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VISUAL ARTS : Brighton Press Merges Old World Craftsmanship With Spirit of Collaboration

In the shadow of Horton Plaza, supermarket of the slick, stands a small establishment quietly perpetuating a dying art.

In its unpretentious devotion to quality and craft, Brighton Press seems, all too sadly, of a different time and place. One of only a dozen small presses in the country making artists’ prints and handmade books, it holds its ground with earnestness and integrity, a precious island in the mighty flood of mass-produced, throwaway consumer goods.

In the press’ modest, split-level G Street facility, Old-World craftsmanship merges with a spirit of collaboration modeled after the Japanese. In making Japanese woodblock prints, explained Bill Kelly, founder of the press and its master printer, each part of the process--from the making of the paper and the carving of the wood to the actual printing--is considered a craft in itself, “a life in itself.” The finished work depends on the orchestration of each participant’s skill and vision.

This collaborative spirit permeates Brighton Press and has given shape to its latest and most ambitious project, an illustrated book of a Dylan Thomas short story.

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“Everyone has a hand in the book,” said Michele Burgess, an artist who works as an apprentice printmaker at Brighton. “There are a lot of ideas that get bounced around here that end up as finished realities. That’s what’s exciting here--the exchange. It really is a cooperative.”

It’s also a bit of a family affair. While Kelly is responsible for hand-setting the type for the book, his wife, Nancy, takes charge of the binding. Helen Faye, a volunteer who first came to the press to find out more about prints made by her late husband, who was an artist in the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, now finds herself making marbled paper for the book’s inside covers.

Each responds to the “desperate needs” of a given project, and Kelly is the first to admit that working at the press “forces you out of your own definitions of yourself.” He started Brighton Press spontaneously, after a birthday gift of etching lessons intrigued him enough to break from a career as an occupational therapist.

Kelly bought a press of his own, but “stared at it a while, since I didn’t know what to do with it.” Through the classes he took to learn some basic techniques, he came into contact with other artists and, in 1977, set up shop.

Initially motivated to provide a service for artists, Kelly stressed that they remain the foundation of the press. “The press is not me,” he said. Burgess said the press “takes on the identity of whoever’s here. That’s why creative people are attracted to come here. They see an opportunity to make the place theirs.”

While a print made at one of the large artists’ presses, such as Crown Point or Tamarind, is recognizable to most people, a Brighton Press print isn’t. Burgess said “a Brighton Press print is an artist’s print . . . what the artist wants to print, not according to the concept of what a good print should look like.”

Wary of the obsession with technique that tends to plague printmakers and their audience, Kelly mastered several different processes--aquatint, collotype, etching, woodblock and others--as fast as he could so he would be free to experiment with new techniques. He serves as an “aesthetic guide” at the press, exploring methods and materials with the artists who have gravitated there, including San Diegans DeLoss McGraw and Harry Sternberg, Domingo Ulloa of Mexico and Magda Santonastasio of Costa Rica.

Exhibits of works by artists affiliated with the press appear sporadically at its street-level gallery. Last year, the gallery presented a comprehensive show of etchings by San Diegan Barney Reid, complete with a catalogue. Earlier, as one of the driving forces behind the San Diego Print Club, Kelly showed the work of such renowned artists as Rufino Tamayo, Henry Moore and John Sloan. The San Diego Museum of Art rarely showed works on paper, Kelly said, so “we plugged a small hole.”

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But he said the lack of serious attention given to prints is still an issue:

“The problem is that people think of prints as LeRoy Neiman. I try to bring up Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, Klee--any major artist. The German Expressionists are better known for their prints than their paintings.”

Kelly, who had long admired the craftsmanship involved in bookmaking, steered the press toward books just a few years ago, making two loose-leaf volumes featuring the collaborative work of artist McGraw and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass. A third volume of their work is in progress.

Kelly’s involvement with artists’ books begins at the concept stage and extends through the production and marketing--primarily to libraries, museums, universities and antiquarian booksellers. The Dylan Thomas book, “The Mouse and the Woman,” is the press’ first bound book, and, at 200 copies, its largest edition to date. It will sell for $250 a copy.

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The market for such books is small and specialized, Kelly acknowledged. But, like most serious enterprises in the fine arts, economic concerns don’t take center stage.

“If you went about this thing businesslike, you’d probably not do it,” he said. “You’d do what you know, make another beautiful copy of the Portuguese Sonnets.”

By focusing on what Kelly calls the slightly offbeat--essays, letters, short stories--Brighton Press is certainly not courting instant windfall. But neither is it courting disaster by ignoring economic realities.

“We never made a book with a market in mind,” he said. “Now we’re looking at who’s interested in us out there. I’m not afraid of front doors anymore. It doesn’t matter whose door it is.”

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