This blog as a whole has become a discovery of the creative things I love. My creative curiosity led me into the world of book binding (previous post, Handmade with Love!). More recently I had the privilege to connect with one of these artists discussed and that I have adored for quite some time, Mary Jane Henley. She was gracious enough to provide me (and you lucky readers!) with her account of personal discovery, her influences/influencers, and creative thought process.
I took my first bookbinding class on a lark seven years ago at a local paper store. It had never even occurred to me that people could make their own books. I was instantly hooked by the intriguing structures and beautiful papers. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and I loved the idea of making something useful. I decided I was going to learn all I could about bookbinding. Little did I know how much that included!
I began by purchasing instructional books by Keith Smith and Alisa Golden. Keith Smith’s books are more tailored to experienced binders. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Alisa Golden’s books are a great stepping off point for those new to binding as well as experienced binders. The good news is, she’s just published a book that incorporates bindings from her earlier ones plus a few new structures. I highly recommend her Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms. This is not to say that these are the only authors I’ve enjoyed and learned from. There are many other great choices, and it takes fortitude not to buy them all.
The next step on my bookbinding adventure was to join PaperWorks, an organization of people passionate about book and paper arts in Tucson, Arizona. I soon discovered that there was more to bookbinding than just creating imaginative and beautiful structures. There’s also the whole world of “artist books”. People sometimes argue about exactly what “artist books” are, but I think most would agree that they are works of art in themselves, with structure and content that work together and complement each other. Often they are one-of-a-kind, but some are limited editions. Just enter “artist books” in your online search engine, and you’ll be treated to a world of infinite creativity!
I soon became a workshop junkie and have studied with great binders and book artists like Karen Hanmer, Laura Wait, Sage Reynolds, Julie Chen and Daniel Kelm (search for them online, too). Those just whetted my appetite for more learning experiences, and I’ve attended the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, The New York Center for Book Arts, and the Garage Annex School in Massachusetts. I’m also lucky to have two great professional bookbinders living close to me, Mark Andersson and Priscilla Spitler. Both are excellent and generous teachers. I’ve now honed my skills enough that I teach workshops locally to pay for my own classes and my addiction to bookbinding tools.
If I’ve learned nothing else these past seven years, I’ve learned that one can spend a lifetime studying bookbinding and book arts! After all, bookbinding is a centuries-old craft, and it seems the advent of digital books has made people even more interested in keeping alive book forms that we can interact with on a more tactile level.
My love of binding has led me into other arts, too. One can only make so many blank books, so I’ve explored painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography as means for adding content to my books.
Themes that often inspire me concern world events or natural history. One example of the former is my book at http://tiny.cc/wonderbook. Still, book content has been my biggest challenge. I’m enthralled with book structures, and I’m never at a loss for a new one to try. So I tend to work backwards, from structure to content, as opposed to the way most book artists work. I experiment with a structure, making a variety of adaptations and models, waiting for the structure itself to suggest content to me.
For example, I’m intrigued with books that are made by folding and cutting one sheet of paper, without using adhesives or sewing. They’re great for making quick little journals when you’re traveling or small notebooks to carry in your purse or pocket. Experimenting with a one-sheet book structure led me to create the “Peace on Earth” book in my Etsy shop. I made a pop-up book that included phrases and symbols for the three major religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For me, using one piece of paper to to represent the three religions symbolized their evolution from a common patriarch, Abraham, and their worship of a common God. The cutting and folding represented their separation from their common bonds.
I like to think that my obsession with learning a variety of book structures is giving me a “vocabulary” for presenting any subject that might inspire me. To test that theory,I’m now challenging myself to make an artist book starting with the development of content, instead of my usual approach of starting with the structure. I’m waiting to see what structure my finished content suggests. I’m researching and writing about the subject, hoping a story will evolve. And I’m studying printmaking at our community college to learn different ways to reproduce text and images. I’m resisting the urge to decide at the outset that this book will be a scroll or a magic tablet or some other interesting structure, hoping instead that the words and pictures will tell me what THEY want! Stay tuned to my Etsy shop to see what happens.
Of course, sometimes I’m lucky, and someone asks me to make a book with content they provide. If you look at my Etsy shop, you’ll see examples of custom photo albums and memory books I’ve made using a variety of structures and personalized book cloth. I enjoy finding ways to match a beautiful book structure with the story a client wants to tell and the way the book will be used.
If anything I’ve said makes you curious to learn more about bookbinding, don’t hesitate to jump in and try it. Not only will you never be bored with the endless things you can learn and do, but you’ll meet some of the nicest and most generous people who also love books. And don’t let a fear of not being artistic enough, or good enough with your hands, to try making books! Both my academic training and work experience are a far cry from the art world. That just makes it especially gratifying to try something I never dreamed I would or could do.
If this has inspired you to try this art form for yourself, Mary Jane Henley has included free downloadable simple instructions with an illustration to practice with! You can download them here at http://tiny.cc/onesheetbook . Click “Download” at the top of the web gallery page to get instructions or you can directly email Mary Jane on her site.
To learn more about Mary Jane Henley and view her works please visit her Etsy Shop here:
Keith Smith’s Books
Alisa Golden’s Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms