Published March 30, 2018
Written by Sydney Bradley
Loose-Leaves from ’74 and On:
A Tour of Our Scrapbook with Founder Richard Minsky
Richard Minsky is clearly a teacher. Throughout our conversation about the Center’s history in photos, he directs me to a dozen links containing further reading on his work and his peers.
“It’ll be good for your education,” he tells me.
He’s also quite technology savvy, and quickly spearheads all problem solving when we encounter reception difficulties. A headlight is strapped to his forehead as he sits in his studio in Stockport, NY.
“In bookbinding, you’re always dealing with thousandths of an inch,” he says. He prefers that light comes directly from his forehead. Currently, he’s working on a fairly complex box. His studio, he explains, is officially not a home-studio, rather a utility building. He initially built it twenty feet from the house, but ended up making an addition, bringing the two four inches apart, with an enclosed gangway bridging them. He just can’t get away from his machines.
His first printing press, a Superior Cub rotary with handset rubber type, was under the Christmas tree when he was ten. Since his parents died shortly after, both at the age of 48, he decided he better start doing what he loved, even though he’d been taught people wait until they retire at 65. What he loved was Graphic Art Shop at Russell Sage Junior High in Forest Hills, Queens. He’d been inspired by his teacher, Mr. Caputo.
“I was very fortunate to go through public school in New York at the time when teachers who had entered during the depression had gotten so much tenure it was worth staying on. I got many fantastic people who were really smart and dedicated.”
His last year at Sage, Richard bought a Kelsey letterpress, which is still in the Center’s shop. He hired his homeroom class as 15 percent commission sales team. Everybody made money.
And though he graduated Brooklyn college with economics honors, he continued pursuing his interests in music and theater. While earning his Master’s in Economics at Brown, he sang in the Brown Choir in a performance of Pagliacci with the Rhode Island Philharmonic. He also started to study bookbinding with Daniel Gibson Knowlton, the University Bookbinder. Knowlton would later have one of the first exhibitions at the Center.
“We had just finished scraping the floor,” says Richard. On the far left is Gloria Zuss, then Bob Bretz, and Robert Espinosa. These were his first three apprentices. Before opening the Center, he had a storefront bookbindery, print shop, and art gallery in Forest Hills in 1972 and ‘73. He’d sent out an announcement: Apprenticeship in Book Art, which drew the trio in. “Then, I gave up the storefront, put everything in storage except enough of a bindery to do work in my apartment in Queens. These three would come over to work.”
Right of Robert stands Minsky, then Rick Wall, from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Next, a girl who had walked in off the street just before they took the picture, in what Minsky describes as true CBA form, and finally, Nick Caraccio. “He makes violin bows, does an excellent Elvis impersonation, and is a great blues musician. Plays guitar and sax.” Nick, Rick, and Richard were the first CBA Board of Directors.
The intention was always to combine exhibitions of book art with accessible classes in the context of a working artists’ studio. It’s a place where people who wander in from the sidewalk can look and think, I can learn that too.
“The craftspeople get inspired by the art, the artists learn to improve their craft, and if neither wants to, they can collaborate with each other,” Richard says. He didn’t have a day off for the entire first two years. He put in 10 or 15 hours a day.
From the beginning, they showed the book as high art, including Barton Lidicé Beneš’ sculptural work: a bound book, tied up in rope, gessoed and painted with nails driven through it. Richard also wanted to encourage audiences to view offset lithography printing as a fine art medium. Several people were making interesting books utilizing the offset press as a lithographer might use a stone.
This shot features a Douglass Morse Howell Exhibition. Howell was credited with reviving handmade papermaking in the United States. He learned to make paper in France during WWII, when he was in the U.S Army. He died in ’94.
As pictured, Richard hung some 4 x 8 ft. panels on wire from the ceiling. This made the exhibits very flexible, and one could move the panels around. Also pictured is the lying press that had been in his Brown dormitory room, which is still at the Center.
In 1978-79, Richard was selected as a US/UK Bicentennial Fellow. The fellowship was a cultural exchange, sending English artists to the U.S, and vice versa. They paid Richard to set up a studio in the U.K, where he also held adjunct faculty positions at the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, and London College of Printing, among others.
“I did…whatever I did,” he says, intentionally vague.
He took a lot of pictures, because he’s a photographer and always has been. He made this artist book with 90 mounted photos, printing the text at the Center on a Vandercook from Monotype and hand set foundry type.
Dikko Faust assisted with the presswork.
“They’d taken away all the good presses when I got back [to the Center]. When I left for England, we had a 17 x 22 Kelly B, a motorized 12 x 18 Chandler & Price, and a 10 x 15 Kluge with suction feed. With all these automated letterpresses we could do quantities of work.” Everyone had become afraid of the machines, so they got rid of them. “It became a Vandercook shop,” he says, “which it more or less still is.”
Minsky in London features about a dozen people he encountered there, whom he wrote about, and who wrote about him.
“You get a little bit of a sense of who I was and how I behaved as I played a character named Minsky for about eight or nine months in the UK, representing American visual art as a book artist.”
When I ask if we have a copy in our on-site collection, he says no.
“That’s a shame,” I say, “we should get one.”
“If you’ve got fifty-seven hundred dollars, you can,” he tells me. “I’d give the center a discount.”
In the book, there’s a picture of Richard getting ready to go out dancing his first week, applying eye shadow. Pants-less, he dons only a satiny bra, pointed in the cups.
“I guess the current word is gender fluid,” he says. His friends Lulu and Gail were visiting, and the bra was a sample from their lingerie company, Maiden USA. He figured he should model it out on the town.
This was before his black beard turned white overnight.
“I was headed to Martha’s Vineyard in my small boat when an unpredicted nor’easter blew in. The last hour took six hours, I got there with ten minutes of gas left in the tank after going through eight-foot waves in a 25-foot boat. The next morning, I woke up and my beard had turned white.” These days, he only wears it in the winter, to keep his face warm.
He’s still in touch with Lulu, and with Pat Gorman, who designed the book’s cover, record label, and endpaper. The photo featuring entwined bodies is called, “Legs: Deborah and Richard.” They lounge atop a cream shag rug c. 1978. A fetish leash and leather thigh-high boots are strewn around them.
Tucked in the back-cover sleeve is a record of the song “Libido” by Kathy Fire. The track, Richard says, was Fire’s version of the character Minsky.
The original back cover features a quote from bookbinder Philip Smith, who commented, “Really most of what I ‘know’ of Minsky is rumour which ethically should not be stated publicly.”
This photo was taken at the Center’s 10th anniversary exhibition of over 130 pieces at the New York Public Library in 1984. Minsky wears a white hat and a rhinestone bow tie.
On Minsky’s left is Joan K. Davidson, former Chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, which gave the Center its first grant. She later became the president of her family’s foundation, the J.M. Kaplan fund. Her father was Jack Kaplan, who’d made a fortune turning the Welch Grape Juice Company into a farm-owned cooperative. Joan also served on the Center’s Board, donating generously over the years. She turned 90 in 2017.
“The reason we got her is when she became the NYSCA Chairman in 1975, there was an article in Annette Kuhn’s “Culture Shock” column in the Village Voice. Joan was quoted saying, “When I grow up I want to be a printer.” In the same interview she asserted calligraphy should be taught in public schools. Richard made her the pinup girl on the Reglet Cabinet, and called up Polly, because Polly knew everybody.
Polly Lada-Mocarski, on Richard’s right side at the age of 81, lived 13 more years and inspired a generation of bookbinders. She had been a dancer.
“She was just fabulous,” Richard says, “Probably the most inspirational person I’ve ever met.” Her late husband was Valerian “Vala” Lada-Mocarski, born in Turkestan as the son of a Czarist general. He was an investment banker in the States who became a member of the OSS intelligence unit during WWII.
“He was stationed in Germany in the 1930’s,” Richard says. “He would disappear for months at a time, and she’d have no idea where he was. So she started to study bookbinding with Ignatz Wiemeler, the greatest German Bookbinder of the twentieth century.” Eventually, Polly’s personal book bindery became the Yale Conservation Studio.
When Richard wasn’t wearing his rhinestone bowtie, he might’ve been spotted in this striped harlequin outfit (left of column). His referee shirt and referee stance are paired with pants whose legs were black on one side, white on the other, and reversible. Large, square sunglasses accessorize the ensemble.
This is likely at an opening of an exhibit in Brooklyn that Share organized. She made book structures and danced within them. Sometimes they would become dressing rooms, and she’d do costume changes, wearing the books. She came to the center as a C.E.T.A artist while he was abroad in ’79, and she stayed for two years. C.E.T.A was the Comprehensive Education and Training Act during the recession of the seventies—one of the stimuli to give people re-training through grant money. Share was the featured performer when he organized the 1990 Book Arts in the USA Conference.
Barbara was one of Richard’s apprentices. When he returned from London, Mindy Dubansky, his previous apprentice and the current Preservation Librarian at the MET, had brought her in. She still teaches classes in bookbinding and box making.
“She’s wonderful,” Richard says. “You should be so lucky as to get a class with her.”
Richard met Hedi through the Guild of Book Workers. At the time, she was employed at the New York Botanical Gardens. He hired her as the Center’s first teacher in 1976, before which he had taught every class.
“The whole idea was for me to get out,” he says. “I had to get it all running so I knew what the problems were, then I put people who were good at doing something in each position, so there wasn’t a jack of all trades trying to do everything,” referring to himself.
Hedi invented the flag book. “She’s wonderful, you should be so lucky to take a class with her.”
Richard remembers a review from ten or twenty years ago that called the Center “the thriving, struggling organization.” After forty years, he says, it still is.
Book Art is not where the big money is in the arts, and foundation funding tends to go more towards social services and health care. It has never been easy to be a small arts organization in a city full of so many. But over the years, he’s seen the Book Art field grow.
While it’s always been an uphill climb to pay the rent, pay the faculty, and keep courses affordable to the public, he says, “there are probably more people bookbinding today than forty years ago.” What started in a 1200 sq. ft. storefront is now the same program in a newly renovated, highly populated gallery and studio.
Richard reassures me not to be anxious about those in my generation striving to work for Silicon Valley. The arts, even the niche arts, will not be abandoned.
“I proselytized book art and issued a lot of propaganda to try and get people more aware of it. It got you, and here you are!” he says. By propaganda, he means the Center itself. Then, the economist comes out. He describes his initial organization model: easy to copy, survivable, and based on a combination of earned and unearned income. The other centers have followed the model faithfully.
The late Barbara Lazarus Metz, who visited CBA from Chicago, started Artists Book Works in 1983, which joined with Paper press and became the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Art. Jim Sitter visited from Minneapolis and later started the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. There are centers in San Francisco, and London—all over the planet.
While Richard doesn’t wear brassieres much anymore, nor lipstick and eye makeup, which apparently used to happen all the time, he is still learning new skill sets and perfecting old ones.
“My biggest tool is the trash can. I use that more than anything else I got.” While he’ll admit he’s guilty of being on his phone too much, he’s not too concerned about tech takeover. “Aside from,” he jokes, “the evil nature of these vibrations travelling through the electromagnetosphere, and poisoning everybody’s mind? Well, there’s that.”
He practices an ancient Hawaiian spirituality of the Huna tradition. In 1984, he started studying in New York with a Kahuna Lapa’au named Morrnah Simeona, and continued with her while he was lecturing at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Its process involves connecting the conscious, the unconscious, and the super conscious to the divine creator, for the purpose of working miracles. It is about recognizing where one has created negative energies, asking for forgiveness, and breaking those bonds.
“You maintain connections with everything you’ve ever touched, or owned, and everyone you’ve ever known,” Richard says. The system is a way of understanding things which are inexplicable by current scientific thinking.
Years before his Huna practice, he started breaking bonds with the world’s negative spaces by hosting masters and novices in a positive one. A space that’s designed for others to recreate, at that. He may not remember the names of every character in the hundreds of photos from the last 44 years, but his energetic system is palpable. It’s made up of everyone who’s ever touched or seen that first Kelsey press.
About the Center for Book Arts
The Center for Book Arts is dedicated to exploring and cultivating contemporary aesthetic interpretations of the book as an art object, while preserving the traditional practices of the art of the book. The Center seeks to facilitate communication between the book arts community and the larger spheres of contemporary art and literature through exhibitions, classes, public programming, literary presentations, opportunities for artists and writers, publications, and collecting. Founded in 1974 and still located in Manhattan, it was the first not-for-profit organization of its kind in the nation, and has since become a model for others around the world. Visit our website for up-to-date details on all events and programs: www.centerforbookarts.org