Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I wonder how many people remember Gwen Frostic. She was a poet who learned how to make her own books -- not just to print her books, but to illuminate them (not just illustrate) with elegant portraits of plants and birds, and even to make her own paper so that one gorgeous page actually had a real butterfly pressed and bonded into it.

The little yellow butterfly (a sulphur butterfly?) is actually embedded in translucent paper so that when one turns the page, it seems to lift from or descend on the grasses on the next page.

Many of the images are gently humorous. This is one of my favorites.

Here's a double-page spread of a winter scene with red willows.

The covers generally look similar to this. Greyed-out green or brown, delicate lines of small familiar growing things.

Gwen was solidly grounded in natural history, a poetic precursor of Mary Oliver, but with no narrative except ongoing life itself. She was the very opposite of the city-trapped trendy aesthete looking for fame and fortune. Simply she produced these objects in a near-medieval way -- expressions of the heart. I bought several of them, gave a couple away as special gifts and couldn’t bear to part with the last ones. She has been an ideal I meant to follow and maybe it’s not too late.

When I looked her up on, I was surprised to see the enormous disparity in the value of her books. At the low end, one dollar will buy you one of these beautiful books! At the high end, the book dealer wants four HUNDRED dollars. Same book! I suspect the difference is between someone who appreciates a custom collectible unique book-as-object and someone who only sees value in either best-sellers or high academic works. If I had a hundred bucks to spare right now, I’d invest them in Gwen Frostic books, because I think the market will converge on handmade, limited edition, unique, personal books.

With that in mind, I’ve acquired books about making paper and about making book covers. With all the excitement about Print On Demand, there has been little attention to the covers which are often simply a glossy photograph with a title -- at least that’s the way mine are. Maybe perfect bound and maybe spiral bound (much better for reference books because one wants them to lie down flat). It’s perfectly adequate for thin ones to be stapled.

But it seems to me that if only a few copies of a special book are to be produced, that a really good hand-binding job and some special attention to the materials and design is a good thing, if only because it opposes the rising tide of plastic ephemera around us. For years now I’ve been making a pitch for Blackfeet books written by Blackfeet, illustrated by hand, bound in buckskin, maybe beaded or quilled, with a feather for a bookmark. When Bob Scriver got to his “artifact book,” the one that sells for $800 in some places (“Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains”) he made a certain number of presentation copies, specially bound and with a slipcase that had a compartment on the side into which was put a branch of sage, the kind the Blackfeet used for smudging.

One of my delayed projects for the summer has been some “nanobooks” containing the nano stories I wrote earlier. I printed them onto sticky mailing labels, sewed some small booklets and meant to put a label on each page, but then ran aground when I discovered I was sticking them on crooked and would need to somehow make reference dots as guides. Then again, I have rubber stamps and had meant to stamp some decorations or use felt pens to at least scribble on some colored patterns. And again I lost confidence. But there are also people who are the other way around -- they could make little booklets if only they had an idea what to say.

Noma Coleman, a family friend and a one-room school teacher, made each of us cousins a story book when we were little, cutting out ads and composing doggerel couplets about them as though they were about us. When I got an advertising flyer that featured a small Chinese girl as a model for clothes, I tried my hand at this art form with the innovation of laminating the pages and fastening them together with a medley of bright ribbons. As it happened, my cousin had just adopted a Chinese girl so I had the perfect person to send it to. She returned the favor with a slender rainbow on blue and silver paper.

My Chinese grandma friend and former classmate, Pearl Lee, especially enjoys making folded and precision-cut greeting cards, often with a Chinese theme. They are far beyond anything I could do. If the problem with Print On Demand is that it reduces books to something pedestrian that anyone could do, then perhaps custom bindings and covers can restore some of the value and uniqueness. You know, they say that in Asian countries everyone can do lovely art and poetry, because they don't know they not supposed to do it unless they're geniuses!

This material about Frostic is from

Gwen Frostic (1906-2001)

Sara Gwendolen Frostic was a Michigan author, book manufacturer, linoleum-block nature artist and papermaker.

Born in the "thumb" of Michigan, Gwen Frostic spent her entire life in the state. She wrote, illustrated, printed and published 20 books and contributed to four others. Though some described her as handicapped -- she walked with a limp, spoke with a slight slur and had a withered left arm -- she never thought of herself that way.

Her 18-press print shop in Benzonia with its inviting gallery/showroom is still a popular tourist attraction for folks visiting the northwestern part of Michigan's lower peninsula.

In the early 1940s, Frostic set up her first printing shop in her home in Wyandotte, just south of Detroit. Though she moved twice, she continued to work out of her home for the rest of her life. During the 1950s she operated in both Wyandotte and Frankfurt, but in 1964, after she had fallen in love with "the north," she transferred her now booming business to Benzonia.

A Frostic book is instantly recognizable: hardcover, no jacket, every page a different kind of paper, and simple but beautiful illustrations on every spread. Frostic created everything you see in her books, from the myriad papers to the exquisitely printed illustrations to the wisps of free verse that flow across the pages.

If you examine a Frostic book more closely, you’ll find the front board covered in smooth, colored paper and illustrated with a simple but elegant block print depicting some natural object. The spine and rear will likely be bound in a differently colored, differently textured paper. No text will be found on the covers except a subdued title on the front. Almost all Frostic books measure about 6 x 9 inches, although she made some that were closer to 8 x 10.

Inside the book, you’ll be amazed by the many and various fancy papers, some smooth, some textured, some embossed, some mottled, some like tissue paper, some translucent. Many pages will have deckle (ragged) edges while others will be neatly trimmed. Earth-toned papers and earth-toned inks will be heavily favored. The text will be gracefully designed and will not appear on every page. Each spread will be individual and unique, a beautiful work of art in itself.

. . . Since her death in 2001, her business, Presscraft Papers, has been carried on by her longtime friends Pam and Kirk Lorenz, and by her nephew, Bill Frostic.


Anonymous said...

I just received a Gwen Frostic book from a dear friend of mine. As a printmaker, I fell in love with the images, but learning more about the artist herself has made this book even more valuable to me. I love what she says about nature.

My copy is "To Those Who See" and is gorgeous.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Congratulations, Nicole! Sometimes I think we tend too much to focus on the artist instead of the art, but in the case of Frostic, it's impossible to separate the two!

Prairie Mary

Lisa's RetroStyle said...

I am a new blogger and was just doing some research to do a post on Gwen myself. I can't believe I found your wonderful post. I am from Michigan and remember going to her shop with my parents and seeing her working there. I have a number of her books. I adore them. So beautiful. Thanks for writing so beautifully about her. Lisa B.

Anonymous said...

Hello... I was browsing in an antique store, I came upon a beautiful book. When I picked it up and started to turn the pages, I immediately fell in love with it. The book written by Gwen Frostic, "Wisps of Mist." I went home and googled her and read all about her, I am so excited, what a joy to have come upon someone that is so talented and so creative. I love the entire book, from the poetry, the handmade paper, to the beautiful drawings, I also loved reading about her life story. I have been fortunate that my book I purchased was signed by Gwen. I do know of her company and I have contacted them, but I was wondering if you know where I might find any other of her books that may be signed by her? Or do you think it's best to just purchase them through her printing company while I can?
Thank you, I look forward to your response.
Have a nature of a day! Shelly

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Hi Shelly. I bought my Gwen Frostic book decades ago when they were still in bookstores. Probably your best bet now is online resources like Google, or There are also services that will seek for specific books, but I have no information on which ones are best or what to expect.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I found a large vintage signed copper tray by Gwen Frostic at an estate sale near Mount Morris, Michigan. I had not heard of her before this or what the signature was until just now! It is a stunning piece that has a tree hammered into the copper then signed on the back. A fantastic piece! Thanks for the information that you have posted here!

Unknown said...

I recently came across 18 books by Gwen Frostic at an estate sale. I have doubles of two of her books: "Multiversality" and "My Michigan". I would like to see these go to someone who will appreciate them as I have grown to appreciate the handmade paper and gorgeous illistrations.

Unknown said...

Time marches on and sadly I found this today.

"November 26, 2009

Dear Friends of Gwen Frostic:

I am very sad to tell you that Gwen Frostic Prints/Presscraft Papers was closed to the public by Honor State Bank on October 26, 2009. The bank kept luring us to believe that we could reopen and fill your holiday orders. Now the bank has changed their mind and will not let us go back into Gwen's building. We have lost hope of filling all of these orders. We are so sorry and will keep your phone numbers so we can contact you in the future if we are successful in getting out of the bank's grasp.

Again, we are very sorry for any inconvenience. This is such a sad time for all of us. Keep the faith and have a blessed Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! May God bless you!

Pam Lorenz and Gwen Frostic staff."

shana said...

Linda Dunno,
How do I get intouch with you? I would love to buy the other copies you have!


Linda D said...

Call me at 207-479-0274

Linda D said...

email me at