Writing

Atwood-Pachter duet

 

An Atwood/Pachter DUET

 

We met as teenage instructors at summer camp in 1961 and became instant friends.

I asked the questions. She invariably came up with the thoughtful answers.

From the first time she observed me with that quizzical gaze of hers, I relished watching her crack up at my tasteless jokes, after which she would gently scold me while advising me on proper conduct. Fat chance. We took delight in each others’ idiosyncracies. Our families’ backgrounds seemed exotic to each other.

 

Our friendship grew. During her last year at the University of Toronto, and my first, she gave me some silkscreen equipment which she had used to make posters. I took a night course in silkscreening at the Ontario College of Art and began to make posters for Hart House and for UC Follies. Her parents bought one of my first silkscreen prints.

 

She left to do graduate studies at Harvard. I continued in Art History at U of T, and in Paris. We corresponded, far more frequently than people do now. She often pitched my latest prints to her friends, and unfailingly gave me encouragement.

 

When she gave me a copy of Double Persephone, her first book of hand-set poems, I was thrilled. Her words were like triggers, setting off a buzz of associations in my head, feeding a. visual subconscious that I had only just begun to identify.

 

I arrived at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the fall of 1964 and began graduate studies in lithography, papermaking, and typographic design.

Not long afterward, Margaret Atwood sent me a typed manuscript of her longer poem, The Circle Game. I read it once, and was overwhelmed. My mind raced.

 

From the first line, “The children on the lawn joined hand to hand go round and round “ to the last, “I want the Circle broken”, I was hooked. I felt instinctively that the medium of lithography whose psychological nuances I was just discovering, was tailor-made for the poems. I completed the suite in three months, and for the next two years steeped myself in Atwood poetry, which she continued to send to me from Vancouver, and Edmonton, where she was teaching. The more poems she sent, the more I wanted to create handmade books as handsome frameworks for them.

 

The Cranbrook Academy library had a fine collection of William Morris handmade books, gems from Britain’s Kelmscott Press. Other European and American private presses were also well represented. These works were tremendous inspirations. To us young artists working on the primitive antique printing presses and setting type by hand, the end result of the kiss of ink on handmade paper was a fetishistic delight. The 1930s romantic atelier atmosphere of the wooded Cranbrook campus was conducive to introspection. The probing literary material sent to me by Atwood fit like a glove. I decided to do my master’s thesis on the methodology of illustrating poetry.

 

After the Circle Game came Kaleidoscopes:Baroque, a tiny book with colour woodcuts and engravings accompanying the poems on handmade paper containing bits of my rapidly depleting hair, some plant material, some chopped up linen table napkins cadged from restaurants. Next came Expeditions and Talismans for Children, with large format lithographs. Talismans integrated the printed text with the images for the first time.

Our last and most complex Cranbrook folio was Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, in which 14 poems were illustrated with combinations of linoleum cuts, silkscreens and inked found objects pressed into the handmade paper, folded into a quarto format. This required very careful printing. (If I accidently overprinted one colour on one image inaccurately, the other three completed images on the attached quarto page became unusable).

 

I completed five Atood folios during my two years at Cranbrook. Back in Toronto in 1966, I set up a print atelier in an old bicycle repair shop on Shaw Street, and printed two more folios of the poety of prairie writer John Newlove and maritimer Alden Nowlan, both introduced to me by Atwood.

 

By 1968, after moving to a new house and studio further up Shaw street, I acquired several fonts of antique foundry type. While I was experimenting with composing lines of the new typefaces and printing them out on an old Vandercook proof press I had just acquired, Margaret Atwood sent me a typed manuscript of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. It was a fateful moment. I read it and was so stunned by its beauty and power that I realized everything I had done up until now must be a rehearsal for this.

 

I couldn’t wait to get started. I began to work immediately on a maquette or prototype, setting typefaces for the poems in different styles and sizes, cutting up and collaging proofs of earlier lithographs and silkscreens, then drawing on top of them to amplify the thematic imagery of the poems. By early 1969, I had completed the typesetting and draft images for the entire suite of 27 poems, with a frontispiece and 2 introductory images. I showed it to Margaret. She enthused, suggesting I show it to Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee who had recently founded House of Anansi Press in Toronto, and for whom I later illustrated Dennis Lee’s book of children’s poems, “Wiggle to the Laundromat”. They were both eager to publish The Journals of Susanna Moodie and submitted a project proposal to the Canada Council, but it was turned down.

 

Margaret forged ahead and signed with Oxford University Press who, in 1970, published a standard version of The Journals of Susanna Moodie with some of Atwood’s own unusual watercolour illustrations. A clause was included in her contract giving me the right to produce my heftier version at any time.

A signed copy of the Oxford Susanna soon arrived in the mail for me. Margaret’s inscription read: “To Charlie, with Regret, but Hope for the Future, Love, Peggy”.

 

A few years later, the University of Toronto Library expressed interest in purchasing the maquette and subsequent printing rights for The Journals of Susanna Moodie. I wrote to Atwood in London, asking what she thought.

She wrote back promptly, suggesting I hold on to it until the time was right for me to do it my way.

 

Nearly a decade passed before that right time arrived. At the start of my Ten Loft Years in 1973, I bought, fixed up and moved into an old factory just north of Queen Street at 24 Ryerson Avenue, re-named it the Artists Alliance Building, and welcomed fellow artists, writers, architects, and filmmakers as tenants. Queen Street West was in the throes of a renaissance. I soon bought and fixed up some neighbouring warehouses, rented them out and borrowed against their newly appraised value for further projects.

 

 

By chance, in 1979, I heard that 2 Spanish master printers named Abel and Manuel Bello Sanchez were living and working in a neighbouring loft building on Niagara Street. I called and arranged to meet them at their studio. They were experts in silkscreen, having printed editions in Europe for Dali and the Delaunays. With the strong odour of French cigarettes and Spanish liqueurs wafting around us, we pored over the maquette, discussing various transferring and printing techniques. They cautiously agreed to sign on, providing their considerable demands were met. Soon the contract for cost of materials, edition number, printing and payment schedules was drawn up and signed. I secured the necessary financing by borrowing against the equity in my loft buildings. We were ready to go.

 

Printing of the edition of 120 copies began in February 1980, and continued non-stop until October. The schedule was gruelling but exciting. The professional standards of the Bello-Sanchez brothers were impeccable. In the end, they printed over 13000 separate impressions by hand.

 

As part of the team, I was required to be one step ahead of them, preparing sketches for transferring to screens for printing. At first I worked hesitantly, but I quickly went into Automatic Pilot. The ardour was contagious. While they dragged ink across the screens with a squeegee, printing the words and the images, separately or together, I drew directly on the silk screens with grease crayons and tusche, a suspension of greasy liquid which dried on the silk and was later surrounded by glue blockout, then dissolved with mineral spirits so ink could pass through where I had drawn. The rhythm of watching them print layer after layer, colour over colour, washing the screens, preparing new ones for me to draw on, stacking up the finished print runs, was intoxicating. We had an adrenalin rush each time a completed print was added to the growing ensemble. Gradually the book took shape. Words and images began to compliment each other sequentially. The poetry, set in handsome fonts of different sizes and styles, and printed in a variety of colours, seemed to jump off the page, acquiring a dimension only hinted at in the original typed manuscript.

 

As the number of completed sets of pages grew, they were moved over to my loft for sorting, proofing, and folding. Several images were bleed-printed, that is, they were printed beyond the edges of the paper onto a taped larger under-sheet of paper, then carefully pried free. The edges of some pages were required to be hand ripped to size (by an obliging assistant named Pam the Ripper). All pages required hand folding and scoring before being collated together in their proper sequence and encased in handmade calfskin suede boxes lovingly created by binder Marion Mertens.

 

The Journals of Susanna Moodie was launched in November of 1980, and I think it fair to say that it set a new standard for the hand printed livre de luxe in Canada.

 

In 1984, to celebrate the bicentennial of the arrival of Loyalist immigrants in what is now Ontario, The Journals of Susanna Moodie was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition later travelled throughout the province, and to Halifax and Calgary. As a poetic recounting of the travails experienced by a 19th century genteel English immigrant in her new Canadian homeland, it is a landmark work.

 

In 1991 Paul Hassoun, French cultural attaché in Toronto, produced a briilliant French translation which is soon to be published in Quebec by Victor

Lévy – Beaulieu.

 

Sara Angel was just a year old in 1969 when I completed the first maquette for The Journals of Susanna Moodie. In 1994 while working at Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Sara called to ask me if I realized that it was Susanna’s “25th anniversary” and suggested I consider doing a facsimile version of the original limited edition. I was dubious. I had turned down earlier offers. But she persisted, promising that it would be done to my satisfaction. And the result is this accessible, artist-supervised version now available to a much wider readership than could be reached through the original “élite” edition of 120 copies.

 

Comic book adventure in its highest form or synchronous marriage of the creative efforts of two fellow travellers, The Journals of Susanna Moodie is nothing if not my homage to the writer, poet and friend whose genius has been a sustained source of inspiration for my imagination. And so I dedicate this:

To Peggy, to whom I will always remain profoundly grateful.