Movable type: Virginia Arts of the Book Center makes a shift

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Kirsten Miles of the Tupelo Press Teen Writing Center gives JMU student Mike Dozier a tour of the new collaborative Art On Ivy. Photo: Courtesy of VABC Kirsten Miles of the Tupelo Press Teen Writing Center gives JMU student Mike Dozier a tour of the new collaborative Art On Ivy. Photo: Courtesy of VABC

If you only know one thing about the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, it’s probably that its tagline is “Beneath The Art Box.” This hints at the rich history of underground presses but also provides a literal reminder to help geolocate the community printmaking studio in its off-the-radar location. However, that motto needs an update as the VABC expands upstairs to join The Art Box in a new collaboration known as Art On Ivy.

The partnership is an outgrowth of efforts by The Art Box owner, Anne Novak, who launched the Art On initiative in 2009 in Lynchburg, followed by a second location in Crozet. “Through The Art Box, we try to bring the highest quality art supplies and framing to Central Virginia,” says Novak. “Through the Art On initiative, we endeavor to spread the joy of experiencing art through classes, gallery openings and studio spaces. Each Art On location has been designed to react to each community’s needs and interests.”

In Charlottesville, those interests presented themselves through the VABC. Originally formed in the McGuffey Art Center in 1995, the VABC moved to the Ix and joined the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in 2004, before again packing up to move to Ivy Square in 2010. This summer brought another change when Art On Ivy was born—a timely transition for the VABC, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

At Art On Ivy, you can caress paper stock, survey paint colors or run a paintbrush through your fingers before purchasing art supplies. You can also pick up the kerning and leading that create space on a letterpress page. Unlike with digital design and printing, the VABC has physical, movable type. Indeed, their collection currently hovers around 350 cases, each containing piles of lead and wooden type. “We’re the biggest publicly accessible repository of type in the commonwealth,” says VFH’s chief operating officer, Kevin McFadden. These thin pieces can be held between thumb and forefinger or delicately positioned with tweezers. And as other bricks and mortar art shops struggle and even close, the tactile nature of what Art On Ivy offers is ever more vital. “It’s really important for this kind of work. You just don’t know until you can touch it and feel it,” he says.

That’s not to say that digital artists and designers aren’t welcome. “We’re not technophobes at all,” McFadden says. The center specifically seeks to foster tactile talents though, in a world that’s increasingly more concerned about building apps than books.

“We get folks who walk in saying, ‘We have all these ideas but we just have to wave our hands in the air when we try to explain them because we don’t know how to make this stuff,’” says VABC program director Garrett Queen.

McFadden sees the gap as well. “It does surprise me that there are a number of younger class participants who have never used a paper cutter,” he says. To this end, the VABC continues to offer letterpress and binding courses, as well as upcoming etching instruction and possibly even screenprinting—an addition that was never possible due to space limitations. But that’s just one of the perks of the new partnership.

“As we were considering a similar Art On initiative concept in Charlottesville, Kevin and Garrett came by with an idea,” says Novak. “Rather than lots of studios, we created one studio with lots of artists.” The result? Much of the downstairs VABC workshop remains in place, but with added breathing room and private studios. The Art Box will remain in situ upstairs, shifted and consolidated slightly to make room for a new, shared gallery space.

The gallery showcases work made by VABC and Art On Ivy members, ranging from letterpress cards to woodcut prints. In the front window, a small Pilot Press also attracts attention, especially during demonstrations by local artist Lana Lambert. This more informal instruction is made possible by the unique relationship between non- profit and for-profit. Operating in tandem with The Art Box, the VABC is able to expand its hours of operation and member access without overextending its current staff. VABC members benefit as well, since longer hours result in more sales and exposure for their work.

Further, the expansion has multiplied member opportunities, extending the traditional VABC membership to include Art On Ivy memberships as well.  Not limited to book artists, these members range from photographer Robert Radifera to Tupelo Press, which has a display area for literary publications and public readings.

“Having this space where we can have a dedicated offering of our books is really exciting,” says Kirsten Miles, director of the Tupelo Press Teen Writing Center. “The most exciting thing for an author is knowing someone is reading their work, so being here and able to talk about our books and authors is really wonderful.”

The grand opening of Art On Ivy will be celebrated as part of the VABC’s 2015 Wayzgoose event, which will feature drop-in printing, public demonstrations, food and drink. To learn more visit virginiabookarts.org.

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