San Francisco Center for the Book Offers Spring, Summer Exhibits

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San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB), at 375 Rhode Island Street, is currently offering “Books of Course,” an exhibit that runs until June 11, featuring books, objects and creative assignments from nine Bay Area professors and a few of their former students.

“Chronicle Books: Born in the Summer of Love,” which opens June 23, tells the story of Chronicle Books, once the San Francisco Chronicle’s publishing arm, now an independent publishing house, with titles that include Griffin & Sabine and Under the Tuscan Sun. Fifty books will be on display, one for each year of the company’s history, as well as a visual guide to how the publisher puts together its books, children’s books, and stationery products and gifts.

According to Cheryl Itamura, SFCB director of marketing and events, “Books of Course” is a collection of treasured teaching materials which have influenced hundreds of students of book arts in the Bay Area and beyond. “It’s really a mix of new and historic books, not a cookie-cutter exhibit,” said Itamura.

Alisa Golden, senior adjunct professor of printmaking and master of fine arts writing at the California College of Arts (CCA), curated the exhibit.  She said the “Books of Course” professors are part of an informal discussion group that’s met for about 10 years, “reading books about books together. Each of us picked ten books out of our collection. I decided to focus on the idea of language and culture. One of my books, Banana Yellow, by Katherine Ng, is shaped like a Chinese takeout box. The binding is a wire handle. You can see from the outside what’s on the inside: memories about the artist’s life and thoughts about being Chinese American.”

Charles Hobson, professor emeritus at San Francisco Art Institute, said he views a book as a creative medium, like painting or sculpture.  He contributed Overcoated, by John Crombie. In the book a sequence of pictures gradually eat up the space on the page. The story tells of a man consumed by his father’s overcoat. Hobson said the overarching theme in his classes is “the whole book,” from binding and cover art to font and content. 

Michael Henninger, professor of art at California State University, East Bay, said one book he chose was The Book of Benjamin, by Michael McClure and Wesley Tanner. “It’s a flag book, which has a kind of concertina or accordion spine. Attached to that are pages smaller than a book cover, like little flags. You can page through them or pull the book open. Doing that changes the order of the text,” he said.

Macy Chadwick, part-time faculty in fine art at Academy of Art University and visiting faculty at San Francisco Art Institute, contributed You are Here, by Julie Chen. “It’s a border book format, four inches by four inches. Each page you turn has flaps that fold out. In the end, this small book becomes 12 inches by 16 inches. It expands an idea into physical space in the form of this book,” she said.

Betsy Davids, professor emerita at CCA, said her contributions are meant to reveal the range and growth of the book art field over the last 50 years.  “In my classes, I like to show whole bodies of work, many books by one bookmaker, the long exploration,” she said.  Davids, like many of the exhibit’s contributors, doesn’t use books as prompts for assignments.  “I showed them the books, but I felt it was more important to elicit whatever the individual student was interested in doing. You don’t get that if you give an assignment. You just get responses.”

Casey Gardner, a book artist whose work will appear in the exhibit, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts at CCA in 2009 and took classes at SFCB prior to that.  She said the exhibitions reveal that her former professors, Chen, Davids, and O’Banion, are part of “the rich resource that the Bay Area is. There’s so many high caliber teachers who come at book arts from different angles.”  She added that book arts is meaningful to her and other students because “the idea of a book has infinite potential and involves a variety of skills. The teacher presents possibilities and opens a path for you to find your own way.”

Imin Yeh, a book artist who earned her Master of Fine Arts at CCA in 2009, was asked by Nance O’Banion, CCA professor emerita, to create a book as a work of art for the exhibit. Yeh’s piece, Black Book, is printed and designed using only the color black. “I used laser jet toner, a Risograph printer, and black paper, materials you could get in any copy shop. I use this book just to show students of book arts the elements. It’s an example of how everyday materials can be transformed into something special,” said Yeh.

“Chronicle Books” tells the story of a publishing company that started as a branch of a major metropolitan newspaper and emerged as one of the country’s top 15 publishers.  “We really are the quirky outpost, not only west of the Rockies but west of the Mississippi,” said Michael Carabetta, creative director at Chronicle Books.  “The company started by publishing compilations of columns and articles that ran in San Francisco Chronicle, like Herb Caen’s work. At first, the content was of a regional nature, very local, recipes to make, places to go. The very first book was actually a premium you got if you subscribed to the newspaper.”

Later, Chronicle Books expanded to topics beyond the Bay Area, starting with Northern California lifestyle and architecture. The company created many paperback cookbooks with vibrant food photography.  In 1991, it published a watershed work, Griffin & Sabine, an art book of correspondence between an artist and his muse. The colorful small book has real envelopes that can be opened and letters that can be taken out and read.  “This book began life as a “one-off,” an artist’s book. We then transformed it into a trade edition. At one point, we employed four or five printers to keep up with demand. The book’s a hand-assembled piece,” said Carabetta.

Griffin & Sabine changed how people saw books, as well as Chronicle Books’ image. According to Carabetta, the work helped Chronicle Books become known as a publishing house that emphasizes art, design, and creativity. In 2000, Chronicle Books became independent from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Other Chronicle Books publications that’ll appear in the exhibit include The Beatles Anthology (2000), a 400+-page volume, with 1,300 photographs, launched with a flash-mob Beatles sing-along in Union Square; Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible (1992), a collaboration with Lucasfilm Ltd., and Under the Tuscan Sun (1996). “At the time, Frances Mayes was publishing poetry at San Francisco State,” said Carabetta.

According to Carabetta, Chronicle Books’ The Journey is the Destination (2011), about the life of photojournalist and collage artist Dan Eldon, is being made into a movie. “He lived in Somalia during that time of “Black Hawk Down” and was caught in the crossfire. He took photographs of Mogadishu. He kept journals and made collages of the pictures he took. His work shows a love of Africa and the people there,” said Carabetta.

Chronicle Books’ children’s books on display will include Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site (2011), which was on the New York Times Bestseller List for more 200 weeks; Josephine (2013), a Coretta Scott King and Horn Book Honor Book; and They All Saw a Cat” (2016), a Caldecott Honor Book.  Carabetta said Chronicle Books’ children’s division is the brainchild of Victoria Rock, the company’s founding children’s book publisher and editor-at-large. Rock is known for supporting daring publications, such as The House That Crack Built (1992).

According to Carabetta, the exhibit took about two years to organize, and will be accompanied by release of Chronicle Books: The First 50 Years (2017), a hardcover visual history, which will be distributed at SFCB to those who donate $20 or more to the nonprofit.

Unlike the “Books of Course” exhibit, in which most pieces will be displayed under glass, “Chronicle Books” will show books on open shelves. Visitors will be able to pick up and read them.   “At Chronicle, we have a reverence for the physicality of the book, the sensuous pleasures to be derived from the object itself,” said Nion McEvoy, Chairman of The McEvoy Group, which owns Chronicle Books.

“This exhibit has been a special project. Chronicle Books really has a “can-do” spirit. We went from being a small company where everyone did everything, typed our own memos and wrapped our own packages, to what we are today. Back then, I saw it as an exciting, invigorating, and less buttoned-down. I still do,” said Carabetta.