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[BKARTS] Pat Baldwin's China Adventures Continue

Another great report from Pat Baldwin on her adventures in China.


Hi Peter:

I don't know where you put the other stuff I sent about working in China, I
couldn't find it - or perhaps it's not still up. Anyhow, this is an article
I wrote for a visiting 'zine publisher recently. It's about my first
bookarts class at Hebei U. I don't know if it would be appropriate or you
even want it, but I thought I'd send it along anyhow. If you don't have a
place for it, just kick it.

I'm already 3/4 through the semester at Huzhou University and planning on
moving to Shanghai University for the Spring semester.



BOOK ARTS (what's that???) IN CHINA When I first came to China to teach
Western Book Arts, nobody knew exactly what I was talking about, but since
I seemed sincere, I was hired. Hebei University in the north of China was
in the middle of Winter BIGTIME. My California skin nearly split and went
home by itself. I didn't know your face could literally freeze so you
couldn't talk. Eventually, as it usually does, spring came and revealed a
beautiful campus with a lovely garden/park in the center. A class of third
year students was conscripted to me, and we began by getting acquainted and
learning English names. If they didn't have one, I gave them one. Matching
faces to names was interesting. They seemed to like the idea. I had them
bring in a brick from off the street. It took a week to convince them I
really meant a BRICK brick. Finally everyone brought one in on the same
day, probably thinking if they didn't I'd ask them for something even
nuttier. I had them cover their brick with clean paper and write their name
in both Chinese and Pinyin on it. That's how I could learn their names...
from the brick on each desk. Then I explained it was simply a weight for
newly made books. They looked relieved. Then I gave them a translated 4
page History of Western Books to read in their spare time. I doubt if any
of them used it for anything but glue papers. As we got to know one
another, the bricks got misplaced or used upsidedown, so I just identified
them by where they sat or how they looked. There was TallBoy, and TallBoy's
Girlfriend, Little One, TheOneInTheCorner, ChattyKathy, Attitude, Mustache,
Dragon and TheBoyWhoNeverCame, etc. And so it went until one day a boy came
into class and sat down at an empty desk. I whispered to my assistant,
"Who's that?" She said, "It's Mustache! He's shaved it off." Sure enough,
Mustache was clean shaven, clean hair, clean shirt, clean slacks (!) and he
didn't shuffle either. We decided he'd found a girlfriend for sure. He
stayed clean the rest of the semester. He was my "bad boy" student. Often
cut class, work habits were awful and sloppy, never did the assignment I
asked for the way I wanted, but he came up with the most amusing, inventive
book ideas of anyone in the class. Nothing to do but give him his lead and
wait until he turned in something. It was sure to be different.

As the class learned the simple structures, they also learned that it was
OK with me if they broke the rules a bit. I would make a big fuss over
someone's book that was really a different answer to the assignment - as
long as it opened and closed properly. More and more they stretched the
rules and did some pretty amazing variations. The most interesting thing
for me as a teacher was to watch them "decorate" their books after
finishing the given structure. That's when they could illustrate, collage,
draw, write, paint anything they wanted into their blank book. The
classroom, usually a bit chatty, would become deadly still, and I would
just sit on a desk at the end of the room and watch... and listen to the
creative juices bubbling through their minds and out through their fingers.
It's when they were, as aritsts, completely happy.

We invited all the "suits" in the Arts School to our first 1/2 year
exhibition in the classroom. I asked all my teacher/student friends to come
so we'd have a "crowd" to please my students. They cleaned up the room,
floors, desks with clean paper, junk put away, chairs in place and a
welcome poster on the door. Each student stood behind his/her desk with
their books displayed in front of them. They were instructed to show off
any special items or to open a book to display the text or illustrations
inside, and to urge people to handle the books themselves. The "suits" were
duly impressed, I think. Although they probably didn't have a clue as to
what these books could possibly be for.

When we got to the part where they were to learn to lay out a text on the
computer, Mustache, Dragon and Sheng Li (the only name I did remember)
showed their expertise to the max. They understood the routine immediately,
and proceeded to lay out, illustrate and print some pretty amazing book
texts. Their bookbinding skills were still in the shakey stage, but getting
better. I was encouraged by their computer expertise, and thought, "There's
hope for this bunch yet." The second book they made using the computer for
the text was bound at their own choice. Most of them went back to the "Faux
Coptic" binding they'd learned a month before. That was the favorite sewn
structure. The accordion was, of course, the second favorite. And
illustrating the book was their favorite general activity, beside talking
and laughing.

When we nearly reached the end of the semester, I gave them their final
assignment. Three books, one sewn, one accordion and one free choice. None
to be miniature books, and one of the three to go to my personal collection
to travel for other book artists to see. They got the idea of making a
really large book to display at our final exhibition. I suggested one about
two feet high, but they said as one, "NOOOooo...really really BIG!" and
their hands went way up and way down. I knew that supplies for a book that
big would be a problem, but they wouldn't be talked out of it. So a
committee was chosen for exhibition posters, for binding each person's page
and for making the covers. Two days before the exhibition I asked about the
binding, but they hadn't figured out how to do it. I dropped a couple of
suggestions aside and left them to be picked up. The book was finally made
- wooden covers and all - and it was the pride of all the class and the
centerpiece of the exhibition. There were many more and better books this
time, and the main entry hall downstairs was our gallery. They put posters
all over the campus and invited all the instructors they could find. We had
a great turnout and everyone took pictures and was very very proud of
themselves. I was proud too, of course. That evening we had a wonderful
dumpling-making party up in our classroom. Beer and dumplings. They said I
folded my dumplings funny.

Two days after the books were all removed to their owners (except for the
precious ones for my collection), I took four big boxes (with the help of
TallBoy, Sheng Li and Dragon) to the post office to be sent to my next
school. We hugged and said very sad and tearful goodbyes. And my three
favorite boys said, "I love you." There can't be any better reward than
that. I was their first foreign teacher, and they were my first Chinese
students. As I traveled to Xi'an, I thought, "Well, how's that for being a
one-in-a-1.3-billion book teacher!"


Peter D. Verheyen
Bookbinder & Conservator, PA - AIC
The Book Arts Web & Book_Arts-L Listserv

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