By George Dornbach
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In a corner room in the basement of the Benedicta Arts Center (BAC), ideas and stories are being brought to life. The Welle Book Arts Studio holds an array of letter type, small cubes of metal letters waiting to be set into words, natural materials from CSB/SJU’s surrounding landscapes which will be made into
paper, along with dyes and other supplies.

Electronic beeps and the pushing of buttons give way to mechanical cranks and levers, the physical labor of the human body, working to create art in the form of posters, books and paper. Supported by the Literary Arts Institute along with the Art Department, the space offers students, faculty and visiting artists alike the ability to have their creative visions become reality.

Three classes are taught in the studio. Two of them, Artist Books and Handmade Papermaking, are taught on alternate years in the fall semester. These classes teach students how to make their own hand crafted books and paper. Students source materials such as flax from the Common Ground Garden at St. Ben’s as well as different grasses from the St. John’s Arboretum that can be turned into paper. The third class, Book Arts Printing and Design, is taught every spring. The class, taught next semester by associate professor of art Rachel Melis, is open to all students who want to learn more about this traditional ways of printing.

Along with the classes, the art department offers a Book Arts minor. Spanning the art, history and English departments, three courses are required along with an internship and two electives. Melis has been teaching at CSB/SJU for 11 years and has enjoyed using all that the studio has to offer.

“Each class we teach in the studio emphasizes not just the text itself being important but also the paper it’s on, the structure of the book and the visuals that go along with it,” Melis said. “As a writer you learn a lot about what you want to say, and from the artistic and design perspective, you learn to respect type and how it was originally designed. You lose some of that in the digital world we live in today.”

In the studio, the motion of cranking the letterpress, spinning its wheel, activating the roller, which wraps itself around and glides over paper, creates a steady, pulsating and at times hypnotic rhythm. Bending over trays of small metal letters, Melis explains that years back as digital printing was becoming more popular, people were giving away their old letter presses, paper and book making materials.

“CSB/SJU seeing the value in helping students and community members, understand the book as an entire art form, acquired some materials and presses that were being given away,” Melis said.

St. John’s senior Matt Rengo is currently taking the Handmade Papermaking class. Besides completing his Common Curriculum fine arts requirement, he was particularly interested in the class due to his summers of working at an industrial paper mill in Duluth.

“I got to see the process of paper making from the complete other end, the non commercialized, hand made aspect that this class teaches,” Rengo said. “Seeing and getting to do every step of the process on a very small scale, and understanding how each part works and interacts with the other has been really interesting.”

In the digital age we live in, where it’s easy to hop on Photoshop and create a poster or magically pull endless supplies of paper out of the printers in our dorm room lounges, continuing to learn the traditional ways of creating art is beneficial for students to learn says Melis.

“The traditional arts made here aren’t just objects we simply read. We enter and take a journey through them, control the viewers’ experience through our choices as artists, and create a real relationship between the art, the artist and the observer,” Melis said.

FEATURE PHOTO BY JILLIAN SCHULZ • [email protected]