Claudia’s studio was perched in a corner of the second floor of a rickety old nineteenth-century mill that had been converted into artists’ spaces.
It took up a double city block in the crusty New England hamlet of Easthampton, Massachusetts. You could wander around the building for hours, peering into studios and wondering what kinds of production lay hidden behind closed doors. The utility sinks in the hallways were scuffed and stained from years of paint, dye, and glazes scrubbed off hands and elbows and tools. Behind one door, a potter pressed dried leaves into sheaves of clay. Down the hall, a fashion designer commandeered a room full of machinists making handbags. There were other bookbinders, like us, but with their own niche; one worked with metal plates and hinges, another did one-of-a-kinds and made her own paper. On the bottom floor, the glass blowers’ molten wads inflated to airy bubbles, their metal poles suspended over the ribbed metal ramps that slanted into the parking lot.
Beyond the wide berth of the building, the Oxbow River bent around a ragged edge of forest, an elbow of blue under the sky.
At Claudia’s we made books from paper and cloth and leather and thread. We flipped folios with clean fingertips and stitched them together with long lines of linen run through beeswax. We slicked them flat with a smooth file of bone held in the palm. We hummed along to Afro-pop on the radio. We broke for lunch at noon.
Claudia’s studio was a corner on the second floor, with dusty factory windows and long work tables. The floorboards were uneven as a buckling pier, splintery ridges encrusted with old dog-eared clips of linen, pared leather, and lumps of glue. Shelves lined the walls stuffed with bolts of binders’ fabric. Rolls of leather with scrappy, irregular edges in bright colors slung out from the racks as if trying half-heartedly to escape.
The dyed leather was used for the covers of deluxe editions. Having enough of one color was part of the problem-solving. Editions required consistency, and with hand-dyed skins, we scrutinized the shades at hand and selected them to match with near perfection. Each buttery skin was fitted for maximum usage with as little scrap left over as one could manage. The strategy was to place the board template just square to the edge of the last traced rectangle, avoiding the calloused crescent around a stray bone hole. Before you traced, you had to be sure your territory was without any blemish or meaty thickness. And we always made several extra—some would get wrecked under the pairing blade and others discarded if the tooling went crooked.
Claudia liked to tease me about how much I’d sigh during the workday. I’d zone out to the cobwebs dancing in the breeze or close my eyes to the sunlight breaking through the windows, the smell of beeswax warmed in the palm and the smoothness of the bone folder against my thumb. Then I’d snap out of it and unknowingly expel a huge exhale. Mostly my thoughts were straying to why. Why was I here, not just in Claudia’s workspace, but in this life, in this body, in this mind? Maybe these are the thoughts that preoccupy the minds of most new adults, but I struggled to reconcile my existential wonderings with the daily tasks of living. Newly out of college, I was taking both an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic. I felt split, bent, cockled as the books I fished out of the bathtub at night, when I roused, suddenly, to find myself in water. In bed I rolled like a bolt of leather in Claudia’s storage shelves and did not dream. Each morning I got in the car and drove a flat ribbon of country road to the studio. If I passed a deer, a wild turkey, or an eagle soaring overhead, I hardly noticed.
A well-bound book is exactly the same width at the spine as it is at the edge. You have to accommodate for the thickness of the thread in the way you design the binding. Do it sloppy and the book bows out at the edge in a V or sags pigeon-toed from the spine. It needs to be straight-backed, with an even integrity, a weightless flip of pages, square, solid, light and luminous.
An edition might be twenty, or thirty-two. Or any number, really. One. Sometimes it was just one.
Barry Moser’s bible was an edition of four hundred. That was why I had a job. All in all, it was close to a thousand bound books we made: eight hundred vellum-bound editions plus one hundred deluxe editions, with a lot of extras in production in case damage occurred at any step. Claudia had to hire three extra assistants for the bible project. Lisa and Alice and I joined Marc, her long-time apprentice. The five of us spent long days folding and pressing and stitching.
Each bible was a two-volume mammoth bound in goat vellum stamped with gilt lettering in a buckram box. The vellum was white and the pages were white with a soft deckle; even the binding tabs were white, horny and pocked with tiny pores on one side, soft leather fuzz on the other. Everything in it was white except for the ink, which was black, with the occasional bright red heading letter. The paper was handmade in Texas, letterpress printed, sent to the artist for the wood engravings to be printed, then on to us to be collated, folded into signatures and sewn into place. Our fingers ran the ridges of the faces of Moses and Noah. Some of the faces we recognized. Barry lived one town over and used local models.
One day a week I went to Barry Moser’s studio to act as his assistant. While I organized his press and prints, I marveled at the intricacies of his engravings, and wondered how the models felt being captured in character for posterity. I imagined the conversations Barry initiated, inviting strangers and acquaintances to pose for photo shoots at his rambling house way out in the country packed with rowdy dogs. Was everyone he asked willing and eager to pose for him, this renowned illustrator? Who felt lucky, who was skeptical, who declined? Not all the models were nude but some were, particularly a teenage pregnant woman who appears in the bible in several prominent prints. Somehow, he proved himself trustworthy, this white balding man with a big Southern accent, doughy hands, and an eye for beauty. How did this young pregnant woman come to disrobe for him in his studio under photography lights, offering her ripe youth, her stillness? What long stretches of silence I imagine etched the room, while her corduroy bellbottoms and tank top lay in a heap on the floor, and Barry’s pencil worked over the paper like so many tidelines washing ashore. Did he choose her because he knew she needed the money? Or was it just her look, something in her face that captured him, a velvet beauty, her burgeoning hips?
I was modest and shy at Barry’s but secretly a part of me wished he’d ask me to model. I had never been looked at for hours or appreciated as art—and I craved it. I wanted someone to see my body as worth recreating in line. If an artist spent their time tracing my body, incorporating my face into their design, I might allow myself to feel valuable in a way I had not before. I wanted to be an artist as much as I wanted to be art. If I were transformed into image, captured as such, I might finally see myself as lasting.
The portraits Barry created flipped as we double-checked collation. Jonah’s head emerging from the sea, the spade of a whale tale over his shoulder and between them the ragged ocean. Jesus shadowed under his crown of thorns, the sky cutaway in successive curves like a Van Gogh, as if rearranging its atoms around him. An aerial view of Paul on the prison floor in rags, alone but for the rats and his quill and paper, his bald head the focal point under the eye of some spider on the ceiling, or God himself, as if perhaps he is not so alone as one could be without faith.
Some people use the bible like a guide, a map for living.
I don’t know how often we thought of it as The Bible. To us it was just another book, bigger than most and of a much larger edition than usual. It was the faces of our town and the images of our current events: famine, suffering, raging waters, mothers with sick children, archaic only because of the text.
Smaller projects were tucked into our schedules amidst the bible. A slim volume of poetry on hand-dyed paper with a filigree drypoint tipped-in the frontispiece. A bright and brimming collection of New York art in homage to Allen Ginsberg, rich with original prints and photographs, scribbled with pencil signatures: Nan Goldin, George Condo, Brice Marden, Yoko Ono. Books that sold for more money than I made in a year. An edition of two hundred. An edition of twenty-seven. An edition of forty-two.
An artist might hire Claudia to bind a one-off collection of original drawings. A polished-up sketchbook, a sheaf of watercolors. Or to rebind an old first edition of something rare. Wormed pages foxed with brown spotting. Paper as delicate as the thin crisped flowers we found pressed within eighteenth century diaries.
The bindery air held the warm melty smell of hide glue in the hot pot. The wheaty aroma of buckram wetted with white glue to binder’s board. The rhythmic rrrrip and patter of the bone folder running the fold of a folio and the soft slap of pages flipping. The occasional Ow! or swear at a finger stick from the sewing needle. Most editions carried at least one small speck of blood from a binder’s finger, a faint brown dot, having been delicately wetted with clean spittle, the enzymes able to dissolve most of the stain, such that when dry it goes unnoticed, or if noticed, would more likely be read as a small fleck of fiber in the paper’s pulp by any eye other than a binder’s.
On Claudia’s work tables, cloth-covered bricks lay atop pages properly collated. We kept the windows cracked when the sun was strong. Clicker knives lay scattered about next to pin cushions of needles and spools of linen thread. Cob webs stuck to the outer window frames, and a thin layer of dust covered everything inside. In the winter, the radiator clanged like some ghost in the basement making a one-man band of all the building’s lost and pilfered tools.
We bound a small edition of When There Were Trees, a collaboration between the poet Nancy Willard and the artist Michele Burgess, a slim book with an olive silk cover, light enough to float on your fingertips. Each page a different hue from golden to cat-eye green to russet brown, sheets of mulberry paper hand-dyed from the barks and leaves of twenty-six different species, tipped together in an homage, like a blood bank of trees. When opened, the whole thing unfolded in a long accordion—a thick forest in brushy charcoal-like drypoints, black on green, and a concrete poem that fluttered the breath.
Central to any bindery is the boardsheer, a table that could seat ten comfortably for dinner were it not for the horizontal blade at one end and the rulers and grids embossed in its surface. The boardsheer blade runs a gleaming three feet of sharpened steel, set into a long black iron arm with a thick round handle. The blade slices through board and leather and the fibrous weave of folded papers with a hefty crunch, your reflection smeared in its violent slant.
Claudia knew something of my struggle. Through bits and pieces of her history I gathered she had gone through much worse. Death and injury scarred her past. She was mostly alone in this world. If she had relatives it seemed they were distant; we never met them. She didn’t ask about the medication I took or the way my symptoms threw me off-track some days while others I was calm and focused, but I could tell she saw what I was going through. She saw the broken parts in the process of mending, the rifts I struggled with within myself. I think she had been through something destructive in her youth. Now, mid-life, Claudia was a well-designed construction, elegant, ornate, spine straight, the fabric of her long black hair. She knew where she had been and where she was going. She’d started apprenticing for Leonard Baskin when she was a teenager. Throughout her young adulthood, she learned from all the masters she could access. She went to Europe, studied hard, practiced her trade, she was devoted. The bindery was her everything. I’ll be doing this until I’m blind, Claudia once said, or even after.
Claudia did all the gilt tooling and leather inlay herself. We watched silently, knowing we’d never want to try, nor would she ask us—errors were too costly. To emboss leather with gold she lay a sheet of acetate painted with a film of eighteen-karat over the skin. The tooling iron warmed until it was piping hot. She grasped it by the wooden handle and guided the adorned metal wheel to crunch a decorative edge into the leather, impressing the pattern quickly, each crevice filling in an instant with a thin layer of gold. Claudia had a collection of vintage wheels patterned with lines, dots, undulating twines, arrows, and fleurs de lis. She kept her wrist soft and steady for a straight line and her eye at the leather’s edge. A mistake is not salvageable. If the line wavers—that’s one skin lost.
To stamp the title in gold she compressed the metal typeset letters to a block grouted with thin strips of nickel, inserted it in the iron, and flipped the switch. Once the metal was too hot to touch it was ready to crunch into the leather with an attentive amount of pressure, too much was gauche, too little ineffective.
Before she glued tiny cut leather inlay pieces to the cover, she beveled each one. When rubbing leather inlay on a cover or spine she taught us to always lay a thin sheet of paper over it and work the bone folder lightly to prevent the leather’s spongy texture from getting pressed and going shiny.
We followed a box-making recipe to fit each book with a customized construction that contained it perfectly: an eighth of an inch here, a hair of overlap, this measurement the same as that measurement. Snug and solid, with just a whuff of air as the clamshell lid closed. We made slipcases and boxes from buckram and bookcloth, assembling them like little buildings and letting them dry between cloth-covered bricks. Later we would cut and press decorative paper to the interior: marbled, patterned, Dutch liner, or Claudia’s handmade paste papers.
I moved to Massachusetts just out of college because it was easy. I had lived there the summer before and had friends I could move in with, connections for jobs. I wanted to move to New York City but knew I couldn’t do it until I felt more emotionally stable. I worked for a year at the health food store in the town mall and then started looking for a job with an artist, plastering my flyers around town and in buildings like Claudia’s. A friend gave me Claudia’s number. It was good timing. The Bible project had just landed in her lap.
“Have you made any books?” she asked me over the phone.
“Yes, a few?” I questioned, thinking of some scrappy attempts.
“Bring them,” she said.
Claudia showed me around the studio, every motion deliberate, wrist curled, words annunciated. She owned the studio and her voice and body language. Her hands briskly rubbed her stiff apron. Her long black hair was a bun stabbed with a pencil. When she stopped to press a mound of metal into gold, her upper lip twitched but otherwise she held still until she was sure the positioning was perfect.
I showed her a couple of stab books I’d made with collage covers of vintage magazines held together with black gaffer’s tape from my filmmaking days. They didn’t open well, she pointed out. She asked about a small velvet cover I had made crudely on my sewing machine to fit over a store-bought journal. “This is a sweet one,” she said thoughtfully, her strong hands applying a delicate touch to the amateur machine stitching. “You can start on Monday,” she announced, closing the little book.
In the bindery, Claudia’s strong arms swung the iron bow this way to loosen, that way to tighten. What was pinched in the clamp would stay for days until it dried hard enough to withstand opening and closure on its own.
Holding a hand-made book in your hands, it is an object, but it feels almost alive. The buttery leather and cool, crisp vitality of the paper. The curve rimmed with a lip of a leather headband, the intricate spine stitched tight.
Claudia let me use the studio after hours to dye my own paper. I ordered bulk stacks of creamy smooth kitakata paper and white pulpy hoshi. One by one, I folded each sheet into small squares in the Japanese itajame method of paper dyeing. I dipped each little chunk into small tubs of dye that Marc gave me: carmine and lapis and viridian and sumi black. Carefully I unfolded each wet wad until it was its own full sheet again and strung them up on a clothesline to dry in the dusty evening air. They were Rorschachs of color, magenta and orange and indigo surprising me with their wild irregular patterns. Once dried, I layered them all between thick old blotting paper weighed down by wood boards and Claudia’s old irons so that they’d dry flat. I stored them in my flat file, like a collection of autumn leaves. I used a few of them to line small books and journals I made and I gave a few away to people who expressed interest. Mostly, I just liked to make them, to see the plain paper transformed so quickly into kaleidoscopic patterns. The colors free to bleed as far as the pulp would carry them, each layer of unfolding revealing a new arrangement, slightly different and veined with unique bands of white and irregular splotches, as if the colors were following something more like intuition than precision; beauty made from happenstance.
Sometimes Claudia would invite us to her apartment. A neatly organized city flat decked with sumptuous fabrics and epic bookshelves, the walls covered in gilt-framed art. Every object had been plucked for its unique beauty and elegance. At Claudia’s, I learned to entertain. She had a method designed to impress: Cotswold with quince paste and crackers at the start, a take-out pizza dressed up with arugula, olive oil, and salt, and red wine, always Koonunga Hill, passed invitingly to you once greeted and welcomed. She gave us culture. Together we saw the Gypsy Kings play at the Calvin. She took us to see Cesária Évora, that sad and exotic voice that we had heard Claudia hum along with in the bindery. She paid us generously, gave us bonuses, took us to Germany for an exhibition she was featured in. I felt so lucky to be under Claudia’s wing. She was a woman of the world.
I see Claudia when I spot a small woman walking briskly in a fitted dark coat. I think of her when I run my fingers over abalone buttons stitched to silk and when I catch the dusty smell of ink on paper. When I see antique marbled paper or a pattering of gold. Claudia used to tell me I was like her because I could walk into a store and go straight to the finest thing they had. Not that either of us would buy it. It was the eye for beauty and craftsmanship. “My kinda girl,” Claudia used to say of me.
In her apartment, prints and paintings cover the walls, framed in gilded wood, each one a small world, a thing of beauty, evocative, a gift. Behind glass in antique lawyer’s cases, her books are pressed together in tight rows striped with color. Atop a low white shelf, glass bowls are filled with stones she’s collected from years of walks along the beach that look like letters. The stones are cool hues of grey laced with white, rocks that whisper the shapes of the alphabet. A taffy-stretched E, the spider-web of an A, a slim slip of C. They are arranged in families, A through C, D through H. All the way to Z.
A slightly scuffed piece of paper could usually be salvaged with a white eraser rubbed gently and carefully as to not remove the tooth of the paper.
When I last visited Claudia, she was trim in a brass buttoned woolen tunic, something you might imagine a sophisticated pirate wore to tea with Charles Darwin. Silver strands whitened her thick black braid. Her hands swung wildly as she itemized her recent acquisition of European ephemera.
I remember her hands as she taught me to quarter a persimmon and her firm instructions: first, never try until it waxes rosy and readily accepts a thumbprint. It rested in her palm as she pivoted the knife conically around the calyx. Her gold-toned hands adjusted the gaping fruit to balance delicately on her fingertips while she halved it once and then again, each slice swift and sharp so as not to crush it. The persimmon, when placed on the plate, had the illusion of wholeness until she let go, and it splayed open with its own dripping weight.
Claudia could teach me everything about bookbinding if only I could snap to attention and learn it. But I couldn’t fathom mastering anything at that age. In my early twenties I wanted to roam. I wanted to wander. Or maybe it wasn’t so much what I wanted but all that I was able to do. To stay lost for a while longer.
I was half-bound, indecisive of my design.
Before it is a book it is paper, it is pulp, it is plant. It is a conversation, a sketch on paper in brushy pencil, a needle pulled from steel wire. It is the sum of processes and ingredients: flax, linen, cotton, goat skin, calf skin, wax, pigment ground from shells, from insects, pulled from trees and flowers, ink from pine pitch, from minerals and chemicals and oils. Before it is print, each letter is a metal bracket, a sculpture in relief, one brief sound.
It is an idea. It is a collaboration. It is a process-generated product. It is many hands and eyes and minds and tools. It is an edition. Of twelve, of seventy-five, of four hundred. Or sometimes, just one. An edition of one.
About Liz Asch
Liz Asch is a visual artist, writer, acupuncturist, educator, and creativity consultant who writes at the intersection of art, medicine, and the body. She holds an undergrad degree from Vassar College, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and a Masters in Oriental Medicine. Liz has worked as a printmaker, bookbinder, artist’s assistant, studio hand, herbalist, and teacher. Her publications include: The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Manifest Station, Gertrude Press, Sinister Wisdom, Phoebe, BUST, Atticus Review, The Dream Closet, the poetry anthology Step Lightly, and others. Her stop-motion animation short showed in film festivals in New York and Canada. Her visual art has been featured in group shows and various publications. Liz was the 2017 recipient of the Phoebe Creative Nonfiction Contest, and the Willamette Writer’s Kay Snow Contest. She is in the process of publishing her first book, Recto/Verso, a collection of lyric essays and poetics on portraiture, expressionism, and art making. You can find her online at www.lizasch.com and www.nightskyacupuncture.com.