Handmade book reflects U.S. labor
Students, historians and book artists collaborated to produce a handcrafted, limited-edition piece called Wo/Men at Work to encourage reflection about the significance of labor to identity.
Published by Red Butte Press, the 32-page pamphlet features original contemporary works based around a 1940s essay from the Federal Writers Project, unpublished until now, that focuses on labor in the American identity.
“We ask readers to think about the place of production and consumption in our lives,” said Matt Basso, director of the American West Center and the project’s initiator. He said they wanted to address gendered production of men’s work and consumption as women’s work.
“They are very much two sides of the same coin,” he said.
The piece includes two essays set in mid-20th century Montana, original artwork and an introduction by Basso and doctoral student Andrew Farnsworth.
The book was inspired partially by unpublished writings from the WWII era that Basso came across while doing historical research in Montana several years ago, according to a U press release.
Basso said these works focused only on men at work, telling the experience of only half the population, and the handcrafted book was initiated as a sort of response to this and an examination of labor in the digital age.
“Women are left out of the story … we thought that was not just a shame but a major problem,” Basso said.
The book was created all by hand, from cutting the paper to operating labor-intensive printing presses, to stitching each copy together. Basso said the book’s method of involving labor reflects its content and addresses the value of making something with your hands in the modern day. The book is formatted as an accordian-style W pamphlet, with artwork laced throughout.
Emily Tipps, instructor and studio coordinator for the Book Arts Program, said another unique aspect of the book is that it is the first Book Arts imprint, meaning students participated in various aspects of the process for the first time with a Red Butte Press publication. Basso said the book took a year and a half to create. All stages, from writing and editing to final printing, were done in-house.
“A lot of people feel we’ve lost something in this information technology economy where the idea of production is now knowledge production,” Basso said. “There’s something visceral in our lives about making things with our hands … [We hope] the people that read and look at and touch [the book] will wonder about their lives [and] what it means when we don’t work with out hands anymore … what this transformation has meant for our very sense of self.”
The book’s appeal is especially pungent in our current era of broad production, Tipps said.
“The things we make here are increasingly appealing to people because we are … surrounded by digital media and mass-produced goods,” she said. “The satisfaction of crafting something from the ground up … is [responsively] appealing now.”
Basso said the group married 1930s technology, like letterpress printing, with 21st century technology, like design software, to produce the piece and reflect its content.
“We thought it would be especially powerful to make our own [book],” he said. “[It’s] a tribute to the ideas in the original [pieces] and the very concept of practicing labor.”
The project was funded by participating groups, including the American West Center and the Special Collections department at the library. The book is on display at the library and the Prints from the Great Depression collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. One hundred copies of the 200 that were printed are also for sale, running for $125 each.