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‘Baltimore Catechism’ explores faith, book arts

Question: Where is God? Answer: God is everywhere. This nine-syllable exchange, one of dozens of similar mini-mysteries solved in an educational book known as the “Baltimore Catechism,” will strike a familiar chord with anyone who was raised in the Catholic faith.

But for the young Catholic Christopher Fritton, the simple, straightforward answer in his catechism book wasn’t exactly satisfying. By the time Fritton was in the sixth grade, he recalled during a recent chat at Founding Fathers Pub, he had already grown disenchanted with the answers his religion provided to what struck him as incredibly complex questions.

“It opens up with ‘What is God?’ and then it answers it in a sentence,” Fritton said, his voice taking on a tinge of childish frustration. “Even at 10, I was like, what? One sentence? That’s it?”

For Fritton, founder of the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair and print shop manager at the Western New York Book Arts Center, one sentence wasn’t enough. Though no longer a practicing Catholic, he returned to the lessons of his youth for an expansive new project he produced with fellow writer and artist Ric Royer.

The centerpiece of the project, called “The Baltimore Catechism,” is a hand-printed book of questions and answers that follows the form of the Catholic document of the same name used in thousands of schools across the United States.

The loose-leaf book, encased in a laser-cut pine box and wrapped in a black cloth shroud, was co-written by Fritton and Royer in the summer of 2010 in Baltimore. During a 35-day residency in the sprawling AS 220 arts complex in Providence, R.I., last year, Fritton completed the book’s 75 copies and expanded produced 12 gigantic woodcuts, letter-pressed posters and other material.

The project will go on view today in the Book Arts Center, where Fritton will give a reading and artist’s talk March 15.

The book provides strange, lyrical and sometimes tongue-in-cheek answers to many of the same questions posed in the original catechism. For instance, when the co-authors asked themselves “What is good?,” they dreamed up this answer: “Good is a reward that one receives when he or she sells the most candy bars, bowls a perfect game, makes love well but not too often, and allows others to walk all over them. Good is the opposite of normal.”

But the book also answers some questions – often the most difficult ones – with graphic elements that Fritton unearthed while looking through the archives of Buffalo’s P22 Type Foundry. The answer to “Where is God?,” for example, is merely a picture of a sad-looking man sitting in a bathtub.

“To be really clear, it didn’t start as a satire, it didn’t start even with this title or anything, it sort of acquired all that as it moved along, really organically,” Fritton said. “Even as it stands now, there is an absurdist tone, a whimsical tone that’s sort of capricious. But there’s nothing that’s advocating in one direction or the other. This doesn’t advocate for or against religion. It doesn’t poke fun very directly.”

Fritton and the Baltimore-based Royer, who met as students at the University at Buffalo, treated the writing phase of the project as a true collaboration. Across four months in the summer of 2010, they would banter back and forth about the questions, sometimes leaving notes on the kitchen table of the house they shared in Baltimore for one of them to ponder while the other was away or sleeping.

The writing style is so cohesive, Fritton said, that neither of them can recall with any certainty who wrote what.

To fill out the project – and to make use of the equipment at his disposal at AS 220 – Fritton turned to a series of type ornaments he found in the P22 library.

He blew up the figures, strange human-chicken hybrids probably once used in the margins magazines or pamphlets, to gargantuan proportions and made woodcuts out of them. In the exhibition, the slightly menacing woodcuts will be on view “like stations of the cross,” Fritton said.

It’s all part of an attempt to explore the impossible questions of his childhood education in ways his teachers probably never envisioned.

“Right now it stands in this perfect place that isn’t just comedy and isn’t just heavy, where it’s just so heavy-handed and slaps you in the face with its existentiality,” Fritton said. “Right now, it’s more absurdist, and I like it there.”


What: “The Baltimore Catechism”

When: Today through April 12

Where: Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St.

Admission: Free

Info: 348-1430 or