A selection of Winter Books produced by Minnesota Center for Book Arts, on view in the Reading Room from December 5th, 2017 – January 28, 2018
Report by Paulette Myers-Rich
Winter Prairie Woman, Meridel Le Sueur, Author; Sandy Spieler, Illustrator; Master Printer, Gaylord Schanilec MCBA 1990
The first Winter Book I worked on as an intern was Winter Prairie Woman by the great Prairie Populist progressive, feminist writer Meridel Le Sueur, who many women of my generation revered as a strong voice on behalf of rural, urban, Indigenous and working class women, especially of the Upper Midwest. Winter Prairie Woman is a late work written by Meridel in her 90th year exclusively for this Winter Book of 1990. Illustrated by the artist Sandy Spieler, founder of In the Heart of the Beast Theater and the May Day Parade and Celebration in Minneapolis, it’s a perfect pairing in a small palm-sized book that is simple, but powerful in all the elements that brought it into being. When I met Meridel at the publication party for the book, she was in her wheel chair, dressed beautifully in a full dark skirt and colorful woven blouse draped with a turquoise Squash Blossom necklace and a shawl for warmth. She said “I want to meet the workers who made my book.” I was introduced to her and she took my hand and said “thank you for your work on this beautiful book, I love it so much I slept with it under my pillow.” It was at that point I realized the value of making books by hand- my hands that set her words in metal type holding the hands that wrote the words. This moment changed me forever. Later that night Gaylord told me he observed Meridel’s wheelchair passing through a small blob of black ink on the floor leaving a trail of tire prints as she rolled forward, an inadvertent but definite bit of printmaking. It was a magical evening.
In time, there was an affordable trade volume printed by Midwest Villages & Voices. This is from their imprint:
Winter Prairie Woman is a sensitive story about memory, farming, and a woman on the prairie in the middle-west of the United States in the Twentieth Century. Originally published by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in a limited, hand-printed edition, Meridel LeSueur described the process:
“This is a collective book. This means it is not a performance by one author in a room alone. Like a tree it was made by a communal movement of root, stem, flower and seed by a group of creators together summoning a communal work. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts summoned me to write a book for a series about winter. It excited me to summon my memory and feeling about winter and the image of the prairie woman came to me. I had never been as excited by being asked by a group of skilled workers to make something together. It was as if they called forth in me some part of a communal creation of various skills and creative love. I began to compose something called forth by other creators with skill and love. The editors felt the same, editing my final script and working with the designer of the book on sentences, structure and form, each keeping alive together my wording and form but giving it further expertise. This glowed in us as knowledge and warmth. The illustrator entered into the growing form with the designer, the setting of type, even the making of paper. It began to take form in the creative energy of us all. Printer, proof reader, binder (hand sewn) it became a creation of us all. It did not even have the so-called author’s name on the front page. The author and editor were thanked for their part in the whole creation. We all met to celebrate the book of our mutual skill and love.”
The limited edition soon sold out, and there grew a demand for the book. Midwest Villages & Voices reprinted it by offset press to give it wider circulation, yet preserving the spirit of the book, including new illustrations by Sandy Spieler. As LeSueur said, “It is a book for the hand of the reader who now becomes a part of the collective, receiving the maturity and beauty of the book made by us all.”
Playing Haydn for the Angel of Death by Bill Holm, Author; Various Illustrators; Master Printer, Paulette Myers-Rich MCBA 1997
Seven years later I was invited to serve as the master printer for a Winter Book Project. I oversaw the production of Playing Hayden for the Angel of Death by the poet Bill Holm, and this publication party was an equally notable and magical evening. After months of production work that involved hand-setting the poem in 10 pt. Centaur and Arrighi metal type which included registering a 10 pt. ornament in a second color between parenthesis in three different colors for three separate versions, while contending with printing gremlins, then printing the covers on Gmund Bier paper stock made from brewery by-products with inclusions that made presswork a challenge, all the while losing interns to the demands of such a production, it was time to relax. The book was finally done and through it all I grew ever closer to my one constant intern who became my sister-in-print, Regula Russelle, (now a master printer of her own Winter Book projects and a fabulous book artist in her own right)- she had toughed it out and then some and we were quite ready to celebrate.
But first, Bill had to sign the books. Regula and I laid them out in order, carefully matching up letters and numbers of the various editions with the collectors who had pre-ordered their copies for that evening. Bill dug in his knapsack for a favored pen and proceeded to sign, then after a dozen or so copies, he stepped out for a smoke, came back in, signed some more, went out for another smoke and so on and so on, until he was done signing. We still had a few hours to go and Bill announced that he needed a nap. He walked over to the bindery and this huge bear of a Minnesotan of Icelandic descent with his wild eyebrows and shock of white hair, climbed up on one of the large 4×8′ work tables, stretched out, and using his knapsack for a pillow, fell deep asleep. We had to tiptoe around until he woke up, including during the delivery of the grand piano for his reading. After his wake-up cigarette, he went to change into a tuxedo. He was utterly transformed as men are by wearing such attire, but he was worried about a last minute idea. He needed the lyrics for an old Lutheran hymn he decided he had to play as a sing-along with the guests of his party. And as it was his party, we decided to do what we could to get our hands on a hymnal at the last minute. My day job was as a newspaper librarian and I knew there was a copy at work and an evening staffer at the desk who could put her hands on it and fax me a copy in a few minutes time. He was quite pleased about all this and later in the evening he had everyone singing a dour tune that was quite in contrast to the composer named in the title. He then played Hayden for us and we realized that life on the prairie requires both the sacred and the profane. It was a fitting and fine performance to accompany the poem and it made all the trouble, once again, worth doing.
You can read more about the project here:
Winter Ink by Bryan Thao Worra, Author; Various Illustrators; Master Printer, Paulette Myers-Rich MCBA 2008
Eleven years later, in 2008, I oversaw the printing of one more Winter Book- Winter Ink, by Bryan Thao Worra, a Laotian in diaspora who was brought to America as an infant in 1973 during the Laotian Secret War by a US pilot who adopted him.
The production of the book commenced during the 2008 financial crash and presidential race with Senator Barack Obama running against Senator John McCain. With two wars dragging on, the housing crisis, the imploding auto industry and our justifiable fears of MCBA, an arts non-profit being crippled by it all, we began to question and doubt this undertaking. Should we be spending resources on such a project in this dark time? Our budget was tight, we were seeing falloff in donations due to the tough economy and Bryan was not as well known as many of the former Winter Book poets, but he was a strong writer and MCBA’s artistic director Jeff Rathermel, who selected the authors each year, believed in this body of work. And as the annual signature project of MCBA, we knew that it was crucial we see it through or it would signal despair. We rallied a group of artists to print, bind and illustrate the poems. We tended to each and every page as a prayer trying to keep faith in our mission and to make a stunning and meaningful book for Bryan’s poems and the times we found ourselves in. When we were nearing completion of production in November, Barack Obama was elected president and a ballot measure to change the Minnesota Constitution to set aside a small percentage of taxes for the arts and the environment passed, which gave us all a huge sense of relief. In December, Bryan was informed that he was the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature for his poetry, the very first Lao American to receive this award. The Winter Book sewing bee that year was celebratory and a light in the darkness that kept us all going forward. At the publication party for Winter Ink, our spirits were lifted despite the fact that hard times were not over yet by any means. But a bit of hope entered in through this book that almost didn’t happen, vindicated and justified by the fact that what we do as writers, artists and readers, once again, matters.
You can read more about Winter Ink and Bryan Thao Worra here: