A life on paper: longtime printmaking expert, educator set to retire

Longtime printmaking and book arts champion Sibyl Rubottom will retire this month from her role managing the Athenaeum Art Center’s Print Studio.

The studio is located inside the Athenaeum’s satellite space in the Bread and Salt complex in Logan Heights.

Originally from New York, Rubottom studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale, and eventually ended up in San Diego. Here, she began to more seriously study book arts.

“When my oldest son went to college, I took a book arts class from Genie Shenk,” Rubottom said, adding that she didn’t quite know what it would be. “Then I realized it was this amazing vehicle for expression, like a painting sculpture.”

Bookmaking led her to letterpress and printmaking.

A printing press font drawer containing individual capital letters is pictured at the Athenaeum Art Center’s Print Studio in Logan Heights on Dec. 19, 2022.

In 2000, Rubottom cofounded the small artists book press Bay Park Press with Jim Machacek, an artist, master printer and now-retired educator at San Diego Mesa College.

The Athenaeum has operated a satellite location beyond their La Jolla museum for years — moving from Park Blvd to Liberty Station before landing in Logan Heights. In the early days on Julian Ave., Rubottom proposed bringing in some presses and turning the space into a print studio.

A growing collection

Under Rubottom’s guidance, the studio quickly grew. The space is now packed with eight large presses, including iron presses, letterpresses, etching presses and a book press — and cabinets full of carefully sorted fonts line the walls. (Rubottom’s favorite? “I’m very fond of Bodoni. Helvetica and Bodoni, you can’t go wrong.”)

Printing presses currently at the AAC Print Studio:
1850 Imperial hand iron press
1860 Columbian Seggie Edinburgh hand iron press
1964 and 1965 Asbern letterpresses
Book press
Ettan etching press
Griffin etching press
Vandercook proof press

Upcoming classes at the AAC Print Studio:
Intro to Copperplate Calligraphy (begins Jan. 19)
Artist’s Book Making (begins Jan. 19)
Silk Screen Printing on Fabric (begins Jan. 21)
Registration/info here

Many of the presses are antiques on an indefinite loan from a collector, Dr. Edwin Petko, who Rubottom approached and befriended. Petko previously stored his holdings at the University of Riverside, and wanted to move them elsewhere, where they would be used to teach.

Petko took some convincing at first, because the room at Bread and Salt had fire sprinklers and wasn’t as secure as he’d hoped, but Rubottom persisted.

“And then I became like his — my husband says ‘his heiress’ — because (Petko) said ‘Well, would you like this…? I have all this paper and all this stuff and a press that I haven’t even opened the box,'” Rubottom recalled.

That box ended up becoming the massive press currently out in the Bread and Salt lobby. “It looked like Indiana Jones, and it had never been opened, and it was from London,” Rubottom said. “That was how it started.”

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An antique Seggie Edinburgh hand iron printing press is shown at the AAC Print Studio on Dec. 19, 2022.

Rubottom hopes the studio will continue to grow after she retires, and will continue to promote the art of letterpress and make good use of the presses.

“I’m not taking much of anything because it’s great here,” Rubottom said. “That’s what Dr. Petko wanted and that’s what I am into, is perpetuating letterpress, keeping it alive and showing the next generation what it is. We have kids in and they just can’t believe it when you pull the print, it’s just so exciting.”

A legacy

Last May, Christie Mitchell took over as the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library’s executive director, after Erika Torri announced her retirement. Mitchell, who grew up in San Diego, is new to her role, but not to the Athenaeum. And she also wasn’t new to Rubottom, she believes.

“My mother is convinced that my sister and I took a bookmaking class with Sibyl as children,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that the Print Studio will be Rubottom’s legacy.

“Sybil has done so much work to make the Print Studio what it is, has done outreach, has dreamed about what it could be into the future. And it’s really an incredible space. She has poured her heart and soul and time into it. And we’re really lucky for that, because we now get to inherit it and kind of build upon that. And we’re really excited for what it will be into the future, too, as a resource for people, as an educational center, as a place where works on paper can really be explored, and also printmaking can be explored, as at this point, seems almost like an ancient technique,” Mitchell said.

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Textile works (“munnum” creatures) by artist and printmaker Sibyl Rubottom hang from the ceiling at the Athenaeum Art Center on Dec. 19, 2022, part of Rubottom’s “Visual Memoir: 1962-2022” exhibition.

‘Visual Memoir: 1962-2022’

Before her retirement, Rubottom’s art fills the Athenaeum Art Center’s adjacent exhibition gallery — it’s a chance for the region to celebrate both her commitment to the print studio and her mastery of the craft.

Now on view is a comprehensive survey of Rubottom’s paintings, textile sculptures, books and printmaking. The exhibition brings to life the breadth and evolution of her long career, as well as certain threads and ideas that appear in many works. Like water, creatures, faraway realms and lines that read like nursery rhymes.

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“The Astronomer’s Dream” is a 2014 multiplate etching work by Sibyl Rubottom, shown installed at the Athenaeum Art Center on Dec. 19, 2022.

Her love for fabrics is an interest passed down from her father, and a large installation in the exhibition features a collection of stuffed “munnums” creatures created and sewn over the decades.

“Several people bought them and they said, ‘Oh, they’re adult stuffed animals. You hold them here and you really feel a little better,’” Rubottom recalled. The munnums have an invented history, but Rubottom hopes people can see them as their own characters, to build their own stories around.

Also on view are intricate art books, prints and paintings — and the munnums make a few appearances in those, too.

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A series of works by Sibyl Rubottom are shown installed at the Athenaeum Art Center on Dec. 19, 2022.

Though in her artist statement Rubottom writes, “My work is not one thing,” the artworks in her exhibition feel unified. With the pairing of nature with childhood themes alongside a learned, self-reflective quality, Rubottom has brewed a myth-like world uniquely her own.

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“My Little Boat of Sleep” by Sibyl Rubottom is shown installed at the Athenaeum Art Center on Dec. 19, 2022. The work is a 2021 woodcut print, inspired by words spoken one early morning to her energetic grandson: “My little boat of sleep has not quite landed on the shore of morning…”

In retirement, Rubottom will focus her time towards her own artmaking.

“I’m going to be making lots of art,” Rubottom said. “Or that’s the plan. I’m going to be taking an intensive indigo course — even though I know how to do it, I want to learn a little more on the chemistry and really explore that more.”

Even though Rubottom sees printmaking basics like etching disappearing from college curriculums, she knows there’s interest growing for the craft — and understands that her work building up the print studio will serve future generations.

“Well, I think especially now with digital, it’s like people want to have evidence of the hand, a return to the tactile touch,” Rubottom said. “So I think they’re enduring, though, because the processes are tactile and amazing. It’s magic.”

Sibyl Rubottom will host an artist walkthrough of her exhibition at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 14 during Barrio Art Crawl at the Athenaeum Art Center. The exhibition closes Jan. 28.

Sibyl Rubottom: ‘Visual Memoir 1962–2022’


Saturday, November 12, 2022 at 12:09 PM


Ongoing until January 28, 2023


Athenaeum Art Center


Free

Sibyl Rubottom presents a visual memoir of her work from the last six decades, blending exploration with inspiration and comprising a variety of mediums: paintings, etchings, prints, artist books, collages, and soft sculpture. Central to her collection are artists books, her primary focus for over 25 years. She describes her work as “connecting folk traditions with a broad gamut of sensibilities, melding the boundaries between poetry and image making.” Sibyl’s books dive into concepts ranging from the celestial to the alphabetical. Her most enduring theme is water and its power to transport us across time and space—whether immersed in it or simply observing it. Sibyl Rubottom holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from Yale University.The exhibition can be viewed in the AAC Gallery at the Athenaeum Art Center (1955 Julian Avenue, San Diego, CA 92113) during open hours, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and every second Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m., during the Barrio Art Crawl, and by appointment.Artist Talk: Saturday, January 14, 5–8 PM (during the Barrio Art Crawl)Related links:Athenaeum Art Center on Instagram

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