Toiling in the basement studio of his home deep in the woods of Goshen, artist Steven Daiber is downright dismissive of his work as a painter, or illustrator.
Arrayed on his work table are a surprisingly gentle appearing watercolor rendering of a wild boar, as well as a series of sketches of a bear that will illustrate an article in a upcoming issue of a hunter's magazine.
"This work I equate with house painting,'' Daiber, 45, says as he launches into a spirited discussion of his evolving passion - books and bookmaking.
For the third year, Daiber is teaching a semester course at Hampshire College called ''Making Books,'' which seeks to tap into what he views as a growing interest among students in the entire gamut of book arts - hand paper-making, calligraphy, printing, binding - and, above all, making art.
Ironically, Daiber himself has no background or skills in book binding, but rather creates what he terms ''artists' books,'' like the one he recently produced during a seven-week stint at Canada's Banff Center for the Arts, a book consisting of 20 separate yardsticks held together like a Venetian blind by two slender threads. Superimposed on the wood sticks are a collage of painted matter, scientific information, topographical maps and factual information about Alberta, the reproduction of footprint of a Grizzly bear and other meticulously painted material.
In trying to define artists' books, Daiber said they can be rudimentary using such traditional binding methods as stapled mimeographed or Xerox sheets; books that are cheap as far as their structure, but not their content.
"Then there is the side of book that I'm interested in - the more tactile, the images, the high art, and this requires the engineering skills of a binder if you want to make a book that works,'' he says.
In his Hampshire class, the final assignment asks each student to conceive, design and create a book in an edition of three. Equally important, Daiber stresses, is that the book that is produced act like a book. One student's work was praiseworthy for its craftsmanship, 'except the book doesn't open," he recalls.
"For all people who revere the book, having it function properly is important." he says.
Daiber's course at Hampshire is the outgrowth of a proposal he made to the school in 1999 suggesting that the local academic world should take greater note of the importance of the talent-rich book arts community in this area by offering ''a foundation course in making books.''
"Some of the best binders in the world are here, '' he said, citing in particular Dan Kelm, David Bourbeau, William Streeter, Peter Garrity, Claudia Cohen, and Sara Creighton, among others.
In other parts of the country, academic courses and credit in book-making are common, Daiber explained, citing the University of Alabama and the University of Iowa as institutions where students can earn degrees in the so-called book arts.
Daiber, who along with his wife, Jacqueline Hayden, moved to this area in 1991, found it odd that, given the depth of talent in the tight-knit legion of local of book binders and fine press practitioners, there is scant recognition of the book arts among the Five Colleges. "The whole academic community has nothing to do with the book arts community,'' he observed. He would like to forge a link between the two.
His proposal eventually led to the creation of a Hampshire College committee to develop plans for creating a center for the book and the introduction of the Daiber course.
When his course was launched in 1999, 36 students, most of them from Hampshire, showed up the first day. He was counting on about 15, the college put the prospective enrollment at 20. The course started with 20 and ended up with 18. Last year, the enrollment was somewhat higher, he recalls.
A center for the book fits well with the evolving emphasis at Hampshire on book-related enterprises such as the now well-established Yiddish Book Center, and the proposed Eric Carle museum for children's literature.
Daiber said there is strong support for an institutionalized center for the book from such quarters as Hampshire President Gregory Prince, the family of the late Leonard Baskin, and the celebrated book illustrator and guru, Barry Moser.
Yet as with any enterprise of this kind, the stumbling block for the moment is financial support, Daiber surmises. "I'm pretty much out of those conversations. I'm just an adjunct teacher."
And, course, there is the over-arching questions of what the focus of the center for the book should be. Should it engage and advance the practice of making books, or emerge as an intellectual think tank that ponders where the idea of the book is going in light of technological changes transforming the dissemination of information and the dawn of electronic books? Or should it embrace those two roles and go in other directions as well?
"Some think the computer is ruining the book," says Daiber. "Others think the computer is opening up a whole new path."
To what purpose is Daiber's ardor for making books directed?
Commerce is one possibility. A few years back, Daiber's Red Trillium Press issued a limited edition of his delicately evocative watercolor illustrations of an 1869 essay on trout fishing by the legendary naturalist John Burroughs.
Two years in the making, the 300 copies of ''The Speckled Trout'' have sold, but not briskly, largely Daiber believes, because sportsmen, especially anglers, prefer books with traditional leather bindings and letter press print. He chose to print his trout book on an offset press and to bind copies in paper made from the banana plant.
Thus, from a marketing standpoint the book which Daiber made with such care and skill was hardly a commercial triumph.
Still, he says, "All artists have a story they want to tell. They'll go mad if they don't do it.''
To what purpose is his commitment to the book arts aimed? ''There are a whole slew of passionate, intellectual reasons. It's the Van Gogh syndrome. To what purpose do you paint?''
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