Action Bound

A painter, a poet and a publisher work together to produce a limited-edition Sept. 11 lamentation

Nancy Tokar Miller sits in the chilly Chax Press studio downtown, looking over stacks of printed pages laid out on a table, ready for binding.

"This is my first book that (I am) not just loaning my image for the cover," says the painter, excitedly.

Witness, an artists' book to be published this month, has 11 of Miller's "little action paintings," one on every leaf, all of them "bold, energetic variations in black," she says. Limited to just 40 copies, the book is a collaboration between Miller and the esteemed San Francisco poet Kathleen Fraser, but "the poem came first," Miller explains. "It's a wonderful poem. ... What I especially liked is that (my) images were only complete with the text."

Hand-printed on letterpress in the Chax Press studio in the Steinfeld Warehouse, Witness showcases Miller's artwork on the left-hand pages, and the poem on the right, but the division is not always tidy. Sometimes, Miller's images spill--or explode--onto the pages of the text, a lamentation on the tragedy of Sept. 11.

Just 360 words long, the poem segues from opaque musings--"Now I am back inside time / All day we sit inside of WAR to the other end"--to vivid images of the day's wholesale destruction and death.

It begins, "Rolling against the wall in massive wAVEs ..." Another line reads, "The airplane entered and entered every wall / The airplane entered the wall ..." Still another: "It will always be there and it will be collapsing."

Inspired by what she calls Fraser's "action verbs--collapsing, falling, buildings falling down, spreading, running," Miller made paintings pulsing with movement, using a raft of rough, nontraditional tools. She translated the opening line about rolling and wAVEs into a fierce abstracted tsunami crashing against a vertical column, rendered with a flat piece of paint-laden rubber dragged across acetate.

For a line of frantic words jumbled into one--"Runningfromoneendofspacetotheotherendof s p a c e"--Miller took a hardware store wedgie brush, loaded it with black paint and violently zigzagged downward.

"I stumbled and made a jag, and then I went with it."

A longtime Tucson artist, Miller usually makes landscape-inspired abstractions that distill remembered scenes into swift strokes of nearly transparent paint.

"There's not a landscape in the bunch here," she says with satisfaction. "I like to stretch."

Chax Press Executive Director Charles Alexander brought the poet and painter together for the project. A poet himself, he dislikes the term "illustrator." Both artists are "equally responsible for how the book is turning out," he says. "When I think of the 'author,' I think of who is the authority behind the work. Nancy brought out the power of the work."

Miller had previously worked with Chax on a fundraiser, making an original painting on a broadside that was printed with the text of a poem.

"I enjoyed doing the broadside so much. It was a new thing for me, making an image that suited a poem. I said, 'Someday, I'd like to do a poetry book.'"

Alexander has a longtime professional relationship with Fraser, whom he calls "a major figure in poetry today." A headliner at the Tucson Poetry Festival in 2005, the San Francisco poet taught for many years at San Francisco State University and has published more than 14 books of poetry. Punctuated by unusual space breaks, her poetry reads almost like a musical score, Alexander says, and has a visual quality that makes it ripe for a collaboration with visual art.

"She writes without closure, and the way that it's laid out it has a physicality," he says.

After seeing Miller's paintings on the Etherton Gallery Web site, Fraser initially worried that her artwork would be too beautiful for the somber Witness. Alexander reassured her that Miller would respond to the poem's tone, and in fact, only three of the 11 paintings in the book have any color other than black.

For the passage about the planes entering the wall, Miller hand-painted a horizontal slash of ocher penetrating a couple of vertical black rectangles; for an allusion to "children's redknitted shirts," Miller added three sharp dabs of paint in blood-red. The artist hand-painted these marks in each of the 40 volumes of the book, before printing the black portions of the image on top of the color.

For the final lines--"It is always in our peripheral vision. / You will always be there and it will be collapsing"--Miller created dissolving blocks of buildings and printed them in the pale beige of memory.

Once Alexander divided the poem up into 11 fragments, Miller worked out her images in her home studio. She hardly ever used a conventional brush, she says, instead using everyday objects--a sponge brush from Grant Road Lumber, a piece of flat rubber, a Japanese stencil brush--to slash her black acrylics onto acetate or white paper. Alexander scanned and sized the pictures in the computer, and then sent them off to a couple of outside engravers, for conversion into printing plates.

Then began the long, slow work of printing all 40 copies of the book on the hand-cranked letterpress. Alexander hand-set the type for the poem first and printed it on thick, gray printmaking paper. When the text was ready, Miller hand-painted the two sets of colored sheets, and then publisher and painter worked together from October to December to print the paintings in ink.

"She was here every day for the printing," Alexander says. "I never worked with an artist in quite that way before. ... The printing was a weird combination of frustrating, beautiful and magical. Some days, we would print page after page. Other days, it would be, 'What's happening here?'"

The intense labor required by the book's production will push the price up to about $1,400, Alexander says, and limit buyers primarily to university libraries and collectors. But he hopes Witness will be just the first in a series of book collaborations with Tucson artists. Already, he and Dennis Williams, a freewheeling performance and visual artist, are at work on a book, Environmental Reporter, that's more "arte povera" than pristine, he says.

Both painter and publisher say the experience of creating Witness will change their future work. Miller wants to try out some of her new alternative tools and techniques in her paintings. Alexander says he learned "everything there is to know about this letterpress. It made me a printer again."