Gaylord Schanilec: A Natural History |
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Gaylord Schanilec: A Natural History

Print and book maker Gaylord Schanilec in his Stockholm, Wisconsin studio.
Print and book maker Gaylord Schanilec in his Stockholm, Wisconsin studio.

Leap. It’s a word that artist and amateur naturalist Gaylord Schanilec uses frequently. In fact, Schanilec lives by the leap, often choosing artistic projects that require him to leap, both technically and conceptually. This drive to explore something unknown to him, something for which the outcome is uncertain, has made Schanilec one of the leading makers of hand-crafted books. Drawing on his talents as a wood engraver, printer, designer, and illustrator, Schanilec creates unique fine press books that explore his interests and experiences as well as his native landscape.

As a teenager growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, Schanilec decided to become a poet after meeting celebrated American poet and fellow North Dakotan Thomas McGrath. Schanilec admired McGrath’s commitment to his craft, and he was especially taken with McGrath’s metaphor for the muse, “the moon stuck in my pocket.” Indeed, Schanilec’s early book, Tracking the Moon, published in 1981, was an homage to McGrath in verse and featured a small black print of a moon on the cover.

While Schanilec chose not to pursue poetry as an occupation, he still retained his fascination with combining words and images in new ways, illustrating books for other poets and occasionally writing his own on the side. In the 1980s he lived in a Twin Cities warehouse with a handful of other artists. A number of literary presses had set up shop in the area, eager to make use of a new influx of foundation money and a burgeoning arts scene.

At the time, Schanilec was working primarily in pen and ink, though he also experimented with woodcuts and graphic design. Then one of his friends brought a printing press into the warehouse and showed Schanilec how to print his woodcuts on the press. Soon he was learning the basics of letterpress printing, which uses handset wooden or metal type, and engraved or wood-cut blocks, to transfer inked text and illustrations onto paper.

Near the warehouse where Schanilec lived was a paper company. After dark, he and the other artists would help themselves to the offcuts of paper in the company’s scrap bins. Thus was born Schanilec’s imprint, Midnight Paper Sales. He equipped his new printing operation with a press, movable type, and other materials he’d purchased from a retired printer. At first, Schanilec made event posters, broadsides for poetry readings, and other ephemera. But when he realized that he could turn his printed images into books, Schanilec saw a whole new world of opportunity. 

In 1983 the Minnesota Center for Book Arts opened to provide resources and classes for book artists, and Schanilec immediately signed up for course with book artist Gerald Lange. A letterpress scholar and award-winning artist, Lange is also the proprietor and founder of the Bieler Press, a small firm that specializes in custom letterpress printing, typographic design, and the publication of finely printed limited edition books. 

“Gerry showed me the finer points of printing, typography, and book design: the right paper, the right ink, the right impression,” says Schanilec. The two became friends, and Lange urged Schanilec to make the leap from letterpress printing on paper scraps to fine press printing on custom paper. 

Schanilec’s first long-form book project, all of it developed and printed on his own, was High Bridge (1987). Conceived as a long, unfolding composition, the book included his images alternating with text from old newspaper articles to tell the story of the construction and demolition of the old High Bridge in Saint Paul. For this book, Schanilec made a leap into the unknown world of multi-color wood engravings, teaching himself as he went along.

Wood engravings are made with end-grain blocks (cut against the grain), rather than the long-grain planks that form traditional woodcut printing blocks. The denser end-grain wood allows for finer precision and tonal variation when engraving images and holds up to repeated press runs. But wood engraving is difficult and time-consuming work. Multi-colored relief printing further complicates this work, as the colors must be layered so that transparent inks will combine with subsequent layers to create secondary and tertiary colors.

Generally, for multi-color printing, one color is applied to a block with each pass of the press. Sometimes this is done by cutting a separate block for each color applied on the press. But Schanilec uses the “reduction cut” or “wasting” method in which a single block is used throughout, carving away surfaces not intended to transfer any more ink before each pass of the press. This approach requires a lot of forethought—once something has been carved away, you can’t go back unless you create a new block.

It took Schanilec two years to complete the High Bridge project, which is about as long as it took to build the new High Bridge. But  by the time it was done, Schanilec had won the American Institute of Graphic Arts Award of Excellence and had established himself as a fine press book artist. 

Sylvae: Fifty specimens printed directly from the wood with historical anecdotes & observations (Gaylord Schanilec and Ben Verhoeven, Midnight Paper Sales, 2007). The large paper edition includes a set of 25 wood specimens. Photos by Ben Verhoeven.

Max Yela, Head of Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Libraries, has been following Schanilec’s work since the eighties. “I can’t think of anybody who has that kind of luminous color palette in wood engraving,” says Yela, noting how the books reflect a mind-boggling combination of print and book design precision. “He establishes a rhythm and uses the book to offer a progression that’s not just about going through and seeing the images.” Rather, says Yela, the artist’s rhythm stops the viewer, arrests him or her, and creates a portal to another space. “It’s almost cinematic. The translucency of the paper may frame something on the other side, so this text is framed by the images in reverse, and kind of lifts [the text] off the page.”

For his first three natural history books—Mayflies of the Driftless Region, Sylvae, and Lac Des Pleurs—Schanilec immersed himself in the flora and fauna of his home at the time, 27 forested acres near Stockholm, Wisconsin. For each book, Schanilec decided to collect and identify specimens he found in this region of the Upper Mississippi, following rules he’d established for himself and a commitment to understanding the natural world through observation and experience. 

Published in 2005, Mayflies of the Driftless Region was conceived when Schanilec came across Frederic M. Halford’s 1897 edition of Dry Fly Entomology, which was written with British fly fishermen in mind. Inspired by the book’s detailed wood engravings of flies, Schanilec set out in a boat on selected nearby streams at strategic mayfly hatch times in hopes of catching and identifying particular species. For help in identifying the various kinds of mayflies he encountered, Schanilec called on entomologist Clarke Garry, a biology professor from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls and author of many articles on freshwater macro invertebrate delights such as “The Abundant Scud” and “The Humpless Casemaker.”

“Garry steered me to the right microscope and all the right equipment and all the right little vials and things,” says Schanilec. Schanilec would carve a block based on his microscopic examination of the specimen and then send Garry the specimen to identify. If Garry couldn’t identify it, Schanilec asked him to explain in writing why the specimen was so difficult to taxonomically pin down, which then provided the text for that specimen in the book.

“It was like taking an amazing, one-on-one biology course. I really like working with scientists,” says Schanilec, noting that he’s “been doing [so] quite a bit in the last decade.”

Schanilec’s color wood engravings of  specimens, like this mussel shell, are carefully rendered individual portraits as in his Unionidae: Downstream, wood engraving. From Lac Des Pleurs: Report  from Lake Pepin (Gaylord Schanilec, Midnight  Paper Sales, 2015).

Schanilec found his way into yet another natural history book project after he began practicing sustainable forestry, which required him to cut specific trees on his property. Schanilec, and Ben Verhoeven, who had been interning with him in his print shop, decided to make a sylva, a catalogue of each species of tree on his property. First, Schanilec and Verhoeven clear-cut a stand of aspens, used the trees to build a wood shop, and then installed a kiln for drying wood. They decided to create a fine press book of their sylva, using direct relief prints of the wood from the trees they had harvested and then cured in the wood shop. They would also include an engraved map of Schanilec’s property, showing the original location of each specimen tree  

In the course of completing Sylvae (2008), Schanilec cut dozens of trees on his property representing 25 species. From some trees he saved large roots or limbs, from others small trunks. These he milled into slabs revealing the long-grain patterns and cross-sectional rounds showing the short grains and growth rings. He dried and planed these pieces into smooth blocks of various shapes (complete with their natural edging of bark), but with the standard thickness of letterpress printing blocks.

Schanilec carefully matched his ink to the original color of each wood specimen. While one color pass was adequate for printing some of the specimens, most needed additional color. So, Schanilec would cut away the wood around the dominant grain and bark edge and ink the remaining relief surfaces with darker pigments to accentuate the varying textures. While most of the completed prints fit on an eight-by-ten inch page, some of the longer wood blocks were printed as fold-out pages, some up to 24 inches long.

The process of creating Sylvae took around four years, during which Schanilec developed a deep knowledge of the structure and biology of regional trees. Yet he discounts the scientific significance of the project. “I don’t really feel like it’s that significant of a natural history document. It’s playful science. I don’t have to prove anything.”

On the other hand, he does acknowledge Sylvae’s importance to the history of the book. “Whenever I’m doing a project like that, I’m usually trying to tie it into other books back through time. There’s a series of books I was looking at that have wood specimens. … So I was deliberately tying into that. But, interestingly, nobody ever tried printing specimen prints from the different kinds of wood before. Somehow nobody else had ever done that, which is just kind of shocking to me.”

For his next major project, Lac Des Pleurs (2015), or “Lake of Tears,” Schanilec explored Lake Pepin on the Upper Mississippi River near his hilltop property in Stockholm. He observed and documented the fauna that live where the river widens into lake and interspersed block-print images of them with historical texts, his own poetry, and excursions into natural history. Schanilec outfitted a boat with a motor, a drawing table, and a live well for holding fish and other specimens, and took to the lake. His rules for the project: “For a fish to get into the book, I have to catch one. For a mussel to get in, both shells of an individual must be collected. For a bird, I need an interesting photograph.”

 Paul Nylander, an important part of the My Mighty Journey team, inking the press for a direct print from native bean plants. Gaylord Schanilec, Medicine Wheel (Sage, Cedar, Sweetgrass, Tobacco), direct print. From My Mighty Journey (John Coy, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019).

The first image he engraved for the seven-year odyssey was a ten-by-seventeen-inch image of white pelicans taking off from a sand bar. Schanilec knew it would be popular, so he made extra prints to help fund the project. He calculated that the key block, made from counter top material used in his boat, took him ninety hours to engrave. Schanilec positioned the images of fish and mussels in the foreground, “floating” in midair above the river in the style of the classic field guides he’d been using in his research. Schanilec also included prints of fish that he meticulously rendered scale by scale.

“Starting with [Lac Des Pleurs], I do all my engraving in front of the computer. Because I work from photographs, you can do so much with them [on the screen]—magnify things and light them up.” 

Schanilec originally planned to engrave images of every species of fish in Lake Pepin but realized, given his pace, that it would take him 125 years. Instead, he made some prints from engraved blocks originally used in Thaddeus Surber’s 1920 catalogue of fishes made for the Minnesota Board of Game and Fish commissioners. The time he saved using these historically relevant blocks went into his more detailed engravings. For example, Schanilec’s two-by-three-foot map of Lake Pepin, hand-printed on handmade Kiraku Kozo paper, was made using six maple blocks from a tree that he had cut down while working on Sylvae. It took Schanilec five hundred hours just to engrave the map into the maple blocks.

In Schanilec’s newest natural history project, the artist was commissioned to illustrate author John Coy’s children’s story My Mighty Journey. In Coy’s tale, Saint Anthony Falls narrates its own upstream journey from Saint Paul to Minneapolis. The waterfall actually moved ten miles over the course of 12,000 years. When a melting glacier joined two rivers and slowly eroded the riverbed, the largest waterfall on the Mississippi River was undercut and pushed from Saint Paul to Minneapolis. The waterfall in My Mighty Journey bears witness to the human developments and endeavors that take place during this time alongside the falls.

“I am a powerful waterfall. I listen, I pay attention, I have a long memory,” says the waterfall. “You might find it hard to believe, but I have moved through time.”

Once again, Schanilec is exploring time itself, and taking his time doing it. With this project, Schanilec has taken another major leap, relinquishing the front-to-back, top-to-bottom control he usually maintains over every aspect of his work. He seems happy about it.

“I was so tired of controlling everything that I deliberately put myself in a position to give it up,” he says. “It’s been fantastic for the project because what happens is that everybody brings so much to it that … it’s the most organic book I’ve ever worked on. It just took on a life of its own—and I just try to keep up with it, really.”

According to Schanilec, the project has been truly collaborative. The publisher of My Mighty Journey, Minnesota Historical Society Press, teamed up with the Minnesota Center for Book Arts to provide Schanilec with research and resources. A committed team of interns and assistants, including Paul Nylander, Greta Lapcinski, Sorcha Douglas, Paris Fobbe, and Barb Eijadi, each brought their own artistic and book-making experiences and have helped Schanilec with image development, typesetting, and printing. Schanilec notes that while most were scheduled to work on the project for only a few months, “their time would be up and they’d just keep coming around … because we were having so much fun.”

Gaylord Schanilec, Spirit Island, direct print and wood engraving. From My Mighty Journey (John Coy, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019).  Schanilec, intern Sorcha Douglas, and author John Coy discuss the design  of My Mighty Journey.

While Schanilec is including some prints from wood engravings in the book, he and his team are also making relief prints directly from organic materials like limestone blocks, cottonwood bark, and tobacco leaves. Using relief prints added to the organic feel of the book and allowed his collaborators to directly participate in creating images. Nylander has been documenting the project and acting as something of a show runner. Schanilec does not miss that part of the work. “I started documenting myself with Mayflies and the reason was to document the process. Since then other people have been doing it better than I have,” he says.

As the My Mighty Journey process comes to a close and the book nears publication, Schanilec reflects on the camaraderie among the collaborators. “Everybody that’s been involved, we’ve just had a really good rapport going,” he says. “It’s always kind of an emotional let-down when you’re done. In this case it really will be.”

Of course, Schanilec has a few more projects in his pocket. He says he’s working on a book of flowers. “I’ve been photographing urban flowers and really fooling around with depth of field when things blur. … But I keep finding excuses to make some of those blurred semi-circles [into] the moon.”

The moon often finds its way into his work. Here it is in the logo for his imprint, Midnight Paper Sales, here it is in the compass rose on the enormous map of Lac Des Pleurs. When asked, Schanilec acknowledges the motif. “It’s subtle, but it’s there” he says. “Yeah, I’m always turning circles into the moon.”


Cathy Cunningham’s previous artist profiles have appeared in Riverwest Currents and as a Riverwest 24 commemorative booklet. She enjoys making field recordings and photographing lichens.

Chuck Stebelton is author most recently of An Apostle Island (Oxeye Press, 2021). His previous poetry collections include The Platformist (Cultural Society, 2012) and Circulation Flowers (Tougher Disguises, 2005). He served as Literary Program Director at Woodland Pattern Book Center from 2005 to 2017.

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