The Gutenberg of the North Loop

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February 15, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// In our digital era, Chip Schilling gives books more spine //

At one end of the studio is a set of antique equipment. The board shears — an office paper trimmer on steroids, its arm blade the size of a scimitar and cast in heavy iron — is from the 1890s. The guillotine cutter, equally menacing, is from the early 1900s. Hulking machines comprised of levers, wheel cranks and fat threaded screws, they look straight out of the industrial revolution, as if they’ve been smuggled from a history museum. There isn’t a power outlet along the entire wall.

At the other end is an Epson Stylus Pro 3800, a sleek large format printer, in space age silver with a digital display. Throughout his work day, book artist Wilber “Chip” Schilling moves from one end to the other, crossing from past to future simply by traversing the gorgeous, 1,400 foot space in the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art. The building, a historic limestone warehouse in the North Loop, is more than 120 years old. But from his second floor window, Schilling can see the brand new Target Field, red letters spelling Budweiser over the tip of the stadium. Schilling lives and works in this mash-up of past and future. As a book artist, he’s fluent in design technology, creating printing plates and layouts on his Mac and using the Epson to do edition inkjet prints. But the bulk of his work — the typesetting and the binding — is still done by hand, with the painstaking care of an old-world artisan. He’s a Gutenberg in the Google age, enamored by the old but not at all threatened by the new. And he makes a nice poster boy for his North Loop neighborhood, a Downtown district that has prospered largely because of its deft balancing of new development and historic preservation.

It’s here that Schilling runs Indulgence Press, a one-man atelier that specializes in fine press artist books, broadsides and prints. The name, he says, references Gutenberg’s papal indulgences, printed religious pamphlets that actually predate the famous first edition of the Bible. But it’s also a nod to the extravagance of collecting high-end art — an indulgence that Schilling has built his career on. He’s been in the Traffic Zone building since 2007, and his studio is a combination design library, museum of the printing press and ultra modern dark room.

“Using the new technology with the old technology, for me, the marriage between the two has been something that really works,” Schilling said.  It’s worked so well that Schilling is hailed as one of the best book artists in the nation. His work is collected by the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Getty Center, the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In January, he was named the 2010 Minnesota Book Artist of the Year. As part of the honor, he has a gorgeous sampling of his work up at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The show opened in late January and runs through March 21. A reception with the artist is scheduled for Feb. 26.  But “famous artist” wasn’t the profession that seduced Schilling as a kid. He wanted to be a stamp collector — so much so that when he entered Massachusetts’ Clark University as an undergrad, he declared an American history major, thinking it’d set him up for a career as a stamp dealer.   “I think that’s one of the things that got me into print making,” he said. “Old stamps were like miniature prints; they were engravings. And they were just gorgeous to look at. The old stamps have kind of a tactile feel to them which appealed to me.” Schilling’s affections still lean toward the antiquated. And books, like old stamps, depend on their tactile seduction as a survival strategy in the digital world. That’s what Schilling provides: an aesthetic oomph to the ephemeral pleasures of print.

“A lot of people come into book arts either via literature — they’re interested in publishing poetry or whatever. Or they come to it by a fine arts background — they’re interested in printing. I just kind of fell in love with all the different aspects of it. And then, being a history major, it was interesting because there’s so much history in printing and the evolution of the book.”

As a book artist then, Schilling hits for the cycle. He’s a master designer and history buff with a serious aptitude for literary analysis. He’ll immerse himself in a story, suss out its themes and nuances, and then give these themes a physical presence in the design of the book — in its binding, its typeface, its cover, even its very presentation as a bound document. Schilling calls it “doing a conceptual build out.”

Take for example, his edition of “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The short story by Herman Melville centers on an enigmatic legal scribe who plunges into a deadly inertia by refusing all requests made of him with the refrain, “I would prefer not to.”

Using hand-cast lead type, Schilling printed the story in the long, tall format of a legal ledger. A gold ribbon of cursive runs across each page: Bartleby’s tagline, “I would prefer not to.” As the story progresses and the reader turns the pages, the cursive deteriorates into wild, abstract loops, growing less and less readable as Bartleby grows more inscrutable as a character. Add in a print of a bricked-in window where the author’s frontispiece should be (Melville originally published the story anonymously), and you have the art world’s version of an English Lit thesis.  

“I read it in high school,” said Schilling. “I didn’t understand it. Then I got to college, and in a freshman literature class I read it again and really picked the story apart. It’s the first thing I remember reading that allowed me to understand that there can be more to literature than just a story.”

And there’s more to a Chip Schilling book than simply pages with a spine. For a short story by local writer Rick Moody, about a bookseller who ends up in a mental institution, Schilling created a deluxe edition that resembled both a padded cell and the compartmentalized mind of a lunatic. Inside the shoebox-sized “book,” the pages of the story are stacked loosely atop a menagerie of personal effects. Old baseball cards and action figures are crammed into small little cubbies, entombed behind a cover that mimics a cell door, with a small window pane set into a slab of faux metal. The book even comes swaddled in its own straight jacket.  

“There is a theme running through a lot of the work, and it’s kind of psychological,” said Schilling. “This one’s on addictive thinking. This one’s on the nature of denial. Bartleby is this story about nihilism in a way.”

OK, so maybe add psychology to Schilling’s pool of  influences.

Regardless of influence, though, Schilling’s work finds allure in the romance of a bygone era. Bibliophiles will like the show, as will lit majors, design geeks and — of course  armchair historians.

“One of the things that is cool about it is, you know history is so broad,” said Schilling. “And [book arts] makes history a lot more real in a lot of ways. It adds a physical. And a visual.”