by Scott Kellar
PAPER BOUND: A Showcase of Contemporary Papermakers & Bookbinders, The Guild of Book Workers' exhibition which opened at Scripps College, Claremont, California, September 1, 1996, is an excellent example of how two related crafts can interact, merge and reflect upon each other.
The book itself, A Collection of Paper Samples from Hand Papermills in the United States, is the brain-child of Peter and Donna Thomas, of Santa Cruz, California, who convinced twenty-eight papermakers in the U.S. to produce two hundred sheets of a paper unique to their mill, along with a brief statement about their work. In 1993, the statements of each were printed on their paper and brought together as a book with an introduction and a title page, including a linoleum cut. The contributing papermakers and binders in this exhibition received the book in sheets, the rest being beautifully bound by the Thomases.
Peter and Donna also designed and produced the tasteful and elegant catalog (with binders' statements!) together with Laura Brown's great photography.
Credit is definitely due also to Peter Verheyen, Guild Exhibition Chairman, for organizing this exhibition and making it available over the Internet. It represents a third thematic traveling exhibition by the Guild of Book Workers, beginning with Bound to Vary in 1988, and Fine Printers Finely Bound Too in 1992.
The handmade papers themselves are exquisite and of evenly high quality. Some sparkles and splashes of bright pulp seemed to catch my eye as being often present, contrasted with some very subtle and suggestive earth-toned sheets. Considered all together, the inspiration, design and production of this book is a monumental achievement for Peter and Donna Thomas - I cannot even guess how they did such a beautiful job of letterpress on twenty-eight very different handmade sheets. Regretfully, I must leave a more extensive review of the individual papers and printing to others.
Undoubtedly, the creative imagination is challenged when confronted with a compilation of highly varied handmade paper samples that are printed with textual statements by each of the mills, easily read from back-to-front, front-to-back, or merely touched, viewed and enjoyed. Historical treatise? Artist book? Limited edition? Sample book? All of the above? I preface this review with these observations because understanding the uniqueness of this book is essential in understanding and enjoying PAPER BOUND.
On with the exhibition. The bindings range from design bindings to artists books, with metamorphoses of both. Creative perspiration is evident throughout. Recurring themes include the desire to present a sample book, to express the papermakers' craft, to present bookbinding structure using paper, to highlight the papers themselves, and to represent the mills that produced them. Some of the bindings appear more studied while others suggest playfulness. In general, I found my own pleasure drawn more toward the bindings that played with the paper and highlighted its unique and elusive qualities. Nancy Nitzberg's and Robin Howell's bindings seemed exceptionally successful in this regard. On the other hand, Jamie Kamph's and Gabrielle Fox Butler's design leather bindings were beautifully designed, executed and very appropriate as well. In a further direction, Barbara Korbel's mould-and-deckle motif was balanced and suggestive, without being overpowering. Only a couple of the artists (Catherine Burkhard, Giselle Simon) dove in and actually included graphic art on paper. The bindings overall impressed me with successful design application coming from very different perspectives.
It is difficult to be critical when one understands personally the energy that goes into each of these bindings. Less successful were attempts to make paper or leather appear to be other traditional materials, making them appear to be something other. When done only suggestively, it seemed to work better. Also, I found the word 'PAPER' on some of the bindings to be either too much of a central focus or an unnecessary redundancy. It's so hard to leave well enough alone! Being able to examine the bindings closely, I noted the design problems of binding a volume of relatively stiff folios in a functional manner. Some were better than others, but Jarmila Sobotova's meeting-guard sewn structure worked beautifully.
PAPER BOUND once again demonstrates the exploratory creativity that seems to exist in a unique way among American bookworkers. Perhaps the categorical separation of book -artists and book-binders is no longer helpful in creative work. While the collapsing of that division may make it more difficult to agree on standards of technical and aesthetic quality, it certainly is a lot of fun to wonder what will happen next.
This is an exhibition to be seen up close. Having viewed the digital images, then the photographs and finally the actual books, I was amazed at how much more looking at the books in non-virtual reality adds to the experience. I say this only to encourage those who have the opportunity to see the exhibition to make the effort to do so. Definitely get the catalog!
Scott Kellar is a bookbinder and conservator in Chicago, Ill.
Editor's Note: Copies of the catalog are available at each exhibition site, and through The Bookbinder's Warehouse, 31 Division St., Keyport , NJ 07735, tel: 908 264-0306; fax: 908 264-8266. $20 + $2 s&h. Online host site: The Guild of Book Workers Homepage.
The exhibition will be shown at Smith College, Northampton, Mass. from April 5 through June 15, 1997. It will be shown at Ohio University, Athens oh from July 1 to October 30, 1997.