Cuban Artist's Books

A Brief Introduction to Cuban Artist's Books

 Over the last 30 years the Cuban publishers Ediciones Vigía, Ediciones El Fortín, and Cuadernos Papiro have produced an extraordinary range of handmade books.


Ediciones Vigía

Of the three publishers, Ediciones Vigía is the oldest—established in 1985 by Alfredo Zaldívar and Rolando Estévez—and the best known inside and outside of Cuba. It has been the subject of exhibitions in many countries and even a monograph in the US, the recently released Handmade in Cuba. [1] Vigía launched as a program of the Casa del Escritor (Writers House) in Matanzas, a mid-sized coastal town about 100 km east of Havana. The press gets its name from its location near the Plaza de la Vigía (Watchtower Plaza). Its symbol is an oil lantern, or quinqué, an artistic element that is creatively reimagined on every book.


Estévez, a set designer by profession, established the design aesthetic for Vigía, and Zaldívar, a poet and artist, was the managing editor until 1998. From then until he, too, left in 2014, Estévez was the dominant artistic and literary influence on Vigía’s books, although he worked with a new managing editor, Augustina Ponce, and a large group of writers, artists, and artisans to publish hundreds of individually designed books. Throughout its existence, Vigía has relied on collage and handcoloring for its book decoration.


Typically, one artist creates a maquette for a book and then a group of artisans will figure out how to replicate the design 200 times. Most early Vigía books had print runs of 100 and later 200 copies, because that was as many as it was possible to produce before the mimeograph masters wore out, a tradition that continued after new printing technology was acquired. 


While Ediciones Vigía has published many well-known writers from Europe and the Americas, it has retained its focus on the community of writers in and around Matanzas. Few publishers anywhere have produced so many literary books by regional writers and Vigía’s local emphasis is unparalleled among the makers of artist’s books.


In the post-Estévez era, several designers who once worked alongside him have begun to shape a new Vigía aesthetic, notably Elizabeth Valero Molina, Frank David Valdés, Adrián Milián Suárez, Marialva Ríos, and Johann E. Trujillo.


Ediciones El Fortín

Ediciones El Fortín is a spinoff of Vigía, founded by Estévez in 2014. This new Matanzas imprint claims to be based in “Bellamar”, which means “lovely sea.” Bellamar is intended to counter the violence implied by naming a city Matanzas [2], which might be translated as “Murderville.” El Fortín produces books in small numbers, usually fewer than 50 copies, with elaborate structures and packaging. While Fortín books are much closer to Estévez’s one-of-a-kind book-art pieces than the typical Vigía title, they also make extensive use of Vigía-style handcoloring and paper and fabric collage.


Cuadernos Papiro

Cuadernos Papiro started as a papermaking collective in 1994 and began publishing books in 2001 under the direction of Tatiana Zúñiga Góngora and Manuel Arias Silveira. The press is in Holguín, on the opposite end of the island from Havana. Cuadernos Papiro (whose name translates as papyrus notebooks or papyrus quartos) makes all its own paper from recycled materials. Its founders obtained a linotype machine so they could print all their books with lead type. A dedication to obsolete equipment is central to Papiro’s vision.[3] Most of Papiro’s books are illustrated with relief prints, most often linocuts and collagraphs.


Artist’s Books as Books

Most of the academic work on these Cuban publishers has focused on their cultural context and the notion of the book-as-archive: “an effort to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present,” to quote Jessica Gordon-Burroughs. [4] 


I am not a cultural theorist nor a Latin Americanist. I am a bookseller who thinks about materials, binding methods, printing technology, and design. Relatively little critical work has been done from this standpoint. [5]


Materials and Intentions

The publishers of these books use the familiar tropes of artist’s books and fine press editions. They produce numbered limited editions with elaborate colophons describing materials and production methods. A person familiar with the typical Western artist’s book might well experience cognitive dissonance when encountering books from Ediciones Vigía or Cuadernos Papiro for the first time. The materials used have very few parallels in the Western book-art experience. The most obvious reference points are outsider artists like James Castle or perhaps the arte povera movement in Italy. 


Neither comparison is particularly apt. The artists behind these handmade books are not outsiders, as James Castle was. They are professionals who make a living as book artists. They did not choose inexpensive and found materials like the arte povera artists did (while surrounded by the best materials in the world in Italy). These Cuban book artists worked with the only materials available to them and have explored their artistic possibilities for decades. 


Estévez’s explanation of this idea can be applied to all the handmade book producers in Cuba: “We are advocating for the appreciation of poor, ugly, and cheap things.” [6] Or as book-arts theorist Johanna Drucker put it, “Artists use what they have access to and knowledge of.” [7]


Book Artists as Publishers

The women and men behind Ediciones Vigía, Cuadernos Papiro, and Ediciones El Fortín are artists for whom the book is a primary means of expression. But they are also publishers, a difference that confounds any effort to put these artists into a North American or European book-arts category. As early as 1994, a prescient article about Ediciones Vigía already referred to their output as “endless” [8] and it has more than tripled since then. This catalog includes two dozen works from the newly founded Ediciones El Fortín, which is by no means everything from its first five years. Even Cuadernos Papiro, which makes its own paper, sets type on a linotype machine, and prints letterpress, has averaged three to four books per year for twenty years. The production of handcrafted books by these publishers is awe-inspiring.


Ediciones Vigía, Cuadernos Papiro, and to a somewhat lesser extent Ediciones El Fortín are collaborative projects involving many people. While copies of the same title might superficially appear identical, close examination often reveals differences. The Western bibliographer is tempted to call these variants (and your cataloguer has succumbed to this temptation), but that implies that uniformity was the initial goal, when the sustained evidence of the thousand or so handmade books produced in Cuba in the last 30 years is that strict uniformity of editions has never been a particular consideration. One might argue that these handmade books embody socialist principles rather than the individualist tradition of North American and European book artists.



All these makers of handmade books are concerned with paper. Cuadernos Papiro has made paper for more than 25 years. Their papermakers are self-taught and typically recycle materials using an old washing machine and blender to make pulp. The paper recipe used varies from book to book, as the papermakers seek to create a substrate that will enhance the content of the book and its illustrations. 


For many years, Ediciones Vigía repurposed industrial papers, supplemented with low-quality commercial papers made from sugarcane waste. As white bond paper has become more readily available and affordable, Vigía and El Fortín have both adopted it for regular use but they continue to use other surplus papers for illustrations and cover designs. The selection and acquisition of these papers are an essential part of Vigía and Fortín’s artistic process. 


The books in this catalog, with only a few exceptions, are bound in paper: wrappers, cardstock with a dust jacket; or paper-wrapped cardboard. The absence of hardcover editions is in part cultural—hardcovers, or cased books, are the exception in Latin America, but it must also be an aesthetic choice. Vigía seldom sews gatherings, preferring to saddle stitch (with wire staples) sheets between cardstock. Many early books are made from folded sheets simply wrapped with cord around the spine.

Cuadernos Papiro typically sews together stacks of paper. This catalog is bound the same way in that spirit.


Coincident with their acquisition of better paper, all three publishers have increased the use of natural materials in their books, with twigs, bark, sticks, sand, dirt, feathers, shells, flowers, leaves, and seeds making appearances. Pigments made from locally sourced minerals are also increasingly common.


Inherent Vice

In the early years of Vigía and Papiro, the combination of low-quality materials and the humid Cuban climate virtually guaranteed that their books would not age well. Estévez has said this was not simply a result of circumstances, it was an artistic choice. “These books have an affinity to the past. You look at a Vigía book and say, ‘Well, is it modern or old?’ Ten years pass and the book becomes physically very old because of the materials we use... Our materials have a natural obsolescence.” [9]


The Vigía ethos Estévez describes can also apply to Cuadernos Papiro and Ediciones El Fortín, but in a different way. As materials have improved, these publishers have all regularly produced books with different inherent vices, or the seeds of their own destruction. Estévez’s favorite technique is to mount scrolls on the exteriors of his books so they are nearly impossible to store. But other design elements adopted by these publishers are decorations made from leaves or plants that dry, crack, and flake off; book covers with outcrops that cannot but bend and break; or structures that collapse gradually under their own weight. One Papiro book is sealed shut.

The best lens I have found for examining the printing and production quality of these Cuban books comes from Drucker’s description of Russian avant garde books of the early 20th century, which can apply, point by point, to the handmade books from Cuba.


"There was no trace in these works of the rules of book arts which had held sway since the invention of printing in the 15th century. The sense that a book was a fresh and vital form for immediate, direct expression, rather than a well-wrought volume which might showcase the finely engraved work of an artist in relation to an expertly printed text, breaks new ground for book production... These artists had little regard for expertise of printing for its own sake. When they made use of letterpress type the result reflected the competence of the commercial printers they hired, but the bulk of these works are intentionally crude in their production. These books did not merely shock the bourgeoisie—an idea that had been around since the 19th century—but instead sought to create symbolic forms of a new modern experience." [10]


Distinctive Features

Anytime one begins to consider books as art, the question of what exactly a book is inevitably surfaces. Estévez offers his own explanation, “A book is something you open.” [11] This definition is critical to understanding Estévez’s most important innovation in book arts, the pergamino, a term that translates directly as parchment but refers historically to proclamations or broadsides. Drucker notes, “Non-codex forms include scrolls, which are few and far between. The form is so rigid as a means of access and sequencing that it has rarely appealed to artists.” [12] Estévez’s work in this medium is in great need of further study. His pergaminos began as flyers produced to promote literary events in 1985. These were often rolled and tied closed with string to make rollos or scrolls. His pergaminos are also often folded with string attached for hanging, connecting them to the literatura de cordel movement in Brazil. Horizontal pergaminos (called plegables) and cartuchos (suites of broadsides in a bag) are some of the variations on the pergamino that Estévez has regularly explored, both alone and as components of books. 


The distinctive artistic element of Cuadernos Papiro is the collagraph. Collagraphy is an illustration process where the plate is built up from objects, including textured fabric, lace, keys, and cardstock. The resulting print is somewhere between a linocut (also employed by Papiro) and a collage.



Elzbieta Sklodwska, in her essay “Between Wonder and Resonance”[13] identifies another key element of the works of Ediciones Vigía that also applies to Ediciones El Fortín and Cuadernos Papiro: their ability to provoke wonder in those fortunate enough to handle the books. She quotes Stephen Greenblatt’s definition of wonder, “the power of the object displayed to stop the viewer in his tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke and exalted attention.” 


In my shop, customers encountering these books, blissfully unaware of the layers of politics and ideology that all Cuban artifacts carry with them, are immediately enchanted and absorbed. The books are entirely free of guile, artifice, and cynicism. They are not intellectual, they are emotional. They radiate passion and invention. Because they are made from ordinary materials, these books feel accessible, as if they were made for readers’ hands, even though they are more fragile than most contemporary North American and European artist’s books. 


Despite the oppression and economic privation felt by many in Cuba (many people who have worked on these books over the years have gone into exile, a journey sometimes made possible by selling their books) these handmade Cuban books inevitably express the joy of making art and the pleasure of what is, rather than regret for what isn’t. 


Scott Brown




[1] Behar, Ruth; Juanamaría Cordones-Cook, and Kristin Schwain (editors). Handmade in Cuba: Rolando Estévez and the Beautiful Books of Ediciones Vigía(University of Florida Press, 2020).


[2] Behar, Ruth. “Introduction” in Handmade in Cuba, p. 3.


[3] “Cuadernos Papiro funciona como un espacio de exhibición permanente de máquinas prácticamente inexistentes en nuestros días por los procesos de modernización de las técnicas de impresión” (Cuadernos Papiro functions as a permanent exhibition space for machinery that is practically non-existent today due to the process of modernization of printing techniques), retrieved from on July 29, 2020.


[4] Gordon-Burroughs, Jessica. “Straight Pins, Gauze, and Linotypes: The Cuban Post-Soviet Artists’ Book” in the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, vol. 26, no. 3 (2017).


[5] The literary aspects of these books are also fruitful avenues for investigation, with Gwendolyn Díaz’s “Tracing the Tracks of Time in Natural Love: Nancy Morejón’s ‘Cántico de la huella’” leading the way in Handmade in Cuba


[6] “Estamos defendiendo el estético de lo pobre, de lo feo, de lo barato.” Quoted in the documentary Ediciones Vigía (1985–2011): Abriendo archivos / Opening Archives by Juanamaría Cordones-Cook.


[7] Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artist’s Books, p. 6 (Granary Books, 1995).


[8] Alegría, María Eugenia; Rolando Estévez; and Alfredo Zaldívar. “Vigía: The Endless Publications of Matanzas” in the Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 33 no. 4 (Fall 1994).


[9] Estévez Jordán, Rolando. “The Artist’s Voice” in Handmade in Cuba, p. 47.


[10] Drucker, pp. 49–50.


[11] Quoted in Erin S. Finzer, “An Enchanting Exchange: The Gift Economy of Vigía Books” in Handmade in Cuba, p. 103.


[12] Drucker, p. 153.


[13] Handmade in Cuba, pp. 137–153.

Catalog 15

This is the introduction to my Catalog 15: Handmade Cuban Books, a selection of more than 300 books from Ediciones Vigía, Ediciones El Fortín, and Cuadernos Papiro. 


At present, this is just a printed catalog, published in an edition of 100 handmade copies. 


I may have a few extra copies available. If you'd like to be on the waiting list, please contact me with a short explanation of your interest in the catalog.