Learning By The Book

Close Up Book Sewing

It’s been an interesting transition for me from teaching in a school setting where there are requirements, grades, and some continuity from one class period to the next, to workshop teaching where the time is limited to a few hours, and the class is more about acquiring an experience based on a single skill. Believe me, this is a BIG adjustment for me. I’m used to having multiple class periods to introduce, reinforce, and direct an in-depth project or skill set. Instead of thinking long-term, I have to focus more on teaching something that can be accomplished in a short period of time, yet still be a challenging, rewarding experience for the participants.

Beautiful books made by adult students in my bookmaking class.
Beautiful books made by students in my bookmaking class taught at Blackbird Studios.

I recently guided students in a bookmaking class, keeping in mind the shift to one-time experience-style instruction. The participants were determined, yet nervous, in their intention to make a book, so I went step by step through the process, which included:

  • selecting and folding all of the papers,
  • preparing the edges for sewing by poking carefully measured perforations on each fold,
  • binding the pages together by sewing over the tapes, into each page,  and linking the ends,
  • and, finally, gluing the covers together.

The class was scheduled to meet for two hours, but ran over by about thirty minutes, as I underestimated how long it would take the group to finish. (Every time I teach, I learn something new about my process and how I might do things differently.) Despite the extra time, I think all the participants were amazed with their creations and left proud of their new books!

The Middle Cat

Yawning Cat

Vera is part cute, part playful, part scaredy cat, and part lap kitty. We found her in a bush outside of a hair salon parking lot one evening when we were out for a walk. We couldn’t see her, but we could hear an insistent, high-pitched, staccato mew…mew…mew. She was very skittish and skinny, hiding deep in the bushes. My husband ran home to get a carrier and a little cat food. We put the carrier down with the food in it near the bush, and waited…for about two seconds! She went running in to the carrier, we closed the door and took her home.

Kitten and cat
The top photo is Vera just a couple of weeks after we brought her home. The lower photo was taken this winter in my studio, eight years later.

She is now seven years old, and hasn’t changed much at all. She’s the cat that our guests almost never see because she hides until she deems you a safe friend. She loves to be up high.

Four pictures of a gray and white cat.
From lap kitty to garden explorer.

She’s often found on the fridge, hanging out on a shelf, or in the back of the studio closet. Vera is the most helpful when I’m working in my studio. She offers advice on (a.k.a. lays on top of) my projects. But mostly, she just wants to have lots of scruffs!

Cat on book and on fabric.
This is how she helps me when I’m working in my studio.

Building A Book

Cat eye close up

You may (or may not) have noticed the intermittent, yet ongoing, production from my studio. There was the fabric dyeing day, followed by multiple screen printing sessions using my old thermofax machine to burn screens. Now, I’m finally turning the printed and dyed fabric into blank journals and sketchbooks.

Steps showing sewing on tapes.
Top: The finished cover before the pages are attached. Bottom Left and Right: Shows what the in-process sewing looks like from the inside and the outside of the book.

The books have soft covers that I create by attaching the fabrics to Pellon Fuse-n-Shape, a thick, iron on interfacing that gives the covers some thickness without making them too thick. The binding is a variation of the coptic stitch and sewing over tapes. I like this binding because it leaves the spine exposed, and allows the visible stitches to become part of the aesthetics of the finished book. This binding is also sturdy and allows the book to lie completely flat when opened, a desirable quality when writing or drawing.

Orange Cat Book
Hand-dyed fabric with thermofax screen image, exposed-spine sewing on decorative cotton strips. Book is bound with waxed linen.

I have fun coordinating the cords, threads, and fabrics to individualize every book– no two are identical. Sometimes, I choose contrasting fabrics for the front and back of the book to add visual interest. So far, I have constructed six of these soft cover books and, with each one I complete, I learn a little more about the small things I’d like to finesse.

Cat on table with books
A selection of books, guarded over by the original Attack Cat, Miss Bean.

I Love Lucy

Ginger Cat Close Up

I’m talking about my cat, Lucy, of course!

Ginger cat close up
Hello, I am Lucy. You will pet me now.

She spends her time surveying the neighborhood from the Tabby Shack, napping on the sofa, and blocking the stairs so that none shall pass.  Playful ginger cat

I’ve never met such a laid-back cat. She is all about comfort, friendliness, string chasing, belly rubs, and the food dish. Ginger cat. Cat belly.Lucy has been with us less than a year, and my life has been so enriched by her silly loveliness.

Too Many To Count

Calico cat on seawall

Panama City is sprawling and modern with amazing architecture, stunning tropical vistas, and a lot of history. Panama City also has an alarmingly high stray animal population. With lazy, unkempt dogs visible in every part of the city, I knew there had to be stray cats, but where?

I’d seen a single, sneaky cat in an alley near a grocery, one under a car near the fish market, and a couple of scrappy cats in the old part of the city. But, it wasn’t until our final night that I found the lair.

Alley cat, cat under car, cat on wall
Grocery, fish market, and apartment dumpster cats in Casco Viejo, Panama City.

We were strolling in the linear park along the Pacific Ocean looking for raspa when I saw a petite, mewing white and calico kitty perched on the seawall, along with at least 20 of her friends! There were feral cats sneaking in the bushes, lurking on the rocks behind the wall, and many just out in the open. They were looking for handouts, endeavoring to be approachable in hopes that someone would toss an edible morsel. Some of the cats were people-friendly and would scruff on someone’s leg or take a pet on the head. Most were dubious, and darted a safe distance away upon being approached.

Cat on the sea
A collection of the sweet, feral cats I bonded with at the marina in Panama City.

I discovered that these cats are part of a managed colony run by kind people at an enormous city marina. When I asked the night guard how many cats he thought lived at the marina, he laughed. Too many to count.

Too many to count. That basically encapsulates the stray population, in general. Too many dogs. Too many cats. A problem that humans created, and are now trying to manage through education and sterilization, while struggling to provide basic food and care for the uncountable.

Watercolor sketch of cats
Drawings in my sketchbook of just a few of the feral cats I met. 

And yet, help comes. Of all of the cats I encountered, I could tell they were being fed, as evidenced by piles dry cat food scattered on the pavement. Almost all had a clipped ear, the sign of having been spayed or neutered. A cat here or there needed serious personal grooming, but mostly they seemed adjusted to their lives in the tropics, resting on a seawall, enjoying the cool ocean breeze.

Takin’ It To The Streets

Close Up Chalk Cat

Last weekend, my husband and I schlepped the art supplies, kneeling pads, and sunscreen down to the Chalk and Chocolate in downtown Traverse City to draw on the sidewalk. We spent about 7 hours on the pavement applying chalk to our creation, talking to passersby, and noshing on chocolate treats supplied by the local bakeries and candy-makers. This is what we came up with!

Chalk drawing of cats
My entry in the Chalk and Chocolate competition during the Traverse City Film Festival last weekend.

The next day, a terrific storm came through the area. In addition to knocking out power, and furiously blowing tree branches here and there, the rain changed our drawing into this ghostly memory.

Washed away drawing
The remains of my drawing after the weekend storm.

We met many nice people, spent a day in the beautiful summer sun near the bay, and took 3rd place for our efforts!

Garfield, One Popular Gato

Garfield, right after the move.

Before he came to live with us, Garfield was a neighborhood wanderer who enjoyed lounging in the neighbor’s driveways. Originally abandoned, he was left to fend for himself in our suburban South Texas subdivision. Garfield was one popular gato, and everyone on the street knew him. Some would give him treats when he made the evening rounds. Eventually though, Garfield decided he liked our backyard best, and we would find him asleep on a patio chair, ready to take scruffs on the head. It seemed natural the he would join our cat posse when the elderly couple who fed him moved away. After his history of abandonment, and the fact that he had adopted us, it was inconceivable that we would leave Garfield behind when we decided to relocate.

Ginger cat with signs
Left: My Big Orange Friend, Garfield. Right: Some of the signs we plastered around the area in hopes of a call for his return.

The night that Garfield disappeared, we had only been in the new house for a week. We were busy organizing, and unpacking until late. Our best guess is that Garfield wandered out of a door that was not properly closed all of the way. No human noticed he was missing until well after dark. Despite an exhausting and emotional search that lasted for months, we never saw Garfield again.

Collage of Garfield remembrances
Left: Small garden with cat nip located near the Tabby Shack. Center: My skirt complete with Garfield pocket. Right: Memorial lantern launch in remembrance.

This year, at the one-year mark of his disappearance, we made a small cat nip garden next to the Tabby Shack. I sewed a Garfield patch, that I printed, onto a skirt. And, after dark, we launched nine orange and yellow lanterns in honor of Garfield’s nine lives, and the 9 years we spent knowing him– 5 years in our San Antonio neighborhood, and 4 official years with us. I am still sad and sorry. I hope that Garfield is getting lots of love wherever he is. May he turn up in the old neighborhood in San Antonio, begging for treats.

I’ll Never Look At Tourist Art the Same Way Again

Close Up of Jose de la Cruz of Arte Cruz.

If you live in a tourist area, you are familiar with shop windows rife with ubiquitous images of whatever the local icon might be. Where I live, it’s lighthouses, beaches, cherries, sand dunes, a seagull, the quaint main street with it’s charming buildings. “Real” artists often poo-poo the tourist art as not Art (you know, of the capital “A” variety.) I am guilty of this thinking at times, dismissing that 100th lighthouse painting as not interesting enough. 

Tree sculpture at Arte Cruz
Arte Cruz in Volcan, Panama. Awesome artist!

However, I recently met an artist in Panama that changed my thinking of how I view the artists in my own back yard. His name is Jose de la Cruz, and he is a wood carver and proprietor of Arte Cruz. On the day we visited, Cruz not only welcomed us into his shop and showed us around his wood working studio, he also introduced us to his little dogs, and politely tolerated my hacked-up Spanish until he told me I could ask questions in English.

Cruz studied art in Honduras in the early 70’s, then trained in Italy carving marble. Eventually, he settled back in his home town of Volcan, opened his own studio and has been carving every day for the last 38 years! He gathers and dries his own wood that is sourced locally, and works in a variety of ways from sculpture-in-the-round, to bas relief, to elaborate inlaid furniture.

Cruz is part craftsman and part showman. As proof, he carved my name and a few flowers in a piece of red cedar. He used tools he made himself, without pre-drawing or measuring, and carved decisive, confident marks in the wood with a flourish, all the time explaining his process. He made it look SO easy! This demonstration of his skill was impressive, and inspired me as an example of how true practice of craft yields excellence.

Carving CollageYes, technically, he made a cute plaque with my name, for which, he only took a donation, since it was “for demonstration.” And, yes, it’s exactly the kind of thing you might find in a tourist shop. But, here’s where I started to think differently. Why can’t artists also do work that is the bread-and-butter stuff that appeals to travelers, and also make more elaborate, personal pieces? I mean, Jose de la Cruz is a classically trained master craftsman! He didn’t have to take any time with us, and could have had an assistant pawn his work to us in the already well-stocked gallery.

I guess my rambling point is this — I now look differently at the paintings of seagulls and cherries that I see in my own hometown. Good for those artists if their work is inspiring or brings joy to someone. Isn’t that the point of making things anyway? To elicit emotion from others? I love my Panamanian red cedar slab carved with my name and flowers. It has a special place in my studio and represents an amazing day, spent with people I love, made by an artist — in person — in a place I may or may not never visit again. That is true art.

Thank Mew Very Much

It’s always nice when I see fellow bloggers reach “like” and “follow” milestones. It’s also nice of WordPress to keep track of such things and let me know when my numbers are adding up. I’d like to think it’s my brilliant writing and amazing artwork that compels someone to press the FOLLOW button when they view my blog, but I know the real truth is that Bean, Vera, and Lucy are just so stinkin’ cute, how could anyone resist?

Whatever your reasons, I very sincerely thank you for spending a few minutes of your time on my pages! Happy Caturday!

Cats with 200 followers
You are all the Cat’s Meow! Bean, Lucy, and Vera say, “Thank Mew Very Much!”