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

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.

Along with 20 or 30 other artists in the late 1970s, Schanilec inhabited studio space in the Roberts Hamilton Building in Lowertown St. Paul. He speaks fondly of those times, of fishing the Mississippi River for carp, and having carp parties where the artists from the building would cook the fish over bonfires. Schanilec stayed there five years, bouncing from minor grant to minor grant, and from minor commission to minor commission--doing posters for a St. Paul theater and other organizations, pen-and-ink illustrations for books, and the like. He even worked a two-year gig as a graphic designer.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local arts funding went through a boom time just as a more savvy, high-minded, and motivated batch of small presses came to town. These new presses--Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, New Rivers Press--made up a stable of local publishing that continues to this day (with the exception of New Rivers, which recently suspended operations). From them, Schanilec made survival money by doing ink line drawings. As a whole, though classy enough, these pieces were largely reminiscent of the surrealist-tinged art made popular on the concept rock album covers of the time: realistic images of an orangutan in a director's chair, perhaps, with lilting clouds flowing overhead.

"It was always a pleasure to work with him," says Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House, which did a number of books in the early 1980s with Schanilec's illustrations. "He's a bright guy, a great artist, and he always had great takes on our work."

Kornblum goes on to describe one instance in particular that is instructive of Schanilec's methodology. Kornblum was working with Schanilec to illustrate the book The Play, and Other Stories (1988) by fiction writer Stephen Dixon. "I thought it was an urban book," says Kornblum, "and I wanted an urban look to it. Just a brick wall would have been enough." But instead, Schanilec decided to focus on one particular story in the collection about a playwright with writer's block who goes out to the beach and begins digging holes in the sand. "It was a surprise," Kornblum says. "Gaylord thought that beach scene was what the whole book was about. And I said, 'All right. Who am I to argue? It looks like it'll be a beach scene instead of a city scene.'"

Sally Johnson, the director of the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, who has known Schanilec since they both rented rooms in the Roberts Hamilton Building in the early 1980s, lauds this ability in the illustrator. "He has a clear vision of what a good illustration is," Johnson says, "and of what is a good pairing of art and text. He's quite eloquent."

 

Curiously, though Schanilec's success is clearly the result of great perseverance, the work he eventually became known for bears little resemblance to his early pen-and-ink illustrations. Standing in his studio, Schanilec begins to warm up a little as he flips through a portfolio of his early work. But he becomes far more expansive as he reaches into a wall-size cabinet and begins pulling out samples of his own books.

Everything changed for Schanilec in 1987, upon the publication of his book High Bridge. This work was a homage to the old High Bridge, built of wrought iron over the Mississippi River in St. Paul in 1889 and demolished in front of 25,000 spectators on February 24, 1985 to make way for a new High Bridge. The book, which had a print run of 200, brought immediate national and international attention to Schanilec, and to his self-run press imprint, Midnight Paper Sales. It is a small book composed of several newspaper accounts of the bridge's opening back in the early part of the last century, and of its demolition--all reproduced carefully with old typefaces, rules, and dingbats as the story would have appeared in newsprint. In the pages between this text, Schanilec's multicolor wood engravings depict the bridge as it is being demolished.

These illustrations are the key to the book's power. Wood engraving is an elegant and painstaking form of printmaking in which hard blocks of end-grain wood are carved with sharp metal gouging tools to produce highly detailed images. To make a multicolor wood engraving print, the artist must carve a new block for each color, taking care to be sure that the details on each block match up with all the other images. Somehow, Schanilec proved to be an immediate master of this very demanding art form, and he was able to load these images with a range of colors that very few printmakers have ever attempted.

Schanilec says he was able to sell a lot of copies of the book, and for the first time in his life found himself with a chunk of money--$7,000. "Rather than squander it," he says, "I bought this place." He waves his hand out at the 20 acres that surround his studio. Not only did the book provide seed money for the artist, though; it also cemented his precise and clean yet visually rich and colorful style of image-making. It is this style that has gained him an international following.

"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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