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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

umbrella on line

ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 29, No. 2, Jun 2006

Lessons in Bookbinding - Fabrication

I am a book artist. I make a living by trade hand book binding. Five years ago I opened up a shop front on Melrose, allowing anyone in and taking on whatever came through the door. When I first opened the shop, most of my business was book repair. Now, with the awareness of book art, many artists in various mediums are coming to me to make books for their art, and this has become a large part of my business.

As a trade binder, I produce many bindings for these artists, simple portfolios, basic case bindings and the like. Being a book artist, I always want to make the piece something a bit more special, as I have the skill and capabilities to do so. My motto being, ‘Bring me a bag of leaves, I’ll bind them.” At the end of the job, I am happy to get paid and I never ask for accreditation.

I have lately been running into situations that quite frankly piss me off, concerning artists that I have worked closely with over the past few years. I have been noticing that my binding work for them is being shown in galleries, in print and purchased by museums. When I asked why I was not given accreditation for any of my work, I was told that I was a fabricator and fabricators do not get accreditation, and this is common practice in the art world.

The signs had been there. I remember having conversations where an artist had said not to make the book look like book art, but my latest binding for the artist was admired by the artist for looking like sculpture. So, if I am making sculpture, I am a fabricator.

I remember 30 years ago looking at a Kitty Maryatt book and saying, that’s not a book, that is a sculpture. I was not yet educated in book arts, and people who are not will make the same mistake. Sculpture defines the space surrounding and book art expands the space within. The two may cross mediums, but they are not the same in application.

I’ve looked up the definitions of fabrication, framework, manufactor and manufacture, including artisan. The definition of book art gets confusing, but I am not confused about what I do all day. I make beautiful things. I bind art; thoughts; ideas. I am good at what I do, I have confidence in that and I work in a silent collaborative world.

Calling a bookbinder a fabricator is pushing the envelope; calling a book artist a fabricator is pitiful. It is ruthless. It has no integrity. Books in general are works of collaboration. To make a book, many crafts and professions are involved whether it is hand bound or machine bound.

I see a hand bookbinder as a mediator. They take the book form and collaborate with other art forms or artists, to make a unique book. What a unique book is, I am not up to making stellar judgments, in this instance, I mean a one off book, that when looked at is seen as a piece of art (book art). Instead of just paper, the paper choice is studied, instead of just flat ink there is dimension, the illustrations original, instead of plain cloth over boards, the whole piece is considered and the boards may not be boards, they may be kites. The process is discussed and prototyped, dissected and put back together. There is not a true monetary value can be put on the work involved. The collaborators can be paid, they can be paid well, but the monies will never equal their intrinsic value.

I have been dismissed from further services by one of my customers because of my questions about fabrication and collaboration with my peers in an open forum, not for my work. How very strange. I have gained some insight to what it is I do through asking these questions, which is good, and I’m not as naive as I was, but I can only laugh. Life is too short and I have a lot of leaves to bind.

— Charlene Matthews

Ed. note: Charlene Matthews resides and works in Los Angeles and has a thriving binding business. She is known to collaborate with artists in their book projects. bindery@sbcglobal.net