Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 114
October 1997


PBI '97

A report on the Paper and Book Intensive, June 13th at Oxbow Sagatuck, Mich., by Dominic Riley

Who doesn't yet know about the Paper and Book Intensive? We hope that few are still in the dark about this uplifting group of bookmaking types who have been casually, and without a great deal of fuss, been doing it their way every summer for almost twenty years.

This year was my first PBI (I had heard about it for years and never got round to going), and although I didn't know what I was letting myself in for, I knew that whatever it was it would be fun. What a treat it was, too, to return to PBI's ancestral home - none other than Oxbow, that glorious Art colony in Saugatuck, Michigan, that used to give retreat to dainty urban lovelies from the Chicago Art Institute, and now welcomes all-comers to spend the summer doing their thing on the peaceful shores of that peculiar and graceful lake that's really a sea.

The Paper Intensive (the Book part was added later) was started by a few tearaway papermakers and the like who were - what? - bored, frustrated, excited?, who knows. But you know how these stories go, "and before long they had formed a little group and held their first retreat". Nowadays I'm sure they would say they were a lot more organized, they certainly put a huge amount of energy into planning the two-week session. recruiting fabulous teachers and participants from across the world who are eager to share and learn their crafts with each other.

I enrolled in three classes. The first was with old friend Dan Kelm, who was teaching a curiously sounding class, "The Chemistry and Poetry of Book Arts Materials". What it was, really, was a reintroduction to Chemistry through Magic for all of us who had been terrified at school. So, for four mornings, we played around with base metals, watched them change color, made our own charcoal, fired off a potato gun, and, yes, learned some equations.

In the afternoons I joined Gary and Cecilia Frost for their class "Back to Book Action" which was really about three styles of bindings; Ethiopian, sewn-boards and 'transfer tape', which is really a paper-back book whose cover is not glued to the spine. What all these three have in common is that they all have flat-spines and open easily - thus revealing what Gary is trying to do in his work and his teaching, which is to preserve the most important feature of the book - its easy opening, its readability.

The most useful class for me was Cathleen Baker's Paper Bleaching. In four days I learned more about paper cleaning than ever, picking up many, many tips for my work in basic paper repair, as well as an incentive to forge ahead and learn more paper treatments. Again, this class was structured largely around chemistry - and at a molecular level, to boot. Cathy did not wrap it up in flowery language, or search for analogous scenarios that would help us understand what happens to cellulose as it ages. She simply explained it very, very well and made me fall in love with chemistry - something I was convinced could never happen. We treated different kinds of paper in the class, from newsprint to modern fine papers to eighteenth century book pages. Through simple washing to sun bleaching and more intensive bleaching with Hydrogen peroxide and Clorox (I was shocked, too - it turns out not be a good idea, apparently) we were able to see exactly which agent affects paper and to what degree, The emphasis here was on decision making - it's not good practice to throw all your dirty paper into a bucket o'bleach till it goes white (even I knew that much), but through careful examination and planning, and really knowing your chemicals, you can make the most astonishing changes occur in the nastiest papers. Even when doing simple washing in distilled water, it is necessary to bring the pH to a point where the paper is safe. This was communicated by Cathy with deft and graceful skill. She has handed on a rare enthusiasm which will stay with me.

Of course, PBI wouldn't be PBI without the theatrics, the newspaper, the fancy dress party, the dancing, the cabin tours, the slide shows, the auction, the midnight swimming, the camp-fire (and, yes, singing) the working-late-into-the-night and joining other classes after hours and trying your hand at something new. Next year, PBI travels to Southern California. Don't miss it!