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Page Turners

By Lydia Filosa.

While registering for courses last semester, I stumbled upon the BFS Fine Arts Seminar Open Book, taught by professor and artist Sharka Hyland. The course description explained that each student would produce his or her own original book. I jumped at the opportunity to create an entire book as an undergraduate and enrolled.

Over the course of the semester, my classmates and I explored every aspect of the book-making process, from writing to designing to binding. We did research using design books in the Fisher Fine Arts Library and sought inspiration from artists’ books in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Collection in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. The course asked us to think critically about the typographic forms we see each day and often take for granted. For example, even the seemingly invisible typography of this article I’m writing now is a deliberate choice, conveying to the reader that the content of the text is more important than its form.

As we explored the interaction between form and function, we were able to put learned theories and concepts into practice using the layout program Adobe InDesign. Our class became quite close, spending many hours in the Addams computer lab playing with font type and size, margins, leading, and colors. These seemingly minute details could drastically affect the reader’s interpretation of the text.

Though we all became fluent in this modern design tool, we also learned about older design methods and the history of typography. We even took a trip to the Morgan Building, where graduate design student Annie Zverina taught us how to use one of three manual letterpresses that are housed there.

While each of us was working on our own project, the course was also collaborative because we served as editors for one another. Each week we read each other’s work and offered feedback. The diversity of everyone’s work was incredible — no two books were alike in the slightest.

As we entered into the final stage of the creative process, printing and binding our book, it became even more apparent that each of our books had its own personality. A bookbinding specialist from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Erin Paulson, taught us various binding methods, including the French Twist, an elegant stitch that runs along an open spine. She offered individualized advice for each of our projects, helping us to best convey our unique stories as we created our final products.

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Senior Mary Blackwell chose to inlay a yellow flower into the cover of her book. Mary’s book was a collection of short stories about growing up with her foster siblings. Throughout her book, Mary included flowers and other botanicals she had collected from the Morris Arboretum and on walks through West Philadelphia. Mary said, “My friends were a little embarrassed to walk with me because I was always stopping to pick plants.” 

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Claire Keener’s book also involved walking around the city. But rather than meandering through Philadelphia, Claire focused on an intimate aspect of the city — its shortcuts. Photographing old alleyways and empty streets, Claire captured moments of aloneness in the bustling city.

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Other students wrote about their experiences abroad. Halie Craig wrote about her time living with a family in Morocco and her navigation through the Arabic language. Exploring the polarities and intersections between cultures, Halie created her book so that it could be read from left to right, like a traditional Western book, or right to left, like a traditional Arabic book. The front cover reads “West.” If you flip the book over, the back cover reads “East.” Halie incorporated handwritten Arabic into every page, highlighting her personal experience with the language and culture. 

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Juliana Kulik wrote of her experience as a vegan and champion of animal rights. Her book was composed of short dictionary-like entries that each revealed another facet of her experience as a vegan. Juliana framed these entries with haunting black-and-white photos of animals.

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Lydia Filosa graduated from Penn in December 2013 with a BA in Classical Studies. She is currently interning for the Undergraduate Office of Admissions and the Penn Art & Culture Initiative.

Edited by Naomi Shavin.