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CBPA Chicago

by Pedro Vélez
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Whoever said print is dead forgot to tell the graduates at the Center for Book & Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago. They behave like bookworms cloistered in nerd heaven, and who can blame them? CBPA is located on the second floor of the historic Ludington Building, a terra-cotta-clad, steel-framed architectural beauty designed by the “Father of the Skyscraper” Willian Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907). Once home to the American Book Company, the Ludington is only one of 22 buildings that compose Columbia College’s downtown campus, which with 12,000 students is the largest private arts and media college in the nation.

According to its website, CBPA is dedicated to “furthering knowledge and appreciation of book art, including letterpress and offset printing, bookbinding, papermaking, and artists' books,” as well as “promoting research and innovations in the field.” In addition, CBPA offers an MFA program in book and paper arts that’s affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia.

During my tour, hosted by curator of exhibitions and programs Jessica Cochran and CBPA director Steve Woodall, I saw rooms filled with all sorts of antique machinery as well as high-tech gear. I was told some of those machines are capable of making film directly from computer files for polymer plates and offset plates. CBPA has a papermaking studio, a bookbindery and a 2,200-square-foot gallery dedicated to exhibitions, symposia and an international triennial of contemporary book and paper art. Last but not least, the center is custodian of a large collection of historical wood type sets, which students may use for specific projects.

“This is heaven, look here, I am working on a handset letterpress piece that requires a lot of patience and I love it,” said Jenna Rodriguez, showing me parts of her book of conceptual family portraits embossed in shiny paper. Quietly working in another room I found Daniel Mellis binding 41 separate printing plates that compose his investigation of language in the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. When asked about his expectations with the program, he said, “I would like to build a publishing empire.” Despite his sarcasm, I would bet he can. Mellis already has completed degrees in mathematics from the University of Chicago and MIT.

I also had the chance to visit the "Interdisciplinary Arts Department," where I saw a performance by grad student Michael St. John, who was hitting a boxing bag in search of catharsis. My best guess is he was fighting his inner demons, represented by a large projection of his dad, a professional boxer, as well as his resounding paternal voice coming from loudspeakers. The multimedia event lasted four hours.

At the end of the tour I received what I consider to be one of CBPA’s greatest assets, JAB - The Journal of Artists' Books. Published in-house twice a year, JAB is the only publication of its kind that makes critical inquiry into artists' books. I recommend you get your hands on JAB #27, which includes a limited edition of “Mood: Potential” by Elisabeth Tonnard. Printed in duotone, the book consists of photographs of clouds and treetops that seem to converse on double-page spreads.

PEDRO VÈLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago