My Day in Bindings, Part 1

September 10th was like an orgy of bindings.

I saw so many bindings and spoke to so many binders in one day; it was sensory overload. It has taken me days to recover.

I started out in Somerville at Sheri’s place (Sheri is my editor), met Sonya Sheats in Cambridge, took the T with her to Boston to see La couleur du vent at NBSS. Sonya has a binding (which she doesn’t like) in the exhibit, but hadn’t had a chance to see it yet (more on that exhibit later). We ran into NBSS binding program director Jeff Altepeter on his way back from a coffee run for Dominic Riley, who was teaching at the school last week. We had arrived just in time for Dominic’s informal lecture about his life in fine art bookbinding. What a nice surprise! Sonya and I were allowed to sit in.

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Continue reading “My Day in Bindings, Part 1”

Sonya Sheats

Sonya is French, but was raised primarily in the United States. Sonya became a bookbinder almost by accident. While working in her college library, a friend in the preservation department gave her a little tour. Thus, she became vaguely aware of binding, preservation, and conservation. After finishing college in the United States, she and her now husband decided to spend 4 months in Brittany. Casting about for an activity where they would be speaking French only, they managed to enroll in an over-subscribed two-week-long bookbinding course with Anne Vion, a well-known binder and teacher. Sonya was smitten. When the course was over, Anne asked Sonya to continue her studies. Working intensely side-by-side with Anne for the rest of her stay in France allowed Sonya to complete the requirements for the French diploma for bookbinding. It is my understanding that, in France, one cannot practice as a professional bookbinder without this certificate.

Sonya returned to France every summer to continue as Anne’s apprentice. During those ten years she was also teaching elementary school art (and, of course, binding on the side) A one-year sabbatical from teaching allowed Sonya to spend more time with Anne and study with master binders all over France and Belgium, learning new skills, honing her craft, and experimenting with unusual binding materials.

For more details, Erin Fletcher did a wonderful series on Sonya in her blog A Flash of the Hand.

Sonya is now a full-time binder. She teaches small classes (her bindery is tiny) and also teaches once a year at North Bennet Street School. I recently spent an afternoon with Sonya in her bindery, and observed some of her teaching at NBSS.

Sheats binderySonya at NBSS

I don’t think I could possibly spend enough time talking with Sonya and looking at her work. As far as I can tell, her training and work are so different from other bookbinders practicing in The Americas. As gorgeous as they are in photos, there are only hints of the true beauty and craftsmanship of her work. The subtlety of the materials and binding structures are apparent only in person.

Sonya is not only an extremely talented and accomplished binder, but she is also really fun. We had a truly hilarious conversation translating binding terms she knows only in French and correlating bookbinder-to-bookseller vocabulary. There was a lot of pointing, laughing, and note taking. Fortunately, I can read a colophon in French and can usually make my way through a French booksellers’ bibliographic description. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling with certain binding vocabulary in English; forget about French! I learned how to say airbrush in French: aérographe. We still have to work on leathers. How do you say ostrich shin in French?

Here is a sample of the wide variety of styles in which Sonya binds:

Sheats-PaperRad full Sheats-brevaire Sheats-vent

Adventures in Boston

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Hilarious Arthur Johnson binding spotted at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. Click for more information.

Homebound on the train from Boston, I thought about everything I’ve done and seen during the past week. The more I talk to binders, the more assumptions I didn’t realize I had are shattered. It’s wonderful! Break down my ignorance and build me up with knowledge. Bring it on!

On a related topic: I will be rewriting my Questions for Binders page as soon as possible.

I spent Monday afternoon with Sonya Sheats, all day Tuesday at the North Bennet Street School with Jeff Altepeter (I took terrible photos of some Polly Lada-Mocarski bindings and watched Sonya teach), and on Wednesday hung out with Jim Reid-Cunningham and the conservators at the Boston Athenaeum. We spent so much time in the conservation lab playing with Jim’s bindings and jabbering that there was no time for a tour. The Athenaeum was gutted and completely rebuilt since I interned there during library school (Fall of 1994?). I’ll take a tour another time.

Gavin Dovey was ubiquitous in absentia. I met Evan Knight in the Athenaeum lab. He worked in Gavin’s bindery, Paper Dragon Books, in Chelsea in 2006. I saw Uriel Cidor at the book fair. He is Gavin’s new I don’t know what. Assistant? Intern? Apprentice? Not sure. Everyone wanted to see the one piece of Gavin’s trade work my employers had with them at the book fair. He made it for a fragile, fan-freaking-tastic book. The binders all looked at the clamshell/slipcase combo and were suitably impressed by Gavin’s work, clearly redefining in their heads “trade” work. Then they looked at the book and pretty much said, “Oh. Cool.” That was the correct reaction.

Other binders I saw at the book fair: Abby Jones, Colin Urbina, and Erin Fletcher of A Flash of the Hand.

Next up: Sonya Sheats. You will feel even better about design binding once you know who she is and what she does.