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To the Letter



An antique iron press with an enormous black wheel anchors the back room of artist Elaine Benjamin's Blue Chair Press studio, formerly home to the Blue Lake Advocate. The place also came with the oak counter where she greets me, wearing a pair of round tortoise glasses. Obsolete objects are all around, including a row of vintage post office boxes, racks of moveable type and a stamp machine she is revamping to dispense the stamps she makes. The back wall is decorated with the huge wooden letters from an old Safeway above a bank of battered mailboxes that house T-shirts printed with her designs. In among these relics are the varied samples of her work: linoleum prints, handmade books, doll sculptures, racks of cards.

Benjamin herself is a bit of a throwback -- a bookmaker in the age of Kindles and iPads. Yet she is still selling her work and has made a living as an artist for the past 13 years, no small feat. When she first began making books at Humboldt State University, she enjoyed "the mechanics of doing a book, of stitching, working with paper in different ways. ... Then it also gave me a chance to write." While she hasn't embraced digital books, she tells me she is not anti-technology, even using a computer printer for her dictionary page prints. These she makes by cutting old pages from dictionaries and overlaying them with found and original images that correspond to the pages: a fish and a pair of left feet on an "F" page, for example. She is drawn to the look of the text on the page, as well as the integrity and "crispness" of the tiny drawings beside the definitions. "I don't know if this generation is dictionary-friendly," she says, noting that Google and Wikipedia have replaced well-thumbed tomes. She mounts the pages on black matting to show the index grooves, reminding the viewer of the pleasure of leafing through delicate pages. "You have to touch," she says. "Paper is so sensuous, [as is] sitting with something in your hands." Elsewhere in the studio are her paper replicas of fortune cookies and theater tickets, items that speak to small pleasures, mementos that we open, hold and keep.

A spiral notebook, open on the counter, is filled with lists of words and phrases in her tall, gently looping cursive. Instead of heavy, arresting, or cryptic messages, the everyday metaphors and turns of phrase intrigue her, and she unabashedly enjoys puns. The "Screw it" linoleum print with a screwdriver is one of her more playful -- and popular -- prints, especially as a T-shirt. "It called out to be a T-shirt," she chuckles. Her desire to stop and notice language extends to the letters themselves. "The letters [and] the word forms are fun to play with," and the fact that they carry meaning is "kind of magical." One of her abecedaries, or alphabet books, is all white inside with kaleidoscopic arrangements of embossed letters. The patterns that emerge are a whimsical exploration of the shape and movement of each letter and, forgive the pun, its character.

Benjamin has made a couple of Vincent van Gogh-inspired books, one of which uses his painting "The Bedroom." But it's easier to imagine her at Matisse's table, given his desire for an art "devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter. ... A soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." There is, after all, comfort to be found amid her images -- timeless, familiar, homey objects like bicycles, chairs, cups and hand tools. In her prints, humble flora and fauna abound in the form of dandelions, fruit, bees, crabs and birds. Exotic species and fierce creatures don't have much of a place in her world, and when we spoke, she was a bit concerned about her Chinese zodiac card series -- what to do with the Year of the Dragon?

Behind her on a temporary wall hang a few of her doll sculptures, slightly abstracted human forms she builds from cigar boxes, scraps of wood, spools, and doll hands and feet. Many have box torsos that open and close. She takes down the first doll she ever made and lays it out for me. The head is a flat bead, almost a button, with a moon face carved into its ivory-colored surface. The hem of a cotton skirt and two white porcelain feet dangle from the bottom of a Japanese book about the psychology of love, which serves as its body. Fragmented vignettes, some dreamy, some comical, accompany each doll. "They're all kind, gentle souls," says Benjamin, "people you'd like to know."

The dolls also appear in photographs on some of her cards, racks and racks of which stand at the entrance to the studio. Even though they finance her studio, not every artist would want greeting card versions of their work, and there is the worry that souvenir versions might devalue or hurt the sales of the original pieces. "I don't care," Benjamin laughs. She finds it rewarding to know people enjoy the images even if they can't afford her pricier books and sculptures, and, she says, "It's fun to have a new audience." Looking around her studio, the cards make perfect sense -- small, sweet images that someone will open up, inscribe with a message and maybe even mail -- with a real stamp.


Elaine Benjamin's Blue Chair Press studio is at 239 Railroad Ave. in Blue Lake. Her work is currently featured at Arcata Artisans on the Arcata Plaza. The gallery is open this Friday evening until 9 p.m. for Arts! Arcata.



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