Interview by Lara Palmquist

“Another Way to Honor the Book”: An Interview with Odette Drapeau by Lara Palquist

LP: I first discovered your work through this year’s Nobel Museum Book Binding Exhibition, where your bindings of books by recent Nobel laureates Mo Yan and Alice Munro are currently on display. Can you talk about your process and goals in creating these two bindings?

OD: In 2014, International Designs celebrated Nobel Prize for Literature Winners Alice Munro (2013) and Mo Yan (2012) at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Bookbinders in China, Canada and Sweden were invited to participate with titles from the two authors. For this great event I wanted to honor those remarkable writers.

I felt at home with Alice Munro’s great sensitivity and intense femininity. The binding “back to back” allowed me to join the English version to the French translation, choosing the white leather for the French version and pink for the English. I wanted to unify those books while making them distinctive.

Mo Yan’s writing captivated me. It was a pleasant discovery. Because the meaning of the colors is very important in China I chose the red and orange to bind this book; those colors bring luck and happiness.

LP: As a bookbinder dedicated to continually pushing the boundaries of your artistic practice, you have engaged with several unusual materials, including marine leather. What first inspired your interest in fish, ray, and eel skin, and how do these materials continue to inform your work?

OD: I have been dedicated to marine leather for more than thirty years. My discovery of fish leathers, tanned in Gaspésie, Québec emerged as a lever to unlock change. Suddenly, I had new medium to work with, a flexible and durable material offering rich natural colors, inviting textures and varied shades. These new elements enabled me to begin creating original bindings in arrangements comparable to pictorial works without sacrificing the 3D structural contribution of the classic binding.

LP: Supported by a Research and Creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, you recently began experimenting with “smart-textiles,” fabrics woven with sensory microcomputers that respond to external stimuli. You’ve stated that you incorporated this material into your practice partly in response to the arrival of the electronic book. What possibilities do you foresee for the future of books and bookbinding, particularly with the use of these new textiles?

OD: This idea of exploring the world of smart textiles appeared inevitable to me. Without hesitation, I presented a request for assistance to the Council for the Arts. A way for me to make that dream a reality.

This project has been welcomed by this great institution. The CAC has allowed me to devote all my time to this research. I discovered that they were limitless and that this was opening on new and dynamic opportunities which offered to bookbinders another way to honor the book. A new way is confirmed as credible and accessible.

I’ve spent four years of research and experimentation. I have developed a technique that is best adapted to work with fibers. The needle and thread were imposed on me as my new work tools.

I banned the wet adhesive which is incompatible with the sensitivity of fabrics. I tamed matter and now, after all these explorations, I create contemporary works, light, flexible, timeless.

I found the technical support that allows me to have access to new technologies.

A new challenge then emerged… and I work with passion day and night to be prepared for a new event.

As a matter of fact, speaking of interactivity, I want to give you a few examples where there are three versions of the same book with different kinds of presentation:

  1. Lighted art installation: “Cruising Bar”; luminous binding; the accordion book is sewn, centred on black St. Armand paper; the installation unfolds around a circular transparent table below which LED lights illuminate the texts; bound in various superimposed fabrics. Book credits: Adeline Rognon; Le défilé de mode; texts and illustrations by Adeline Rognon; published by Les éditions du Rognon, 2002; copy no. XXXI / XXXV; 3m50 x 15 cm; installation created in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Guité, master in all generations electric circuitry.
  2. Lighted art installation: “Cat walk”; the accordion book is sewn, centered on red St. Armand paper, and unfolds over 3 meters; this allows to make the reading assisted by light emitting diodes (LEDs); sensors detect the reader when he passes by, and the pages are illuminated as and when he approaches the book; bound in recycled black fishnet stockings, mother-of-pearl button; binding performed in 2011. Book credits: Le défilé de mode; texts and illustrations by Adeline Rognon; published by Les éditions du Rognon, 2002; copy no. XXXIII / XXXV; 3m50 x 15 cm; installation created in 2011 in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Guité, master in all generations electric circuitry.
  3. Binding exhibited during the “Mémoire Vive” exhibition, at the Musée du Bas-Saint-Laurent in 2011; “Haute couture” bound in fabrics: silk and organza, sequins and glass beads; completed in 2011. Book credits: Adeline Rognon; Le défilé de mode — L’Intime; texts and illustrations by Adeline Rognon; published by Les éditions du Rognon, 2002; copy no. XXXII / XXXV; 17.5 cm x 10.5 cm x 3 cm.

I also work in collaboration with a textile light circuit specialist:

“Haute couture” bound with added spine and lights, completed in collaboration with the CTT in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec; endpapers and doublures in red Japanese paper; Completed in 2011.

Book credits:Stéphane Mallarmé; Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard; original edition by Gallimard, 1914; reproduced in Mainz, on November 27, 2008.

In a close future I am preparing a few installations and more light in my binding and around my creative works.

LP: One of the aspects that I most admire about your approach to bookbinding is your devotion to the transmission of ideas. You’ve studied under master bookbinders in both Montreal and Paris, and often work with specialists when exploring new approaches to your craft. You have also organized numerous bookbinding workshops, served as Chair of the Association of Quebec bookbinders, and founded Air Group Nine, an international community of bookbinders who aim to “think, imagine, and create the binding of tomorrow.” This same spirit of collaboration was evident in your installation at Bonsecours Market in Montreal, where you and architect Alena Prochazca gave shape to an imagined Book of the Year 3000. The final result was an aluminum globe containing circular leaves on which visitors wrote, drew, and left traces of their ideas about the future. Do you feel that collaboration is necessary to artistic innovation?

OD: Since the beginning of my commitment in bookbinding, I often collaborated with writers, jewelers, embroiderers, potters and especially with Alena Prochazca, architect for the realization of the huge installation of book of the year 3000. The book of the year 3000 has been a revealing memoir of our times, our customs and our multiple cultures, and especially of our relationship to the city, as people expressed themselves, as we approached the next millennium. The event called for the participation of the people of Montreal, who have been invited to take part by recording their feelings and thoughts on the theme of life in the city. The giant pages have been made of a virtually indestructible rag paper specially crafted for the project

I also directed an art gallery dedicated to the artist’s book, which allowed me to collaborate with their editing and educate a wider public to the art of books and beautiful book.

Beyond these personal experiences in my career, I feel culture by attending museums and art galleries. I am an inveterate consumer of contemporary art as well as traditional art. In Italy and France, I never tire of watching the work of Giotto and admire the great names of the Renaissance artists and yet discover the beauty of art nouveau and art deco. I also have a great attachment to modern and contemporary artists.

For decades, I taught French traditional bookbinding techniques. While demanding on the quality of work, I always wanted to develop in my students a taste for well done work, aesthetics and balance, and an appreciation of work well done, adding to the book not only protection but also beauty.

LP: Which authors have been particularly influential on your development as a bookbinder?

OD: My culture is French and I read in French. This literature is full of great writers and poets. I read a lot since the day I learned to read. I like books and writers. I also frequent foreign authors: Russian authors, English, American, South American and more.

I even like rereading and I keep all my books sometimes to flip through and find a detail of the story that I had forgotten.

In my view, reading is a necessary habit for my existence, a habit I describe as rewarding and beneficial.

In 1992, I attended a conference in Paris on Stendhal. On this occasion the “Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris” had offered to bookbinders to bind books by this author. In Montreal, I met a professor at McGill University, Madame Gabrielle Pascal, a Stendhal specialist. Accompanied by an Israeli artist Maurice Hayoun, we developed a limited edition of 33 copies. I am committed to connecting with a few exemplary binder was exposed during the symposium. This book “Visse, scrisse, Amo” was purchased by the National Library of France. This binder in black eel skin in format 22cm x 30cm is now preserved alongside the great names of French bookbinding.

This type of experience influenced me a lot because of the special attention given to achieve a prestigious edition. I also experienced authors who have caught my attention, incidentally Michel Butor by his engagement with the artists and the beauty of his texts. His commitment has been important in the French studies faculties in the United States.