Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Adventures in Bookbinding: The Birth of Big Pink

My interest in bookbinding began in high school.  I worked a few hours a week in a used bookstore, and I became fascinated with the construction of older books.  For a period of several months, I was certain my wonderful future life would be spent making amazing hand-bound books.  I would do it professionally, and I would be world-famous.  Unfortunately, I caught this bug in the 1970s, when the adults around me had no idea how anyone would learn such a thing and there was no internet for research.  The local library had nothing.  My youthful bookbinding career was over before it began.  

I caught the fever again several years ago.  I made a simple pamphlet.  Okay, that was easy.  Then, while pursuing other art forms, I began collecting old books for their interesting covers, and I put them in a box.  Every now and then I'd buy something bookbinding-related, an awl or some waxed linen thread, and it would go into a drawer. 

One day I noticed a lot of new books at the store.  Most of them were about altering existing books, and I needed to learn how to do that.   There was a project that had been kicking around in my head for years.  

Pages from The Book of Isaiah
The subject of my altered book, The Book of Isaiah, was a mysterious family document.  I now know quite a bit about a young boy who was briefly adopted by my great-great uncle, then was given back to his birth parents.  He had a difficult life and became a Jehovah's Witness, although the two are not always related.  The project was intense and emotional and fun while it lasted.  I'm glad I did it, but it took a lot out of me.  I have to be very inspired for a very long time to do something like this.  All in all, it took a month of constant work.  

I own these.
After getting this family-related altered book out of my system, what I wanted to do was actual bookbinding.  This time, thanks to the march of progress, I was able to find much more information.  I studied methods online and I purchased several books about how to make books (now there's a lucrative enterprise).  I read about how very difficult the coptic stitch is, to the point that people need to take classes, and "even then, I can't remember it. . . ." I strongly suspected that Coptic stitch was just a chain stitch, and that turned out to be right.  I amassed the needed supplies and tools. I stirred up my courage. I began.

Big Pink is Born

Meet Big Pink

Inside cover

For my first endeavor I decided to use an old children's book about nothing much, a library discard.  I cut off the spine, leaving enough cover to turn under and glue along the long edge.  I covered the insides, front and back, with crumpled brown paper bag material, stained and sealed.  After drying the covers under weight overnight, I began.

Showing the pages
I chose some high-quality ivory laser paper for the pages.  This was going to be a blank book, maybe a journal or what we old-timers call a diary.  This project was about construction.  I cut the paper instead of laboriously tearing it.  I doubt I will ever have the inclination to tear all the edges off 45 sheets of paper just to make it look arty, but I might.

The signatures
Then it was simply a matter of following instructions, carefully and thoughtfully.  I wasn't used to working with such a long length of thread in the needle - over 100 inches for this book - and I found it tedious.  The thread kept tangling, even though it was supposed to have been waxed, and I had to run it over beeswax a couple of times.  I had anticipated that maintaining the correct thread tension would be a chore, but it really wasn't, even without using a specialized frame.  I did all the work on my lap and on the table.  I found out very early that the holes I'd made with the awl weren't large enough.  I should have stopped and made them a little larger, but I resorted to force instead.  It worked out fine, but I hope I do the mature, responsible thing next time.  

I very much like the look of the midnight blue papers cradling every other signature.  I have a large collection of endpapers now, which I cut from books I was recycling or donating.  I used a piece of heavy vintage twill tape for the ribbons, and I wish I had more of that, because it behaved wonderfully.  

I was a nervous wreck throughout.  At one point I overheated so much that I had to rip my shirt off.  It felt bizarre to be half naked while working, but after a while the task pulled me in so far that I was unaware of my body or my surroundings.  

Showing the stitches
And it all turned out fine.  The coptic stitch is no big deal, and I discovered that I do not need the recommended curved needle, because I can just open the book and go between the appropriate signature and back again (this will make sense if you do it).  The "true kettle stitch" is a no-brainer.  Like so many things, the diagrams and instructions I read made the process seem much more complicated than it actually was.  

The end result is outrageously and overwhelmingly pleasing to me.  I love the color of the cover.  I made no attempt to repair the cover's worn edges, other than to color them black and dab them with sealant.  Big Pink is 180 pages of ivory-colored goodness, and I think it's beautiful.  If it were offered for sale, I'd buy it.  For me, that is the acid test.

I now have several books in the pipeline, and many more in my head.  At some point I'll start thinking about adding content.  There are so many formats I want to explore.  There are papers and threads and stamps and inks and all kinds of wonderful binding stitches.  I love all the possibilities, the variables, and it seems to me at this moment that the sky is the limit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The making of "Winter Bonsai"

Winter Bonsai
I have just come across my work, Winter Bonsai, in my files.  I think this will be the first in a series of posts about pieces I live with each day, but often fail to appreciate because I'm so familiar with them.  

Concept and creation are my main joys.  Then comes the challenge of the mechanics of a piece, the hows of putting a piece together.  Once it is complete, I am done on an emotional level as well as a practical one.  I am more impressed with my work when I see it online than when I see it in my home, because my home is such an ordinary context.  When displayed on my walls, on my bookcases, in cabinets and on tables, my work is part of every day.  I frequently fail to notice it at all, and have to go looking for it when something reminds me I once made it.  

Early in my purchasing life on Etsy I'd found a seller in Japan who had some lovely bisque heads for sale.  These are almost always painted (black hair, red lips) and then fired again, but for some reason this lot was available in its unfinished state.  I was amazed by their open-mouthed beauty.  I bought them.  

Fukushima3, detail
The heads were on sticks.  I put them all into a jar on top of a bookcase, and there they sat for a year or more.   I used a picture of several of them in a section of another piece, called Fukushima3.  ( I want to talk about that piece, too.  Soon.)  In that work I think the women are talking to each other.  I see them bleached of color by the nuclear disaster and their losses, purified by their communal strength of purpose.  I see strength and tranquility in their faces.  They are the three women of Fukushima, the Fukushima3.  

Winter Bonsai was not an intentional work, which is to say I didn't think of it before I made it.  It wanted to be made, and it drove its own creation. It was conceived in a fury of creativity, when I was "in the zone," working on several different pieces at once, as I usually do.  When I was looking an element for another project, my eye caught on the heavy metal machine housing that now forms the base of Winter Bonsai.  It sprouted many earth-colored electrical cords.  When I played with the cords they wanted to rise up in a clump, and that clump wanted to be supported.  Suddenly it looked like a very lithe and spare body.  I devised a rod that would keep the clump upright (bamboo, as it turned out), and then looked for the right head.  There was my collection of bisque Japanese women, waiting patiently to be put to some good use.

Of course it wasn't this easy or this quick.  I always ponder, consider and reconsider each decision.  I try things out to see if they'll work.  Then I scrap my final decision, which is often resurrected down the line. So the steps in the paragraph above might have taken hours or days, I don't remember.  The key is to let the process take as long as it needs to.  When I am stuck, it means I need to concentrate on something else, and I do. (This is one of the main things the how-to books don't tell you: things take time.) All the while, I listen to my inner voice, which says "that looks terrible," "wash your hands," "almost right," and "needs more black."  I need to stay focused on what I want to see when the project is finished.  Everything is about achieving that vision, no matter what it takes.

A rooted tangle.
After the base and head assembly were finished, the look was not complete.  It needed a further base, a kind of symbolic bonsai container.  I painted a wooden box lid in a red and black tortoiseshell approximation.  Then I went too far and became literal, trying to find exactly the right pebbles to fill the container.  Tiny gray ones?  Green shards?  When I talked myself out of that wrong-feeling idea, I realized the container needed nothing extra.  It was fine as it was, empty and displaying its underlying form.  Half of successful creation is knowing when to stop.  Maybe more than half.  As T.S. Eliot wrote in Ash Wednesday, "Teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still."  

Names for my work usually come easily to me, and this one did as well.  Although this has a bonsai shape, it is sparse, and spare.  It is all gnarly trunk and no foliage.  It is unclothed.  Therefore, a Winter Bonsai.  This bonsai conserves her strength and waits for spring.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Deathcakes - the worst craft idea ever

Craft mags and websites are desperate - absolutely slatheringly, rabidly desperate - for new craft ideas that don't require the crafter to possess any skills or creativity.  First it was counted cross stitch.  Then it was adult coloring books.  Now it's. . . .cupcakes made from spray foam insulation.  

He should be filling out online job applications.

"Faux food can be used to beautifully decorate a dining table or kitchen counter. Try making spray foam cupcakes. Place paper liners in an old cupcake tin. Carefully fill them with spray foam to create faux cupcakes. If desired, before the material dries, top each one with a faux cherry. Allow the fluff to dry completely before removing. If necessary, file or cut it away for perfectly shaped treats. The material is easy to sculpt. Paint the cupcakes with acrylic craft paint, and coat them with clear acrylic sealer. They will look good enough to eat."  --The Very Very Crafty Crafty Crafter

I have never decorated my counter.  Have you?  Where do I shop for faux cherries?  This stuff is not "fluff" and it doesn't "dry."  It's a pretty serious chemical compound that cures.  It should never be filed, because that causes fine particles to be airborne.  It is not easy to sculpt.  And God help you and your family if these abominations look good enough to eat.

Dow is one of the primary makers of spray foam insulation, although any company with a warehouse full of toxic chemicals has jumped on the foam wagon.  Here's what Dow recommends in regard to safety precautions when using their "Great Stuff" spray foam:
  • Shut off all pilot lights and sources of ignition, everywhere in the house.  That includes furnaces, water heaters, gas ovens, etc.  Tell your neighbors to do the same.
  • Do not get on skin.  You'll scream for hours if you do.
  • Use in well-ventilated areas.  Wear gloves, safety googles, and protective clothing.  Hold your breath while using.  
Mr. Smartypants in the photo above is doing everything wrong, obviously.  Here's what he should look like:

I hope no one out there in CraftWorld is making these Deathcakes.  If you are thinking about doing it, don't.  They won't look right, anyway.  Spray foam is notoriously difficult to control. It expands to 100 times its original volume in five seconds and cures instantly to the consistency of concrete.  It will engulf your grandmother's fine china in the blink of an eye, and it will encase the cat in seconds. As an added bonus, spray foam is the gift that keeps on giving, because its component chemicals have half lives of approximately a bazillion thirty years.  

Does that sound yummy to you?

Very crunchy cupcakes that take forever to swallow.   

Friday, April 15, 2016

It's in my underwear!

Once again, the superior technologies of companies like Monsanto and Dupont have identified our most pressing issues and have come to our rescue.  These brilliant scientists are always looking for ways to make life easier and more convenient for all of us. 

The mosquito problem

Oh, those pesky bitey critters, always making our lives so difficult! Sure, we attract them with the scents we use and we could probably get rid of them if we only didn't leave water lying around in puddles, but why should we make the effort?  Also, if we didn't use pesticides that killed birds, the birds would eat the mosquitoes, but we'd have to enact laws and so on, and who has time for all that eco stuff?

At one time we wore protective gear to at least keep the danged things out of our faces, especially in parts of the world where mosquitoes carry diseases and fevers.  But no one looks good under a net, it's hard to smoke a pipe that way, and we can't see the TV in that ridiculous costume.  Also, we would risk looking like terrorists.

Unimpressive package, Bill.
Thank goodness for the miracle of insecticidal clothing.  Specifically, underwear.  Shorts.  Briefs.  Even thongs.  That's right, one pair of specially-treated intimate wear will repel not only mosquitoes, but chiggers, fleas, ticks and white whales.  Their maker states the insecticide will be "active for up to 15 washes," which might be more than a year for some of you.  You are not to worry about the insecticides you're putting into our waste water, and you should definitely not think about the fact that chemicals which have been outlawed in Europe for over two decades are constantly rubbing against your tender naughty parts.  

Why not take a few minutes and investigate the wide range of clothing that is now permeated with exotic insecticides for your benefit?  Look for proprietary names like "Bug Ban" and "Zap Off," and please don't ask what harm they might do, because no one really knows for sure.  They work, and that's all you need to know.

Slippery, even when not wet

Yes, our old friend Teflon is once again in the spotlight, because it's not just for cookware anymore.  And those stainless steel pans you switched to won't protect you from contact with Teflon.  You guessed it - it's in your clothing.

Warning:  Do not google the term "Teflon" with safe search off, unless you want an eyeful.  The stuff is apparently used in the construction of artificial vaginas, for those who want them.  Say no more.  

Most of us grew up with Teflon, so it's probably too late for us anyway.  It's in the water, the soil, the air.  Earth will soon be the planet nothing sticks to.  At least we won't have to worry about meteor strikes.  

For those of you who are young enough to still have some chance of not developing Teflon-based tumors the size of goose eggs in your brain, the manufacturer has developed new products (besides those vaginas, which can't be sold in WalMart) to improve your difficult, tedious lives.  Teflon, along with the insecticides mentioned above, is now found in work clothes.  Many rugged-clothing websites are full of testimonials from laborers about how their wives were sure they'd gone to the bar again instead of the job because they came home so clean. 

The wearer slipped out.  
Teflon is incorporated into the extruded polymer threads of clothing now.  It is marketed under various names like "Slip-Gard," "SlideAway" and "ShedzAll."   Anything beats calling it Teflon, right?  Apparently it makes clothing more durable, less likely to tear or look worn after many wearings, and it makes it more washable.  That's right, you're washing Teflon into our drinking water right along with the insecticides, but never mind.  Its presence in the soil and water also helps to kill those pesky birds that crap everywhere, and we no longer need them to eat mosquitoes, so it's all good.

Amazing news! Teflon is now marketed in a convenient squeeze bottle.  Why not buy the keychain version, for when you encounter a balky lock or you need a little something-something late at night in your car, parked at the side of a lonely country road?  We understand, and we will never tell.

So, dear peeps, I leave you secure in the certainty that large corporations are continuing to look out for your interests.  I give you visions of Teflon vaginas slipping around inside insecticidal thongs.  The future is now.