Volume 20 - Autumn 2005


The Vended Book

by Jane Cheng

My biggest reservation about fine binding as a career has always been its inaccessibility. When a book sells for hundreds or thousands of dollars, I always wonder, will it really be read? Will someone really fill the pages of a precious blank book with writing, or will the buyer be afraid to touch it?

A summer spent making books for Artists In Cellophane's Art*o*mats has given me a chance to explore, if not answer, my own questions. Art*o*mats are retired cigarette vending machines that have been converted to vend art (artomat.org). For $5.00, "art collectors" pull a knob to receive work by one of about 400 artists, each with a column in an Art*o*mat somewhere in the country-they total 76, from Cincinnati's own, located at the ArtWorks Time Warner Gallery downtown, to one in the Whitney Museum in New York City.

I became an Art*o*mat artist through ArtWorks, an arts-based employment and job-training program for youth in the Greater Cincinnati area (artworkscincinnati.org). When the project came along I had been bookbinding for several years already, but with no formal training. My introduction to binding came from my mother, who apprenticed in Lausanne and trained as a fine bookbinder at the centro del bel libro in Switzerland, and taught me intermittently through my growing up. I always liked to read, write, and work with my hands, so bookbinding was a natural extension of these interests. As I got older, I started to think seriously about pursuing binding as a career, and so this summer the opportunity to become an Art*o*mat artist was a chance for me to practice on a small scale before continuing on to college. The venture became an apprenticeship with the generous collaboration of master bookbinder Gabrielle Fox, an internationally recognized miniature book specialist. Under her guidance, I committed myself to binding 80 small books during the course of the summer, at a projected pace of 1 book per hour.

To ensure the quality of each book under the quantitative pressure, we gave careful thought to the structures we could use. I made most books in editions of five or ten, with a different new structure for each edition. While Gabrielle taught most to me, I was able to make up a few structures myself. I also worked hard on the design of the books; my experience with photography and graphics led to some projects that contain my own content, or contents produced in collaboration with a friend. During the course of the summer, Gabrielle also helped me sharpen my own leather paring knife, enter a competition, and learn about new equipment. In return, I worked on her graphic identity and photographed some of her bindings.

The project had its difficulties. The hardest factor was time: Instead of one hour per book, I typically took two or three, and many more during the design stages. Few steps progressed as fast as I had planned, and I was unwilling to sacrifice time-consuming design work for efficiency. The repetitive tasks of mass production forced me to admit that five dollar accessibility comes at a real price. The thought and skills invested in a fine binding require a large amount of time, and the product is a book that recalls thousands of years of history as well as the binder's individual meditations on text and form. Essentially Art*o*mat books are a different genre altogether; even produced reasonably fast they must be treated as parts of a whole, and the design must speak the language of manufacture.

But there are 80 2.125x3.25" books in my bindery right now, and I can't help but feel proud. For each time that I discarded an imprecisely cut folio, or sat back down at the computer to find a way an idea could cohere, or re-sewed where the thread had broken-for each renewed effort is a small book, a piece of myself, and a preponderance of ideas and learning. I find my own projects becoming more efficient and more exact, thanks to Gabrielle's demonstrations and advice. I also find the books themselves appealing. Even if they took too long, they each fulfill many aspects of my expectations for design and craft. Each book individually forms a nicely proportioned unit, and together they are a body of work that I like, and that I have made myself.

Each of my books will sell for $5.00. I have yet to be convinced that money can be a measurement of time or learning, but because of the fixed price and the large number produced, a whole new venue has opened for hand (if not fine) bookbinding. I hope that these books will find themselves purchased by working people and children, by friends buying birthday presents, or curious passers-by who have never owned a piece of art. I hope that every one will be read or filled with writing, and enjoyed.

Jane Cheng will pursue her studies and craft this coming school year at Harvard College, where she will major in Art History while working in the Weissman Preservation Center for the archival conservation of books and works of art on paper. jcheng@fas.harvard.edu


Skin Deep - Volume 20 - Autumn 2005

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