesse, who has been at the University for 27 years. “This will give us the opportunity to bring in at least two new pieces of equipment and a great deal of metal type that we have in storage in Stead.”
The program can now substantially increase its enrollment, which, like the equipment, was limited by space constraints. Students use traditional and contemporary craft methods, with the majority of the work done at the press itself.
“We’re looking to expand and have some graduate research assistants,” he said.
Govan says students are wowed by the experience of producing finely crafted materials.
“The first time students pull a print, there’s the magic. They just say, ‘Ahh, it’s cool.’”
The most significant piece of equipment the Black Rock Press uses is a gilded 1837 super-royal Columbian iron handpress, which Blesse says is one of the country’s top examples of a 19th-century iron handpress. It weighs 1,500 pounds.
Over the years, publications have included such pieces as Carpenter’s first Black Rock Press book, Springing of the Blade, comprised of William Everson’s poems. Carpenter’s early masterwork was Straight from the Medicine. Works that are more recent have included limited edition books and a series of contemporary writing by Rainbow Editions as well as broadsides featuring the work of Allen Ginsberg, recently deceased poet Hayden Carruth and memoirist-novelist Gretel Ehrlich. The latest publications are Linda Hussa’s book Tokens in an Indian Graveyard as well as Woodsmoke, Wind and the Peregrine, poems by Shaun Griffin, and Cinnamon Theologies, sonnets by Steven Nightingale.
“The press is indebted to the University administration, particularly Vice Provost Jannet Vreeland, and all the Facilities staff who located the space, prepared it for occupancy, and moved a great deal of equipment and other materials,” Blesse says. “Without their help, none of this would have taken place in such a short time.”