The Best Compliment You Can Give a Bookbinder—and Yourself

April 29, 2009


Above: plein air watercolor and gouache landscape ©2008 Diane Wesman, created in a 4 x 3 inch (approx.) journal made with Strathmore Aquarius II 80 lb. watercolor paper. Sketch made with a black Uniball pen.

As a bookbinder one of the saddest things to see is a series of blank books on someone's shelf. The books' mass represents acquisitiveness, lost opportunities, stalled creativity, postponed engagement in the world and a hundred other sad things. It's frustrating to see. It's one of the reasons I started teaching journaling. I was very sneaky about it—I would have everyone make a book using paper I knew was perfect for the process I was teaching. Then, perfectly timed, when the books were completed we would USE THEM. No one went home without working in their book.

Yes there were actually screams from some people that the book was for Aunt Jo or some other relative. But I insisted. The class descriptions always announced we'd be working on journaling techniques; it must have appealed to people when they signed up, only now they were having second thoughts, and their internal critic was speaking up. Tough love—I pushed them through that last complaining wedge of resistance. And people went home happy. They were skilled enough to make another book for Aunt Jo and they had already dipped their toe, indeed splashed about, in the journaling stream.

When I sell books they go out with a little sticker that says: This book was handmade by Roz Stendahl. Use it; she'll make more.

Few things make me happier than to see what an artist has done in one of my books. I love when people come up to me and wave a book in my face. (I actually encourage past students to do this with new books they have made so that I can see that, yes, they are still making books. We all want to know that our work is having some sort of impact don't we? Mine leaves a paper trail.)

A great joy for me is to see what landscape artist Diane Wesman does in journals I've made. She gamely tries different papers and formats, but she is quite taken with small books. She pedals about the lake she lives on just north of St. Paul on her bicycle. She holds the book open on her handlebars so that it will dry before she gets to her next destination. Thinking about her toiling away in this fashion makes me indescribably happy. I'm not kidding myself that it's anything like a cure for cancer, but let's face it, I wasn't going to be the one to come up with that anyway. It is great to know that because of the blank book there is now a covered page, more art and beauty in the world.

Diane recently posted some landscape sketches made this spring in a book with Folio as the paper. Folio is a printmaking paper that I find takes watercolor and gouache work very well. It is a versatile sheet for mixed media. Jerry's Artarama and Talas both sell it. To see these spring sketches and read about her experiments with watercolors to find the variety of grays present in nature now, click here.

Not everyone is as skilled as Diane. You might wonder about how I feel when people fill books with less polished work. I think I would have to say I'm even more happy. Those folks are getting going on their artist journey and something I made gets to be part of that. That's a huge thrill. Remember I don't believe there are any bad pages!

So, if, for whatever reason, you find yourself facing a shelf full of blank journals that you have bought, or perhaps made yourself, take one down and start working in it. It's sort of like clapping for Tinkerbell. Somewhere a bookbinder will sit up a little straigher in his chair, trim the endsheets a little crisper, sew the signatures a little tighter, and take a healthy deep breath.

If you were the bookbinder, you'll find these things happening to you, all without the aid of a yoga class (though that's a good idea too; especially if you are going to bind your own books because it's hard work).

An object made for use must be used or it is hollow and empty, and not a little sad. You can start any time. It is the greatest compliment you can give the maker of that book. Sure, it was great you bought the book in the first place—that's a huge and gracious step towards supporting artists and craftsmen.

But you bought the book for yourself, for some inclination or twinge that played upon your consciousness. Pay yourself a compliment and use one of those books today. And again tomorrow. And again and again, until that shelf is filled with used books, worn at the corners, pages buckled from wet media—loved. Then make a book for yourself and enjoy the process all over again.

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    • Janine
    • April 29, 2009

    This is so true, Roz. I am a recovering art supply hoarder/stasher. The concept of “saving” special things or of “not ruining your good clothes” is deeply ingrained in many of us. A sad anecdote to illustrate. When I was young my family did not have a lot of money but my mother longed for a set of “good china.” She finally saved up and bought herself service for 12 (oy!) of Noritake Bird of Paradise. It was lovingly unpacked, washed and placed neatly in the cupboards. And that was where it remained… period. Not ONE TIME did my mom use those dishes, then at some point in the last few years, she offered to give me the entire set (complete with oval vegetable dishes and covered cassarole and two styles of gravy boat). Of course, I didn’t want them. I’ve never had a set of dishes that matched and that’s by choice. But I find it so very sad that she never got to enjoy the way those lovely plates and dishes and saucers would’ve looked out on the table, heaped with a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. So here’s to USING YOUR BEST STUFF and ENJOYING the process of doing it! I’m off to “ruin” some more paper now… 🙂

    • bill burrell
    • April 29, 2009

    Now you’ve done it. I am going to have to start making my own books. I have made a few primitive and very lumpy sketchbooks and just recently put together a watercolor book using the Circa Discs from Levenger. I can see now that the book binding bug is gnawing away at my soul and I am going have to bite back. I see so many beautiful books to covet and can see that the only way I can possess them is to create my own.
    thanks, bill b.

  1. Reply

    I’ve been wanting to try the Aquarius II since I read about it in one of your earlier posts. I found a bookbinder on Etsy who is willing to use it to make a journal for me. This post gives me more incentive to go ahead and try it out. If it’s good enough for Diane Wesman…

    • Roz
    • April 30, 2009

    Bill, you made my day. HURRAH. Another binder is born. You will love it. Check out the essential bookshelf for binders that I have in the PAGES section in the left column for a bunch of places to start with great instructions. Johnson and Watson are great and old-school. Golden and Doggett have some great variety. All the authors have some great instruction!

    Happy book binding!

    • Roz
    • April 30, 2009

    Katy, you go girl. Diane loves the paper for her ink and watercolor landscape sketches. To spare the expense of a book you might want to just try a sheet of the paper first, but if you like to jump in and really go for it then get that binder binding!!!

    • Diane Wesman
    • May 2, 2009

    The pleasure of having one of Roz’s journals is only exceeded by looking at it when it is full of paintings. Each time I reopen one of the journals and see what’s on the pages is like revisiting the site. Roz is right, a journal full of experiments, sketches and notes is wonderful–much better than an empty one.

  2. Reply

    Diane, you’re very kind. Full journals tell us much about our art, our lives, and all the little changes that are happening to both, even as we are unaware of the incremental changes. It is so great to have that. And when people have empty books, I think that’s part of the scarcity issue bobbing up. They aren’t letting themselves have this satisfying pleasure. Of course a bookbinder gets to share in that pleasure more than once, with her own life and the knowledge the books are being used! (I had to get another plug in for people making their own books, you know, it’s impossible for me not to.)

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