I got a note from the director of the library at the National Museum of Women in the Arts to say that as in queen (the abecedarium of a typophiliac) is in the current exhibition “Hard to Define: Artists’ Books from the Collection” on view in the library, Monday through Friday, until March 23, 2018. This prompted me to think (a lot!) about this book that I completed in 1997—can it really be 20 years ago? (Here is the link to the book’s page on this site because it seems to have disappeared from the navigation! And here is a link to the “trade edition” available ((now!)) as print-on-demand from Blurb.) In particular I am interested in how this work prefigures the work I am doing now, both my digital fine art and my perSISTERS graphic art. Also, I don’t think I have ever published a full description of this work and the process it dragged me through. For one thing, it is essentially an “Oh! I get it!” reading experience and I didn’t want to spoil it. However, I also think it reveals a little bit of the madness my particular consciousness is subject to. First, let me introduce you to this book and its device.
In the image above, scanned from the letterpress edition, look at the gray Q (actually printed in silver ink) and see the letter it is aligned over. It is the letter “p.” Then read down from that p: “poetica” is the typeface that this page’s Qs are set in. Each page spread features a different typeface, one for each letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order, from “Anna” to “Zapf Book.” In the Blurb edition I have printed the typeface name in a different color so it is easier to find it. I would have lost a lot of paper and driven myself crazy (crazier) typesetting and printing the typeface name in a different color in the letterpress edition. It was hard enough hand setting the lead Century Schoolbook so that the typeface names would align vertically. Letter spacing in handset type is accomplished with tweezers and very thin strips of brass or copper to adjust the lines left and right. In this typesetting I also used tracing paper. Then, when I had it on press (I was running a Heidelberg Windmill at the time) I had to do even more adjusting based on proofs made while the type was locked up tight on press.
The basic idea of the book is that the Q is what we call nowadays “gender fluid.” I didn’t know the term at the time, I think. I do remember using the idea of continuum—that gender is a spectrum (rainbow!). The circle shape is “feminine” and the tail shape is “masculine.” The voice of the writing is of someone in love with the Q, celebrating its fluid and unfettered character. It is an expression of obsessive love, thus the term “typophiliac.”
The first impulse to create the book came from my obsession with typefaces and my fascination with capital Qs. The Q is often very weird, and the typeface designer can get away with this because we don’t use the letter very often. So in this sense also the Q is an exception to “the rules.” The Q is a traveler between categories—a trickster. As such, it calls attention to the artificiality of categories, and this is what my current digital fine art work addresses. The perSISTERS works, of course, address gender. Feminism is at foundation, in my opinion, the rejection of the tyranny of mental categories. Gender is a mental construction. The feminine is not ever just one thing, and neither is the masculine. Instead of saying, “This and NOT that” I believe the more accurate, positive, and less destructive statement is, “This AND this and also that…” This is what a “science of the particular” could be like.
Once I figured out what as in queen would be, it issued forth from me like something inevitable and right. I remember awaking in the middle of the night and writing in my studio (a small room near my bedroom) with the lights off, just using the illumination of the streetlight through the window. I didn’t want to wake my husband who is a light sleeper. In production, I spent so much time getting the type to align just right. For the cover, which I printed from plates made from digital type, I had to draw my own ffl ligature (in “affliction”) to get the type to look right at such a large size. I still have all the typeset lead on galley trays. I kept it even though I sold all my letterpress equipment in 2010, in preparation for my move to the DC area. It is the most physical of texts I have ever crafted.
When my husband suggested I could sell all that heavy stuff—I had been printing only occasionally—and buy something else with the proceeds, I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I wanted to print digitally. The tools had finally become affordable enough for me to make the jump. Photographic images have the benefit of seeming real to us—still—so it is a fitting medium to question reality. I work with words now less and less, except in the perSISTERS, where the words need to get at the very kernel of an idea. And Photoshop is so deep and so wide that I will always find more. What is more fine and obsessive than a thin piece of trace between letters? A pixel, of course.
“lay open this book
and you will see
a quaint affliction
the queen of letters”
Of course “undisguised” is ironic. The whole book is a disguise. All my work is a disguise.