Creating an artist’s book at the Common Press

An artist-in-residence is printing, page by page, a book she wrote and illustrated, inspired by a 400-plus-year-old volume about gardening housed in the Penn Libraries collection.  

two sets of arms over a hand-operated printing press, one set with gloved hands putting ink on a metal cylinder and the other placing a printing plate with an image of a tree without leaves on the flat surface in front of the cylinder
Artist-in-residence Katie Baldwin works with a hand-operated printing press in Penn’s Common Press, located in the Fisher Fine Arts Library, to print pages for her forthcoming book.

Working the press in the basement of Penn’s historic Fisher Fine Arts Library this summer, artist-in-residence Katie Baldwin cranked the cylinder back and forth to roll one piece of paper after another over a blue-inked printing plate depicting her illustration of a tree, creating pages she will use to complete a handmade book for the Penn Libraries.

Baldwin is the inaugural Book Artist-in-Residence at Penn’s Common Press, in partnership with the Philadelphia Center for the Book. The residency’s goal is to invite an artist to create a book inspired by a work in the Libraries and print it at the Common Press.

A printmaker and book artist who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Baldwin was chosen for both the strength of her work and the ties between her creative practice and the Libraries’ landscape architecture collection, says Mary Tasillo, Common Press director.

Katie Baldwin works at the press with intern Erica Honson
Baldwin (right) is an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Common Press intern Erica Honson is a recent graduate in the book arts program at the University of the Arts.

“It creates a conversation between the kind of active creative work that happens at the Common Press and the Libraries collection, and it is a bonus that we also get to add to our collection of artist-made books,” Tasillo says. “There’s an interest in thinking about how artists use the library for research.”

Baldwin says that she had not previously made something in response to a collection. “I was curious about the experience of that creative research,” she says.

The book she chose for her inspiration is in the Fisher Fine Arts Library’s Rare & Special Collections: the “Complete Gardener: Directions for cultivating and right ordering of fruit-gardens, and kitchen gardens,” an English translation of a book written in French by Jean de La Quintinie and printed in London in 1699.

“All of these images are based off diagrams of tree pruning instructions from that book,” Baldwin says about her illustrations. “It was one of the things that the book was really famous for, communicating new information about how to prune fruit trees.”

Mary Tasillo (right), director of Penn's Common Press, assisted Baldwin (left) with the printing.

She started her research at Penn in the fall of 2019, expecting a summer 2020 residency, but the pandemic postponed the project. She found the inspiration book by browsing the Fisher Fine Arts Library collection and then spent months creating the handmade drawings and writing the text, which she then had translated into photopolymer printing plates.

Baldwin did much of the printing at the Common Press in July and will do the binding in Alabama this fall. She says she expects to complete the book by the end of the calendar year. Tasillo is posting photos of the continued process on the Common Press Instagram account, and Baldwin plans to return to Penn in the spring for an artist’s talk.

The book will be about 5 inches by 7 inches, the same size as the inspiration book from 1699, she says, with 24 pages in four chapters. She will make 20 copies, several of which will become part of the Penn Libraries collection.

Some Penn classes focus on artist publications and work on projects at the Common Press, Tasillo says. “My hope would be that we build examples of more complex projects that are printed here to give the students a sense of what is possible in the studio,” she says.

Baldwin’s students also will learn about her experience at Penn through the book. “I always show my undergraduate students what I made in the summer,” she says. “It is a way for them to also get exposure about things outside of Huntsville.”

book pages in stacks
The book will include 24 versions of tree images, in varying shades of blues, reds, yellows, greens, and browns. 

A section of the book will include Baldwin’s drawings of trees in the winter, the trunks thick, the branches leafless. The 24 versions of the trees, each a slightly different shape, are each printed in a different color, varying shades of blues, reds, yellows, greens, and browns. The tissue-thin handmade paper allows the trees to show through.

“There will be a lot of layering and transparency as you turn the pages,” Baldwin says as she used a spatula to add more blue pigment to the cylinder on the press. “I’m kind of looking for when they layer on top of each other, the way that colors visually interact. So, where you see a yellow on top of the blue where they overlap, it’ll be a green.”

Baldwin has many ties to Philadelphia, having received her master’s of fine arts degree from the University of the Arts and taught there, as well as at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and the Moore College of Art and Design. She has been an artist-in-residence at several universities, and her artwork is in several collections, including Penn’s.

Tasillo has been assisting throughout the printing process this summer, along with Erica Honson, an intern with the Common Press who is a recent graduate of the book arts program at the University of the Arts. Edwin Deegan of the Fisher Fine Arts Library staff assisted in the research.

two people working the hand-operated press in the background with wood and metal letters in a shelf in the foreground
Baldwin expects to complete the book by the end of the calendar year. It will be on display at Penn and at the University of Alabama at Huntsville in the spring. 

Baldwin also worked with Micah Danges, manager of the Weitzman School of Design’s Digital Projects Lab, to inkjet-print digital images of landscape drawings that will be interleaved with the letterpress printed trees throughout the book. “Because the imagery for the ink pages was originally a drawing, the best way to reproduce those images was to scan them and print them on an inkjet printer onto handmade paper. This way I would have multiple copies of the drawing imagery for the edition of 20 artist books,” Baldwin says.

“The book that I’m responding to is very old. But at the time it was talking about ideas that were very progressive and cutting edge and experimental,” she says. “I liked the idea of using different mediums from different periods for this book.”

Rolling the sheets of paper through the press, Baldwin took them off, the blue ink wet, and carefully handed them to Honson and Tasillo, who then placed them on a drying rack. Already-dry pages, alternating by color, were stacked on a nearby table. Next, they started cleaning the press to get ready for the next color, magenta.

“The book gets made in a series of small steps,” Baldwin says. “You just do the step until it’s done and right, and then move on to the next step.”

smudges of color on small cards on a table
One of the steps in printing the book was choosing the colors. Baldwin had samples on cards with their corresponding Pantone numbers at the ready.