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Fulbright supports study of handmade book art

March 23, 2007

KALAMAZOO--Jeffrey Bucker Abshear, instructor of art at Western Michigan University, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to study printing, binding and papermaking, and will leave in May for a four-month residency at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, Italy.

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While in Venice, Abshear will examine historical and contemporary handmade books; visit with printmakers and book artists; and tour typecasting facilities, private presses and bookbinding and papermaking companies.

"I want to see how pages are laid out and how the type and images are printed. I want to feel the quality of the materials, inspect the bindings and read these rare books," Abshear says. "This must be done in person. It can't be experienced from afar or through reproduction."

Computerized printing processes have already streamlined book production, Abshear notes, and with the surge in electronic communication, it seems as if print may become obsolete. At the same time, he says, book arts curricula are being developed in many colleges and universities, and people are enrolling in printing and bookbinding workshops in art centers all over the world.

Interest in handmade books is growing, and Abshear says it's possible that's because there's a threat of electronic media replacing printed material altogether, or perhaps it's because bookmaking is such a far-reaching form of artistic expression. The field has long-established tradition, involves hand craftsmanship and simple technology, and requires materials that are readily available. Whatever the reason, more artists are engaged and they are experimenting with a wider range of materials, techniques and philosophical approaches.

"As the increase in popularity suggests, handmade books continue to be objects of fascination and power. Their rich history and vibrant contemporary potential offers the opportunity for artists and writers to work collaboratively to create something of enduring value," he says.

Abshear will support such efforts by traveling to Italy to build collective relationships and learn more about the tradition. While abroad, his research focus will be on fine letterpress production, a kind of hand printing that uses moveable, raised type that has been inked to make a direct impression onto paper or another surface. It produces crisp lines, greater dimension and visual definition in typography and artwork. Abshear has a traditional approach to this kind of fine book production. He carefully chooses the materials, typefaces, images and bindings that best suit the tone and intent of the text.

"The physical attributes of the books don't overshadow the text, but act as a transparent medium through which the content is presented," Abshear says. "For me, the most important consideration in book printing is the quality of the writing."

He hopes his experience in Italy will further cross-cultural dialogue and influence, and be invaluable to his work, his students and his colleagues. Upon his return, Abshear plans to organize workshops both at WMU and throughout the Kalamazoo community. He also would like to invite his Italian associates to visit, learn and teach in the United States.

Abshear, who joined WMU as an instructor in 1996, also teaches at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. He is founder and president of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, a community workshop and educational center that advances the art of handmade books and related subjects like papermaking, printmaking, bookbinding and creative writing. Abshear's work has been shown in some 40 individual and group exhibits, and more than 50 special-collections libraries carry his Buckner Press publications. He earned a graduate degree in printmaking and painting from WMU.

WMU has the state's largest number of Fulbright Scholars this year, with six out of Michigan's 26 for the 2006-07 academic year. A total of 14 Michigan schools had faculty members awarded Fulbrights, with the University of Michigan and Michigan State University each receiving three awards and the remainder spread out around the state.

Media contact: Tonya Hernandez, (269) 387-8400, tonya.hernandez@wmich.edu

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