A Visit to the UW Book Arts Collection

A little class in bookbinding at my children’s school, 20 years ago, first exposed me to the notion of making books. A son came home one day and said, “You should come tomorrow – you will like this.” I did and was hooked. A little research led to the University of Washington’s book arts and rare book curator Sandra Kroupa, center of a book arts universe, then and now.

On a rainy November Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, I left here in the morning dark, grabbed a muffin in Winslow and caught the 8:45 ferry. Passengers, wearing rain gear in shades of black and gray, stood like mourners when waiting to disembark in Seattle, and looking the same, with hood up and sturdy shoes, I climbed the hill to the bus tunnel.

I walked sidewalks scattered with fall leaves – oak and maple, red and gold – across the campus to the library. The University of Washington’s Book Arts Collection, used to be housed in the Suzzallo Library – “collegiate gothic” in style, fairy tale in appearance. Now the Collection resides in the modern Allen Library next door, but I remember old wooden tables and natural light, a nook at the side of a beautiful reading room.

On my first visit Sandra presented a cartful of wondrous handmade books – and I was inspired thinking about possibilities (including the thought of being collected in such a place). But most of all I loved meeting Sandra. She nurtures artists – she listens, she commiserates, and she’s realistic.

Often we speak of binding or paper possibilities. This time I asked about text in artists’ books. (I thought of that Anne LaMott essay when she spoke about structure in life being the key – goals and planning).

We talked in her office – she calls it cluttered, but I think it feels like a treasure cave. The computer glows, surrounded by carts of books in their archival storage boxes. She showed me an intriguing artists’ book – a doll bed at first glance – with quilts, flannel sheet, and pillows made from antique textiles. Taking off each piece of bedding (that familiar motion) reveals text from the life of a 19th century woman.

Sandra deposited me at a library table with a cart full of books which present an interesting possibility (books made with original art, but also affordable multiples of the same book), and left to present medieval illuminated manuscripts to a Latin class.

On my way out I saw richly colored pages (she calls them fragments) arranged on a classroom table and wished I could sit in on the class. But the afternoon grew dark. I rode the bus back downtown, walked through city bustle (display windows bright with color), and bought a huge bouquet of orange dahlias and ornamental kale at the Pike Place Market.

On the ferry I sat in the very front near the big windows. I kept seeing those manuscript fragments, but then I looked on the iPad screens of fellow travelers – at illuminated words and images. More accessible than manuscripts in their time, but full of possibility for beauty and interest.

Brain full I drove home in the dark – spirit refreshed.

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