Vinzani makes an impression, at UMM and far beyond

Bernie Vinzani’s love of teaching the art of printmaking began when he delivered a hands-on lesson to his peers in an undergraduate speech class at Indiana State University.

He demonstrated how to make a print using a piece of cardboard and a potato.

Now, Vinzani is a professor of art and book arts at the University of Maine at Machias, where he continues to teach, as well as conduct research and refine his papermaking and printmaking skills.

And, while at home on sabbatical during the pandemic, he added building a printing press to his repertoire.

Vinzani moved Down East in the early 1980s.

He was ready for a change in scenery after earning a bachelor’s and a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking at Indiana State University, setting up a printmaking program at Vincennes University in Indiana, and working as a papermaker at Twinrocker Handmade Paper.

“I had two places that I really wanted to live; that was upper Minnesota and Maine. It was one of those things as a kid, I just loved the North Woods, everything about it,” he says.

According to papermaking legend, if fireflies float around a water source it’s a good omen for paper-making.

Vinzani saw fireflies while looking at property near Machias, so Maine won out.

He became immersed in the Whiting community and enjoyed living in the small town. He taught workshops and shared his work at events. Vinzani joined the town fire department. And he produced prints and paper in his shop.

He has gained an audience both in Whiting and far beyond.

Vinzani’s pieces have been featured in “The Book of Fine Paper,” Hand Papermaking, American Craft magazine, and The Boston Globe. And his work has been exhibited at The VI International Print Bicentennial in Cracow, Poland, and at the Maine Invitational in Portland.

Photo of monotype ornaments sitting in a type drawer
Monotype ornaments sitting in a type drawer.

In 1993, Vinzani and a few fellow papermakers were chosen to curate paper for a Library of Congress collection. “It was quite an honor to know that our paper had been tested at that point, it was really sound paper and they could use it,” he says.

Vinzani was selected to be art gallery director at the University of Maine at Machias, which eventually led to a full-time teaching position. Colleagues had encouraged Vinzani, now a tenured professor, to get a press and begin teaching book arts classes.

More than two decades ago, he applied for and received a grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation to set up a facility on campus for bookmaking.

The studio started out in a basement next to a boiler room. It’s since found a permanent home in Dorward Hall, and contains equipment from a letterpress shop once owned by a woman in Portland, Maine, as well as equipment that Vinzani built.

UMM offers a B.A. degree in Creative Arts with concentrations in visual arts and creative writing. Both concentrations share a core curriculum, ensuring everybody gets to take a book arts course. “The core of the program centers around the study of the book,” Vinzani explains. A one-year Book Arts Certificate Program also is available.

Students learn how to make paper by hand, create watermarks, and use colored pulp to create artwork. Some also have created book covers and paper for their own books.

“In the age of electronic media, we are still a culture dependent on paper and print as elements of communication. Both are crucial elements to graphic design, which is a very strong communicative medium we depend on to get our ideas out to others,” he says.

student works from the Book Arts course
Student pieces from the Book Arts course. Water that is low in iron, has calcium carbonate and is more alkaline is best for papermaking.

Vinzani is interested in the history of presses and papermaking, including how early currencies were printed, how stamps were made and how fine books were made and printed.

His research uncovers a deeper story. Vinzani says historical aspects offer insights into current use of printmaking and papermaking, and often can expand our understanding of contemporary innovation.

Throughout his home and shop, he has archives of pieces of paper. The oldest pieces date back to the 1300s.

His collection includes early printing examples, currency and postage stamps, including a collection of English tax stamps from when newspapers had to be stamped before being printed.

This past year while on sabbatical, Vinzani has researched printmaking, including the beginnings of printing in the Western world. That includes Johann Gutenberg’s press. It had movable type and, for the first time, could relatively inexpensively print a large number of books — such as Gutenberg’s Bible.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vinzani had planned to visit printing museums, examine presses and talk with people who built them.

That couldn’t happen. So, he pivoted. He thought it would be beneficial for UMM students to print on a hand press, similar to Gutenberg’s. So, he began building one.

photo of Vinzani's press
Courtesy of Bernie VinzaniWhile the principle working of the press is similar to the Gutenberg Press of the mid-1400s, the final design is a variation of the English Common Press, or the Franklin Press of the 18th century.

“When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t travel out of state… [and last] summer I ended up doing a number of drawings…I spent most of my time here at home and in the woods drawing,” he says.

“So that set me up for the idea that, well, if I do build a press, I certainly feel comfortable being here. I have a shop. I have a papermaking lab here. I can fabricate things.”

Vinzani studied dozens of different presses online, examined photographs, and contacted people who built presses. And he systematically critiqued each one.

“Out of all of that, I came up with what I would do for consideration for building the press and what I probably would not do.”

In March, Vinzani began building a press. He’s now refining details of its construction.

The press has 3-inch-thick maple barn beams, which are heavy to exert sufficient pressure so the type is solid and the print turns out correctly.

Vinzani wants the press to be movable to use in classes and workshops. He’s tweaking it to strike the right balance between mobility and weight.

The new “Common Press” press currently sits in Powers Hall, where he and students can create prints on it

News of the addition to the studio has traveled fast. Recently, UMM became a point of interest on the International Printing Museum’s map, which lists places to study printing and book arts around the world. 

This fall, Vinzani also plans to be back at UMM, to once again share lessons about the art of printmaking with students.

Written by Ali Tobey