07 March 2010

Beauty in Saint John, New Brunswick

Last Friday I travelled up to Saint John, New Brunswick, with my friend and frequent coconspirator, Thaddeus Holownia. We had been invited to give a talk at In Print, the University of New Brunswick’s downtown bookstore in Saint John. In Print is an excellent bookstore, housed in a stunning heritage building near the waterfront on King Street. The talk was well attended, thanks to the efforts of Anne Compton and Pat Joas, and the crowd seemed genuinely interested in the dog-and-pony show that Thaddeus and I put on.

One of the highlights of any trip to Saint John is the architecture, particularly the grand brick and stone facades of the downtown. But typically, while I had a camera in my pocket I didn’t snap a single picture. It’s more fun to watch Thaddeus making pictures than to make them myself.

I had the same problem when Thaddeus, Harry Thurston and I were working on our last book project, Silver Ghost, a book about the rivers and the habitat of the Atlantic Salmon. So when I went to put together slides for this talk, I discovered that I lacked illustrations for many steps in the process. I decided simply to draw a few ink-wash cartoons to fill the gaps. (In my adolescence, I dreamed of a career as a political cartoonist, and was appointed cartoonist on my junior high school newspaper on the strength of my collection of rejection letters for Newsweek and Time; no one else had been rejected by such prestigious publications.) The illustration above depicts one of the many lunch meetings Thaddeus and I had while working out the details on the Silver Ghost project. That’s me on the right, sort of. And Harry Thurston below.

We also had the pleasure of hanging out with one of the Passamaquoddy region’s great cultural trailblazers and international impresarios, Hugh French. Hugh has been one of the prime movers behind the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, and instrumental in fostering exchanges between the cultural communities in New England and the Maritimes. In 2005, the Tides Institute installed a Vandercook No. 4 on the third floor of their building and has been slowly developing a small studio for printmaking and letterpress printing. Over supper, we discussed a number of beautiful ideas for various collaborative projects, and I left with the distinct impression that it was high time I invested in a passport.

Although the talk we delivered in Saint John was largely a show-and-tell about the making of Silver Ghost, one of the ideas I tried to stress was that beauty is not simply a question of aesthetics. In the talk, I made these three observations:

1. Making a beautiful book is a cultural act, and therefore necessarily a collaborative act. That is, making a beautiful book requires a community. This community might be as small as the writer and the reader, but is often much larger.

2. A beautiful book, though global in reach, is the product of a local economy where decisions are made within a community about the allocation of that community’s own resources. That is, making a beautiful book is a sort of economic act.

3. A beautiful book thrives where there are shared concerns and a shared sense of responsibility. That is, beauty is also a sort of ecology.


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