A Visit to Chester Gryski’s Exhibition on Robert Reid at Massey College in Toronto

On February 13, 2018, Chester Gryski, Alcuin Society Ex Officio board member and Toronto Liaison, took a number of Toronto-area Alcuin acolytes through his recently-opened exhibition on the work of printer and designer Robert Reid.

The exhibit is hosted at the Robertson Davies Library at Massey College, the University of Toronto, which is also the site of the wonderful College print shop headed by College Printer Nelson Adams. Titled Robert R. Reid: Celebrating his 90th Birthday and 69 Years of Designing and Printing, it features pieces from Gryski’s personal collection of fine and private press books and related ephemera. Gryski’s exhibition follows the heels of a showing of Reid’s current work at Massey, which featured posters on which aphorisms are rendered in typographically interesting and revealing ways. This prior work was curated by the Curatorial Research Project of CAUSA (Collective for Advanced & Unified Studies in the Visual Arts) and took place in several locations across Canada. Indeed, it inspired Gryski to bring his collection to Massey, as the first Reid exhibit did not include Reid’s books. Many of the posters from the previous remain on display at Massey, which provides a nice way of contextualizing this newer work in the grand sweep of Reid’s printing and design career.

Chester Gryski discussing items in the exhibit while James Sutherland and Sandra Eadie look on.

It is timely and appropriate that Reid is being celebrated in such varied ways as a key contributor to print and design life in Canada. Timely, of course, because Reid turned 90 last year, as Gryski’s exhibition title makes clear to the visitor. And appropriate, because his career has spanned several generations, the introduction of new technologies, and a vast amount of progress and creativity in design in Canada, from the first private press book published in Canada, to Reid’s enthusiastic adoption of digital typefaces. It is fascinating to see the variety of ways Reid’s creativity and interests have expressed themselves over nearly seven decades of work. If anything, this exhibit should be a great example to newer entrants in the field: a broad and catholic interest in design aesthetics and approaches, not to mention the content itself, can only enrich a career.

The exhibit represents a fine survey of Reid’s work, though the focus is primarily on his private press work rather than his work as a designer. The books for which Reid is well known are represented, sometimes with additional, quite rare prospectuses or other rare ephemera. These include Reid’s early work in reprinting early histories of British Columbia. His first was, appropriately, the first book printed in the province, The Fraser Mines Vindicated or The History of Four Months (first published in 1858, printed by Reid in 1949). Fraser Mines also has the distinction of arguably being the first private press book published in Canada. Reid was 22 when he produced (and hand-printed, two pages at a time) this ambitious and impressive book. Reid also has the distinction of printing widely admired Canadian poet John Newlove’s first book, Grave Sirs (1962), which was done in a much more striking, modernist style than Reid’s work in printing BC histories.

A number of Reid items, including volume one of his memoirs, Printing: A Lifelong Addiction (2002), and for the Alcuin Society, Takao Tanabe, Sometime Printer (2010).

Alcuin Society members will know Reid’s book completed under the auspices of the Alcuin Society, Takao Tanabe, Sometime Printer (2010) which focuses on the design portion of Tanabe’s remarkable career. The exhibit also includes a selection of fantastic posters and broadsides produced by Reid, including a very funny anti-Vietnam War poster. In the catalogue, Gryski had the benefit of asking Reid about this poster’s origin directly: “The War Theatre poster was printed one evening when there was a protest going on in Old Montreal against [the] Viet Nam [war]. Ib, Bev Leech and I were going to go but decided to run off a poster to take with us. By the time we were through it was one in the morning and the protest was over, so we just gave the posters away as best we could.” 

Gryski’s annotations for each of the books in his catalogue are well worth reading. They reveal an immense amount of research in what must be fairly hard-to-find sources such as long-gone journals and exhibition catalogues, most of which are also in Gryski’s collection. Several entries trace the detailed provenance of the specific paper Reid used. But what is most tempting are the descriptions of items that Gryski didn’t have space to display. As he noted to me “The first problem was to figure out what to put in. I soon found out that 4 cases does not provide a lot of room.” Of these left-off items, Reid printed and designed two broadsides for beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg is reported to have hated the illustrations used for the version of the poem “Birdbrain” and refused to sign it. I’d love to see either of these one day: if anything, Gryski is setting himself up for a second run. The exhibit was Gryski’s first time curating an exhibition, and I hope it won’t be his last!

Several of Reid’s broadsides, including the fantastic anti-Vietnam poster, Now Playing. War Theatre (1960s) and Olive Schreiner’s A Woman’s Plea Against War (1986).

Visitors are encouraged to stop by the Robertson Davies Library at Massey College during its opening hours (9-5, Monday to Friday). The library is located downstairs from the main entrance. It is noted that visitors should stop by the Porter’s Lodge on the way in to announce their presence, as Massey is a private residential college.