My studio was a mess and I couldn’t find anything. Pieces of driftwood lay scattered in different boxes. Cabinets held items I hadn’t looked at for months. Plastic containers were not labeled so I had little idea what they held. And items that should have been grouped together were scattered all over the place.
Chaos had taken over and the making of art slithered to a back seat…because I didn’t know what I had, or where it was. While the necessary job of cleaning up and organizing seemed onus at first, I soon took delight in the task because it became a treasure hunt. I discovered dandy pieces of wood that would great book covers. Bird and wasp nests (wasps feed on nectar and make ‘paper’ nests by mixing saliva and wood fibers) gave me new ideas for using in book art and art in a box. Misshapen pieces of driftwood offered endless possibilities.
It took a little over a week, before order gradually took over. Boxes were labeled and put on shelves. “Like-minded” items were put together and stored in a logical manner. Debris was blown out of the studio doors with my trusty leaf-blower. To free up counter space, I hung as many items as possible on nails pounded into the wall.
Yes, a studio is a place to make art, but it is also a sacred spot for artists. Or as Joseph Campbell says: “To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today… This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first, you may find nothing happens there. But, if you have a sacred place and use it, take advantage of it, something will happen.” (Joseph Campbell) .
My studio is a place for my spirit to breathe and it has be neat and organized for my spirit to truly breathe!
(Top photo shows before and after photos of my studio.)
What do we take from a burning home when we have minutes to escape? I recently sat on a plane next to a woman who faced that decision as the wind whipped one of the recent California fires in her direction and she had minutes to escape. She grabbed the two family pets and her children’s scrapbooks/photo albums. Those were her most priceless possessions. (Well, the cell phone was in her pocket.) That’s right, family photos. Because not all photos are on iCloud or on a thumb drive.
Looking at vintage or old family photos, make us laugh, make us wonder at what a relative’s life was “back then.” (“Oh my goodness, look at those cute button up shoes.”) Because we are curious, about a past that goes beyond our generation. And when as adults, we look at our childhood photos, it often jogs of our memory of the time, or place or event…and tells us stories that we often forget.
I recently reconnected with a cousin, the daughter of my mother’s sister, my Aunt Alice. Aunt Alice is now in her mid-nineties and had always been a favorite aunt.
I mentioned to my cousin that I had a number of photos from our moms’ childhood taken in the late 1920’s and 30’s and promised to email them to her once I returned home–a promise I kept. Her mom was ecstatic when she saw them on the computer screen as she had never seen them at all. But vintage photos on a computer screen? Shouldn’t they be in a book? This is a woman in her mid nineties, staring at a computer screen at photos which provided a tangible link to her childhood. No, she deserved a book with those photos. She needed to have the luxury of turning the page and stopping to stare at a photo.
Since I’m a book artist, I decided to make her a small photo book with her childhood photos. I used a book binding technique, called “drum leaf binding,” the construction of which is somewhat similar to child’s board book. It allows me to assemble a few photos in a easy to open format.
I’m getting ready to mail the book to her daughter and she will give it to her mother. I hope my aunt will enjoy looking at the book as much as I enjoyed making it.
See a video of the book on instagram: judyfolkenbergart
There are millions of images on the internet, and sometimes we want to share a few of those with friends. I sent the two photos above of a rescued man with his kitten during Hurricane Florence (North Carolina) to my girlfriend, as I thought she would be as touched as I was. A third grade teacher, at a K-8 STEM School in Seattle, Ms Kathryn Show was so affected that she took the photos to school and showed them to her students, who seemed mesmerized by the images. So she asked them to write a story based on the photos and ended up with 24 great realistic fiction stories written by a bunch of eight year olds.
Realistic fiction, or fiction based on a true story, is a difficult concept for third graders to grasp, she said. Students often mix in elements of fantasy. The sequence of events is often out of order, and there are huge gaps in time. “In the past, stories might start out about one thing, but then fantastically the character would turn into something else, and sail around the world in 2 days, before falling in a hole in the middle of the earth,” she said.
“My students have so little experience with real tragedies and so much of entertainment that they are exposed to on a daily basis is filled with fantastical feats by superheros. ”
The students immediately empathized with the man’s plight, said Ms. Show. They kept asking questions about the man and the cat in the photo. Does the cat belong to the man? Whose boat are they in? Is a hurricane like tornado? Why is there water everywhere? They wanted to know if he made it to safety. And they were so worried about the fate of the kitten. “And all of sudden I got this idea,” she said.
She realized she had a true story represented by the photos. There was a real setting, real characters, and an actual event– the hurricane. What better way to foster their imagination into wondering what happened before the boat rescue and what might have happened afterward, said Ms. Show. “I think seeing a photo of two real participants in the storm, and having some background info about what a hurricane can do to a town, helped them stay “real” and not suddenly lurch into fantasy,” she added.
She and the students brainstormed as to where the man and his kitten might have been when the storm began, how they might have gotten stranded, and how long they waited in the flood waters before a boat rescued them. “I gave the man a name but not the cat. I thought out loud about how they might have been doing one thing or another as the storm struck their town,” she added, telling them to use their imaginations to come up with valid scenarios.
The two photos helped the students “stay on track” and prompted them to think in a logical way and to stay focused.
She asked her students to adhere to a simple outline, where there’s a beginning, and couple of steps before the end. “But the photos helped enormously with giving them a structure to follow,” she said.
“My students were amazing. They often “showed” rather than just telling the story. For example, here’s what one wrote: “Then they got to the second floor of their home and looked out the window. Garbage cans were flying through air. The winds were so hard shingols flew of off the roofs. A refridgerator flew out of someones home and against their door, they were locked in! After they climbed out of their window, and on their roof. Spots the kitten meee-awed aloud meaw over and over and over again. Finally, someone came to rescue them….Jo, the man, tucked Spots in his coat…
Another student wrote how, “They saw garbage cans flying like airplanes! They saw roofing of houses flying like black birds.” And went on to describe how Able (the man) “had…an apple and a bagle and cat food for Ningie (the cat’s name).
Some of them could only write a few sentences. One writer told how the man and cat got rescued, taken to a hotel, got in a taxi, and flew to Seattle where they bought a house and lived happily with no more sadness. Others were able to keep the man and cat in the same area and ended the story with them getting to a safe place. Another student ended the story by saying the owner put the kitten “in his jacket and they were happy.”
Students also illustrated the cover of their stories. “I thought their illustrations would have made any artist proud…they were imaginative and original,” said Ms. Show.
“It’s like herding cats to get 24 kids to write a story, including revising and editing within a 2-3 week time period. They only have enough stamina to write about 20-30 minutes a day, since they have to keep up with their other assignments. But all of them finished their stories,” she said.
Upon completion, they read their stories aloud to each other in groups of four. “They were so excited to read to each other, that I had to guide them in how to listen and respond to each other,” said Ms. Show.
Ms. Show also featured six stories each week, placing them in folders to be read during independent reading hour. The students eagerly read them often laughing out loud over the funny parts.
“The photos were so powerful that I think my students wanted to reach out and touch the man and his cat, and let them know that they also felt the anxiety he must have been feeling,” said Ms. Show.
Stories are often told through images. But more often than not, it’s only part of the story and we are left to wonder about the whole story. Leave it to a class of third graders, who had never written fiction that made sense, to use their imagination and came up with a complete story–a beginning, a middle, and in most cases, a happy ending.
The photos at the top of this blog post, were taken by Andrew Carter, a reporter for the North Carolina News & Observer.
Digital books be damned, because it seems that everyone wants to make their own book, by hand, these days. I’ve taught fifth graders how to make books and also a class of adults in Culpepper, Virginia. I’ve helped college students, who deserted their cell phones long enough to hand-bind books of their own writings. And they hugged them close to their chest as they left the studio because physical books feel good to hold. (See top photo of University of Maryland students holding the books they’ve bound of their writings.)
So here’s the good news: Anyone can easily make a book, even you. And you have the 15th century to thank. Back then a simple and and easily bound book was called a “chapbook.” Today it’s called a “zine.” (Zine comes from the last four letters of “magazine” or “fanzine”)
But first, here’s a brief history: Chap books were sold by chapmen (hence the name chapbook) on street corners, door to door, or at countryside markets and fairs in Europe. People were just starting to read, so they were eagerly sought. The books were usually folded into 8,12,16, or 24 pages, and made of such poor quality paper that the pages might be used as a toilet paper when the reader was finished. Subject matter included, almanacs, folk takes, ballads and popular songs, political and religious tracts, bawdy tales, and moral instruction.
Zines are frequently irreverant and counterculture, concentrating on anything from punk rock to pez dispensers, or from feminism to other political subjects or cartoons. They are often deeply personal, and one rarely makes money from them. Yet, individuals keep making them!
Both chapbooks and zines are simple to make. You simply nest four or five folded pages and attach (either using a stapler, or needle and thread and a binding method called the “pamphlet stitch”) to a heavier piece of paper for the cover.
And why do people get such a kick out of making their own books. I asked Johnna Schmidt of the University of Maryland, who directs a two year creative writing residential program there–mostly for upper classman. During their last semester they learn how to simply bind a book of their own writings.
“The experience of curating your best work in order to make a book…is a real act of commitment. I think it sharpens for people their idea of who they are and what is important to them… A book that you have hand-made inevitably becomes a sacred object, ” she says.
The concept of a book as a sacred object is not new. During medieval times large portions of the population were becoming literate so books were very much desired, but were also expensive. What’s a library to do to keep books from being stolen, yet allow the community access to them? The solution was simple: Chain the books to a railing. Some of these libraries still exist. Yet despite these extreme measures, keys to the front door were often give to the town canons or monks, and sometimes to the townspeople so they could have easy access to library. Books were sacred but the town fathers also wanted to give the community access to these chained books.
There are a number of artists I’m admire, but that are also dead. Yet I sometimes imagine us making art together…maybe as apprentice, or even as an equal. Well this dream can come true. Because artists leave a body of work, that I can incorporate into my own art (as long as the copyright has run out). British-born Eadweard Muybridge, who laid the foundation for modern cinema and died over a 100 years ago, and I make art together.
Eadweard Muybridge, initially earned his fame for taking spectacular photos of the American west in the late 1800’s. But he was best known for his photos of animal locomotion done at the University of Pennsylvania. Leland Stanford (businessman, former governor of California, race horse owner, and founder of Stanford University) served as a catalyst in 1872, when he hired Muybridge to photograph his galloping horses. He wanted to know if all four feet of the horse left the ground at once (Stanford also hoped the photos might tell him how to breed a faster race horse, much to his rivals’ unhappiness.)
Muybridge wired 24 still cameras along a race track, and as the galloping horses passed by, the shutters were clicked on the cameras. Muybridge obtained a photographic record of successive phases in the horse’s motion and, discovered that all four hooves left the ground at once when the horse reached a gallop.
Muybridge’s motion photography for Leland Stanford excited some wealthy east coast citizens and came to the attention of the University of Pennsylvania and the famous American artist, Thomas Eakins in the 1880’s. They invited him to their city to continue his motion photography—providing him with grant money and an outdoor studio on the grounds of the University veterinary hospital. Animals from the local zoo served as his models. The resulting photos were published in an epic portfolio, titled, Animal Locomotion.
But Muybridge nearly sabotaged his artistic career. It seems his personal life warranted as much attention as his professional life. At middle-age he married a pretty, younger wife, but was frequently absent from home. He soon discovered that his wife was having an affair with Harry Larkyns, a San Francisco theatre critic. In 1874. Muybridge discovered that Larkyns had gone to Calistoga, a small town in Napa Valley north of San Francisco, and made the six hour journey by ferry and train. He found Larkyns playing cribbage (shouldn’t they have been playing poker?) and shot him in the chest just below the left nipple. Larkyns staggered outdoors and died under an oak tree.
Arrested and jailed for the murder, Muybridge soon stood trial. (His wealthy patron, Leland Stanford, paid the lawyer’s bills.) A sympathetic jury came back with a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” Adultery was a far greater crime than the murder of a man who seduced someone else’s wife.
What goes around comes around. Muybridge delighted audiences back then with his motion photos of animals walking and running across a University of Pennsylvania courtyard and laid the foundation for modern movies. And I came along and found his photos so enchanting that I “repurposed” them making art books with an accordion style form of binding. I hope that today’s viewer will get as much delight as I did out of seeing the rear end of a large elephant walking away from the camera lifting one large hoof after another and flicking his tail in my accordion style book.
“It is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them.” Walt Whitman
Culpepper, Virginia: I’m heading down Route 29 to a small town, Culpepper, in Virginia about a couple of hours south of Washington DC. to teach a book binding course. It’s one of those sunny winter days, where the brightness makes you think it’s warm, and then you open the car door…and realize that it’s darn cold out there.
I don’t know much about Culpepper, but it was supposed to be pretty important during the American Civil War. And so it was. Situated on a railway line, halfway between Richmond, the rebel capital, and Wash. DC, Union headquarters, Culpepper became one of the most desired properties during the Civil war. Both armies wanted Culpepper, and the small town played “host” to each side some 80 times as they were occupied by one or the other army. During a five month occupation by union soldiers, every tree was cut down for fuel. Today, there is no tree older than 150 years in the county.
Clara Barton got her start here as a nurse, and she and poet Walt Whitman tirelessly nursed wounded soldiers. It seems that George Custer also got his start here in Culpepper. He had graduated dead last from his class at West Point amassing a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy. Without the Civil War, he probably would have been kicked out of West Point. But the Union Army was desperate for officers so assigned him to Culpepper. One day Custer attempted to stop a train taking supplies to the south and was shot in the leg by a rebel soldier, who then shot and killed his horse.
Of course Custer was later killed in his battle against the Sioux Indians at Little Bighorn, and one can only wonder what would have happened if the rebel soldier had shot and killed Custer rather than his horse.
We arrive in Culpepper, a charming Virginia town with a lovely historic district, fine restaurants, and the only remnant of the Civil War are trees no older than 150 years.
The railroad that was fought so bitterly over, is now an Amtrak station–although an Amtrak station with a local historian sitting at a desk. My friend and fellow book binder, Linda, and I are shown to our room, by our hostess who runs “Artful Conversations” one evening a month and owns several businesses in the town.
There’s cocktails before the 45 minute lecture, and a gourmet meal afterwards. We are doing things a bit differently tonight. I will talk for about a 10 minutes, and then will teach the class how to bind two chap books (a book that got its start in the 1500’s) to take home with them.
And what a lovely time we had. All the students are passionate about books and talk about how their children and grandchildren love “real” books. They catch on very quickly on how to bind the two books and exclaim over their handiwork. Because as Walt Whitman said, all of us contain something of the artist in ourselves
During our gourmet meal afterwards, the conversation ranges all over the place; from 9/11, to truckers who now move the majority of goods all over the United States. It ranges from the battle of New Orleans and the British invasion there, and how one of the guests got locked in the Taj Mahal overnight when she traveled to India as a young woman. It seems that people who are passionate about books are also good conversationalists.
As the evening ends, one of the guests asks about the recipe for a white pizza hors d’oeuvre we had eaten. The dough was indescribably delicious. Our hostess smiles and says she found the recipe in an old Italian recipe book that she bought at a second hand book store.
To be frank, the black and white photos aren’t very good. They were taken by my father in the late 1940’s of a place where I later camped as a child, the most beautiful place in the world: Yosemite, California. I never called Yosemite, “the most beautiful place in the world,” because children don’t talk that way. You just know that somehow certain places are special–and you carry that knowledge into adulthood.
My brother, parents, and I camped in an army green tent with a peaked roof and an entrance with a tied back flap under tall ponderosa pines whose needles littered the forest floor; the sweet smell drifting through the air. We swam in the cold, pure waters with Yosemite Falls as our background. And we ate our supper in the clean sharp air from plastic sectioned plates usually with a breeze that drifted through the campground and across the water. The days were hot and lazy, a golden wonder; the nights chilly, as we snuggled in our army green sleeping bags on wooden cots.
Unfortunately that was then and the now has changed. I haven’t been back to Yosemite since I was seven years old. I understand too many humans clog its natural pathways. It’s expensive to get through the gates, it’s probably noisy, and it’s become far too popular a place to visit. I’ve been told there’s a theme park whiff about it. And, of course we all know, “you can’t go home again.”
You Can’t Go Home Again is the title of Thomas Wolff’s famous novel where the protagonist realizes that he can’t relive his youthful memories or go back home to the way things used to be. And the phrase is used tirelessly to explain how you can’t revisit the past. After all, the truth about childhood places is elusive and probably should be remembered with caution; like a girl’s first love we pick and choose what we want to relive
But what most people don’t realize, is that despite the title of the novel, there’s another quote the protagonist makes, which is not so well-known: “But…why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter… All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”
So, one day I will go home again. I will go back to Yosemite. But until that happens I can do something else. I can preserve that time as a child through my art. I’m a book artist. I will make small books (known as “chap books,” and the format has been around since the 1500’s) that feature my dad’s photos of Yosemite. Because even though they “aren’t very good,” there’s really no such thing as a bad photograph of Yosemite.
A friend once said that love and art are crap shoots. You take your chances, weigh your odds, and hope for success. And it seems that in art, a piece more often than not, doesn’t turn out that way you expect and sometimes the results can be pretty awful.
But awful results are just fine–although it took me quite a while to accept that. “It’s all a part of the process,” they say, a phrase I dislike and which by now has become a cliche. And, ” you learn from your mistakes,” another phrase I dislike, but which is sometimes true. (Sometimes you don’t learn from your mistakes.)
But I like to gamble and what better way to fulfill my risk taking behavior than to make art or write. The odds are often against me for any kind of quick success, but still I plunge ahead…figuring it’s worth the risk.
A number of my ideas for art pieces come from seeing photos of other’s people’s art. I use that photo as a jumping off point to make my own piece. Sometime ago, I saw a photo that combined torn paper with wood. I love combining paper and wood and spent several hours hand-tearing the colored paper, punching the holes and getting it just right. But when I put it all together, it sucked. I tried it another way of assembling the piece and it still look awful. I huffed and I puffed and nothing happened.
So how do I change my odds? What I did, was to make another piece that combined paper and wood, and in short order it turned out great. Ironically, I didn’t even fuss or fret over the piece, and the whole gamble proceeded quite smoothly. You can see the result in the top photo of this blog post.
It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; you just have to play hand after hand in the art game to increase your odds of getting what you want. Because we don’t get it right, until we get it wrong.
Tools allow us to be artists. They give us the freedom to take that imaginary creation in our mind and turn it into an actual piece of art to be seen by others.
I can’t punch holes with my bare fingers–or my teeth. I can’t cut paper with my hands. Without rulers and straight edges, my art would look crooked and sloppy. If I didn’t have book presses or weights, I’d have to sit on my books to get them to form nicely. I collect tools, hoard them, and selfishly guard them. I do not lend them to other book artists!
Here is a partial list of the tools I use:
Awls and Bonefolders: I’ve got to punch holes in the pages of books in order to sew them. Awls have been around for hundreds of years; monks used them to make holes in their manuscripts; Venetian (Venice was the early capital of publishing and bookbinding) bookbinders used them and all we 21st century book binders use them. Little has changed in the technology. A sharp implement embedded in wood does the job.
Bonefolders: These tools make clean creases and score the pages. I also use them to burnish the paper once it has been glued to the book binders board. Bonefolders also help spread the glue, and get any wrinkles out of the paper that might have resulted from the gluing. They are usually made out of, surprise, animal bones. Teflon now seems to be the material of choice. Sharp creases are important in making books and I love running my folders down the paper to get a clean crease.
Paper Cutters: These machines are the most expensive of my tools. My two large ones, a Kutrimmer made in Germany, is known as a board and and paper cutter. I also have a guillotine paper cutter (a Dahl, made in the USA) which can cut through stacks of paper and binder’s board. To keep the blades sharp (and yes, they can hack a finger off) I have them hand-sharpened by specialist.
Weights and Book Presses: I can’t seem to stop buying weights. We need these objects to keep binder’s board from buckling, to make sure book covers close properly, and to add that finishing touch. I have loads of them. My favorites, though, made by girlfriend’s mother, are tapestry covered bricks. You can’t go wrong with a brick as a weighty object.
Book presses perform the same task. The large wooden one (the right one in the photo) was made by an Italian man who ran a book binding studio in Virginia. During the day he would play Italian opera music while his employees worked. A former employee told me that it was the most enchanting place to work. The more funky press (left in the photo) is a 1930’s textbook press. It squeaks when I turn the large handle at the top.
Other Devices: Cradles help you make a hole exactly in the fold of the paper. They help me be more precise in my work. A corner cutter, takes square corners and rounds them. I only use with soft (paper) covers. Rulers and straight edges are invaluable. They help make my art more precise, and let me run an exacto knife down the straight edge for precise cuts. Scissors and paintbrushes need no explanation.
“The practice of art isn’t to make isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow,” said Kurt Vonnegut. Good tools help me practice my art–and nurture my soul.
(For this blog post I welcome guest blogger, TeddyBoy Sinclair, my tuxedo cat, who will set the record straight on a number of misconceptions about Christmas.)
Around this time each year (winter), humans like to retell a story about an infant born in a stable on a pile of straw surrounded by cows, horses, and donkeys in some far off country. And today humans celebrate this event with food, gifts that sparkle, lights that pierce the darkness, and other stuff. They call it, “Christmas,” and it supposedly celebrates the birth of this human child, named Jesus.
This story was published in a book, called the Bible, and the authors left out some very important details, plus they got the date wrong. I feel it’s my job to set the record straight.
First off, it was some of my feline ancestors, the stable cats, who helped keep the baby Jesus warm. Forget the donkeys, goats, and sheep who were all too self-absorbed in eating and too big to cuddle with a baby in a manger. It was the kitty cats that kept him warm–and even played with him.
Another omission from the baby Jesus story includes the gifts that the cats gave to the baby, and his parents, Mary and Joseph. A whole lot of hullabaloo has been paid to three wise men who traveled some distance to bring gifts of gold, myrrha and frankensence (obviously, they forgot the catnip) to the new baby. But it was the stable cats who caught some mice and presented these rodents as gifts to his parents so they wouldn’t starve. As far as I know you can’t eat gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Cats also played a very important role in helping the parents escape the edict of baby-killer Herod, who ordered the death of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two. The 3 wise men apparently spilled the beans when they asked for directions from Herod’s court to visit a child who would one day be king and wanted to pay him homage. Herod was very threatened by this future king (he apparently had Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and issued this order of murder for all young human lads of a certain age. The cats warned the parents about Herod’s evil intentions and guided the parents to safety along a secret trail known only to felines.
And allow me to correct one chronological mistake. The baby Jesus was most likely born in the spring, not in December, so it’s unclear why his birthday is celebrated December 25. But hey, December 25 is a pagan holiday where there used to be lots of drinking, and wild dancing to chase the winter chill away, so why not celebrate a cute baby’s birth during this day. But for the record, the humans got the date wrong.
So humans, celebrate this December 25 holiday by spending time with your loved ones (both animal and human), eating good food, drinking, dancing, singing, and a warm fire (except in California where you should celebrate by embracing water).
Celebrate the winter darkness which will bring back the longer days of light. For without the darkness, we cannot fully appreciate the light.