April 2015 Newsletter: VABC's Specimen Days

image from Speaking in Faces
image from Speaking in Faces

“If I do it at all I must delay no longer,” wrote Walt Whitman at the start of his collected prose work, Specimen Days. He was describing the somewhat haphazard organization of his late-life book.

Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862–’65, Nature-notes of 1877–’81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour,—(and what a day! what an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me body and soul)—to go home, untie the bundle, reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages,  and let the melange’s lackings and wants of connection take care of themselves.

What reasons did Whitman have for going back into his woodpile, as it were? To capture some moments of attention and focus worth returning to, but usually lost in the crush of time. He had doubts about it. And he had some consolations.

It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life’s days and hours (and they not by relative value or proportion, but by chance) are ever noted. Probably another point too, how we give long preparations for some object, planning and delving and fashioning, and then, when the actual hour for doing arrives, find ourselves still quite unprepared, and tumble the thing together, letting hurry and crudeness tell the story better than fine work. At any rate I obey my happy hour’s command, which seems curiously imperative.

Whitman’s title choice for Specimen Days borrowed an item from his early life as a letterpress printer: the specimen book by which a journeyman typesetter could become familiar with the peculiarities of a typeface. A specimen book was hardly an artistic object—practical, direct, with the whiff of a commercial purpose embedded in its pages. It helped a printer see what types were right for a shop and a purpose.

This April, we recognize a bit of Specimen Days in a project long underway and encountering revived interest at VABC: Speaking in Faces.

The VABC specimen book was begun in 2004 by Johanna Drucker, working with Bonnie Bernstein, in just that ephemeral tumble of days that Whitman describes. It began as a conversation among typefaces and invited more than two dozen printers over the last decade to keep the discussion going. (Hear Bonnie tell it in the video…)

We have added to Speaking in Faces by season after season in our letterpress intensive classes. Because of the project’s long timeline and many hands involved, “hurry and crudeness” defined its early production—but not without a quality as energetic, organic, and direct as those “diary-scraps and memoranda” Whitman sought to capture.


In our 20th anniversary year as a community exploring books, paper and printmaking, the Virginia Arts of the Book Center is deciding to spend the time and effort to neaten our bundle and re-envision Speaking in Faces as an artist’s book. In fact, we’ve launched a Kickstarter to get together the resources and engage our printers to finish the job.

The project’s goals are simple enough:

-DESIGN AND PRODUCE 48 pages of new material on typography basics, in moveable type, with traditional and creative treatments of the type families in our collection

-REFRAME AND REBUNDLE our 48 pages of existing work, binding the work attractively together

-ENGAGE NEW PRINTERS to typeset their work alongside our experienced members in public workshops

-MAKE IT WIDELY ACCESSIBLE, creating not only a set of beautiful limited-edition artist’s books (due in late 2016) but also an affordable facsimile edition so that this collection becomes more visible and accessible to artists and printers

0221We have the ambition of creating a work that comes to define the letterpress experience at VABC for years to come.

We are offering rewards for support from the last decade of work at the VABC—broadsides, prints, collaborative projects—and what is the reward that has appealed to the most backers so far? The finished facsimile version of this project.

That’s right. Not only do we want to see the largest publicly accessible collection of type in Virginia finally bound in the pages of a book—but people from all over the country and world (Netherlands, Denmark, Brazil…) are joining the Kickstarter because they would like to see it too.

“May-be, if I don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.” We know that feeling, Walt! But we would like your help to give it shape and purpose that is worthy of all the “happy hours” that have gone into it…and the spark and imagination that have defined any of VABC’s collaborative endeavors.

Some rewards to consider (lots more at the Kickstarter site):

$15Two artists’ postcards from the 2011 VABC collaborative project, POSTMARK

$60VABC broadside – Walt Whitman’s “A Font of Type” and prose reminiscence “On typesetting” (image of Whitman made from the Caslon letters of his name)

$75Add a Printer’s Proverb. We are going to include a list of letterpress maxims that every printer should know. (“Count your ees before your blessings, etc”)

$250Complete boxed set of 2010 VABC collaborative project, INFINITE STAKES. 43-print set of Tarot-style cards in handsome case.

$1000+ Patron level rewards of recent VABC Collaborative collections and recognition in the project colophon. Browse the rewards if you can be one of our angels!

Pledge today! And keep spreading the word. We must make our goal by May 19 to receive funds from Kickstarter. Every backer makes a difference.

SO draw near their end these garrulous notes. There have doubtless occurr’d some repetitions, technical errors in the consecutiveness of dates, in the minutiæ of botanical, astronomical, &c., exactness, and perhaps elsewhere;—for in gathering up, writing, peremptorily dispatching copy, this hot weather, (last of July and through August, ’82,) and delaying not the printers, I have had to hurry along, no time to spare. –W.W.


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