OFF THE STREETS AND INTO THE BOOK
by Karl Young
I wrote this article for Bookways, a magazine devoted to traditional book arts. Bookways was a good magazine in its field, but not the kind of publication from which many people would expect social advocacy. I sometimes tell people that I got better pay for this article than any other I've written. My fee was good enough. But the big payoff came in donations, including a $10,000 contribution from a trial lawyer, who understood the problems the program addressed. And the money went precisely where it should have gone — not to me, but to the VIP program. In the article I argue for one form of socially responsible art. Not only did the VIP program demonstrate clearly the social value of art, but so did the essay itself, something I would not have been able to write if I had insufficient experience in book art and in writing essays. In addition, this article has been a model for other writing that helped bring money into the financially beleaguered program. Shortly before his retirement, Fathya Babu reported, with his usual ebullience, that the program had generated something unexpected: 31% of the parents of VIP kids found jobs as a result of the program's counseling services. As expected, a fair number received effective aid in problems related to drug and alcohol use and to domestic violence. Sadly, Dennis Doss could not afford to continue working for VIP at the minuscule salary he drew from the job, particularly since he had his own family to support. He stops by regularly to check things out. Likewise, Caren Heft and Amos Kennedy relocated as a result of new employment, and the book arts program is no longer part of VIP. The stories of the kids in the program continue to unfold, sometimes in unexpected ways. Perhaps they will tell them at some time in the future. This lies at the heart of the book making program: all those involved have stories to tell, and telling them on their own can become a form of empowerment. At the time of writing, conservatives used "midnight basketball" programs as a term of derision for anything other than incarceration for juvenile offenders. We had some fun extolling the virtues of midnight bookmaking. The nature of VIP has called forth the usual criticism that such programs do not solve all problems. To this, I can only repeat: of course not, nor do they make any such attempt. The important point is to do what you can to whatever extent you can. Use what skills you have, and don't feel inadequate if they don't seem particularly flashy. During a good deal of their lives, most people don't have much opportunity to "make a difference." But when you can, don't let the chance pass you by. Don't look for quick, easy, and universal solutions: they simply make things worse.
As we approach the end of the twentieth century, the question of social relevance insists itself ever more intensely into discussion of all the arts — sometimes nervously, sometimes through conspicuous avoidance, sometimes with revolutionary fervor or desperate anger, sometimes with clouds of theory-based obfuscation. Perhaps its most powerful statement came at mid century with Adorno's remark, "After Auschwitz, lyric poetry is impossible." Many book artists feel annoyed by the question, but it won't go away. A basic answer is that art brings meaning to life. Despite the truth of this answer, the question persists, perhaps as an echo of nearly empty audience chambers, perhaps because this answer is so intangible.
The question has haunted the book arts particularly, since they are easily perceived as detached and elitist, and, quite honestly, they often flaunt irresponsibility when used simply as investment, fad, or career-building tool. But throughout Western history, art has had a miraculous tendency to turn and reveal itself as the opposite of what it seemed a moment past. In the present instance it is particularly heartening to see the book arts take an active role in liberating some of the residents of contemporary American inner cities.
The Victory In Peace project, developed in Racine, Wisconsin, is a perfect example of what a few good people and a tiny budget can do for children. One of the contributions to Victory In Peace (VIP) is the Wustum Museum's book arts workshop program which tries to help troubled young people find a better life for themselves through creative activity. In addition to its healing role, perhaps this program and others like it can foster a new area of the book arts dedicated to social reform — and perhaps, in return, elements of this work can feed their parent art in unexpected ways.
Racine is a rust belt city, located between Chicago and Milwaukee. Thirty years ago, it was a thriving community, with a strong work force, a burgeoning middle class, and plentiful opportunities for everything from employment to the arts to recreation. With the decline of American manufacturing, the city finds itself with a growing number of unemployed residents. Alcohol and drug abuse, family strife, and random violence increase and intensify at a painful rate. High school graduation statistics provide an index to these problems: nearly half of Racine's youth do not graduate. In 1993, this does not mean that Racine is an aberration: it means that Racine is more or less normal, not unlike its counterparts in New England, the Pacific Coast, the South East, and the South West.
Like other troubled communities, Racine has people who put their efforts into changing things for the better. These include the people who work in the Taylor Home's Victory In Peace program. Originally founded as an orphanage, Taylor Home now operates as a multifunctional facility to aid troubled youth. It works with a number of organizations, sharing resources and extending mutual aid. The Spanish Center provides transportation, programming, translation, and a means of easing conflict between ethnic groups. The Urban League offers programs for spiritual guidance and social awareness. The Racine Council for Drug and Alcohol Abuse provides counseling and family services. The Wustum Museum brings creativity, a key component, to the organization. Given the small size of staff and minuscule budget, tasks cannot always be clearly defined, and it is often difficult to tell where the efforts of one group end and another begin. Taylor Home's Victory In Peace program was originally set up for a selected group of young people who were particularly at risk of criminal behavior. They remain its primary focus, but other young people often assist VIP kids and the staff, the Spanish Center provides supervision as well as transportation, Urban League workers sometimes find themselves playing baseball with VIP kids, etc. This looseness of structure and the resultant synergy of human effort add strength to the VIP program and other Taylor Home activities.
The relatively small number of residents at Taylor Home are adjudicated teenagers placed at the Home as an alternative to prison. Many seem set in their course. Taylor Home, however, hires these teens to assist in the care of younger children, and, according to Program Manager Dennis Doss, responsibilities often bring about changes in attitude among them. With useful work to do, they turn their energy away from destructive activities; they earn pride, a respected place in their community, and a sense of importance, as well as a small but regular paycheck. Since they are streetwise, tough, and from similar backgrounds, they can sometimes reach younger children when adults can not. Careful observation prevents the teens from passing bad habits on to their juniors. The heart of VIP is the Gang Prevention Program, which targets children between the ages of six and twelve at risk of engaging in criminal activity. Personnel try to prevent that at an early age when the children may be more easily reached.
Taylor Home's holistic approach to troubled youth begins with the children's families. Dysfunctional families are common among these children, often involving spouse and child abuse, alcoholism, narcotics use and sale, psychological disability, isolated mothers, and a range of criminal activity. Staff from Taylor Home and related organizations strive to heal these wounded families, providing long-term counseling, teaching parenting skills, and advising parents on job opportunities and treatment for substance abuse and emotional illnesses. As Director Fathya Babu puts it, "if these dysfunctional parents can become functional parents, that may be the solution to the whole problem. . . So far we have seen changes in some parents, so we hope that a significant number of bad situations are turning out all right." It is difficult to measure how much good this phase of the program does, particularly given the Rubic's Cube of problems involved in family counseling, but Babu points proudly to one gauge that can be quantified: According to teachers' reports, the grades of students in the program improve by 59% to 70% within a year.
VIP children go from school to Taylor Home, where they are fed nutritious snacks (which may help compensate for poor diet at home), encouraged to play, and given assistance with their homework. The students are invited to discuss their problems with staff members and residents. The staff watches for changes in the children's behavior that may indicate problems, tries to locate the underlying cause, whether it be at home, at school, or with friends, and tries to take appropriate action. VIP organizes field trips to museums, libraries, zoos, concerts, sports events, and recreation areas. The children participate in similar activities, such as team sports, a junior Olympics, musical programs, and workshops in arts and crafts conducted by The Wustum Museum.
The Wustum Museum's collection focuses on 20th century works on paper and in specialized crafts. This covers a wide range of artistic modes, including drawings, prints, photographs, book arts in all genres, and artist-made jewelry. The collection originated with a core of works done in the 1930's by WPA artists, primarily from the East Coast. Large-scale donations by artists and collectors began in the 1980's, and these have generated more donations. The museum's artists' books collection mushroomed following a matching gift from New York City's Printed Matter Book Store and Gallery in 1989. In 1991, Walter Hamady gave the museum the archives of the Friends of Typography, which includes work by nearly all his students. Many Hamady students have continued to update the collection. Visitors can thus get a good sampling of work in the Duchamp-Fluxus tradition of Printed Matter and the craftsmanly tradition of Hamady. In the latter case, they can see not only the development of Hamady's teaching but also the continuing progress of his students. Books may be viewed from the archives and are exhibited on a regular basis, either in book art shows or shows organized along other lines. This is probably one of the best collections of book art in a small museum in the Midwest.
Museum policy, however, does not rest on a hoarded collection but eagerly engages in outreach programs. Shows and tours designed to attract audiences not familiar with major trends in the arts give exposure to new work and work in unfamiliar modes (such as book art). Theme shows can be of great help. A show centered on the theme of tools, for example, included elements familiar to anyone who had ever picked up a hammer or a wrench; a common point of reference with which a broad audience could feel comfortable made all the work more accessible.
At the heart of the Wustum's mission to broaden the audience for contemporary art lie the programs for children. These include a heavy schedule of guided tours, films, classes, and workshops. To further broaden its outreach program, Associate Curator Caren Heft and Education Curator Donna Newgord extended their program for inner-city youth to include a book art workshop. During the planning stages, Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. came to the opening of a show of books by Walter Hamady at the Wustum. Following a conversation about the workshop, Heft suggested that Kennedy might be an ideal instructor. He and Newgord were enthusiastic and the project was on its way.
Heft, Newgord, and Kennedy had to plan the workshop carefully to prevent difficulties. They decided that the number of students should be small enough so each student could get individual attention but large enough to promote interaction and diversity among participants. Ten children were admitted to the program. Two dropped out after the second day and several others missed at least one session. Attention span and the need to see tangible results relatively quickly were important considerations. A five day course seemed about right: enough time for the students to make books, from start to finish. Some techniques could not be mastered in the time allotted or were beyond the skills of the children. Kennedy scheduled the program in such a way that he could perform these operations himself between workshop sessions. Prior to Kennedy's arrival, each child who wished to participate in the program wrote a brief essay on his or her favorite thing and made a drawing to accompany it. These were to act as the basis for the book they would produce.
Monday, the first day, was devoted to paper making. Given the time available and the difficulty of the task, the students made only a heavy stock for the book's covers. That night, Kennedy set the type for their book since problems of manual dexterity might daunt the children. On Tuesday and Wednesday, each child printed the page he or she had written. During those two days Kennedy decided that the length of the work of one student, Pleschette Robinson, would skew the proportions of the book. He concluded that this text should be made into a separate book. This additional book was integrated into the regular production schedule. Thursday was devoted to graphics, accomplished by cutting designs out of cardboard and stamping them onto the paper. The students bound their books on Friday.
That sounds simple enough — perhaps too simple to do much for the kids or to make worthwhile books. But important things happened during those five days, and the books have their own virtues. One student, Nathan Berryman, showed little interest in the project until Thursday. On that day, the possibilities of using multiple colors in his stamps to reflect the different temperatures and wave patterns in water sparked his enthusiasm. Seeing the books take shape and make sense kindled interest in many, and led to conversations that related book making to other program activities. At times when conversation lagged or would have gotten in the way of the work, the students practiced singing a harmonically elaborate version of SWV's popular rap song, "I Get Weak In The Knees." As the workshop continued, the students became more confident in the handling of tools, and by Friday they wanted to experiment with mixing colors directly on the press, which they did with great delight and enthusiasm. You can get something of a feel for the excitement that had been building by the energy expended on the last day: six children folded, gathered, and stitched 50 books, spent a good part of the day experimenting with colors on the press, and finally presented a copy of each of the two books to the Racine Public Library
Twelve-year-old Pleschette Robinson clearly and forcefully dominated the group. Pleschette comes from what Doss calls a troubled and unstable home, the kind that either breaks a child or makes her assertive. Pleschette is exceptionally intelligent, and she knows it. Her leadership abilities were not lost on Kennedy, who knew that such abilities could be just as dangerous as they could be beneficial. Physically large, and possessed of a loud, rich voice, she is consummate in her "street smarts" and knows how to generate power and how to manipulate existing power structures. She is a good bluffer and an expert at brinksmanship. The other girls in the group fell quickly under her spell: she originated plans instantaneously, organized methodically, and delegated responsibility with ease. It was she, for instance, who instigated "The Singing Group," as well as a number of other sub-projects. Although her potential not only for gang membership but also for grabbing a major position in gang hierarchy seem obvious, other characteristics may be less so. She wrote the best and most ambitious text, which became a separate book. That could be seen as a way of manipulating power or deliberately outdoing the others, but it also reflects her advanced ability in reading, writing, and most of all, her continuing interest in African-American history. Her subject, Harriet Tubman, may be a role model to her, as Frederick Douglas has been a hero for her for several years.
Edwardo Reyes, on the other hand, is a shy, reserved boy, from a stable family. He is neat and a bit fastidious in his manners and wears expensive clothes with quiet pride. He draws well, and, like Pleschette, he knows that he has exceptional abilities. In fact, his abilities can bring him out of his shell, allowing him to speak volubly about his drawings. Strongly self-motivated, he has enthusiastically signed up for Wustum art programs, and his teachers have nurtured his talents. A number of people criticized Dennis Doss for bringing Edwardo into the program, but Doss sees the potential dangers in this boy's situation. For Doss, $160 gym shoes on an inner city youth can suggest that the child or his parents may be involved in criminal activity. Although Doss now believes the expensive clothes are the result of hard work on the part of the parents, he sees other dangers. As a privileged child, Edwardo is subject to peer ridicule and abuse, and gang membership might seem the only way to escape those torments. That he is short, well behaved, and a bit naive only make his potential for gang recruitment more likely. The need to prove himself could make him dangerous. At the same time, his abilities as a draftsman could be channeled to earn him respect, and even emulation.
The students produced fine books: straightforward, honest, pushing the limits of their skills. A striking feature of these books is the way the students could make something of their limitations. The paper they made, for instance, was not properly dried and didn't knit well. They solved that problem by laminating the paper onto solid stock. Instead of having covers with a title and author's name neatly dropped in, the books take on the quality of sculpture, and each cover is unique. I have before me a copy of My Favorite Things, with dark brown paper arcing across the gray base stock from a large, delta like pattern on the front cover to a narrower crescent on the back. Rings impressed in the paper (which is almost 1/8 inch thick) run counter to the larger arc. A rust-brown stock forms the base of the cover of the copy I have of Pleschette's Harriet Tubman. This book has two layers of laminated paper: A Venetian red rectangle running most of the length of front and back covers makes up the bottom layer; the upper layer consists of tenuously connected cloud-like masses of light paper. This cover can give an impression of depth (as in aerial photographs of clouds over a desert) or an impression of colors mingling with each other. These are books by kids who live in a highly tactile world, and the books reflect that world very well. Considered as design, the covers are better than some I've seen produced by professionals.
The text paper, bearing the Rives watermark, continues the tactile quality of the covers only in the rough cutting of the master sheets into pages. Since the edges of the paper are the surfaces a reader's fingers touch most, they make a nice transition to the harder surface of the text stock. Several pages are left blank because the students who were to illustrate them did not show up on Thursday. Set-off on one of those pages may have taught the printer of the recto a lesson in paper handling. The Speed Ball ink used in the illustrations was not milled or brayed and hence tends to lie heavily on the paper, echoing the tactile quality of the covers. Relatively even impression, with just enough punch to be noticed, shows sensitivity on the part of the students and may have given them a sense of having made their mark. Fingerprints provide one of the most interesting dimensions of the book. There are only a couple of them, and Kennedy considered redoing pages where they appeared. He opted to leave them in, however, since this was a children's book and might as well look like one. This brings us to some wonderful bits of serendipity. For these children, fingerprints are marks of identity. Fingerprinting is something police do to humiliate them, to use against them, perhaps to persecute them in the future. In this books, the fingerprints present marks of identity that the students needn't be ashamed of, a contemporary version of a Renaissance craftsman's "EDVARDO ME FECIT." The printers used Optima for body type, an ideal face for a book of this sort on grounds of legibility and beauty. A good balance of thick and thin strokes and an absence of serifs make it a wise choice for first-time printers. Perhaps someday these children will notice that the same letter forms appear on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It may not be too whimsical to imagine some students noticing that the title "My Favorite Things" was the signature tune of the great African-American saxophonist, John Coltrane.
In all its programs, Taylor Home tries to foster discipline, teamwork, and self-esteem. Interaction among those traits centers and makes possible all three. Basketball exemplifies the interaction of characteristics. In order to be a good player you need self discipline. To win a game you need teamwork. If you win, you will not only gain self-esteem, you will also have to acknowledge the role of discipline and teamwork. Introducing children to book arts requires a more complex approach and involves more risks, but it may also offer potentially greater rewards. To make a book, the students need discipline and teamwork. If they hadn't learned some of that through other parts of the program, they wouldn't have been able to get through the workshop.
The book arts program adds an extra dimension to prestige and self-esteem. Everything from economic deprivation to school systems to parents to racial pressures to television programs conspire to convince the children that they are stupid, worthless people. At the same time those forces persuade them that people who write books are intelligent, and that only those intelligent people have anything important to say. (Let's forget for the moment that many people who write books are fools, and concentrate on perceptions.) If the students can produce books and have them housed in libraries, they may feel that they aren't so stupid after all, that in fact, they might be intelligent. Once you've convinced a kid that he or she has the ability to do something intelligent, to feel their own potential, you've won at least half the battle. Students in the VIP program know that their books are in the Racine Public Library, where they may be seen by family, friends, teachers, even strangers. They also know that copies have been purchased by Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Wisconsin. If authorship weren't enough, the fact that universities, institutions of prestige and authority, have paid real money for their books helps considerably more.
This does not mean that the students will all go on to successful careers as literati or book artists, but it can do a great deal to encourage them to study and to otherwise seek to achieve their maximum potential. Perhaps some of these children will go on to be teachers or community workers or to play some other useful role in society, not only escaping from the cycles of violence and poverty into which they were born, but helping others to escape, too. Even if they do not make book arts their vocation, these arts may benefit them as teachers and as appreciators of the arts in general.
Taylor Home has a lot going for it in terms of staff and ideas, but, like many worthwhile organizations, it suffers from a gross lack of funds. The VIP program began with a budget of a mere $200,000 per year, which has been cut to a minuscule $100,000. That's what it costs to keep three kids in prison for one year. If VIP kept three children out of jail, it would pay for itself on a simple balance sheet. If we factor in long range costs, VIP comes out way below bargain basement. If you keep a kid in prison for a year, there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that he'll end up in prison again, possibly moving up the ladder of prisons to the most costly maximum security facilities. And he will have done something to get there, the cost of which cannot be easily measured. How much does robbery cost? It's more than just the amount stolen: it includes police work, court time, attorney's fees. It may inflict physical and psychological damage on the victim, ranging from a broken arm, to the crippling fears and rages of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, to inability to hold a job, to despair, to psychiatry to permanent decay of the fabric of existence for a whole family (child neglect to divorce) or neighborhood (lack of participation to drug use).
Following this line of expense we come to the unanswerable question of the worth of a human life. When we talk about children in this context, we must consider the worth of the child's life as well as the lives of victims of crimes that could have been prevented by proper, timely care. Whatever the case, even if it is only a matter of a child missing his or her potential for leading a good life and making a contribution to society, the waste involved in underfunding programs such as VIP is tragic beyond reckoning. If the state does not see fit to extend Taylor Home's funding, we may hope that private benefactors will come forth with contributions, large and small. Johnson Wax Corporation contributed $50,000 in 1993 but, at the time of writing this article, has not renewed for 1994. It is heartening that the sale of books has helped the book arts program. In fact, Kennedy hopes to make this program self-sufficient. This would be great for the students, something that would further build their self-esteem; but without the whole VIP program, the book arts program would be impossible.
Some may argue that teaching programs waste artists' time and produce bad work. The Minnesota Center for the Book Arts has a program for main-stream youth, and has made tentative efforts in the inner city. Other organizations have engaged in related activities and the number of book arts programs across the country and in Europe has grown steadily through the last few years. Given the small volume of book art sales, we can safely say that there will be book artists looking for work for some time to come. Certainly, contributing to basic literacy not only benefits students but can be salutary for their teachers, too. Many book arts classes aim at university or adult students, and rightly so, but programs like VIP could better prepare students for advanced courses. As to bad work, you can find plenty of it already wherever book art is sold. A larger number of participants probably would not change the ratio much, nor would it undercut the responsibility of the viewer of book art to find out what is of value and what is not.
But more important, and perhaps surprising to some, these children may have plenty to teach. In conversation, Amos Kennedy made the following remark: "It was a little much for me as one student . . . uh . . . I mean . . .teacher. . ." Good teachers always learn from their students. When that process stops, so does effective education. How teachers learn from their students is as varied as the number of teachers and active students. Some teachers expand their understanding of human problems and responses; some find that the fresh perceptions of students break gestalts and help them see their art in a new light. This could certainly be the case with students from VIP. It is easy to take a patronizing attitude toward kids in the program and toward the community in which they live. Nothing could be more foolish. These kids all have ideas of their own, and they can be as important as those of any individuals anywhere. Despite the poverty and social problems of their immediate environment, the kids are heirs to rich traditions and the communities of which they are part include as many abilities and as much wisdom as any other. The object of programs such as VIP should not simply attempt to "elevate" the students from inner city dwellers to suburbanites. It should give them the tools with which to explore what they have, and expanded options in what they can do with their lives. They have at least as much to teach people as they have to learn.
If someone from VIP grows into a major book artist, she will certainly bring with her new insights, new skills, new perceptions, new ideas that could make a significant contribution to the art or even change its nature in ways we cannot predict. Characteristics such students could contribute to the art might reflect the aural and tactile nature of their environment, whether it be a heightened awareness of sculptural possibilities, as in the covers of the books done in the VIP program, or the sense of narrative that comes from culturally convergent traditions of story telling and other modes of speech. The rhythms of their lives may be refined into effective design principles. Their sense of color and the iconography of their communities might also inform their skills. The speed, decisiveness, spontaneity, and economy of survival skills could play a role. The fact that any who leave such a milieu will have to work hard to do so may guarantee that their mature style will not be lazy. The continued need to prove themselves could be a driving force that lasts a lifetime. If they decide to move into areas not predicated on their native environment, that should be their choice, not solely determined by the circumstances of their childhood. This is as much true if they try to escape or reject characteristics of their environment as it would if they embrace or employ them.
If you were able to know printers of the first century of moveable type, you would find men for whom gang warfare was not unfamiliar, nor was theft or extortion or the smuggling of contraband. For them basic literacy was often a hard-won prize. Some learned to use a blade for defense or aggression before they started cutting punches. Many lived in the shadow of the prison, the inquisition, the gallows, and the stake. We conjure a false picture if we do not consider the lives of those early printers, as we conjure a false picture of our own society if we do not consider the potential of people like Pleschette Robinson and Edwardo Reyes.
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