Adele Makes a Book: Part II

Adele Safran's book of poems, front page c 1967

Adele Safran’s book of poems, front page c 1967

The first book that my mother made by hand was a book of poems.

My Mom’s work room was in the basement of our house. The stairs down to the basement divided the space in equal parts. On the left was a card table that my mother used to do all her work; on the right by the furnace was where my father had a darkroom set up. The rest of the basement was for drying laundry and storing the usual tools and things.

My mother was very patient with me. I used to go down and hang around her while she did whatever she was doing. And when she was doing calligraphy I must have really tried her patience… one distraction and an entire page could be ruined – and I am sure I was enough of a distraction to destroy many pages…

Mom I'm bored, Betty Safran with little braids and bows

Mom I’m bored…. I’m told that I bounced and danced everywhere, a bad combination when someone is trying to do calligraphy on a shaky card table. It must have been exquisitely hard for my Mom not to yell at me.

… moving the table as she worked, leaning in to see what she was doing (my nose under her nose), playing around with her linoleum tools and calligraphy pens.

She never yelled at me, but would patiently ask me to leave if I was too much. More often she’d give me something to do along side her or in my room so that I would be engaged and quiet(er). She even let me use the super sharp cutting tools to make my own linoleum cuts on small scraps.

Mom used our Betsy McCall Designer light table to do her calligraphy (it was meant for designing paper doll clothes). She’d tape a darkly lined paper onto the area that lit up, and then place her good paper over top so that she could see the lines through it and make her words and sentences straight.

She made three copies of the book all by hand: one for my grandmother, one for my sister and one for me. That meant she had to copy out three exact pages for each poem. (3 times the difficulty of doing it when I was around – no doubt she worked most of the time when I was at school.)

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She illustrated every poem with a unique lino cut. I had my favorite pictures when I was a kid, and obviously my favorite poems.

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I was less inclined to like the poems about death and sadness – but the book wasn’t meant to be a child’s book – it was meant to be cherished throughout my life.

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And I do cherish it.

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Adele makes a book: Part I

My mother Adele had a spirited and fearless appetite for learning. She approached everything in life with zest and when she set her mind to it she could do just about anything…she was an inspiration to me.

Adele Safran painting in the garden

Here’s my Mom painting in the garden at her small easel, wearing her big straw beach hat and standing in her flip flops. She was first and foremost a painter.

When I was little and she was busy rearing us kids, she pursued a variety of creative interests. It was during this time that she decided to learn calligraphy, print making (with linoleum cuts), and book binding.

She started by teaching herself all about calligraphy.

Adele Safran's books on Medieval manuscripts and calligraphy pen nibs

A couple of my mother’s books about Medieval manuscripts, and some of the pen nibs she used for making her own manuscripts.

She studied Medieval illuminated manuscripts, and different handwritten alphabets until she found a style that she could make her own.

In the beginning I remember she used feathers to make her pens – I think they must have been goose feathers – they were big and sturdy and white. She cut the tip of the feather at the exact angle for it to fill with ink and to make it form the right width of line as she wrote out text. Eventually she started using a pen that had interchangeable nibs. The pen was easier to use than feathers, but it was still a very difficult thing to do properly.

It took a lot of practicing to get the right style so that she could form the letters without thinking too much. The letters needed to look even and balanced and have a visual rhythm to them.

Some of Adele's books, materials and tools for bookbinding

Some of Adele’s books, materials and tools for bookbinding

It wasn’t enough for her to just learn calligraphy – she also learned how to bind the pages she made into books.

She decided to make a book of her favorite poems – and to make three copies of it by hand; one for my grandmother, one for my sister, and one for me (more on this book in an upcoming post).

To illustrate the book she made a different linoleum cut for each poem.

Linoleum mounted on a block of wood, two cutting tools, and a sharpening stone

Two of Adele’s linoleum cuts for her book of poetry and two cutting tools, one plain mounted piece of linoleum and a sharpening stone.
Like many print making processes – its the area that you don’t carve away that will pick up the ink and make the final design you see on paper. The prints will be the opposite of how they appear here (light will be dark; dark will be light).

She printed each picture by hand, using a large smooth spoon to rub the ink from the lino block onto paper. (She later bought an etchings press and a font of type to use for making other books).

One of our neighbors in Bronxville was Mr. Valenti Angelo. Mr. Angelo was a famous artist, book illustrator and author and he helped my mother learn how to make and bind books; it was very generous of him.

My mother took me to Mr. Angelo’s house on several occasions. Mrs. Angelo would make tea or lemonade and we’d sit and visit for a few minutes in the garden or the living room before going upstairs to his studio where he kept his printing presses and his beautiful paintings.

Valenti Angelo by Bernard Safran 1968

This is a portrait of Mr. Angelo that my father did in 1968. My parents used to say that Mr. Angelo had a fine head – meaning that he had great character and personality, and that he was a handsome man.

He would let me look at books that he’d written and illustrated while he talked to my mother. I remember liking his children’s book Nino so much that he gave me a copy.

Nino by Valenti Angelo