Editor’s note: This profile of Diana Bower is excerpted from the forthcoming book, “Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People who Work With Their Hands.” Writer Iris Graville and photographer Summer Moon Scriver, both Lopezians, are publishing the book this November. For more information about Hands at Work, visit www.handsworking.com.
Diana Bower’s hands tell of 50 years of using ancient techniques to create words and images. She’s carved over 100 linoleum blocks, spending thousands of hours working with X-acto and gouging knives. Many four-inch by six-inch blocks convey pastoral scenes. Others are half that size, including a series of six she carved in intricate detail in 1981 to depict the jail cell of a fellow nuclear weapons resister. “My hands never recovered from those,” she says, flexing and straightening her fingers.
Although she no longer cuts linoleum blocks, Diana still enjoys operating her Vandercook Simple Precision SP15 proof press. Letter by letter, she spells out words, blessings, and beloved quotes in lead type; places them and her hand-cut blocks on the press; and prints bold, inspiring images. She is well known for these prints, called broadsides, which combine as many as eight linoleum blocks and several lines of hand-set type.
“I can get terribly depressed and worried about the world situation,” she says as she smears thick black ink onto a square of glass, then works the ink to a fine film with a rubber roller. “If I can do something productive, like make something with my hands, it’s good for my mind and spirit.” She turns to the press to roll a thin layer of ink on letters and a block. “Both my children, Holly and Dan, have had a profound influence on my life,” she says. “Their generosity and views about the world teach me so much. They taught me that inaction is a fruitless path. You have to take action. My political posters and upbeat broadsides are something I can do.”
Diana has been taking action all her life. She lived much of her youth in small towns in New York state and credits her high school art teacher with guiding her into her life’s work. “I had always loved art — watercolors, costume design — and my art teacher said, ‘You’ve got to go to Yale. It’s the best art school I know of.’ But my father wanted me to go to Vassar. I was accepted to both, so Papa let me choose.” Soon she was trying to get his permission for another dream.
“When I started at Yale, the art school followed the Beaux Arts tradition — life drawing and portraiture in dark studios. It was grim. I told my papa I had to go to Europe. He said ‘No,’ and I argued and argued with him. Then I made a bargain with him that if I earned my passage, I could go. I did that by working in the village diner.”
After seven months of soaking up art in Scotland, England, Paris, and Florence, Diana returned to Yale. “The art school had been transformed. There were brilliant, young instructors who smiled and laughed and got us to do great work. They had a wonderful letterpress, and that’s when I fell in love with type. It was like coming into my own.”
That job in the diner had provided Diana with more than her funds for Europe. It was also where she met Ted Bower. “He was an architect building Frank Lloyd Wright homes and his own designs. He was quiet, handsome, and intriguing. I gave him extra butter,” she says, her eyes twinkling behind the big, red-framed glasses she wears when she’s working. They were married in 1953 and headed to India for seven months, where she and Ted worked on architecture designs for schools.
Seattle became home next, where Diana was befriended by a family of Japanese-American printers. “Their baby would sleep in a cardboard box under a press,” she says, “and it was as if they had adopted me. Their print shop had lots and lots of type, and they gave me my own little corner. They were incredibly kind and taught me a lot. I started setting type more and more, and I loved it.”
Diana’s skill as a printer grew even more when she began working with Rachel da Silva, cofounder of Seal Press, Seattle’s first feminist publishing house. Soon Diana became sought after for book design for the University of Washington Press. “I also had many years of making blocks and printing invitations,” Diana says. She pulls out announcements and posters that she handset for civil rights and peace efforts and recalls the times she protested nuclear weapons and being tried in federal court for civil disobedience.
In 1981, Diana and Ted bought property on Lopez, where their daughter runs Holly B’s Bakery. Diana continues her letterpress work in her island studio, a refurbished 1910 farmhouse. Her broadsides, collages, and prints are on display at Chimera Gallery, the artists’ cooperative she helped found 23 years ago; and she has generously shared her images to support many community efforts. “When I can be present to watch people react to my work, there’s often a lovely moment of connection,” she says. “Sometimes they put their hands over their hearts, or they’ll read the words and catch their breath a little. A broadside that combines the peaceful and pastoral quality of my home with a blessing that conveys encouragement and love — that’s what gives me the most pleasure.”
Diana moves gracefully around her studio, able to put her hands on type and blocks readily and to pull out favorite prints. “I love work that sustains life,” she says. And this work, this old craft that dates back to the fifteenth century, sustains her. “No one makes me do this,” she says. “It’s self-motivated, creative work. It’s why I get up in the morning. It’s that basic. It’s my reward.”
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