Book Arts Center: History

With abundant resources, dedicated faculty, friends, alumnae and students, Wells' Book Arts Center has grown and thrived since its founding many years ago.


Victor Hammer, an Austrian fleeing the Nazi regime, arrived at Wells in 1939 to teach painting, but it did not take long for him to start teaching printing. An accomplished painter, calligrapher, type designer and printer, Hammer used his many talents to produce enduring works of beauty and intelligence. Devoted to God, his motto was Ad Maiorem Dei—To the Greater Glory of God.

Thirteen years before coming to Wells, Hammer had established his first press, the Stamperia del Santuccio, in Florence, Italy, using a handpress similar to those in the incunabula period, the first hundred years of printing in Europe. His choice of an anachronistic tool was intentional: he wanted as little interference between an idea and its execution as possible. He printed a distinguished volume of Milton's Samson Agonistes in 1930-31. In subsequent years he built a chapel in Alsace, painted portraits in Britain and the U.S., and returned to Vienna to print two more books.


When Hammer arrived at Wells in the fall of 1939, he had left his press, tools and type in Austria. The College purchased an iron press for his use, and Hammer established the Wells College Press in 1941. Many Wells students created books under the Wells College Press imprint in Hammer's year-long class, Book Design in Practice. Among the books printed by Hammer and his son Jacob during his Aurora years were works by William Carlos Williams, Stephane Mallarme, Rainer Maria Rilke and Pedro Antonio de Alarcon.


Hammer created his most well-known and beautiful typeface while at Wells, the famous American Uncial. Designed in the early 1940's, the type embodied thirty years of scholarly research and technical practice. Hammer's uncial was not (and was not meant to be) a true copy of historic forms, but instead a dynamic hybrid of roman and blackletter, suited to the requirements of modern literature.

The Wells College Press has Hammer to thank for two typefaces that might otherwise have disappeared from the historical record. The first, Aurora Uncial, was a precursor to his American Uncial. In 1939 Hammer created and cast the type on an experimental basis; he then laid it aside and began new type designs. In 1993, the center commissioned Theo Rehak of the Dale Guild Type Foundry to make the type available commercially. Hammer received 200 pounds of Spiral, Joseph Blumenthal's proprietary type. Only 1,000 pounds of this beautiful roman were cast, and Blumenthal eventually melted down the remaining 800 pounds. Hammer's friend and fellow Aurora resident, Father Thomas J. Collar, was responsible for saving the type from oblivion. The type had been pied and nearly lost in many moves; Father Collar restored the pied type to its feet, making it usable and easily transported. Today, Wells faculty and students are able to use both Aurora Uncial and Spiral in the Book Arts Center.

Victor Hammer was a dedicated and accomplished teacher. The books produced by Wells students under his guidance demonstrate sensitive design and beautiful printing. Hammer retired from Wells in 1948 and accepted a position at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1963, four years before his death, Hammer wrote to Wells College President J. L. Long about his time as a professor at Wells, saying, "As well I might, I tried to give what I knew. . . . Wells College was my first 'home' in America and it is I who should honor it, rather than it should honor me."


After Hammer's departure, the Wells College Press became dormant for 45 years. Then, in 1993, as the result of serendipity, coincidence or, as Hammer would certainly have believed, Providence, the Wells College Press returned to life as part of a newly-born Book Arts Center. In a conversation with head librarian Jeri Vargo, Class of 1970, Robert Doherty — who had known Hammer in Kentucky — offered to re-establish the Wells College Press. At the same time, two prominent Wells alumnae, Jane Webster Pearce, Class of 1932, and Susan Garretson Swartzburg, Class of 1960, made it clear to members of the Wells administration that they were eager to play an active role in helping to set up a Book Arts Center.


An accomplished bookbinder, Jane Webster Pearce studied with Frederika Child and later purchased most of her tools when Child retired. Pearce persuaded internationally renowned artist and binder Gerard Charriere to teach classes to her group of friends in Princeton, which he did for six years. Pearce became a member of the Guild of Book Workers in 1973, continued to create beautiful bindings, and became a collector of important books. For her 50th Wells reunion, Pearce bound memorial keepsakes for each of her classmates, inspiring fellow alumna Allie Zabriskie to suggest that Jane donate her bindery to Wells upon her retirement.

In 1993, with the re-establishment of the Wells College Press, Pearce did just that. Her gift included nipping presses, books, flat files, fine leathers & papers, and an important collection of finishing tools. Initially named the Class of '32 Bindery, the bindery was renamed the Jane Webster Pearce '32 Bindery, in honor of its founder and primary donor, in May 2002.

In addition, Pearce established an endowment that provided for a Binder-in-Residence to teach bookbinding courses at Wells. Barbara Kretzmann was the first binder, serving from 1993 to 1995; Andrea Reithmayr was the second, teaching during the fall of 1995. Michele Brown followed, serving from spring 1995 to 2002. Peter Verheyen served in the spring of 2003, with Donia Conn beginning in late spring 2003. Margot Ecke, the fourth Victor Hammer Fellow, taught the course one semester, fall 2004, with Heather O'Hara taking over as Binder-in-Residence in spring 2005. Since Heather's departure, the introductory binding courses have been taught by the Victor Hammer Fellows.


Susan Garretson Swartzburg, assistant librarian for collection management and preservation specialist at Rutgers University, was a woman with a vision, and that vision was of a Book Arts Center at Wells. It was she who did the footwork required for such a vision to become a reality: developing contacts, raising funds, organizing events and finding speakers. Working closely with Robert J. Doherty, Wells Librarian Jeri Vargo, and Wells English professor and poet Bruce Bennett, Swartzburg helped to organize the components that became the Book Arts Center: the re-established Wells College Press and the Class of '32 Bindery. She served on the Book Arts Board and established a biannual book arts lecture series in memory of her father. After an unexpected illness, Susan Garretson Swartzburg died in 1996, leaving the Book Arts Center without one of its most important founders and supporters. She is remembered in every step the center makes, and the lecture series she established has been renamed in her honor. Fall 2018 marked the 46th Susan Garretson Swartzburg '60 Memorial Book Arts Lecture.


The Book Arts Center has always been fortunate to have Robert J. Doherty, printer, photographer, and art collector, as advisor and benefactor. To name a few of his services: Doherty contributed a large library of books on printing and art; a varied collection of printing equipment old and new; valuable specimens of type; and many hours of his time organizing the Book Arts Board and facilities. His innumerable contacts included the printer Robert Greenlee, proprietor of the Gay Nineties Press. Mr. Greenlee's magnificent collection of 19th century type and ornaments was matched only by his knowledge and enthusiasm of the period. Doherty and Greenlee corresponded for many years, and upon Mr. Greenlee's death, his widow Eloise gave the Gay Nineties type collection to the Wells Book Arts Center.

One of Doherty's most important ideas was the creation of the Victor Hammer Fellowship, which brings a talented young book artist to Wells for a two-year appointment. The Victor Hammer Fellow teaches one or two classes a semester, prints broadsides for the Visiting Writers Series, develops curriculum, organizes events and enjoys an apprenticeship at the Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler.


The Book Arts Center owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Bixler. The Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler, located in Skaneateles, New York, has provided the important apprenticeship opportunity for the Victor Hammer Fellow since the inception of the fellowship in 1998. Michael has cast many thousands of pounds of type for the center over the years, and also brings his expertise in design, printing, press repair and long-term planning to the Center. He has been on the faculty, teaching Letterpress Printing starting in 2004, and continues to provide teaching support for special projects, the Summer Institute and occasional special-topics classes.


Many people have worked together to further the book arts at Wells. Bruce Bennett served as director from 1993 to 2002, guiding it through its infancy and formative years into a flourishing reality. Terrence Chouinard became director in 2002, at the end of his term as second Victor Hammer Fellow, and served in that position until January 2008. Nancy Gil, long-time lecturer in French, served as assistant director from fall 2002 till January 2008, and as director from 2008 until her retirement in 2014. Richard Kegler served ably as director from 2014 until 2019. Former Victor Hammer Fellow Leah Mackin steered the Center through the challenging days of the pandemic as Associate Director. Then, Mary Tasillo, a book artist with her Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts and Printmaking from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, became the new Director, and Rebecca Gilbert became the Victor Hammer Fellow in 2023.

With such abundant resources, dedicated faculty, friends, alums and students, the Book Arts Center is poised to grow and thrive. New courses are being developed, students across disciplines are declaring the minor, and Visual Arts majors are now able to concentrate in Book Arts. The Summer Institute has been bringing nationally and internationally renowned book artists to the Wells campus each summer since 2005. In the spirit of its founders, the Wells Book Arts Center continues to serve and educate the campus and community every day.