My Artist’s Journey, Part 3: Skills & Quality

By the early 1980s, I could clearly envision the kinds of books of images that I wanted to make.

Now it was time for serious ratcheting up of my skills at making books – so that their quality matched my own demanding vision of it.

Artist stories often omit this part – after all skilled making of things is somehow not “intellectual” enough in today’s world.

Yet success as an artist requires skills to bring what we see into reality and at a high quality. For me, my path required some rather arcane and rare skills – those in the ancient craft of bookbinding.

So in 1981 I applied for an NEA Visual Artists Fellowship grant then I carried on giving it no other thought. A few months later, a letter arrived telling me I was in serious consideration for the grant and needed to send either additional slides or a sample of work.

Slides are inadequate so I made a book from the ground up called POLAR PROJECTIONS. It took 5 days of intense effort and I mailed it off with fingers crossed. It was a beautiful book and is now in the collection of the New York Public Library.

Then…I received the grant. Plans were made. I bought a new guitar. And I took off for Japan

An opportunity arose and there was never a question of not going. Though Japan is only a brief side-trip for this story, the grant supported my time there. 

I had been teaching part time in Portland Oregon. Seems that Japan featured on the mental landscape in many conversations. My old friend Peter Fortune [1905-1988] had lived there for a  time.

My time in Japan put me in touch with the incredible history of art, craftsmanship, and thought that the Japanese people have honored through the centuries. I hung out in a Ninja house, visited papermakers and came home literally with a bale of paper and a ton of tools. I ate everything I was offered and was dazzled by it all. 

I picked up some quite fine brushes at a small shop my friend Peter Fortune had asked me to visit on his behalf. He had purchased materials there in the thirties. The shop was still there and run by another generation.

At the same time I began to prepare to go to England. So I wrote letters to Designer Bookbinders in London about connecting with a teacher. The late Lisa Von Clem, who was gracious beyond measure, responded with assurance that I would find a tutor.

This sympathetic connection linked me to two binders in England and in a short time I had a plane ticket and two teachers. Once there, I would pick up another teacher along the way. I was in England for a year, got my questions asked and adequately answered, obtained more tools and made friends for the remainder of my life.

I also met with resistance. The notion that I wanted to make entire, holistic books of my drawings was viewed with suspicion. It was weird. Very few in the bookbinding community of the time “got it” and fewer still seemed willing to accept it as a viable or useful direction. 

I also learned I had underestimated the quality of my books and embryo bindings. Through lack of experience, I struggled to evaluate them objectively – beyond sensing what bits were off. Some, it turns out, were not off by much. In fact, one well respected binder in London confronted me about a book I had made. In his opinion, I COULD NOT HAVE TAUGHT MYSELF TO DO THIS.

My bindings had kinks and still do; It is always a process of growth and paying attention. Each bit of work seems to inform the next bit. Like a musician playing scales, there’s always more to learn.

My 5 year self-immolating apprenticeship (I imposed an extreme discipline of exploration on myself) prior England was, in hindsight, a freaky and intense experience but a fine time of my life. By nature, I am prolific and I drew a ton of folios and bound a ton of books, made every possible mistake and had enough bindings that worked, that I rarely found myself frustrated. I was never bored.

And now, armed with improved skills in bookbinding, art history and the making of a proper Shepherds Pie, I was set up to move forward at a faster rate.

And, in the mix, I met Philip Smith.

Continued in:  My Artist’s Journey, Part 4:  Philip Smith

Copyright 2018 – Timothy C. Ely – All Rights Reserved

One comment

  1. Pingback: My Artist’s Journey, Part 2: The Atlas | A Planetary Collage -Timothy C. Ely

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