‘Oracle Bones’: A history and a metaphor

The fine press publication “Oracle Bones,” recently published by the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Red Butte Press, has been juried into the DesignArts2022 Utah exhibition at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. The Utah Division of Arts and Museums and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts partner each year to make this design exhibition possible. The exhibition will be on display until Sept. 24.

At the outset of this project, author and activist Terry Tempest Williams and printer and wood engraver Gaylord Shanilec collected juniper and sandstone artifacts from the southern Utah desert. Shanilec then shaped and planed these objects into printing plates, which the Red Butte Press staff used to print the imagery for “Oracle Bones.”

Tempest Williams’s partnering text is an urgent meditation on the vulnerability and power of the land. The images in “Oracle Bones” function both as archival records and as metaphors for landscape. A sequence of opaque and transparent pages suggests the desert horizon and the transformation of land over time. The color palette evokes the purples of distance and twilight, and the reds of earth and rock. Both conceptually and visually, the text responds to the shapes and forms. The book’s landscape format and generous white space contribute to a feeling of open land and sky.

The Red Butte Press team made the cover paper from cotton, abaca and locally sourced yucca, adding sage to the spine piece. For the binding, single sheets were hinged and then sewn with a pamphlet stitch through a folded spine piece dyed with Utah-native ephedra and prickly pear. The imagery was letterpress printed on a Vandercook SP20 on Goyu paper. Text—handset in Bell-type cast at The Bixler Press & Letterfoundry—was printed on a Columbian handpress on Magnani Pescia. Red Butte Press contributors were Crane Giamo, lead printer and papermaker; Marnie Powers-Torrey, master printer and production manager; Amy Thompson, designer; and Emily Tipps, lead binder and papermaker. Ruby Barrett, Annie Boyer, Jazmin Gallegos, Annie Hillam, Jonathan Sandberg, and Sean Taylor provided studio assistance throughout all stages of production.