Friday, November 21, 2008

From Cab Fare to Book Fair - Steve Woodall at Center for Book and Paper Arts

If you ever hailed a cab in San Francisco and saw that your driver had a dog-eared copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos on the passenger side, you may have gotten a ride from Steve Woodall. Woodall won’t be driving cabs again. Many of us, especially those of us who have reached a certain age, wish that we could take the narrative line of our own life story and arc it in the way Woodall has.

Now 60, Steve Woodall joined Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book & Paper Arts (CBPA) as the Director in early November. Prior to this leg of his professional journey, he was the Education Director and then the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB) at the age of 48. Not bad work if you can get it. Before that he was driving a cab in San Francisco for over twenty years.

“A lot of artists in San Francisco drive cabs,” says Woodall. “But it is often a trap that they can’t get free of. While driving a cab, I perfected the bohemian, slacker lifestyle, but it never felt like an authentic life choice for me.”

As Education Director, Woodall was instrumental in building the SFCB from a community center that offered twelve classes in 1996 to a major arts center that offers over 300 classes and boasts a 2008 mailing list of 18,000.

“I started the job in 1996,” says Woodall. “And in one year I was married, had a child and became a workaholic.”

Woodall’s love of the book arts began as a poetry student at San Francisco State. In an effort to read all the great poets, he read Ezra Pound. Pound’s genius caused Woodall to give up trying his hand at poetry.

“If I was going to write, that was what I wanted to write and there was no way I was ever going to write like that.”

Instead of writing poetry, Woodall decided to create handmade photocopied books that included the words of Pound and other poets. Woodall continued to make and improve upon these books with the use of found text, collage and the words of poets he admired. Little did he know that these photocopied publications were part of an art form that was emerging out of the contemporary art movement of the 1970s.

“Right around that time I happened upon a book by the book artist, Joan Lyons and said, “Oh, this is what I’ve been making.”

His photocopy press was called SameAsDat Press which was a word play on the title, Samizdat, a 1960s term for clandestine black market publishing in the Soviet bloc.

Woodall does not make art as much as he used to since turning a fledgling art group into a major player in San Francisco’s art scene in just twelve years. Founded in 1996 by book artists Mary Austin and Kathleen Burch, the SFCB is now a nationally recognized arts center due in great part to Woodall’s efforts. Woodall worked tirelessly to attract book arts enthusiasts to the Center and to educate the public about the history and relevancy of the book arts. SFCB now has a loyal and national following with graphic designers and artists who want to learn letterpress, bookbinding, artists’ books and printmaking.

“Creative people are hungry to use their hands in an age when computers do most of the work for us,” says Woodall. “When students come into the Center and set metal type it’s very exciting for them. Using our hands activates parts of our brains that don’t get used with the computer.”

Woodall thinks that the book arts is one of the most exciting contemporary genres coming out of the art world today. While he maintains that the book arts often get lumped in with craft-identified works like fiber and ceramics, he believes that book arts requires more conceptual thought, time, skill and in some cases, more expensive materials than other art forms like painting and photography.

“Sometimes it takes a break-out artist for people to change their minds about certain art forms,” says Woodall. “Alfred Steiglitz paved the way for generations of photographers to enter the art canon and recently, Dale Chihuly, though I am not a fan, I do admit that he has paved the way for glass artists to be taken more seriously and to get higher prices for their work.”

Woodall claims that as a cab driver he was a self-declared “cabdriver socialite.” He knew many people across many social and economic demographics in San Francisco. He counts himself very fortunate to have found a dedicated group of people who also had a passion for the book arts. Kathy Walkup, the program director at Mills College, called him one of the most important people in creating community around the book arts in the Bay Area.

“Steve was a community building genius in the Bay area,” says Clif Meador, Department Chair for Columbia College’s Book & Paper Arts. “He curated a lot of important shows that brought together disparate communities there, and built SFCB into a national-level institution. He was active in many of the organizations on the west coast that promoted the book arts. One of the things that characterizes Steve’s work is his ability to bring people together, to bridge different audiences with new understanding of their common interests, usually in the book arts. I hope that he will bring some of his audience-development magic to the center.”

It didn’t take much convincing for Woodall to accept the position of Director from Michelle Citron, Chairperson for Interdisciplinary Arts. Woodall plans to increase the publishing efforts here and he would also like to tap into the cultural community in Chicago and to engage new and increased participation with the book arts which was his bailiwick at the SFCB.

“I think Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts is an already formidable institution with tremendous potential,” says Woodall. “I am honored to be here.”

Photo by Sara McKemie

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