Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.
He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky's native plants: "Who knows when the phlox will flower?"
Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky's Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.
Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.
The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK's campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.
In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.
Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector's editions and affordable paperbacks.
"Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent," Taylor explained in his remarks. "He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see."
But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.
In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.
Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz's curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.
"It was above and beyond the idea of book as art," Bates said. "It was book as communication, as preservation of culture."
As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, "I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top."
Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won't throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.
Several others remarked on Zeitz's craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. "Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy," Manning said.
When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.
Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:
Sweet rain yesterday.
We have put your book on the press.
My hands do not tremble
because I'm unsure,
but shake in the finalizing of page
as a foal, newborn,
begins to stand.
It should be said
there will be absolutely no deadline.
Who knows when the phlox will flower?
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com