Well-known among his peers for being a fount of creativity in advancing arts education, New Taipei City’s Jimei Elementary School principal Wu Wang-ju (吳望如) recently set a new standard when he introduced bookplates in school libraries in New Taipei City, which generated huge interest among students and parents in creating bookplates.
Bookplates, also known as “ex libris” in Latin, meaning “from the books of,” are usually a small print or decorative label pasted into a book, often on the inside front cover, to indicate its owner.
Though Wu’s desk was covered in official documents awaiting his signature at the time of the interview, he said he was quite happy to set aside some time to talk about the art of etching and bookplate collections.
Wu said he was introduced to etching in an art class in the second grade of elementary school, where the teacher taught them how to do relief printing using the stencil technique.
The students had to cut out a pattern that they liked before placing it on a wooden board to be printed onto another piece of paper, Wu said, adding that the class had sparked his interest in the subject.
He took the subject at arts college and as he did his military service in Kinmen County, he chose 53 statues of lion-like figures called fungshihyeh (風獅爺) that are found throughout Kinmen as the subjects of his first series of etchings.
He was later invited by the local government to exhibit his work in Kinmen, which Wu said was a great source of pride for him.
Wu said he has tried his best through the years to teach his students the many printing techniques he learned in college, such as screenprinting, and how different template materials affect etchings.
The unpredictability of the final product’s appearance is what makes printmaking fun, as it not only inspires printmakers to be more creative, but also reminds them to pay attention to details, he said.
The materials that a printmaker has to work with present their own set of difficulties, Wu said.
Pointing to gypsum as an example, Wu said the mixing of gypsum, how it is cut, how to prevent it from becoming water-stained and how it reacts in different weather conditions are all things a printmaker has to be aware of.
Wu said that he once failed 12 times in a row making a gypsum print due to hot weather ruining the final product.
“It was an experience that taught me to think what I could do to make printmaking more easily accessible and more fun for students to learn,” Wu said.
Wu said he found a solution — using a resin board, a material similar to polystyrene — while traveling abroad a decade ago.
Resin is softer than wood and rubber and although it somewhat lacked the artistic sense of printmaking, it was more accessible to students as they could draft their patterns on the board with pencils before cutting them into the board with a knife, Wu said.
“It saved time and also increased the students’ interest in the subject,” Wu said, adding that the extended time needed to complete a print is also the main reason printmaking is not taught in schools very often. It takes on average two to three weeks to complete a print from scratch.
“Students may show interest in the first few classes, but they usually start losing interest or become impatient by the third or fourth class,” Wu said.
Introducing ex libris prints in classes significantly cuts down the time to make the prints and also makes the work easier to complete, Wu said.