For 15 years Kalamazoo Book Arts Center has kept the art of bookmaking and all things book alive

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

In the past couple of decades, it seems that screens have been dominant. Relying on electricity, computers, wires, and wifi, the words and images we see are ephemeral, scroll into view, and vanish into nothingness. 

For the last 15 years, the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center has been making words and art permanent, solid, as they have been since the Egyptians invented papyrus.

At the start of October 2005, Jeff Abshear invited some colleagues from Western Michigan University to his home's garden to discuss opening a center for everything paper and print in Kalamazoo.

KBAC executive director and founder Jeff Abshear.Back then, Abshear says, "books were already going online, and I don't think there's a problem with that. There's a lot of stuff that, in the history of the last 200 years, was being printed on paper that didn't necessarily need to be. Printed on paper and then just thrown away -- newspapers, magazines, cheap books. That's perfectly fine and valid. Why not put it online, why not read an ebook, rather than wasting resources that are going to be thrown away."

But some works should be solid to be fully appreciated. "There's the experience of holding a book, of flipping through the pages, of seeing the texture of the printed word on the page. That is different," he says.

"When a book is printed on nice materials, I think that it changes your attitude toward what you're reading. You recognize that what you're reading has special importance, so you read it more carefully. You experience the act of reading differently. It also allows for imagery that is hand-done, which is also a little different than looking at a picture on a computer screen."

Cranking, clanking, rolling, metal, and paper

Abshear shows off their collection of printers. Some are motorized; some are hand-cranked, rollers or clamshells that press paper, ink and type together; some over 100 years old. One sits like a squat monster, hungry for paper and ink. One is a table-top model, large enough to print business cards.

Poster type in reverse: "A Mid-Night Whirl..."Ali Hansen is among the old printers, making a one-sheet print on one. A big metal roller squeezes paper on a metal plate. It's physical work, with much cranking, clanking, rolling -- a more-visceral act than clicking on "print" in a file menu.

"I've been an artist for a long time. I graduated as a printer a long time ago," Hansen says with a laugh. "I came back to print-making four years ago because I was writing at the time, and I was able to set my own words and print them. So I've got a series of short story-tale books, and am in the middle of a mystery." 

The poster she's working now was supposed to be part of a WMU Frostic School of Arts steamroller event "but we got COVIDed-out."

It's all "very much fun," Hansen says. "I'm also the president of the (KBAC) board!" she adds with a laugh. "I'd been hanging out here a long time, and they thought that was a good idea!"   

Due to COVID-19, the KBAC is holding its 15th-anniversary exhibition online.

We can only see photos of featured works. Still, it's evident that they are items of weight, substance, and texture: Shawn Sheehy's pop-up paper art, such as his paper dragon with a pull-tab to make its wings flap, all look like they're begging to be played with. Chad Pastotnik's edition of Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," with words printed in letterpress on fine paper, illustrated with wood engravings, linocuts, and intaglio prints, bound in tooled leather and housed in a drop spine box, looks like it's made to last a couple thousand years. Andrea Peterson and Jon Hook's "Mixed greens mixed genes," unites arts by using Hook's wood-fired clay that covers a dish containing a book by Peterson on genetically modified crops and livestock. 

Chad Pastotnik’s books are printed via letterpress on fine papers and are illustrated with artwork from original wood engravings, linocuts, and intaglio prints created directly by visual artists. Deluxe binding of Kafka’s In The Penal Colony. These are nationally and internationally-known artists the KBAC has worked with. The non-profit center has also helped beginners do their own projects. Abshear tells of a man who's wife passed away. She'd written a diary that was full of her interest in collecting exotic textiles. The man printed her text, had it bound in her textiles, and made around 30 to give to friends and family. 

In September, the KBAC produced "Valleyfolk," a handmade book of local young poets and artists. Former center interns Camille Day, Hana Holmbren, and Rozlin Opolka made the paper, set by hand the lead type, lino-print the illustrations, and used an old Vandercook press. 

"Slow down. Read carefully, receive what you're reading."

Abshear says while leafing through "Valleyfolk," "This shows the difference of having something in an ebook and having something you can hold and page through. And most importantly it causes you to slow down. Read carefully, receive what you're reading." 

Paul Robbert was a founding member of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center. Circle 1.1, 22.5" Diameter, Pulp Painting, 1980’sAbshear often takes interns and others to study the book arts in Europe (they were unable to this year, due to the pandemic), but Kalamazoo itself has a long tradition in paper and what goes on paper.

He shows the table molds, the pulp-mixers, and buckets of brightly-colored paper pulp in the center's paper-making facility dedicated to the memory of Paul Robbert. Robbert established the paper-making curriculum at WMU, and was another founder of the KBAC. 

The center's shop is in the Park Trades Center, the old factory building that originally was the source of wax paper and other paper products.

At the founding of KBAC, “we were just in the right place at the right time. Kalamazoo has a really strong history of papermaking, printing industry, and education in the humanities,” Abshear says. 

As an instructor at the Frostic School of Art, Abshear also knows that there are a lot of people in Kalamazoo who are “artists, writers, others who had an interest in this.”

John McKaig is painter and printmaker who teaches at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. He has exhibited work in group and solo exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally. Liberty Boat, Linoleum block print.Content creators, plus a lot of equipment “on the verge of being thrown away” because of the digital tide, helped fuel the KBAC's rise as an internationally-known institution, he says. “As soon as we started there was a little windfall of stuff that landed in our laps, that was donated to us.”


We might be spoiled by the digital world. Looking over the trays of lead type one imagines it'd be a nightmare to try to piece together the reverse image of a page of words, but it's easier than one would think, Abshear says.

Like most people, studio manager Katie Platte does a lot of computer work, so "it's really nice to work with physical things where you can see what the issues are, and solve those problems physically," she says.

"I work on the machines, fix them up, even take them apart. And looking inside one of these machines is a lot easier than to try to figure out how to fix a copy machine or something. Things might be digital but that doesn't make them easier when you're creating something. It's easier to create something physical, and see how things fit together." 

It does take learning, a craftsmanship, Abshear says. “It’s funny because -- we’re so accustomed to them, that we just take books for granted.... It almost feels like books just fall from the sky fully formed, and we don’t really think of the work that goes into them at every level -- what goes into them, how they’re made, how the paper is made, how they’re printed, all the other things involved.”

He’s a member of the Association of Book Artists and Book Arts Centers. A frequent topic of their discussions is "What is a book arts center?" 

A lot of centers focus on art books, “one of a kind handmade books with content that’s created by the artist,” Abshear says. The KBAC helps create books, but  “one thing that we’ve tried to focus on as a book arts center is not just books but everything that comes out of the history of the book. All of the disciplines that emerge out of the history of the development of the book... paper making, fine printmaking -- engraving, etching, lithography -- letterpress printing, which is using moveable type... bookbinding in all of its various forms, and as I already mentioned, literature, great writing.” 

For the near future, Abshear says they want to do more work with artists, poets, and other writers."That's one of my biggest goals, is to make more books, make more books with content in them, and work with artists and poets, making limited editions."

His main goal for the next 15 years? "I want to be here, doing this." 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.