Binding Her Time


Even the soap opera writers couldn’t pen it this weird: After her character was kidnapped, knocked unconscious and stuffed in a burlap bag, daytime drama star Carolee Campbell walked away from it all to make books.

Hard-core soap addicts will remember Campbell from “The Doctors,” where for nine years she played goody-two-shoes Carolee Simpson. These days, Campbell’s Sherman Oaks home, which she shares with husband Hector Elizondo (Dr. Phillip Watters on “Chicago Hope”), is filled with impeccable stacks of Japanese paper, ensembles of pens, pencils and rulers, tiny boxes of metal type and, in a room out by the garage, a hulking Vandercook printing press--tools of the trade for her Ninja Press.

Fine-book printers such as Campbell and her Southern California contemporaries, among them Gerald Lange, Susan King and Katherine Ng, operate in a rarefied world of handset type and handmade, hand-bound paper covered in vellum, metal or even porcelain. Printed in limited editions, typically 200 copies or less, their books are prized both by libraries and bibliophiles, though these “books” sometimes bear scant resemblance to what’s on the shelves at Borders. One printer’s work, for example, is a 14-foot-long installation with Plexiglas “pages.”


Campbell’s books--eight completed and three in progress--have been collected by the Getty Center, the New York Public Library, Yale University and the Houghton Library at Harvard. She finds authors at readings or simply selects already published classics, as with her reproduction of the Thoreau essay “Walking.” “Carolee lets the text and material work so closely together that when you see the book, you say, that’s right,” says Judy Harvey Sahak, assistant director of libraries for the Claremont Colleges.

Campbell got the idea to become a fine-book printer while still an actress in New York, after marveling at a photographer’s beautifully bound book of his work. Upon returning to L.A., she immersed herself in classes with master bookbinders. Her first book, “Close to the Bone,” by poet Betty Andrews, was issued in 1984.

“I thought when I left ‘The Doctors’ that I’d put acting completely behind me,” Campbell says. “But I realized that the way I approach each book is the way I approached a role.”

As she speaks, Campbell brings out an acrylic box that holds her latest book, a long poem, “The Real World of Manuel Cordova,” by the American poet W.S. Merwin.

“Hold this,” she says, extending one end of what looks like a map cover, and begins walking backward. Merwin’s poem slowly unfolds across the floor. The paper, Japanese, smells like persimmons. When fully opened, the book extends 15 feet and tracks Merwin’s poem as it meanders alongside a river printed in shades of blue, green, red, purple and brown along the left margin. Completing the Merwin book took Campbell two years and involved everything from tracking down 300-year-old explorers’ maps at UCLA to familiarizing herself with the Amazon’s Amahuaca tribe. “They have communal dreams,” she says of the tribe, although the same might be said about Campbell and the writers whose books she prints.

Looking over the shelves in her print shop, now stacked with tomes on Zen, math and music theory, it’s clear Campbell is on to other projects.


“Sacred geometry,” she murmurs. “And Platonic solids. We’ll have to see where it all leads.”