Mind and Matter, Material in the Making

Odette Drapeau

The bookbinder chooses the book as the ground for creation. Just as canvas supports the work of the painter, and matter the work of the sculptor, the book receives this ultimate treatment: the binding.

My primary intention as an artist is to seek to take hold of the book, to grasp a truth beyond words that is transmitted in reading, and to immerse myself in the intention of the writer and the message the author wishes to convey. I see the vocation of the binder is to add a visual dimension to the bookwork, creating, as in an artwork, a clear, formal and intellectual space. A form of appropriation subjected to aesthetic representation. A creation becomes a singular event that in each binding must prove itself.

My craving to create, my tendency to dare and my genuine passion for books and reading, along with a manual dexterity inherited from my mother and developed by practicing the piano, convinced me of the relevance of my career choice: bookbinding to conserve and beautify the literary work. Time and history have led me to discover different methods of construction such as ways to fasten folios. I am drawn to older, often techniques, but, at the same time, more in tune with conservation, more flexible and better adapted to the comfort and the pleasure of reading.

In my practice, I draw a clear line between bindings made according to the constraints of client requirements, and my creations: the books I choose to bind must touch me and animate my imagination.

My vision and approach to the artistic design has led me to think outside the box, and to expand the visual space for the binding I am creating. To do this, I have felt the need to transcend technique in order to give myself the freedom to express my feelings and sensitivity.

This is my way of honoring the book and giving it a new place in the visual arts. During more than a century of industrialization, machines have been manufactured to bind books. We must position ourselves out of reach of the machine. We need to create unique works, impose respect, and admiration. The why and the how are becoming secondary. I come upon a literary work and I hold it in my hands, I turn the pages, I read the words, and momentarily all the elements come together. It’s magical and difficult to describe in words.

This brief introduction gives an indication of some of the ideas which I have followed while working as binder for well over 30 years. During this time, I have experimented and developed techniques, working with a range of materials, some conventional and others less so.

For the theme of this edition, I would like to focus on the two main groups within my work that are of particular relevance to the subject: experimental works and interesting ways I have found to use materials.

Having spent the 1980s working primarily with leather, I became interested in experimenting with other materials, most notably during the 1990s with marine leathers. In terms of how this came about, I can best say that fish leather ‘imposed’ itself on me. As I explored this material and experimented with it – the raw, rough, unpredictable and often very small skins – I left behind me the comfort of familiar techniques and previously imposed aesthetics. I felt a strong need to tame the skins, and in turn was rewarded with the opening up of a whole new universe to artistically explore.

By the end of the 1990s, I had created dozens of bindings using this material, first exhibiting at the Americas Society in New York in 1991.

The first marine leathers which I came across were those which had been tanned in my native Quebec. In my search for other fish skin providers, I found many tanners that specialized in marine leather in France, Brittany and Normandy, as well as in Australia where the salmon skin tanning is very common. I liked this raw material, in particular its strong resistance and variety of textures. Most often, I use the skins in their natural colors; for example, salmon skin comes in shades varying from charcoal to pearl gray. My objective has never been to inlay skin onto full leather but to cut the skins into thin strips and create motifs, sometimes figurative, using techniques of collage and assemblage. Entire bindings of marine leather.

My first major work using marine leathers was Maria Chapdelaine, by Louis Hémon. For me this was a great book, with a familiar text and colorful lithographs, my desire being to add energy to the book that would invite the reader to discover the content. The binding uses natural cod skins which have been folded and cut into long strips and then assembled, whilst paying attention to the subtle nuances of this wonderful natural material.

1- Natural cod skin (first major work) – Maria Chapdelaine, Louis Hémon

Noirs, bleus, sables, is a poetic book by Nane Couzier which was specially published for book artists, having space for use by the artist. I illustrated my copy with photographs which I took during a long stay in the Middle East, where the sea, the sand, and the black night were my daily life. The soft cover bound in red eel skin was inspired by the intensity of the sunsets on the Red Sea.

2- Red eel skin – Noirs, bleus, sables, Nane Couzier, illustrations by Odette Drapeau.

Amongst the amazing qualities and characteristics which I’ve found marine skins to have are the following. Turbot skin has its own qualities. It is thin, transparent and can be pleated, making it easy to create a range of shadows and lights. Quebec eel skins have a lot of character. The central spine is very thick and the skin has a texture of small chevrons. I favour the black and natural skin colours, but I have often worked with red as well. Carp skin has larger scales and lends itself well to a glossier finish. Sharkskin has a somewhat long graining aspect that can be compared to morocco leather. Salmon skin is certainly the most recognized and widely used in leather goods. It is resistant and interesting because of its shading. While working with marine leather, I have toured the entire aquarium: carp, shark, flounder, plaice, turbot, cod, eel, and salmon. I believe that all animal skins can be processed to make leather.

The binding of Paris, aspects et reflets (Paris, aspects and reflections) was inspired during a visit to Greece, by the mosaics in monasteries. For this, I gilded salmon skin with gold leaf and palladium then cut it into extremely small thin pieces that I glued in an overlapping pattern to represent the Eiffel Tower. The piece literally glowed with a thousand lights!

3- Fine gold and palladium gilding on salmon skin – Paris, aspects et reflets, Léon Gasset exhibition D’or et d’argent (Gold and Silver) at the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris (BHVP: Historical Library of the City of Paris).

The creative possibilities which I’ve found with marine materials are further demonstrated by the following bindings:

  • Les 188 façons de nouer sa cravate, bound in fish leather: cod, turbot, carp, plaice, salmon, collage and assemblage.
  • La Moda, bound in eel skin, collage and assemblage.
  • La mer écrite, by Marguerite Yourcenar and Maurice Ravel le Basque, bound in smoked salmon skin, collage and assemblage.
  • The word was sung, bound in black and blue eel skin, collage and assemblage.
  • Derrière le miroir, Riopelle, bound in salmon skin, collage and assemblage.

4- Les 188 façons de nouer sa cravate.

5- La Moda.

6- La mer écrite, Marguerite Yourcenar and Maurice Ravel le Basque.

7- The word was sung.

8- Derrière le miroir, Riopelle.

Then in the late 1990s, I discovered the shagreen (ray skin): a marvel of nature with its string of pearls adorning its center. In the Art Deco period shagreen was used by leading designers and bookbinders, including Pierre Legrain, who made bindings in full morocco with ray skin inlays. I was also familiar with the eighteenth-century use of shagreen to wrap boxes for storing valuables. This opened up a whole new world to me. It is not an easy material to control. Neither was it possible to make detached pieces. My dream was to create flexible bindings made of “full shagreen”.

The first shagreen binding which I did was Apocalypse, D.H. Lawrence. Apocalypse is the last testament of Lawrence. I found this book on the quays of Paris in 1979. At the same time, I discovered this ray skin of taupe color, showing many nuances. It was a new adventure, a new challenge. Nature came to me and I created this work, which is supple and pleasant to hold, durable and soft to the touch, unaffected by the passage of time.

9- First shagreen binding – Apocalypse, D.H. Lawrence.

I also like to think that every binding and every object of my creation, corresponds to a rhetorical form. In the binding of Francis Ponge’s 1950 text Le murmure: Condition et destin de l’artiste, published by Air Neuf, and illustrated by Didier Mutel, the burgundy ray skin, with its shine, silky texture and simple beauty, adds relevance and harmony to what is still regarded as an important contemporary text.

10- Bound in shagreen – Le murmure : condition et destin de l’artiste, Francis Ponge.

2000 was a year of intense production of shagreen bindings in preparation for Des Rives du Saint-Laurent aux quais de la Seine (From the banks of the St. Lawrence River to the Seine), a retrospective exhibition held in 2005 at the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris (BHVP: Historical Library of the City of Paris) under the direction of Jean Derens (Director of the Historical Library of the City of Paris 1985-2008; archivist and palaeographer). For De Paris au Bois de Boulogne by Henri Laedan I wanted to add a flamboyant and luxurious touch to this book on Paris. The blue from the ray skin, along with the glass beads, were designed to invite discovery of the text and of the splendid images of this bibliophile’s book. At the request of Jean Derens I created 10 bindings with the theme of Paris for this exhibition.

11- Bound in shagreen – De Paris au Bois de Boulogne, Henri Laedan.

Around this time I also turned my attention to installations. In 2000 I presented the book project The Book of the Year 3000 to the Canada Council for the Arts, in collaboration with the architect Alena Prochazka. We received a millennium bursary and The Book of the Year 3000 was hosted and installed at the Marché Bonsecours, a historical and tourist site in Old Montreal to commemorate the advent of the third millennium. Inspired by a press once used by bookbinders called “press satin”, the concept of circular aluminum represents the wheel of time and evokes the duration of this spherical world in which we live. The round pages of this book are made of handmade St-Armand rag paper, a pledge of their durability, and they received testimonials from hundreds of inhabitants of the year 2000 who wrote messages to people of the year 3000. It is a book of memory, a time capsule.

12- Installation – The Book of the Year 3000.

The idea for the Chaises installation came out of a visit to London – whilst visiting Westminster Cathedral, my attention was drawn to a group of disorderly chairs each of which contained a storage drawer for the prayer book. This inspired my creation of “a new place for the book”. To the chair, I added the table, the stairs, and then the wall. And later, a kinetic tower was added containing small breviaries. The chairs were hung to the picture rails or installed on a slightly raised platform. They were created using an artisanal technique and covered with an old gold fabric.

13- Installation – Chaises.

My next major exploration of binding materials has been into smart and eco-responsible textiles. Supported by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts I was able to research smart textiles, opening new doors in fine art bookbinding. I spent two years that were rich in discoveries and experiments. This time, I had to tame a material that was allergic to glue. Having succeeded in finding different ways to make bindings without glue in the past, I now had to bypass traditional techniques and do thread and needle work. I named this kind of bookbinding “Haute Couture” because I plunged into the fashion world.

Au bonheur des dames by Émile Zola, published in 1883, tells the story of the first department store that was opened in Paris, one of the innovations of the Second Empire. It is a poem dedicated to modern business, its inspiration being a moving and discreet character named Denise, who dresses in black silk. It took many models and a great deal of research, to produce this textile binding. I pulled and assembled strips of silk in shades from black to white. I added a touch of pink silk to the whole. I had the feeling of having visually constructed an object that paid homage to the work.

As I come to know the fibers and specific qualities of all these beautiful, intelligent and flexible materials, I am learning how to add light to them. It is a great challenge and there is a lot of work yet to be done before I realize all the creations of my dreams: creations that ennoble, grace and preserve the book, the words, the works of writers. It is my responsibility, as a bookbinder, to add to the work of writers. Several of these bindings formed part of a retrospective exhibition of my work of 2011 at the Musée du Bas-Saint-Laurent in Rivière-du-Loup, the place of my childhood. Meanwhile, I am excited by the opportunities offered me by a recent award from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec which will allow me to realize lighted bindings.

“And the dream shows no sign of diminishing…”

14- Bound in fabric – L’aiguille creuse, Maurice Leblanc.

15- Bound in fabric – Flux et Reflux, Michel Butor.

16- “Haute Couture” binding, made with thread and – Parle-moi d’Albi, Brigitte Coppin.

17- Au bonheur des dames, Émile Zola.

Odette Drapeau, RCA – Contributor details

Book artist Odette Drapeau has worked in the field of bookbinding since 1968. After training in Quebec and France, she founded the studio La Tranchefile in 1979. Since then, her creations have been exhibited widely in Europe, Canada and the United States and many have been acquired for public and private collections.

Odette Drapeau’s interest in aesthetics, her visionary affinity with creation and her willingness to break the bounds of tradition have freed her from the technical constraints of bookbinding. Her desire to exceed limits fuels her explorations of other disciplines and her use of unconventional materials. This gives her approach a revolutionary quality. Her constant questioning drives her to survey the boundaries of creation. She ventures into the territory of contemporary aesthetics which leads her to test new techniques. Convinced that bookbinding is a visual art, she aims to create an inseparable link between text, image, binding and what it holds.