Martha Kearsley is such a badass. She’s animated and articulate, a bookbinder who makes playful and handsomely-crafted books, boxes, and stationery, as well as flower presses for drying flowers, Chump awards, and a huge variety of commissioned pieces. A long-time contractor at Harvard, Martha runs her own business—Strong Arm Bindery—from her studio in Portland, Maine, and also teaches at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. I caught up with her in her studio last month, and we talked about her latest projects—which include camp logs whose plaid patterns are based on old thermoses and “Dude Journals,” leather bound books based on a form that dates back to the 3rd and 4th century.
|Left image via Swallowfield|
How’d you get into bookbinding?
And I moved back to Boston, and it turns out the premier bookbinding program happens to be there: North Bennet Street. And then I got hired to do conservation work at Harvard. And I did that for a long time, even when I moved here and started my own business, I was traveling down to Boston, and still working with as many people as I could, because that’s how you realize, ‘oh, I don’t have to always do this the same way…’
Well, [the camp logs are one thing; they're based on old thermoses from the 1950s]. And then this, this has nothing to do with Camp Logs anymore, we’ve moved on to Dude Journals. This is one variation on a leather travel journal, and this is from the 1700s, it belonged to this guy, this dude, who was a boot-maker. It’s is called an occasional diary, a cash account while he’s moving around, making appointments…and it’s a form that I am crazy for… the way it wraps is a really old form—the earliest examples we have are from the third and fourth century . It’s a Coptic form—the copts were a Christian sect in North Africa, in Egypt, and they were famous for their monasteries. They would have a text block of papyrus and then wrap it with whatever leather they had around. Isn’t that nuts? And it was the fourth century so there were no rules, they were just like, ‘Well, we need something to protect it, so they just make this crazy band…’ and it works! It just totally got me going, I was so excited about it.
Bible repair work?
No. That was what it was for two years… bibles, bibles, bibles. I have a couple of bibles, but now… well, this woman had a water main break in her house, and a whole bunch of her family archives were damaged…. I think I have about twenty books that I’m working on from her family’s history.
How do people find you?
That time, they found me from a paper conservator in town. She brought her books to her, and she's like, 'oh, well, I’m not really into structure, but I know somebody who can make the albums.' I’m working with her on a lot of it, which is fun.
That was in reference to when my brother was here, and [we had an intern], and we were all working together. But, it kind of comes in waves. The most recent collaboration was [a poster for a camping trip with a group of friends], and that was me and a couple of friends who were just kind of goofing off.
Do you collaborate with people across the nation? Or mostly with local people?
I collaborated with a friend of mine who lives in Dublin, Ireland. We did that by email and telephone. I had made him a notebook, just for a gift. And he filled it with all these drawings, these speculative drawings for potential gallery installations. And then he sent it back to me, and I scanned it, and printed it out on the Epson. He and his wife were making decisions about the layout and the cloth and the feel of the whole thing and I was just cranking it out. And then he wound up using it—he’d send it to galleries and basically they would go through it and say, have you done this one yet? And he’d be like no, and he’d go and do it. It was very cool, some shrewd marketing on his part. So that was probably my happiest collaboration… long distance.
It looks gorgeous! What are some of the strangest projects you’ve worked on? I was checking out your three-ring binder project…
The Chop Shop one? Yeah, that was cool. Somebody brought in. It was this blown-out three ring binder… they’d put too much stuff in it. So they wanted a bound book with, you know, they still wanted it on three rings. So we just found this huge piece of hardware that was three ringed, and used epoxy I think, and the back of a big mailing tube to make the spine, and it worked.
I did a box for a collection at Baker Library. Baker Library is the business library at Harvard, and they have a really cool collection on this history of, just, doing business, … they way that people make their way in the world. And it goes over everything from, literally the banana republics down in South America to the railroads across the country, to people back in the sixteenth century who were apprentices to tailors, and their notebooks, and it’s some really cool stuff. And those would just be patterns; tailor apprentice books are almost like cartoons, they’re just drawings of a guy’s outfit, but without the guy in it. Really simple, really straightforward.
Anyway, I made a box for a collection of stuff that belonged to a guy who was involved in the opium trade. He would go over and get opium and bring it back for people who would make tinctures and tonics and whatever… and so, it was a box that contained his glasses, pipe (for regular tobacco), his passport, his wallet… and it was a series of drawers. I worked on it with my brother. You’d pull the drawer out, and the object inside couldn’t move, so we had to make these drop down pieces that were the exact dimensions of the object, so that the [objects] could rest inside. That was fun.
Have boxes and books always gone together historically?
I think they’ve gone together. They’re based on the same measurements and the same materials. They’re both about building houses for something.
Can you tell me more about your Harvard projects?
I was working out of the Weissman Preservation Center, a huge conservation lab. The system at Harvard… it’s going through changes but up to a certain point, every library has it’s own budget. Like, the Baker Library has it’s own conservator, and the Fine Arts Library has it's own conservator. I was under contract as a book conservator to work on parts of just about every collection. There would be a project that was small enough, and they’d hire me. I’d work on, like, the maps library had a bunch of old atlases, so I worked on that for half a year, or I worked for the archives department, which is Harvard’s own archives, so there would be student notebooks from the 1700s, their notes on divinity or on the business school classes. So that was on site, and at the same time I was doing box-making here for the Fine Arts Library. They have oversized print collections. It’s beautiful printing but it’s on crappy paper, so there’s no way to bind it…the best way to do it is put the book into a box, so that’s what I was doing for a long time, about four years.
Yeah, that was really the fun part of it. You get to handle and treat really amazingly weird stuff. And in my case, none of it’s linear, because it might be a photo album of Central Park just after it was planted---that would be one thing I was working on, and then the next week there’d be something else, something from the 1700s, or something more modern. And, yeah, that was the part I really liked about it; it teaches me history in this weird eclectic way…. It’s better for my brain than doing it all in a line.
I miss it, I miss the people, and I miss the camaraderie. But I still get to see some interesting things coming across my desk. Harvard lost a third of their endowment in 2008, so that was it. And they gave me fair warning, and that’s when I started teaching.
How do you like teaching?
I love it. I absolutely love it.