Friday, May 12, 2017

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student- Part 3

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student: Why bookbinding? A discussion between a student and her mentor.

Introduction: This series of posts was prompted by questions from Sarah Kim (aka Skimplicity), a long-term work-study student of mine at Syracuse University Libraries who is now enrolled in the Bookbinding program of the North Bennet Street School in Boston, fulfilling a dream she’s had for some time. The “interview” is spread out over several posts, so check back regularly… This is Part 3. See here for part 1, part 2

Sarah: You being a person having great respect and influence in the bookbinding world, what are your goals when it comes to books?

While I have created some beautiful bindings and exhibited widely, my influence on the field is derived more from building (online) community and sharing the German binding tradition. For more on the former, see the next installment of this series. My sharing of the German binding tradition is woven into my work, some of which I will describe below.

Working as a rare book conservator was my goal when I started on this adventure, and it was a very rewarding career. In that, I was fortunate to work with and learn from some of the best, in particular Bill Minter who really took my work up several notches during the 3ish years I worked for him. Beyond the fundamentals, the skills required for conservation are different than those for design binding. We very seldom start with a blank canvas, we have to respect the provenance, structure, materials, … of the object. When I started in conservation we were much more invasive - full treatments starting with disbinding, washing, deacidification, … were not unusual… Now, we are much more likely to do minimal treatments or make enclosures. I was glad to have developed those skills, but it would be a challenge to develop those “chops” and the confidence you need without regular practice.

My goal is to create a well crafted book with a cohesive aesthetic. Doesn’t matter whether it is just a simple binding (say a recasing…) or a binding being entered in an exhibit. I’ll leave conservation work out of this discussion and focus on the more creative work. After working my way through the medieval treasure binding and Art Nouveau aesthetics, I found myself drawn to the cleaner lines of the 1920s - Deco, New Objectivity in Germany (Wiemeler, Dorfner, …), and other binders like Edgar Mansfield, Ivor Robinson, Philip Smith, and in the US Don Glaister and Frank Mowery. I loved looking at images of the bindings in books and catalogs as they were so in- and aspirational. Added to that mix was the work of Jean de Gonet who created exquisite bindings with open/visible structures using new materials like industrial rubbers/metals. It was only in the past few years that I learned that the German, Otto Dorfner had pioneered some of those structures in the 20s… Regardless, I found the combinations of materials with visible structural elements compelling and they soon became regular features of my bindings. Likewise various variations on the Bradel binding where the boards and spine are worked separately and joined later...

Pamela Leutz, The Thread That Binds, Oak Knoll Press, 2010.
Modified Bradel binding (Gebrochener Rücken); red Roma endpapers; sewn link stitch on four reinforced leather tapes; dark red and gray handsewn endbands; spine covered in gray leather with cutouts for tapes; boards covered in reddish brown Pergamena deer vellum; titled stamped in gold on front cover with leather onlays. 23 x 15.5 x 4 cm. Bound 2010.

That said, we all need creative outlets, they keep the mind fresh and allow us to be creative… Creating unique bindings and taking on the odd editions were my way of doing that, and it has been very rewarding and at times frustrating when I am shown my limitations… I’m not an artist and can’t draw to save my life. As an apprentice, I learned the basics how to make graphite and gilt edges, and the basics of gold/blind tooling. I love graphite edges, especially highly burnished ones and will always prefer them over gold. That’s probably the reason I’ve made so few of the latter, and as a result don’t get the results I want… Hand tooling is also something that requires regular and intensive practice in order to achieve any degree of competence and proficiency. I can recite the process for doing so though. Tooling is also time consuming and expensive, leading to less work that calls for it. Less commissions = less practice = less proficiency… and so the spiral goes. As a result we see less and less tooled bindings. An exceptional exceptions among the "youngsters" is Sam Feinstein, a NBSS grad.

Fritz and Trudi Eberhardt, Rules for Bookbinders, The Boss Dog Press, 2003.
Edelpappband / millimeter binding: Endpapers same as text; top edge in graphite and burnished; dark red leather endband around thread core; vellum trim at head/tail caps with invisible corners; covered in handmade pastepaper; title in graphite on front cover. Soft “Ascona-style” slipcase covered in paper to match book with title in graphite on spine. 18 x 12.5 x 1cm. Bound 2005.

As a result of not getting that regular practice I’ve worked to create my own aesthetic that largely lets the materials and combination of those speak for themselves. I’ve done very little marbling, using oil paints on methylcellulose the few times I’ve done it. Instead, I prefer paste papers, a technique I love, and I'm glad to see binders like Sarah Creighton, Carol Blinn, Amy Borezo, or Don Rash using them in their one of a kind and edition bindings. Must be at least partially derived from my German roots. Millimeter bindings, known in Germany as the Edelpappband (taught as the Rubow at NBSS), are great for using with decorated papers. The mythologies of that structure are best left for another day. My love, however, is vellum, a material that (when not in limp bindings) most binders seem to have an irrational fear of. I presented on this style at GBW Standards in 2001 (with an article in the GBW Journal) and Peter Geraty is doing a great job teaching the style across the country. Done right, vellum bindings are stable and the natural variations in the skins create a look and feel like no other. Jesse Meyer creates some of the most beautiful skins, and I’m glad to use them regularly.

Gaylord Schanilec and Clarke Garry, Mayflies of the Driftless Region, Midnight Paper Sales Press, 2005.
Dorfner/de Gonet "open joint" binding; sewn on 3 brown salmon leather slips; flyleaves and doublures of Cave Paper “layered indigo day” paper; graphite top edge; rolled endbands brown salmon leather; spine covered in gray salmon leather; boards covered in full vellum with printed illustrations from text below; salmon leather slips attached to boards and framed with decorative weathered wood veneer; tied mayfly attached to front board. 26.5 x 19 x 2 cm. Bound 2013.
A description of the structure and binding process can be read on the Pressbengel Project blog.

I also like working with leathers, goat mostly, and recently have started using fish leather more. The latter was pushed in Germany during WW1 and after as an “austerity” material - cheap & readily available without needing to be imported. It is a very interesting material with lots of variation and strong. Not big enough for a full binding unless making miniatures but easy to combine with other materials. Ernst Collin, author of The Bone Folder (original in German as Der Pressbengel), and who I have been very involved with wrote several articles on the topic and these no doubt influenced me.

Occasionally, I also like to try something different, and so it was with the images below that represent two editioned projects I completed with with Thorsten Dennerline/BirdPress. The first, 26 Words, was an edition of 10 alphabet books in response to the Guild's ABeCedarium exhibit of 1998. For the book we "randomly" selected 26 words that Thorsten illustrated and printed, and for which I completed the edition bindings. For my two personal copies I crafted two very different works. The first a tradition concertina that fits into a hinged case. For the second (a "second" because in folding the accordion there was a variance in alignment leading to me to put a fold where it should be) I saved my bacon by drawing on my conservator skills and changing the structure to a board book. The bound book then fits into the sculptural box. I have never done anything like these since.

26 Words. Illustrations and printing by Thorsten Dennerline/Bird Press. 1998.
Concertina Structure; boards covered in full Niger goat; onlays of chagrin and oasis goat, and frog; housed in hinged and cut-out slipcase in oasis leather and veiney calf vellum; title and represented words beneath vellum. Bound 1998.
26 Words. Illustrations and printing by Thorsten Dennerline/Bird Press. 1998
Board Book Structure; covered in full black clansman goat with onlays of red oasis goat and calf with laserprint; housed in television shaped box with cutout front to reveal decor of binding; box covered in full black goat with wood, wire and acrylic. "Dummy binding" inserted into box to give overall sense of work while book is removed. Bound 2000.

Below, a more traditional binding I completed to Thorsten's designs. This is the standard edition of which there were 40 copies. The deluxe comprised the remaining two copies and was covered in full vellum with the same structure. Illustrations in the regular edition were monochrome, in the deluxe colored. All volumes received clamshell boxes. Working on multiples like this was great fun as you find your rhythm and just work...

Lær Mig, Nattens Stjerne!/Teach Me, Star of Night!
Fine press artist’s book of poems by Peter Laugesen, and 8 etchings by Thorsten Dennerline / Bird Press; sewn on 5 raised alum-tawed thongs; buttonhole stitch endbands; spine covered in vellum; boards covered in quarter vellum with Japanese bookcloth sides; title and ornament stamped in black. Edition of 50. 25.5 x 24 x 2cm. Bound 2001.

More examples of my bindings can be seen on my website here.

In my last post, I mentioned some of the reasons for returning to the US from Germany even though that was perhaps not the plan. One of the things that happened in the spring of my last apprentice year (and 2 short months before my exams) was that I was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy. At the hospital the doctor said, "so what are you going to do now?" Hadn't thought about it, was still bike racing, and thinking of my life and career... "Well, you won't be able to get a job and will need to go on disability..." Ah, well, that's a problem then, and that statement alone made it easy to return to the US. Effects of this progressive disease weren't obvious for a very long time, in part because I continually adapted to those changes. Part of that was getting a job in academia with great health insurance, and  acquiring new interests and skills in my day job such as digitization and management. The impact is also felt on my benchwork where I am having increasing issues with stamina and some fine motor skills such as sewing endbands or holding a finishing tool… I have no intention to stop binding, but rather will adapt by changing structures and other aspects. It creates some interesting design challenges, and for those things I can't do, I ask for help... I also makes travel much more difficult, logistically and otherwise. Adapting to changing circumstances and adjusting ones career/artistic/life goals is essential regardless of circumstance. Sometimes we just need to roll with it, something easier said than done. Perhaps subconsciously, that was also a factor addressed in Sarah's next question.

Sarah: How would you describe your role in the bookbinding community?

First Book_Arts-L graphic...

I think my role for the last 20+ years has really been one of providing a virtual home for all the book arts that allows participants from across the globe share events, training and exhibit opportunities, ask questions, provide answers, and discuss any and all book arts related topics. A big contributor to the success of this is the mix of backgrounds, from "sages" and leaders in the field to newbies, and representatives of most of the leading book arts centers and programs. The resources I provide have been (and will remain) accessible to all at no cost.

The two pillars of this virtual home have been the Book_Arts-L listserv and the Book Arts Web, founded in 1994 and 1995 respectively. In those days, the Internet was still very young, very few outside academia used email, ... It was still a very person-to-person and print-based environment, something I hope we never lose. That said, after having lived in places like Chicago with the then vibrant Chicago Hand Bookbinders, or New Haven with NYC, Boston, and Northampton, MA all very close, moving to Ithaca, NY was a culture shock with almost no one involved with or actively interested in the book arts, binding, ... beyond their day jobs. So, it came down to being isolated... I had been on Conservation Online (CoOL) since 1989 and discovered Exlibris (a listserv for special collections folks) while at Cornell. After posting book arts topics to both, the listowners suggested I might be interested in starting a new list for book arts, something Cornell (and Syracuse) made available to staff. It would be easy, they said... It was, and in late June of '94 the list was started, and very quickly grew in subscribers after some messages to CoOL and Exlibris, as well as a mention in the Guild of Book Workers' Newsletter. Many of those early subscribers are still on the list, and I know of two cases where the offspring of those are now on as well.


Final cover of The Bonefolder showing all issues...

The Book Arts Web was started a year after as one of my first library school projects. It is largely a list of links (very Web 0.5) but I also try to provide unique content. Other similar sites were started shortly thereafter, but all have largely folded since. What has surprised me is how long-lived some of the sites have been. In terms of the unique content, The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist started in 2004 was the most significant addition. It was an open access, freely available, journal that filled a void in the landscape - a reliable platform for widely sharing long-form writing on the book arts. Although we folded in 2013, it was for me hands-down the most rewarding project, a) for proving it could be done, and b) because of the team that produced it, Donia Conn, Karen Hanmer, Ann Carroll Kearney, Chela Metzger, Pamela Barrios, Conservator, Don Rash. I'm pleased to say that all issues are still online, and are archived as a part of LOCKSS and at the Internet Archive.

Squiggles, or a visualization that represents my day-job...


About four years after starting the list/website I was asked to speak about this brave new online world for a symposium in honor of the Silver Buckle Press' 25th anniversary at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In that talk, "Getting us out / Bringing us together: How listservs and the Web have changed the way in which book artists work and communicate" I shared my thoughts and experiences. I think most of them still hold even if some of the platforms have changed. I also ran some data, my new day job, on the list and websites that was interesting if geekish... Those are at Book_Arts-L and Book Arts Web Demographics and Usage.What does it tell us, that the online book arts world I created is still incredibly vibrant even 22+ years on, that an old Web 0.5 technology can still provide a robust platform for book artists of all levels to share information and discuss the issues, and that on a world-wide basis. It is a real community, that while online celebrates and sustains the physical and haptic book arts (and all allied fields).

That said, there are lots of other virtual spaces where book arts people meet in the "hipper" social media. You (Sarah) and I were messaging about that recently. I have no idea why Book_Arts-L is still going so strong, even when compared to those new media platforms. One of the things that strikes me is that on almost all other sites, whether forums or "social" media, the "owners" are often not as involved in sustaining the conversations. Sustaining a community takes work, not a lot at any given time, but ongoing care and feeding. This means starting conversations when things are slow, sharing articles, thoughts, ... that may be of interest, and of oneself. It also means promoting the community in other fora.  Having an archive that goes back to the first message helps too, and is a tremendous resource.

In terms of format, I think the best thing about Book_Arts-L is that it is long-form friendly, i.e. you can really compose thoughts, questions, and responses. I know this goes counter to a 140 character limitation, but it really does make for more thoughtful interactions.

Regardless, I invite any and all to develop the killer app or virtual community to replace it so I can retire.

My other big thing is sharing the German bookbinding tradition, whether as tutorials for specific techniques, or the history thereof. I do that here my Pressbengel Project blog. I enjoy it, and it has gotten a good response.

So, all this is what I am best known for – Building and sustaining a community based on sharing.



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