People of the Book: A Printing Press in Guatemala, Libros San Cristobal, Has Revived the Ancient Craft of Fine Art Bookmaking

Article excerpt

In 1990, American artists Christopher Beisel and Grove Oholendt began to resurrect traditional book arts in a studio they built in the Kachiquel Maya village of Santiago Zamora, a twenty-minute drive from the colonial capital of Antigua. They had studied ancient Maya art and knew that the region boasted an impressive literary pedigree. However, Beisel and Oholendt quickly realized that in modern Guatemala--once the center of the most advanced and literate ancient American civilization--no fine books were being made, and that only a small percentage of citizens had a high degree of literacy. In a place like Guatemala, known for poverty and for its years of political corruption and conflict, establishing a fine book press might have seemed a bit out of touch to some.

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But the two creative men were undaunted, and they spent nearly twenty years establishing Libros San Cristobal, now an internationally-respected fine book press in Guatemala. They brought their own decades of education in the fine arts, architecture, design, and bookmaking; and they implemented a serious workshop, formal apprenticeships, and a dedication to quality art. Except for a Vandercook letterpress and electricity, the studio looks like something out of ancient times with stone paper beaters, bone burnishers, mineral pigments, brushes, assorted leathers, hand-stitched bindings, and elaborate backstrap-loomed fabrics.

Libros San Cristobal publishes only limited-edition fine books on Mesoamerican topics. Many are what are known as livres d'artistes, or artist books, meaning that an artist and an author are brought together to craft a new work of book art at the press. The books are on topics that range from indigenous poetry, textiles, and ancient art, to the most recent masterpiece: a folio of Guatemala's earliest colonial churches.

The Village Church Facades of Santiago de Guatemala: 1524-1773 is a major work of book art. Measuring 16 by 32 inches, this portfolio case contains 22 hand-colored engravings made from architectural renderings of the remaining sixteenth-century church facades in villages surrounding Antigua, the former capital of Central America.

Inspired by drawings that were made of these village churches by a Spanish priest in 1979 and are now housed in a private collection in Rome, the hand-colored engravings are accompanied by a handsome handset letter printed book with a brief history and silver gelatin photograph of each church. The folio will debut in early 2010 to honor these long forgotten churches.

Christopher Beisel runs the press like the best of all art professors; he is encouraging, talented, and generous with guidance, but non-invasive. The Bucu Miche brothers--three Kachiquel men from the village of Santiago Zamora--work alongside Beisel. They fabricate sheepskin portfolio cases, cut leathers and linen, stitch bindings, and print the sixteenth century church facades on the Vandercook printing press. Sergio Bucu Miche has worked at the press for fifteen years and has become an amazingly gifted craftsman. A quiet man with a quick smile, his hands move deftly to transform papers, leather, linen, thread, ink, and paint into fine book art.

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Only 200 of the Village Church Facades portfolios will be made, and many of them are bound for university libraries and archives. All of the work is done by hand. Beisel and Oholendt are quick to absorb and refine as many ancestral Mesoamerican products as they can, but they also select products and materials from the most respected international houses of printing.

Each clamshell case for the portfolios is made with the parchment of three sheepskins. The lining is an Italian acid-free linen/cotton book cloth that has been used in fine bookmaking for generations. The paper is from a mill that has been making fine paper since 1819. The hand-stamped titling is done with brass lettering and 22-carat gold, sourced from suppliers who have been in business for over 80 years. …