SAN MARCOS, TEX. – On New Year’s Eve, after making the 7 p.m. journey to Texas from Wisconsin, writer and craftsman Gaylord Schanilec began checking on the condition of the precious cargo that had lain uninsured in the bed of his Chevy Silverado. In the home studio of Craig Jensen, a bookbinder here, Mr. Schanilec pulled more than half a million dollars out of Rubbermaid storage bins. The money was in the form of 100 padded copies of “Lac Des Pleurs,” Mr. Schanilec’s ode to Lake Pepin, near his home in Stockholm, Wisconsin, population 69. The going rate for each copy is $5,000.
The book took Mr. Schanilec more than seven years to make. Now Mr. Jensen is expected to rush to finish binding 30 copies in time for the Codex Book Fair & Symposium in Berkeley, Calif., the premier international showcase for handmade books, which begins on Sunday.
The project began when Mr. Schanilec, a self-taught wood engraver and printer who seamlessly uses traditional techniques for modern purposes, acquired a Lund fishing boat and outfitted it with a drafting table and a library so he can create while reflecting on the lake. “I really want to go somewhere that I know nothing about, or in a subject that I know nothing about, and just let it take me anywhere,” said Schanilec, 59.
“Lac Des Pleurs” is a beautiful, long-awaited press book, an age-old genre that is enjoying a golden period. These small-batch collectible works are typically made with movable type on a printing press with production methods dating back to Johannes Gutenberg, who invented letterpress printing in the 1440s. Mr. Schanilec, an obsessive naturalist who loves the salty language, is a master in this field. In 2007 he won the prestigious Gregynog Prize for “Sylvae”, a survey of the trees on his 27-acre property in which impressions of their wood grains were printed directly on paper.
Mr. Schanilec’s latest, the 76-page “Lac Des Pleurs”, features his intricate, time-consuming engravings of the lake and its wildlife, along with his original verses and notes from European explorers of the region. These begin with Louis Hennepin, who named it Lac des Pleurs, or Lake of Tears, because the Native Americans wept when their leader would not allow them to kill Hennepin and his colleagues. It also includes lyrics by Mark Twain, who visited there as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s, and Henry David Thoreau, who visited shortly before his death in 1862.
Mr. Schanilec printed the book on antique English paper using his Vandercook typography, which he spins with his arm and a wobbly hip. He blogs about his working process at midnightpapersales.com and had already sold 70 copies before the book was finished. He said he hoped to sell the others for $7,800 each after the four-day Codex show. The fair also presents artists’ books made by screen printing, calligraphy and digital printing, but the main attraction is the beautiful press books.
Peter Koch, a 40-year typography veteran who published a literary journal called Montana Gothic in the 1970s, started the foundation that gave birth to the Codex. He conceived of it as an alternative to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which he felt was too focused on publishing; the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair (too insular, according to him); and the Oak Knoll Fest (too small). Mr. Koch wanted a lucrative market for the product, which is often printed in standard and deluxe editions and is acquired primarily by special collections librarians.
“We didn’t have anything like that in the United States,” Koch said. “And yet I knew that the United States was thirsty and hungry for one of the finest arts known to man.”
The beautiful press books date back several centuries. The modern era of the genre is generally attributed to the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century and William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Since the 1970s it has enjoyed a largely US-based revival, beginning with William Everson’s 1975 “Granite & Cypress”, a collection of poetry by Robinson Jeffers which Mr. Everson published in his Lime Kiln Press. The book was packed in a cypress wood box, with a cypress stand, thus monumentalizing it in a sculptural way. Over the next four decades, the book arts flourished at universities across the country, including the MFA programs at the University of Alabama and the University of Iowa.
Mark Dimunation, head of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, met Schanilec not so long ago during a chance encounter in Stockholm and recently acquired all of his works. “Man cuts the wood, processes the wood, carves the wood, cuts on that wood and prints with that wood,” he said. “It’s really an individual artistic expression.”
This inspired act would be complete once Mr. Jensen, 64, a former book conservator at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, completes an arduous 34-step process that includes hand stitching the pages, the assembly of the cover and the construction of a case.
After Mr. Schanilec emptied his storage bins in Mr. Jensen’s studio, the pair examined a two-year-old mannequin from the book. The frontispiece sets the tone with an image of Mr. Schanilec’s fishing boat, where he often sat contemplating the mechanical hiccups that occurred during the seven years he worked on the book.
Perfection is what printers strive for, Schanilec said, but it is impossible to achieve. “You’re still hungry,” he said, “but you’re still frustrated.”
The book also opens with an extremely detailed 2ft by 3ft multicolored map of Lake Pepin on handmade Moriki kozo paper that can be unfolded and laid flat. According to a pocket fishing map and United States Geological Survey documents, it took over 500 hours to carve into the wood. Mr. Schanilec suggests the map is the largest multicolored woodcut ever printed, and Mr. Dimunation of the Library of Congress said it was the largest he remembered in recent years.
Other color images printed from Mr. Schanilec’s etchings include mussels, pelicans, a seagull on a buoy, and three species of fish. His original intention was to catch and burn all 70 species of fish in the lake, but he soon changed his mind. “I had done some math and at the rate I was going it would take 125 years,” he said. “Lac Des Pleurs” completes a trilogy of natural history works by Mr. Schanilec, following “Mayflies of the Driftless Region” (2005) and “Sylvae” (2007), which Mr. Jensen called the most technically difficult that he ever tied .
“When people hear that a book sells for $5,000, $7,000, $8,000, they just think, how can that be?” said Mr. Jensen. “Well, then you finally hear the story behind it all, and there’s who knows how many thousands of hours of work, not to mention the thinking, the drawings, the art – the whole creative process.”
Mr. Schanilec hinted that this could be his last fine press book. “For me, it’s starting to be way too much,” he said. But a poem near the end of “Lac Des Pleurs” suggests that his creative juices will always flow.
I hold the line, I wait.
The hours pass. Days. Year.
Clouds form and dissolve,
the sun comes and goes —
and the moon!