Before the 15th-century invention of the Gutenberg printing press—whose movable metal type revolutionized bookmaking—books were the work of a cloistered cadre of monks, artists, and calligraphers toiling painstakingly, often by candlelight, over illuminated manuscripts, so called for their glowing gold and silver embellishment. These hand-lettered and elaborately illustrated early books were commissioned and held by churches, monasteries, and mosques, by royal courts and wealthy patrons as objects of reverence, value, and mystery . . . books as art.
Whether the nine books Two Ponds Press has produced over the past 10 years may be called “books as art” or “art as books,” publishers Ken Shure and Liv Rockefeller resist elucidating. It’s a tension they embrace—tension, the husband and wife know, being essential grist for the creative mill.
“The lunatic fringe” is how Ken and Liv refer to their medium, a quotation from a dear friend and mentor, late American sculptor and printmaker Leonard Baskin, whose own groundbreaking fine-art Gehenna Press Ken has represented since 1985.
A full collection of Gehenna’s work occupies half a wall of the purpose-built, two-story granite library that stands opposite Ken and Liv’s hilltop Camden home. The rest of the library is dedicated to Two Ponds materials, as well as personal interests, such as Liv’s collection of antiquarian and contemporary cookbooks and titles by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, first husband of Liv’s mother.
Antique and limited-edition books have been a longtime interest of Ken’s, who for 41 years coowned midcoast antiquarian book and ephemera shop Goose River Exchange. Customers included historian David McCullough, actor Gabriel Byrne, and Baskin himself.
It’s a “dense” and rarefied network of papermakers and artists, writers and binders, photographers and collectors who make a fine-art press possible, Liv explains. Their field of collaborators stretches from a 400-year-old papermaker in the Czech Republic, which crafted specially watermarked paper for their inaugural title, to a bookbinder in Massachusetts who sewed, in North Atlantic salmon leather, artist and designer Anneli Skaar’s interpretation of a 1920s refugee passport for the 2020 book Nansen’s Pastport. Sixty copies of that book were printed, a typical run for Two Ponds. The deluxe edition, featuring a removable, bronze melted Nobel Peace Prize sculpture, sells for $4,000.
For The Little River, which “nearly killed the artist,” Liv recalls, summoning thoughts of those toiling monks, Michael Kuch conceived and printed the book’s soft-ground etchings using natural materials—apple seeds, pine needles, real butterfly wings—to illustrate the text, a lost manuscript from beloved children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown. The story was discovered among Brown’s personal effects at the Vinalhaven home she left her fiancé, Liv’s father, upon her unexpected death in 1952. The edition, which sold out, features a facsimile of the author’s handwritten notes, including three possible endings, and “field notes” on Liv’s connection to the woman for whom she is “something of an alternate ending.”
Two Ponds books are labors of love, or perhaps like lovers themselves: selfish of time and begging for intimacy, for interaction, pleading to be read and touched. It’s a costly affair. A deluxe edition of The Last Ship from the River of the Northern City, featuring woodcuts and an original watercolor by luminist painter Stephen Hannock and lyrics by Sting, goes for $20,000. This is the double-edged sword of art, and once of books: Its preciousness puts it out of reach; being out of reach, it is precious.
Luckily, today, one needn’t take monastic vows to experience such illuminated manuscripts. Libraries and museums, such as the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Athenaeum, and Yale University, are the biggest collectors of Two Ponds Press. Bowdoin College Library will host a 10th-anniversary exhibition of the press’s work in 2022.
It’s worth a pilgrimage to one of these institutions, with special dispensation to run one’s finger over a hand-tooled spine, to feel, as Liv puts it, “the bite of the press.” And to answer for oneself the age-old question: book as art, or art as book?