Felicia Rice is a book artist, typographer, printer and publisher whose work has earned her many honors. She lectures and exhibits internationally, and her books can be found in collections from the Whitney Museum of American Art to the Bodleian Library. In the last two decades Felicia has collaborated with and published some of the finest writers and artists of our time. She has taught extensively and currently directs UCSC’s Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program.
My parents met as art students in New York City in the 1930s when the art world was permeated with the politics of the Depression, the Labor Movement and Left vs. Right. Family mythology includes the 1949 trip from Vermont to Mexico to apprentice with the muralist Siqueiros, only to have my sisters, one and four years old, become so ill that the family barely escaped to the north intact, all this before I was born. Throughout my life, my parents’ circle included former apprentices of Diego Rivera, and friends of Frida Kahlo. As a young child I would sneak into my father’s studio to study Posada’s prints sensationalizing fire, murder, freakish births. I grew up in California with the legacy of the Spanish land grants, the Californios, the Mexican muralists and their saints (San Francisco, Santa Cruz). I am a member of a hybrid community of immigrants and artists; we use multiple languages.
I set Moving Parts Press in motion in 1977, the same year that Enrique and Guillermo embarked on their journeys of discovery in the United States. In 1991 I published Francisco X. Alarcón’s book of homoerotic love sonnets, De amor oscuro/Of Dark Love, the first book in the Literatura Chicana/Latina Series. At that time, Francisco mentioned that Enrique Chagoya and Guillermo Gómez-Peña might be receptive to a collaborative book project, and in October 1992, my proposal found immediate resonance with them. In June 1993, Enrique’s artwork, fifteen two-color double-page spreads, and a series of Guillermo’s performance texts and poems arrived. In April 1995, I presented a prototype page and binding of the CODEX to the two of them. Moving Parts Press had already moved once since the conception of the book, and I would move 15,000 pounds of type and equipment a second time before the project was completed in January 1998. During that time Enrique also moved his studio and home, and married. Guillermo moved from Santa Monica to Brooklyn to San Francisco and traveled thousands of miles performing on several continents in the five years it took to complete the CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS.
The CODEX grew to dominate my efforts at Moving Parts Press. The Press, which had been a public place with clients and students coming and going daily, became a private studio devoted to the development of a monumental work. The CODEX shifted the emphasis of my book work from the literary to the sculptural, drawing upon models of the Mesoamerican codex, western European bookmaking and Japanese binding structures.
Enrique’s collage images juxtapose examples of graphic art from pre-Columbian times to present-day Mexico with traditions of Western art and contemporary American pop culture. Guillermo’s texts are scripts for performance pieces and poems written in Spanish, English and Spanglish, among other languages. The CODEX preserves early excerpts of his scripts, some of which have since been reworked and published in his 1996 book, New World Border. Text and image share consistent themes: the commodification and trivialization of culture, the tragi-comedy of life on the fringes of contemporary society. My challenge was to integrate Enrique’s and Guillermo’s work into book form, to create ”a thoughtful amalgam of text, image, paper, binding structure, typography and meaningful content— an integrated, harmonious whole.” 1.
I analyzed the fifteen compositions for visual sequence, meaning, and their direct relationship to the manuscript. Some of the two-foot spreads were self-contained, while others suggested movement to another spread in the collection. Some texts were short and discrete, others ran to several manuscript pages. Grouping these, I established correspondences between visual dynamics, meaning and text length.
I based the skeletal structure of each double-page spread on Enrique’s imagery; type formed the ligaments and musculature, binding together and moving the whole forward. I narrowed my type choices to a handful out of hundreds of digital fonts, along with my own library of metal typefaces inherited from Sherwood Grover, and the collection of nineteenth-century wood types generously loaned by Gary Young. Contemporary type technology presented an opportunity, a temptation and a challenge: I wrapped, stretched, distorted and tortured type into an expressive visual component that interacts with the imagery, and with the hand-drawn lettering and the fonts pre-existing within the artwork. In the finished work, lines extend to awkward, wobbling lengths, then squeeze into incidental negative space. In several places the text forms an even texture, a pattern interwoven with images to reinforce their shape, line and dynamic, without concern for readability. The book opens to the right in direct contrast to expectation, while the spreads read conventionally from left to right. Progress through the work is a complex visual dance, forward and back, sometimes smooth, often jerky, not unlike the progress of history.
The book was letterpress-printed on Amatl paper handmade in Mexico using traditional methods dating back over a millennium. Within each sheet uneven knots of flattened fibers contrast with tissue-thin areas to create a living membrane with variations in texture and color. Amatl, also known as Amate (in Spanish) or Mexican bark paper, has long had great value in Mesoamerica for both spiritual and secular uses. Pre-Hispanic codices were painted with a brush, rolled or folded away when not in use, and spread out on soft grasses or mounted on a wall for viewing. In printing the CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS the Amatl sheets were far too fragile to be ground between the cylinder of a steel letterpress and raised metal engravings. To strengthen the printing surface, each page of the CODEX was laminated with Japanese Shintengujo tissue in a labor-intensive process. In a sense, the printing process forced a compromise between a native material and a tool of colonization, the printing press.
The result is a deeply embossed, richly textured surface that combines the conceptual and theoretical, the political and personal in a cohesive work that transcends its components. Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes, “The indigenous philosophies of the Americas remind us that everything is interconnected, all destructive and divisive forces have the same source, and all struggles for the respect of life, in all its variants, lead the same direction. The great project of reform and reconciliation must be, above all, a collaborative one, and all concerned communities must take part in it.” The CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS embodies this spirit of collaboration.
I have been fortunate to collaborate closely with Enrique and Guillermo and to live intimately with their work. Special thanks to the California Arts Council and AE Foundation for their support of this publication, to Elaine Katzenburger and City Lights Books for their cooperative spirit, to Carol Stoneburner for her assistance, to Maureen Carey for her continuing interest and advice, and to my family for their love and forbearance.
1. Young, Gary, Dressing the Text: The Fine Press Artists’ Book, exhibition catalog (Santa Cruz: Museum of Art & History, 1995), p. 5.