Esther K. Smith paces around Ms. Bernstein’s 3D art class, looking over the shoulders of students and assisting with a comment of guidance from time to time. The first day I interviewed her, she was wearing an ivory sweater dress with pink stripes over black leggings, a cerulean cardigan, and red patent leather shoes. Her horn-rimmed reading glasses rested on top of her head.
Smith is a visiting artist at Stuyvesant, teaching Ms. Bernstein’s classes bookmaking, her profession. After about five minutes of talking to her, she extended an invitation to the studio of Purgatory Pie Press, which she runs with her husband. And so I went.
Smith’s daughter Georgia Faust (‘04) went to Stuyvesant, so Smith remained in contact with some of the teachers. Ms. Bernstein, who reached out after liking Smith’s cleverly named “How To Make Books,” introduced the idea of working on a project with students from the school.
Originally, they planned to work on projects in class with Ms. Smith using funds from a grant, but that didn’t work out. Instead, she came in as a visiting artist for ten classes, about twice a week, during which she taught students how to make books while assisting them on their individual projects.
“I haven’t done a class like this before where I came in and worked with high school students. I mainly work with college kids. But Stuy kids are something like college kids,” Smith said.
The short class periods and large class sizes caused Smith to adjust her teaching style. “My normal way to teach is every week I’d show them something, and then the next week something more complicated, and between the classes, usually once a week, they would make a project based on that structure. So they would learn something simple and what they can do with the simple thing, and then sort of build,” she said. “This time was a little different.”
“The first time I went in, I showed them things that I had done. The next time, I brought an artist I had worked with who was a math artist, because I thought that Stuy[vesant] students might be a good audience for her. So, then, I went in four or five times before winter break and had them making very fast little models and sometimes watch me make things and show them basic stuff. After the holidays, they came back and started making their own projects, and since then, I’ve been going around and helping people,” she said.
On my way to her studio, I asked about how she got into this. “Well, my mom was an artist. I always did stuff with her working with paper,” she said. “Like if I’d be sick, we’d make paper angels and things like this. One time I got really sick––I had mono for a few months––and one of her friends gave me an embroidery kit, so I learned how to embroider. I liked being able to make something that you have. At one point I said to my parents, ‘I’ve decided I’m gonna be a craftswoman,’ and they just laughed. But it kind of worked out that way.”
It wasn’t until college, however, that she officially learned the craft. Smith and her husband, Dikko Faust, went to Beloit College. “It’s a small liberal arts college. Good school for a creative person. Dikko was a friend of mine in college. We did some collaborative stuff, like I made him costumes for performances, and then he was doing paper making, and I thought that was so interesting. One thing led to another, and he was [making] books and design[ing] a book. I needed a datebook, so I learned how to make it. At first, I thought I would just do the design, and someone else would do the binding, but in the end, I learned how to do it.”
Before she officially became a bookmaker, Smith was involved in the set creation, lights management, and costume production for small scale productions, but she soon realized that it wasn’t her calling.
Walking into her studio on the fourth floor of an apartment complex, I let out a little gasp as my eyes wandered around the complex that was filled with wooden cases that divided the room. My eyes fell on the racks and colorful ephemeras all over the studio. Every inch of the floor was covered. There was always a work table, case, or place to sit.
A big, leaning stack of CD cases held itself up between a stereo and a shelf. Almost all the furniture was made of wood. A cart of ink cans almost as big as the press itself sat against the wall—a bright, sloppy mess of colors that most Tumblr blogs would go nuts for. Every surface had something visually interesting on it. It became clear that this level of tasteful detail came with her 40 years of collection.
Dikko Faust and Smith both have a penchant for the mechanical, as was evident from their use of the printing press and no visible screens or electronics in the studio, other than someone’s laptop, which was buried beneath various unfinished projects. “We hand-set almost all our type,” she said. “We almost never use computer type, we just don’t think it’s as good.”
The entire space had the type of aesthetic that comes from hipster Brooklyn flea markets and art fairs. I, as a Brooklyn hipster, was all over it.
She pointed out her husband, who was standing next to a wall of font cases, scanning over all the font names. “So that’s Dikko, the printer and founder,” she told me.
I also met Wendy Montero, the intern working on their website. She’s studying web design at The City College of New York, and after working with Smith and Dikko Faust, she says she is interested in printmaking and the letterpress. “She’s been really great assisting with the class and stuff too,” Smith said. “She didn’t know any popups, and she figured them out from the book so that she could help people.”
Purgatory Pie Press makes Artist Books, which are more about the book as a work of art than what we traditionally think of as reading material. “Sometimes we work with a writer, or sometimes we work with an artist. Sometimes [we work with] an artist and then we will be the writer[s],” she said.
“In any creative process, things kind of…,” she said, waving her arms in frantic circles for a second. “And something sparks. So maybe we’ll see an artist and we like their work, and we think we’d like to do a project with them. Part of what we like is our printing looks good on certain stuff and not on others, so photography doesn’t print very well with letterpress, but line drawings do and a lot of solids and lines. We also used to do postcards and stuff, so we try to do a little project like that with the artist before we do something big, just to see if we work together well, because we can’t say that what will work with one artist will work with another.”
“If we’re doing a job, I’m usually the production person. Sometimes I’m the design person, but I look at how many things fit on the press at one time, thinking about the limitations and the possibilities,” she said.
She then pulled out the first of many books that she would show me that day. This one, a colorful piece in the shape of a woman wearing a dress, is called “Corona de Rosas.” The dress is a popping red, with little flowers in the thick line work filled in with other bright hues. A collaboration with artist Maria de Los Angeles, the book structure seeks to call back to her other work, most notably her painted paper dresses.
The most creative aspect of this book is that it unfolds so that you can wear it as a crown, which Smith gleamingly demonstrated for me. For this book, the structure was obviously important, as it defined much of the artistic purpose of the piece, so I asked Smith how much influence the structure of the book tends to have.
She responded that her collaborations start off with an idea: “I’ll think about what book I can make to house that idea instead of basing the book around what structure I’m using. But there are certain forms that I know, because I’ve been doing this for a long time, that I’ll do a Coptic book this time or a long stitch book this time, because long stitch is one of my favorites.”
She’s picked up a lot of these structures from friends in the art world who will offer a solution or teach her something new to solve a problem, but she’s learned just as much by teaching. “I [taught] at Cooper Union in 1992,” she said. “At that point I was learning a lot that I wasn’t going to use but just so I could teach it to my students. But then that’s great because you have more stuff in your arsenal.”
“To me, the book structure is a very important element, because we’re also printing, like you’re going to come to our print shop, and so what typeface we’re going to choose, how we’re going to print things—all of that is part of it,” she explained.
She brought out another book, a collaboration between an artist and a poet, and started to unfold it for me. When closed, the book is tiny and fits in the palm of your hand. It was originally made as her contribution to a collection of small, insect-themed art books. The title, “Pests of Public Importance,” graces the white cover in elegant handset type. The font is reminiscent of the headings on colonial propaganda.
On the bottom half of the cover, a printed pattern in burgundy acts almost like a border. The negative space of the plate used is cut with borders and anatomically correct illustrations of mosquitoes in different stages of life. It has a similar aesthetic to traditional African art. This pattern continues along the bottom of the double-accordion folded sheet. She paged through it delicately with her thumbs, letting me read the poetry split into different lines above the border, and then flattened out the entire sheet, flipping it over.
Upon closer observation, I notice that it is printed on a map. “We do a lot of printing on sea chart paper from somewhere in the neighborhood,” she told me. These are maps of places where the Zika virus is particularly prevalent.
The artist the Purgatory Pie Press collaborated on for this piece is named April Vollmer. She makes wood cuts, and she often makes prints that reference mathematical concepts and STEM. Smith called her “A real science and art person.”
The poet is Georgia Faust, Smith’s daughter, who wrote the piece after a call for poetry submissions by Smith failed to find the tone they were looking for. It’s a found poem filled with scientific jargon. Many of the lines contain facts about mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses that were later revised, referencing the evolving truth of science and human understanding.
“We sell the work later and hope to make money, but we’re not very good at selling,” she confessed, laughing.
This, I am familiar with. As the child of an artist, I have always had an understanding of how many brilliant and beautiful works are appreciated without making necessary profit. “There are some collections that buy our work, like the Museum of Modern Art has a lot of it, and the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, the Tate in England, the Victoria & Albert, [and] NYU.”
This, on the other hand, is surprising. These collections are hugely renowned in the art world, and being supported by them is a massive achievement.
Purgatory Pie Press makes limited edition artist books, though, which means that the selling of a single book to a high-end collection like that is impressive, but not necessarily profitable.
These books are also fragile, and very valuable. Most people understand books to be something you can pick up, pull open, and toss in your backpack, but unless the insurance of the gallery is fairly high, you often can’t even touch them.
“We have this book––its price now is around $5000, and it wasn’t that much then, but it was still over $1000. And this kid just picked it up, and I said to his mother, ‘That book costs a thousand dollars,’ and she was like, ‘Wow, really?’ and didn’t tell her kid to put it down.”
“I try not to let kids touch stuff, but I also try to have something for them to touch,” she said. Little pop-up face accordion books, like the one she gave me, are a common gift to children interested in the exhibit. Smith even has a book exclusively for them; she followed up the original “How To Make Books” with “Making Books with Kids.”
After a while, Smith decided it was time for her to head home. Before the elevator turned off, she said goodbye and left me in the studio with Montero and Dikko Faust. Dikko Faust invited me to come look at the press with him, and I obliged.
Dikko Faust is, straightforwardly, eccentric-looking. His hair has gone white, but it’s still a spiky halo around his head, exactly the same as it was in some older pictures of him. His voice is loud, clear, deep, and pausing; it almost seems like he’s letting you hear him think, and he seems to think a lot. In the picture of him on the “About Us” tab on their website, he’s wearing a colorful mess of a shirt.
He smiles with his eyes wide open. The scruffy goatee he bore at the time was cut diagonally across his chin––whether this was intentional or not was unclear. A pair of glasses hung around his neck, which he held up to his eyes while squinting in an angry-looking way at tiny typeface. To me, he is intriguing. I could have stayed in the studio talking to him for hours.
“So how did you get into this?” I asked him.
Dikko Faust has always liked printing, but did woodcut, etching, linoleum, and intaglio before settling on printing. He went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, the only place in the state that had a full letter press set up. He eventually founded Purgatory Pie Press in 1977.
Dikko Faust patiently answered all my questions. I learned that in the studio, a stack of wooden trays are a makeshift drying rack. Stuff that I previously looked at as paint cans were actually high-quality ink that he received for free or bought for fifty cents in the eighties or half-used from places that were going out of business. He also explained the difference between typefaces and fonts.
He demonstrated how the printing press works. It’s dark green, with a black roller and the brand name, “Vanderbilt,” printed on the side in gold. Faust showed off his special extension, the split fountain, which allows him to only ink up and clean up half the roller at a time for smaller prints. He turned on the engine, set down the roller, and a big metal “chink” cued the whirring of the motor. The bicycle chain attached to the roller and the motor started to loop around. We stood there for a moment, listening to the magic of the room, before he shut it off with a clunk.
There is moment of silence as the noise settles. I thank him, find my way down four flights of stairs, and step out into the evening.