Bound for glory

Someone has said that to those who cannot hear the music, the dancers are mad. Similarly, to those whose lives are digitalized with books-on-tape, articles online, laser copies and cyber verse, artists devoted to publishing art books are in denial.

Flying Horse Press, a small, elite, in-house art press run by the University of Central Florida's Visual Arts Department, soars right past that notion.

Employing print methods of antiquarian excellence, Flying Horse has since 1996 produced three limited-edition projects a year. Two are single prints; the other is a book combining the work of a visual artist with that of a writer.

The projects are sponsored by Friends of UCF Art, an organization founded in 1996 by Robert Reedy, then chairman of the department, and are sold to Friends members for an annual $1,500 subscription. But it's less a purchase than an investment; editions from that first year are now worth $5,300. Moreover, profits are plowed back into a creative soil that is bringing UCF's visual arts program to full flower.

The art world has taken notice.

"It is true that ‘the book' as it has been known historically, is a zombie, has been shot in the heart," says Ke Francis, an acclaimed visual artist, writer and founding board member of Friends, who is also the director of Flying Horse Editions.

"In the past, the purpose of books was efficiency -- the timely dissemination of information. Publishers made their living on publications like home repair and textbooks. It's true, all of that is going electronic. However, that which is timeless -- the human condition and art -- will remain the domain of books that will become more of an art form."

The coming together at UCF of the team that envisioned Flying Horse and brought it to life smacks of kismet. Among them, Francis formerly was a visiting artist at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., where fellow UCF faculty member Robert Reedy had overseen a similar program during a time that a supportive John Hitt -- whose family were printers and who remelted linotype as a boy -- was a Bradley University administrator. Today, Hitt is UCF's president. Another original board member, Kathryn Sidel, currently UCF's dean of arts and science, brought an expansionist's vision to the table, as did acclaimed visual artists Robert Rivers and William Wiley, both also members of the UCF faculty.

As goes the magic of synchronicity, when Francis, having returned to his native Mississippi, received a call from Reedy at UCF, he was looking for change. He'd enjoyed 30 years of extraordinary professional success: He was the first person to receive a National Endowment for the Arts grant for both literature and visual arts; he had won a Rockefeller grant to study painting in Italy; and his own Hoopsnake Press books were considered masterpieces. He was, he said, ready to focus on something other than himself. His partner and editor, Mary Guest, agreed to move their business to UCF, which included Hoopsnake's equipment and Francis' impressive art-world contacts.

"The idea came about to print works by well-known artists and to bring them in as visiting artists so students could have firsthand connection with them," says Francis. To fund that program, Friends was founded to encourage interaction between the local community and the art department.

The key to funding arts in contemporary, bottom-line education, says Francis, is to come up with a win-win situation in which limited state funding is supplemented by nonstate funds. Flying Horse Press does just that. But in addition to collecting the subscription fees, it allows artists to have their work printed and to receive copies of the limited editions to sell or give to galleries. Any books not sold through subscription are sold by the Friends to museums. Notably, copies already are owned by the rare-book collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, several regional museums and, locally, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and the Albertson-Peterson Gallery.

The 15 1/4-by-11 1/2-inch books, handset with lead type, show a lush unity -- a harmony -- that never deviates from theme. The curl of a text font reflects the slope and pressure of the artist's brush or pen stroke; natural imperfections in woodcuts are left to echo the emotions of a narrative or poetic theme. Embossed paper is dampened to soften and shift its fibers, and so absorbs rich black ink for maximum intensity. These finished books epitomize quality, their text and images and materials all merging perfectly.

"Flying Horse Editions has put UCF on the national and international art-world map; it's now understood that a high-quality project is coming out of this department," says Francis.

A five-year plan -- with two years remaining -- is on schedule: A class in book arts is under way. A library of reference material is growing. Renowned artists are calling with requests to be involved with Flying Horse. And a major part of the plan links the English, creative writing and visual arts departments in a way that will bring distinguished writers to the project.

Francis credits the success of Flying Horse Editions to two main factors: collaboration among a group of remarkable artists who share a vision, and Hitt, who, says Francis, "understood that, in order to be a first-rate institution, UCF had to move away from its solely technological focus. Now this art department has a fabulous faculty and is doing great things. It all goes to prove that if you really focus on quality and don't compromise on it, good things happen."

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