Book of Days

From a remote spread in a small river town, Gaylord Schanilec has gained an international reputation as a master of centuries-old engraving and printing techniques

"Gaylord has the image of a country bumpkin," says Kornblum. "But he's as sharp as any artist I've ever worked with....I don't know how many people realize how famous he is in England and Germany. They regard him there as the best American wood engraver."

The studio, built four years ago by Schanilec himself (with proceeds from the sale of his personal collection of books, prints, and printing ephemera to the University of Minnesota) provides only scant clues to his working methods. Composition tables and cabinets filled with type take up the bulk of the space. There are various shelves and cabinets of printer's accouterments--printing "furniture," various tools, cans of ink. Tacked here and there on the walls or on cabinets are what Schanilec calls his "mistakes," smeared and ruined snippets of printed sheets, or illustrations that the artist uses for inspiration. On a table, meanwhile, are spread numerous versions of the same image, printed on paper in different color variations as a test.

"That's something I've been working on," says Schanilec offhandedly. The image, of three children carrying a sled in a blank winter landscape, is not surprising in its subject. What is surprising is the punctiliousness of the approach--that the artist, after all this time and all his successes, still takes so much care with his images.

Then, of course, there are the printing presses. A Vandercook proofing press is, like Schanilec, another refugee from the city center, in this case, specifically, from the Warehouse District in Minneapolis, and before that from sketchy origins in Chicago. It's a hand-run machine, which involves rolling paper on a cylindrical drum over a bed of inked type or engraved woodblock. This process leaves a direct impression on the paper--the record of a physical transaction. This is the way printing was done for centuries before the invention of offset printing methods (in which ink is lifted off a flat sheet of metal). Schanilec's Vandercook, a Universal No. 3 model, is about the size of a refrigerator turned on its side. Before the Sixties and the ascendancy of offset printing, Vandercook presses were used by newspapers for proofing columns of type before they went to press. Over the past 30 years or so, these presses have slowly traveled out of the city to the countryside and into the hands of small bookmakers.

Book aficionados swear by letterpress printing presses, extolling the way type bites into paper. Letterpress-printed books are time-consuming to make but, according to Schanilec, the effort is well worth it. "Letterpress printing in the digital age is all about the designing process," he says. "It is a different way of thinking--the idea that you can take as long as it takes, and that's not a bad thing... It forces you in directions you wouldn't ordinarily go, whereas the computer homogenizes everything, and everyone ends up in the same place."

In the wake of High Bridge, Schanilec has made other books, about 20 in all, following his own idiosyncratic whims regarding subject matter and approach. Farmers (1989), for example, is made up of his original interviews with local farmers and his wood engravings of their vast spreads. Schanilec reports that he tackled the subject as an excuse to get to know his neighbors better. Two years ago he won a Minnesota Book Award for his book Waterfalls of the Mississippi (with text by Richard Arey). He is also nominated this year for a book he produced based on conversations with the oldest living letterpress printer, titled Emerson Wulling: Printer for Pleasure. And he mentions several other ideas for future book projects--the peaceful beauty of his existence in Stockholm belying the frenetic activity of his professional life.

In the end, though, Schanilec admits he may be ready to slow down a bit. "I think a lot about the artist's life," he says, as the morning turns to afternoon, and the sky begins to thicken for another snowstorm. "I think about how many books I have left. I think time is so precious. You only have so many books in you."

As he puts his books away, Schanilec recounts his dream retirement--which is only predictable in seeming most uncharacteristic: He plans to someday buy a townhouse condo in Minneapolis, with a view of the downtown, where he will work on one last project, a series of large prints of the reflective surfaces of the city's skyline.

And with that plan as a benediction, Schanilec says goodbye to me without ceremony, puts his hands in his pockets, and shuffles, hunched over, through the snow back to his house, a look of consternation on his face as the sky darkens, signaling a storm's arrival.

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