The light on the southern prairie of Minnesota and Wisconsin is unusual, especially just after a snowstorm. The vast sheets of snow on the ground and the downy blanket of clouds overhead exude a kind of radium glow--the bright reflections of a clandestine sun. The light is optical white noise, and if not for the stray clumps of trees on the horizon there would be nothing to mark the transition from ground to sky. The vista, then, looks something like an exquisite sheet of blank white paper, with an artist's first hesitant strokes of ink or charcoal on it.
You might find yourself consumed with such thoughts while driving toward Red Wing, the Mississippi River town an hour or so southeast of the Twin Cities. From there, you head over the river and into the bluffs of Wisconsin, searching for the tiny river burg of Stockholm (pop. 82). The driving is soon all-consuming, and you can't find much of anything to recommend this place. But here you are, out in this blank and white country, hoping desperately to at last reach the studio of 46-year-old book artist and printmaker Gaylord Schanilec before the next storm rolls in and the road disappears into the sea of white.
Why make such a sojourn? Indeed, we might well ask the question of Schanilec in the first place. Why would an internationally known artist, one whose small editions of prints and books are collected by major museums and universities around the world--the J. Paul Getty Museum, the British National Library, the New York Public Library, the libraries of Harvard and Yale, and so on--choose to flee the artistic mecca of the Twin Cities for this? In fact, Schanilec long ago gave up trying to show his work in galleries or museums in town after turning his back on the urban artist's life back in 1987.
Despite his quixotic career choices, or perhaps in some way because of them, Schanilec may be the most successful unknown artist in Minnesota. For the past 15 years he has supported himself on his work alone. His books and prints are of the rarest sort, made by methods that hark back 500 years to the time of Dürer and Gutenberg. That is to say, as a book artist, Schanilec creates his work on old-fashioned printing presses that run paper over pieces of inked metal type or inked wooden blocks; he then collates the printed pages and binds them by hand with needle, thread, and bookbinders' glue. Schanilec's illustration and bookmaking style is clean and distinctive, classically minimalist in its precise rendering of photographic details, but wholly modern in its use of multiple colors and occasional expressionistic flourishes.
His books are small in size, usually thinner and a bit smaller than an ordinary mass-produced hardcover, but there is no comparison between the two. Because of the amount of effort book artists have to put into their efforts, they often use finer papers than mechanical presses use. They work with finer inks, and they consider their creations works of art. Holding a handmade book by Schanilec is akin to drinking a glass of the finest single-malt Scotch from the Scottish peat marshes; the mass-produced book, by comparison, is Jack Daniel's from a vat-filled factory.
The complex of buildings that comprise Schanilec's studio and home, where he lives with his wife and daughter, are at the end of a gusty and icy dirt road. An unshoveled path leads to the gray, low-slung building that is his studio. Inside, Schanilec, his dark hair slightly tousled, seems sleepy and guarded. Dressed in plain jeans and a vest over a green shirt, and wearing Buddy Holly glasses, he looks somewhat like a truck driver who has settled into a hipster style. He pauses before he greets me, a gesture that comes across as either very humble or very standoffish.
To be sure, things here are different from in the city. Rather than a view of a desolate urban parking lot or littered railway yards, the studio's window looks out on a small valley of bird- and frost-laden trees. A light wind whistles outside from far across the prairie, throwing snow against the exterior of the studio like pixie dust. A young woman, an intern from a nearby town, leaves immediately, casting an indecipherable look on the way out. Schanilec's own gestures seem to indicate that he is trying to figure out the motives of the big-city reporter. I try to break the ice by commenting on the beauty of his studio.
"I've been at it for 25 years," he replies a bit sharply, "so I've paid my dues." It is a comment he will repeat twice more before I leave.
Schanilec's career began in earnest back in 1977, after he graduated with an art degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. His stated goal was to become an illustrator of small-press books. At that time Minneapolis was a hotbed of small publishing: operations like the Truck Press, the Bookslinger Press, and various others too low-profile to be clearly recalled today. These were a mixture of radical or far-out political presses and idealistic literary outfits. Few artists were willing or able to carve out a livelihood illustrating for such low-paying micro-economies.