Rai Peterson knows books. As an associate professor of English, she’s spent 37 years teaching from them, writing them and getting her students to fall in love with them. Nowadays, she’s also helping students create them as an art form.
“Everything about making a book is kinetic,” she said, holding up a newly bound, handmade book to show students clustered around the long, industrial table at the center of Book Arts Collaborative, an initiative to teach apprentice-based crafts such as letterpress printing, bookbinding and paper decorating. She runs her fingers over the marbled paper glued to its cover. “It’s a skill you can only learn with your hands.”
Since August, Peterson and Sarojini Johnson, a professor in the School of Art, have spent countless hours immersing this interdisciplinary group of 17 students in the broad spectrum of book arts, which includes how they are made and how artists interpret them as a medium.
The professors’ work is part of a yearlong fellowship sponsored by the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC). Working out of an old commercial warehouse in downtown Muncie, the students must teach others at monthly workshops and sell their products around Muncie, efforts intended to create a sustainable business from an artists’ hub that’s become a true campus-community collaboration.
“The interest for this project has been huge,” said Johnson, an artist who’s taught printmaking at Ball State since the 1980s. “The students’ eyes light up when they join us for class, and it’s because they’re hungry for experiences like this. When you grow up with technology, when it’s so easy to push a button to print something, you crave a different kind of opportunity. One that lets you slow down and make something by hand that’s meaningful.”
‘My friends are jealous’
As Rachel Harvey knows, working with your hands can be both a benefit and the occasional curse.
“Shoot.” An entire line of type she’s set — easily 15 minutes of work — has just toppled over on the table in front of her. “It’s OK …” She pushes her thick-framed glasses back up her nose. “I can fix it.”
Before this semester, the senior computer science major had never worked with a printing press. Now she’s an apprentice of the trade, teaching the technique to her peers and community members.
Harvey celebrates the time she spends at the collaborative and, at the other end of the technological spectrum, a university program in which students work on real-world computer-based projects.
“Being here, where I get to make books and prints, and the Digital Corps, where I work and get to write code and make apps, are my two favorite places to be.”
Johnson and Peterson spent weeks last summer prepping “The Book” — as they call the downtown space — for their students. They handpicked its industrial furnishings, painted walls a welcoming shade of rust and fixed up several printing presses on loan from their community partner, Tribune Show Print, next door.
“The space is beautiful,” said Lexi Musselman, a senior from Logansport, Indiana, with a double major in visual communication and painting. “My friends are jealous I’m doing this. … They want to learn these skills, too.”
Johnson and Peterson have made students the primary engine of Book Arts Collaborative. Five members of the class are its managers. Gradually, they will make day-to-day decisions that come with being entrepreneurs.
“The students are gathered around that center table, creating their own work and sharing in decisions by the collective, … and the space buzzes with electricity. Nobody’s bored, and everybody’s engaged,” said Jennifer Blackmer, associate provost for entrepreneurial learning and VBC’s director.
“They’re taking inventory, determining prices for pieces based on market research, managing the shop, working with logistics and supply chain — they’re doing all of it. And the doing is what’s important.
“You can learn about this stuff in a classroom, but actually creating a business is the best way to understand how it works. Plus, it’ll look great on their resumes.”
Being a part of something brand new
Senior Alexis Wheeler said it’s hard not to feel engaged when learning such a distinctive set of skills. “Very few people know how to do these trades anymore.”
It’s so unusual, a cottage industry dubbed artisan publishing has developed. Small, boutique bookmakers, publishers and sellers create pieces that are rare, and more costly, for buyer and seller alike.
At Ball State, students come and go to the collaborative on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, schedules permitting, to meet the seminar’s 10-hour weekly course requirement. “Everything is a team effort,” Wheeler said, “but we get to remain really independent, which is what I love most.”
While they’re perfecting trade techniques like decorative stitch bookbinding and layered letterpress printing, the students are learning the business aspects of The Book, said Brandon Gilstrap, a senior double majoring in marketing and finance.
“In jobs and internships I’ve had before, I’ve never been part of the start of something … where no one else has had a say before you and you’re part of this team that’s responsible for giving the business a self-sustaining future.”
Taking a creative risk
It’s that entrepreneurial aspect of the Book Arts Collaborative that both excites and intimidates Peterson. “I’ve done immersive learning experiences before, but nothing like this. It brings with it a different kind of stage fright than I’m used to, because I’m setting myself up to do something bigger with students than I’ve ever done. I’ve never run a small business, but I want this one to still be here 10 years from now.”
She describes Kim and Rob Miller, owners of Tribune Show Print, as role models. “They bridge an age gap with the students, who get to watch two young professionals successfully run their own business. I’ve joked they’re my mentors.”
Peterson loves that immersive learning projects afford her the chance to work with students outside her department. “Brandon showed me how to do these awesome things with projections using Excel spreadsheets. If we didn’t have him as our finance manager, I’d be doing it all on Post-it Notes.”
A willingness to learn new things alongside her students is what makes Peterson such a memorable professor, said alumnus Andrew Gaub. As a participant in her 2000 VBC seminar, Making of Modernism, one of the center’s first, he would know.
During a recent visit to Indiana, the 2002 graduate stopped by The Book to check in on Peterson’s latest project. His career as a seller of rare books for a specialty firm near Philadelphia makes it of particular interest to him.
“Watching what they’re doing makes me wish I were in college again,” he said. “I think it’s great. Once you’ve learned how to make a book, you can never look at one the same again.”
Hopes for the future
Finding a way to keep book arts relevant is Peterson’s top priority for the collaborative. In addition to hosting more community workshops, she wants to start a series of guest lectures featuring experts — Gaub included. She also wants The Book to begin publishing at least one artist’s book annually and create a subscription series for those who become fans of its imprint.
Blackmer is confident Peterson will succeed. “Not only because Rai is high-energy and extremely committed to the work, but because the response from the community has been overwhelming. Our biggest concern is that demand will be so great our students won’t be able to keep up.”
As long as that kind of interest continues, Peterson will see to it that the medium she loves most becomes a sustainable business — and art form.
“The opportunity to be a part of such constructive risk-taking is the best thing about teaching and learning at Ball State.”