Paper Collaborations for the Janus Press: Books and Broadsides

Fine Press books on display in the Book Arts Gallery, Neilson Library, 3rd floor, through October 31, 2006.

This image is from the Janus Press 1989 edition (co-published with the Theodore Press of Michael Alpert) of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (libretto by Nahum Tate). The book features multiple layers and flaps, multi-colored paper pulp paintings, and a ragged top edge and accordion-fold structure. As with many Janus Press books, many artists participated in its production, making the paper, printing the text, assembling the books, and creating the protective cases. The case for Dido and Aeneas provides space to house a compact disk of a recording of the opera.

Claire Van Vliet and the Janus Press: 50 Years

Thursday, Oct. 5, 4:30 pm - Neilson Library, Browsing Room
Reception afterward in the Book Arts Gallery (Neilson, 3rd floor).

An exhibition featuring books and broadsides published by Janus Press in the collections of the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, co-sponsored by the Friends of the Smith College Libraries and the McGrath Center at the Mortimer Rare Book Room. For more information, call the MRBR at 413-585-2906.

Janus Press was founded by Claire Van Vliet in 1995. A catalogue, The Janus Press: Fifty Years, is for sale in the Mortimer Rare Book Room.

About the Artist

Claire Van Vliet is one of America’s preeminent artists of the book, having created some of the 20th-century’s most important fine editions. For decades she has made significant contributions to and innovations in the fields of fine printing, papermaking, bookbinding and printmaking. And as a teacher she has had a profound impact on several generations of aspiring book artists.

In 1955 Van Vliet printed the first book from her Janus Press, now located in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She is known both for her use of traditional techniques, materials, and forms, as well as for innovation in illustration with painted paper pulp and non-adhesive and woven book structures. She also has collaborated with, and mentored, many book artists during the past 50 years, many of whom have gone on to important careers of their own. For her work as a teacher and artist Van Vliet received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1989; it was the foundation’s first recognition of achievement in the book arts.

Origins of the Press & Settling in Vermont

Claire Van Vliet (born 1933) named her press for Janus, the ancient Roman god of the rising and setting sun whose ability to look simultaneously forward and backward signified balance. For Van Vliet, Janus Press has stood for books made within the great tradition of the form, as well as works of a highly experimental nature - two sides of the same coin.

The first Janus Press book was printed in 1955 at San Diego State College, where CVV majored in geography, history, and art history, and took courses in drawing, sculpture, and lettering. She later earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Claremont Graduate School in 1954. She moved to Europe with her first husband, poet and classics scholar Walter Ralph Johnson, where she lived in Austria, England, and Germany. She separated from Johnson in 1957 and returned to the United States.

In 1966 Van Vliet settled in rural Newark, Vermont, in what is called the Northeast Kingdom, a remote site, far from the mainstreams of contemporary life. This part of the country offers a landscape that has had a great impact on Van Vliet’s work-rolling fields, distant hills, big sky, all of which change dramatically from season to season.

Janus Press Hildegard This image is from Hildegard von Bingen, Circulus Sapientiae, published in 2001. A medieval visionary abbess, Hildegard entered a convent in 1106 at age eight and was writing music by the 1140s. The text for her Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) is printed in Latin, illustrated with pulp painting and pop-ups in an accordion-fold structure.

Text, Images, Physical Materials

The books, broadsides, pamphlets, and keepsakes that Van Vliet has created have earned her an international reputation for finely produced hand printing. She often describes three interlocking components of her work-text, images, and physical materials-which are present in varying degrees in each production. Janus Press has published poetry, drama, and prose by more than sixty authors from the ancient through the medieval periods, up to modern and contemporary writers. The text can suggest a book’s format and illustration; for example, highly colorful books with decorated woven components produced in the 1990s were a response to poems referencing quilts.

Over the years Van Vliet has also incorporated numerous illustration processes in her books, from woodcuts, engravings, and photographs, to images or backgrounds created with paper pulp (pulp painting). The bindings of Janus Press publications are also greatly varied, including traditional codex form, accordion fold/concertinas, medieval longstitch, and various non-adhesive sewn and woven book structures.

Collaboration & Support

Van Vliet’s collaborative approach has engaged accomplished writers, artists, printers, and binders over the years, often bringing them to Vermont from as far away as Great Britain and New Zealand. Van Vliet likewise has consistently worked closely with other book arts professionals in New England, many of them from the local Vermont community. Many of the young artists whom Van Vliet mentored have gone on to establish their own presses or become otherwise active in the graphic arts, including Susan Johanknecht (Gefn Press) and Stephanie Westnedge. Much of Van Vliet’s paper work has been done with Katie MacGregor and Bernie Vinzani in Maine and with Howard and Katherine Clark of the Twinrocker Paper Mill in Indiana. Judi Conant, of nearby Maidstone, Vermont, has remained active as the outside binder for the Press, recently joined by Mary Richardson.

Throughout the years Van Vliet has received grant assistance from organizations such as the Vermont Council on the Arts . In 1989 she was awarded a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine R. MacArthur Foundation. This extraordinary support has enabled her to alter and expand her artistic practice, to invite other artists to participate in projects, and to offer additional opportunities to apprentices who work with her.


For more information, contact the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Neilson Library.
(413) 585-2906