The following post is by Callie Beatie, Junior Fellow Summer of 2023 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
This summer I’ve had the privilege of working as a Junior Fellow in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. As a part of the Division’s larger “Artists and Archives” initiative, I’ve been processing the archive of contemporary book artist, letterpress printer, typographer, and author, Russell Maret.
The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has been acquiring the Maret Artist Archive in stages since the mid-1990s, when the former Division Chief, Mark Dimunation recognized the importance of collecting the full scope of Maret’s artistic practice. Dimunation was particularly interested in Maret’s contributions to the fields of typography as well as the way in which his oeuvre plays with the intersection between letterpress and illustration. The Library of Congress now has the largest collection of Maret’s work. Patrons can learn directly from Russell Maret and Mark Dimunation about Library’s collection in the video below, which was filmed in 2019 before Mark Dimunation’s retirement.
Today, the Maret Artist Archive contains thousands of individual items representing more than forty different projects created over two decades. The extensive nature of the archive allows researchers to trace Maret’s creative process through his archival materials that might otherwise have been discarded.
The Maret Archive is an artist archive, which is a niche within the broader field of archival collections. An artist archive contains the paper and ephemera generated by an artist throughout their artistic practice. One of the foremost characteristics of an artist archive is the inclusion of an especially wide range of materials and formats that are not found in more traditional archives. Some of the unusual archival materials available for research in the Maret archive include: hundreds of prints and proofs, handmade neoprene rubber stamps, embossed paper pieces, handmade paper, leather samples, cut linoleum blocks, and negatives for polymer plate letterpress printing. These non-traditional archival materials reflect each step involved in the creation of an artist book or typeface, and the expansive nature of the archive reveals the meticulous detail that is inherent in Maret’s creative process.
As an example of the kind of research experience made possible through the Maret Archive, specifically, I’ve chosen to highlight two of my favorite features of the collection: first, the ability to delve into the book-making materials at a granular level; second, the opportunity to witness an artistic idea that transforms into a physical reality. An example of both can be found in the archival materials for Maret’s 2014 book, Interstices & Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube. An autodidactic person is someone who is self-taught, and in this work, Maret takes his reader on a journey through the relationship between geometry and bookmaking.
Interstices & Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube is based on thirteen Euclidean propositions. A few pages into the book the reader is presented with a hyper-realistic print of a sheet of loose-leaf paper with a dotted line that maps the folds that someone would follow to create a paper triangle, or paper football (image below).
Maret uses a technique called photopolymer plate printing to create such a detailed, life-like print. Sometimes this printing process is referred to as ‘digital letterpress printing,’ because it combines the technology of digital design with traditional letterpress printing practices. For Maret, however, the main technological intervention is the use of a scanner, as the imagery for his plates is sourced from his own original paintings and drawings.
To create the loose-leaf paper print Maret began with an actual piece of loose-leaf paper, and then added the folds and the dotted lines that he wanted to include in the final print:
Maret also created a painting of the same sheet of paper, likely as a way to visualize the shadows and the shading that he wanted to include in the final print:
Next, Maret created the plate film (aka negatives) through a process of scanning, drawing, and separating the imagery. For this technique, depending on the complexity of the final print and the number of colors involved, a single image may need to be divided into multiple sheets of film resulting in multiple plates.
For Maret’s loose-leaf paper print, the imagery was digitally separated into three different parts resulting in the three film pieces shown below:
Once Maret created the negatives, he was ready to make the plates. The process of making photopolymer plates is quite similar to the 35mm negative printing process used in a traditional darkroom. The plates are pieces of plastic or metal coated with a light sensitive emulsion on one side. To transfer the deign onto the plate, the design is first transferred onto plate film to create a negative. That negative (or printer transparency sheet when film became increasingly difficult to acquire) is then placed on top of the light sensitive side of the polymer plate, and then exposed to UV light for a controlled amount of time. Once the light sensitive side is exposed the image is transferred and hardens onto the plate. After washing the plate and curing in low heat, the plate is ready to be adhered to a backing plate to then be used for printing.
Using photopolymer plates allows for extremely detailed prints. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the real paper model and the loose-leaf print that shows the extreme realism Maret was able to achieve using this method. For patrons interested in studying printing techniques, the Maret Artist Archives is a resource like few others.
The finding aid and the LibGuide for the Russell Maret Artist Archive are forthcoming. For more information about this or other collections in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, send a query to the reference staff via Ask-A-Librarian.
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