Bookmaking (nothing to do with March Madness)

>> Sunday, April 5, 2009

It's not often I say this about work, but the last couple of weeks have been . . . inspiring. For years now, Penland's teaching artist extraordinaire (Meg Peterson) has worked to make books with every tenth grader in the county. It's part of a Family Culture Project they work on in their English class. They each make a book with Meg and then they work independently and with their English teachers to fill the book up with essays about family history, letters to and from family members, poetry, special recipes, photographs - anything that says something to that student about who they are and where they come from. For the last two weeks I've been spending all of my work days with Meg making books with three classes.
For the first two days the students get to paint using paste paint. On day one they're kind of playing with the paint - getting a feel for it. On day two Meg reads aloud to the kids while they paint - short stories and essays with a strong sense of place. The chatter disappears and the kids really sink into their work. Everyone loves the painting days - no exceptions. Even the kids who are nervous about painting imagery are comfortable painting patterns and simple smears of color and these make beautiful covers.That's right - all the books I'm showing here are made by the kids with their own paintings. The paintings also become endpapers, interior pages, pockets, envelopes, photo corners, and anything else the kids can think of. After they're done painting they spend four days (four days!) assembling their books.Meg doesn't do a simple pamphlet book with them - these are real hardcover, hand-bound books with a waxed finish and I think the amount of work that goes into them is one of the most important parts of the process. These kids are PROUD of their work and they have an incentive to put some real effort into what fills them.Here are just a few things that happened during the week that show what an amazing project this is. On day two of the assembly process I heard a girl muttering as she went to the supply cart, "I can't wait until this stupid project is over." One day four that same girl stayed half and hour after school to add some unnecessary but beautiful finishing touches to her book. I stopped a boy who was either too lazy, too afraid of failing, or too concerned with looking cool to fold his corners properly. I helped him do them right and for the rest of the project he did some of the most meticulous work in the class and made a beautifully crafted book. A teacher told us that this was the first project all year that another boy had finished - and he was already hard at work filling it up with family photos he had gathered.
Meg and I think it's important for kids to see adults working on the projects too - so the teachers and Meg and I make books too. I made two - the sun cover (above) is going to be a Big Book o' Joy and I'm going to fill it with images of things that make me happy.I finished the inside of the front cover with scraps from the front and I love how it turned out - and I love that it inspired some of the kids to do the same thing. I used this rainbow paper I painted for the title page.I didn't get good photos of my second book - maybe I'll show it when I fill it up a bit.

After all the books are finished Meg lines them up in a gallery in the front of the room and the kids comment (all positively) on each others work. There was a moment I loved when one of the "cool kids" in the class selected a book to talk about - talked about how he liked the colors and the way the maker had done this and that - then asked who made it. The maker was one of the shyest, quietest girls in the class and I loved the look of surprise (and respect) on the boy's face when he found out. And the way he looked at her differently - at least in that moment. As a former shyest, quietest girl in the class it warmed my heart - along with everything else about this project.


tanita davis April 5, 2009 at 8:48 AM  

To have someone take the time to help you create when you're past the stage of dioramas is valuable in itself. But to leave the design, the filling of the words and pictures, and everything to you -- to really be open to saying, "Who are you, and what are you prepared to present?" is a gift. Few people get heard that well. What lucky tenth graders.

BookGirl April 5, 2009 at 9:43 AM  

What a terrific project, and what wonderful books. As a bookmaker myself (and, as a side note, having taken some great book arts classes at Penland), I appreciate the many ways in which making one's own books can be a portal to discovery, learning, and creativity. Kudos to Meg!

Wendi April 5, 2009 at 1:58 PM  

Tanita - You hit it exactly - it's the freedom that I think is so empowering to the kids. They make EVERY design decision about the books, from making the paintings that become the covers to choosing a bookcloth color, the color of the pages, the sleeves that show on the spine, the color of twine and the stitch they use for binding. We trust them to design the book AND we have faith in their ability to make it. It makes them proud of the work and willing - even eager - to put the effort into filling it with their best work. It's pretty awesome.

a. fortis April 5, 2009 at 2:22 PM  

What a wonderful project! It's inspiring to hear about the students' journeys, too, from reluctance through creativity and on into being open to each other's work. That can really change someone's life.

Tanita passed this on to me at exactly the right time--I just gave two days of bookmaking demonstrations in one of my husband's CC art classes! :)

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