If I say the word “bookbinder”, do you picture a grizzled craftsperson, glasses perched low on the nose, attaching a beautifully-tooled calf binding to a classic text, say, an edition of T. S. Elliot’s collected poems, in a workroom heavy with the smell of exotic leathers?
If you do, Matt Joudrey will blow that picture right out of your head. Matt, when not attending to his day job as publisher of At Bay Press here in Winnipeg, is a bookbinder/designer who is expanding our ideas about the book as an aesthetic object. Take At Bay Press’s most recent limited edition publication, Chris Macalino’s long poem, Winnipeg Graffiti. Matt designed and fabricated all of the copies, which feature hand-made paper and a binding made of stained glass. At the very least, this is an amazing technical feat. I had to know more about Matt’s take on bookbinding and book design as 21st century arts and I’m delighted that he agreed to sit down to an e-interview with me.
But first, here’s a bit more about the many other hats worn by Matt Joudrey.
M.C. Joudrey is a Canadian writer, award winning artist and designer. He is the publisher of At Bay Press. His second novel Of Violence and Cliché was released September 2013, followed by his collection of short stories Charleswood Road: Storiesin August 2014, which was nominated for a 2015 Manitoba Book Award. His novel Fanonymous was released in 2019 and was nominated for two Manitoba Book Awards, including the Margaret Laurence Award for best work of fiction. M.C. Joudrey has been a member of the submission selection committee for the CBC Short Fiction Prize and a jury member for the Manitoba Book Awards. His titles reside in permanent legislative and national government collections. He is also a bookbinder and a number of his works are held in galleries internationally.
CM: Welcome to portage and slain, Matt. First of all, should I be using the term “bookmaking” instead of “bookbinding” for what you do?
MJ: For me, yes. Bookbinding, if I had to generalize it, focuses on the binding or rebinding of books. This is a true art form unto itself. Many top bookbinders have settled on that craft alone and often these bookbinders are called upon by collectors and libraries to restores old books when their original bindings have deteriorated. I would fall into that other category of “bookmaker” because I not only bind the book, I am also designing the book, doing the layout, and printing the book. In some cases, like Winnipeg Graffiti for instance, partnerships with other artists happen.
CM: How did you come to be interested in book binding and book design?
MJ: I just wanted to create things. I love books. It was a natural evolution.
CM: Do you have some favourite examples of bookmaking from other artists?
MJ: There are a number of book artists creating work that I really admire. My last trip to Minneapolis brought me to the Minnesota Centre for the Book Arts. It’s such a wonderful place, with a very respectable collection of handmade books in their store, by some of the best bookmakers in the United States.
I would be remiss not to mention the gorgeous bookmaking of artist Charles Van Sandwyk. He has set a standard for paperback books sewn by hand and his illustrations that decorate his books are delightfully charming.
Here in Winnipeg we have some great bookmakers. I love the bindings that Deb Frances Plett is making. She recently finished a collection where she partnered with 20 ceramic artists entitled the Stone Diary Project. It’s the third installment that she has done in the series. Erwin Huebner makes some exceptionally well crafted books that push the boundaries of what a book can be. Erwin is a Professor Emeritus at U. of Manitoba and his passion for bookmaking has brought about some intriguing creations. Karen Clavelle is another book artist in Winnipeg. I loved her handmade Mother Goose letters so much that I decided to publish her hardcover book entitled The Mother Goose Letters, the original handmade letters were a direct inspiration for the larger work we published to the trade.
CM: In addition to your commercial titles, At Bay Press regularly brings out limited editions of hand-bound books where the accent is as much on exploring the aesthetics of the book as it is on the text. Tell me about that.
MJ: Oh, that has everything to do with my need to make something by hand and to constantly test myself on the limits of what can be done. I love problem solving. I love mystery and discovery. Making books by hand, the sourcing and selection of materials, the design, illustration, and finally execution is a painstaking process. But, seeing it all come together in the end, the beauty and satisfaction of the finished object, after labouring for long periods of time is very satisfying. Plus, something permanent now exists that has been brought into the world, often by a number of contributors, it may seem like a romantic notion, but it does feel magical.
CM: Tell me about the technical and design challenges you faced in your design and binding for Chris Macalino’s long poem, Winnipeg Graffiti.
MJ: First, I want to say that working with Matthew McMillan at Prairie Studio Glass was an excellent experience and his stunning glass plate covers are the showpiece of the work.
The biggest issue, after the glass was made, was the realization of just how heavy each plate of glass actually was. This meant the final design needed to address that problem. One of the most important aspects of bookbinding is longevity. The idea that the final piece could live forever, well beyond its creator. I had serious concerns about the weight of the glass tugging and pulling at the paper binding from the simple force of opening and closing the book. I solved the problem with folds and a thin sheet of foam core carefully tucked away and hidden within those folds. This allowed for the book to rest safely on a cushion when not in use. This also afforded the book the opportunity to stand up on its own, with stability.
A bookbinder’s job is to produce something exceptional, but the design and craftsmanship must be mindful of the fact that, after all is done, it is still a book and meant to be handled by a reader and book lover. So, to that end, quality of craftsmanship is equally as important as visual eye appeal. I expect that good design, the visual appeal, and craftsmanship will likely show as a married effect to the beholder.
CM: How does what you do relate to the long tradition of the book design and bookbinding in Europe and North America?
MJ: While it does seem that there can be a zeitgeist of sorts that has the appearance of being regional, the art of bookmaking does tend to be a very solitary endeavour, for the most part, at least. This seems to support my theory that the work being produced overseas and in North America tend to be singular in scope, design, and execution.
I will say that certain technical aspects of the craft have reached a level of near perfection by some individual bookmakers. This could be attributed to region, but that’s likely not the case and has more to do with the individual’s long-suffering practice.
CM: You bring a very urban, modern and hard edge sensibility to your bookbinding and design. Are there artists and illustrators who you consider to be major influences?
MJ: My influences come from all aspects of my long passion for books and collecting art. I am a true collector at heart, and I love acquiring pieces that catch my eye. My collecting is by no means limited to just books. I love all forms of creation, both made and naturally occurring.