My Artist’s Journey, Part 1: The Seed of the Idea

In the last part of the twentieth century, I was awarded a degree, an MFA. It was a most odd thing to me to be a ‘master’ of a fine art, especially at 25 or so years of age. In the great lens of hindsight, I recall the congratulatory remarks of my committee that were at odds with my own deeply buried feeling – for I never felt less masterful, less prepared or remotely qualified for the thing which was next on the list: Finding a job teaching art at the university level.

It has now been forty five years since I entered graduate school. At the time I had mounted one solo show, participated in several group shows and explored other areas of expression as well. My sketchbooks suggest that from entering college to completing grad school, I made about 1,200 drawings. Surely mere quantity qualified me for something?

Yet the seed that became my life’s work was planted almost accidentally during a conversation with an advisor earlier in graduate school. We were wrapping up a review when he saw my sketchbook and asked to look at it. He causally remarked that this is what I should be doing.

Most likely, he was referring to how he was publishing art books, monographs of his photographs and photoessays suggesting that I do the same — take my drawings, organize them and put them out in a published book.

What I heard was a far different and far clearer idea that hit me quickly and swirled in my mind — the full blown notion that I should make books myself. Intrigued by this nascent idea, I knew that before I could begin making my art into books, I needed to learn the craft of bookbinding. So when my teacher left in a powder blue Volkswagen, I immediately hiked to the campus bookstore.

Expecting that it would be a straightforward task, I purchased A. W. Lewis’ modest book called BASIC BOOKBINDING. The book might as well have been in Greek (I would later come to value this small book as highly informative). The craft language was so obscure the whole thing turned mighty disappointing. And nowhere did I find anything to inspire how drawing and books should come together. 

The content even seemed tangential to my direction as I had no interest in making library bindings, quarter leather bindings or doing repairs.

Early Exploration

While eager to begin, I needed to complete graduate school. And you can’t just pick up bookbinding by merely going out, buying some stuff and getting going. 

Woodworking is a vital, thriving craft – especially in the Pacific Northwest. So it’s easy to find both equipment and skilled craftsmen to learn from. If I had wanted to equip a printmaking shop, it could have been done with ease.

Yet bookbinding is a far less common craft. So learning required accumulating basic equipment by searching junk shops and antiquities firms for tools like presses. Learning also required hunting and gathering raw material for years from a single source in New York.

In theory, what I was seeking was very simple — the knowledge to make a book with a certain set of material parameters and a peculiar array of drawings.

Graduate school concluded in May of 1975 and for about five hours I was bewildered until I realized that I was free of all academic constraints. No one was there to tell me I was missing a requirement or had a meeting or thing to do. I was a free young man. 

Immediately after grad school I continued to work part time in my father’s hardware store, something I had done since age twelve. I also taught guitar lessons in two shops. So I went from student to a guy with three jobs. 

Seeking a career, I kept my determination to find a college post as I just did not believe what the universe kept telling me, even though the message was repeated: You will not find work. But, other than a job for a few months as an illustrator for the Yellow Pages, I have not held what would be termed a traditional position.

While I knew nothing of books and binding, the image of what I could make and what was possible was incredibly vivid. So during this time I started to attempt to make things – doing so to the best of my ability. Yet not understanding the underlying mechanics, my books didn’t work well. 

I was haunting bookstores for books on the topic and continued to find things to help the craft but none offered inspiration about how a book can be a work of art – the kind of book I wanted to see.

My journey continues here:  Part 2:  The Atlas

Copyright 2018 – Timothy C. Ely – All Rights Reserved


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