Jeanne Drewes, a librarian at Michigan State University who specializes in preserving paper and books, didn't know much about Ediciones Vigia -- but she'd heard the name and knew it was highly regarded. So when she traveled to Cuba, she made a point of visiting the small press.
Finally seeing the books, "I was just speechless," Drewes recalls. "They are amazing because they're made of things other people throw away."
Drewes curated Wrapped Words: Handmade Books From Cuba's Ediciones Vigia, opening at the Spencer Museum this weekend. Viewers have a chance to see books such as the 15th Anniversary Revista del Vigia. On the cover, cutout illustrations of fish are layered over a blue ocean. Real netting from fishermen's traps spreads out over the water, connecting it to an open cardboard box. The box is like a diorama, with clouds drawn and pasted onto the edges and sky-blue interior. Forming a partial lid is a paper clock with broken matches for hands, the match tips serving as arrows pointing to the numbers on the clock's face. Between the stories inside the book, this clock image is reprinted on individual pages made of brown paper similar to that used to make grocery sacks. The matches on the clock count the tales.
Drewes describes a book on which a paper fence pulls back to reveal a forest, realistically constructed from blades of grass, birdseed, sawdust and sand. "I could design a book where I attached sawdust, making a fence to pull back," she says. "I can imagine doing all of those things. But I cannot imagine doing that for 200 copies and then selling them for $15 apiece."
The founders of Ediciones Vigia were friends who wrote poetry and wanted to publish their own books. Eventually they branched out to publish works ranging from translations of foreign texts to books by great Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. Some books even contained music, with a folded piece of illustrated sheet music slipped behind a tight paper strap inside the back cover.
The thick, grainy bagasse paper is made from the rough outer portion of sugarcane. Letters that spell out book titles and chapter names, even page numbers, are painstakingly stenciled. Ediciones Vigia associates "wanted to assume poverty as an opportunity and not a lack," founding editor Alfredo Zaldivar explains in the show's press materials. "Using stencils is more human, closer to man, to the writer."
Viewers will have to look at the books in glass cases, open to one carefully selected page. Further limiting the exhibit is the need to use low light so as not to damage the paper.
Book lovers might find themselves squinting in the half-light and peering around the corners of the glass cases like smitten thirteen-year-olds willing to hover indefinitely near a crush's locker for one brief encounter.