Monday, April 1, 2013

Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum

Miriam Clavir. Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum.  Calgary : Bayeux Arts, 2012. ISBN 9781897411384 1897411383. 287 pages. $15.56.

Dearest reader,
let me introduce this review by noting perhaps what is the biggest clue in the mysterious case of The Mystery Reader: I am not a reader of mysteries. Instead, I am a book conservator (among other things) who tends to stick to non-fiction and graphic novels.

In fact, I am certain that I read my very first Mystery (with a capital M, for officialness) just a few months ago. It was about a psychic who was an admitted fraud, but then who developed real psychic powers. I felt very smart for figuring out the identity of the murderer several chapters before All Was Revealed.

Insinuendo by Miriam Clavir, was my sophomore effort in the realm of Mystery Reading, and like many such efforts, I did not do quite so well at my second guessing-the-murderer attempt. I do believe this is also Miriam's sophomore effort at writing a novel as well, but I dare say she has made a much better go at it than my own feeble Gumshoe attempts.

The story takes place in the real Museum of Anthropology, part of the University of British Columbia. Our protagonist is Berenice "Berry" Cates, a 53-year old intern in the museum's conservation lab. New to the field, but not to personal hardships (such as a failed marriage as well as a failed internship), Berry finds herself thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight when a well-known antiquities dealer, Cuyler Foley, is found dead in the conservation lab and her boss, the head of the lab, is held for questioning by the Police. She starts examining, with methodical intent, the circumstances, potential motives, and possible suspects for the murder. The interpersonal politics, like the bronze statue of Pan that Cuyler was clutching when he died, turn out to be corroded in a very strange manner indeed. Many red herrings abound, and even when all is revealed at the end, the conclusion is not so much a package of loose ends neatly tied but a more realistic coda that leaves the reader to ponder: just who was the real murderer, after all?

At the beginning of the novel, Berry starts out as a self-effacing wimp who has to be reminded by her 15-years-her-junior boss that she can't just let the curators handle the artifacts any old way they want. In essence, she is still struggling to find her authority as a conservator, and I have to be honest, for the first 40 pages or so, I half-wished that she would turn out to be the murder victim just so I could be spared her whinging. However, as she is suddenly forced to take stock of the situation and avenge the reputation of the conservation department and her own highly-esteemed boss, she finally grows a spine, and becomes much more likable as a character. Her best moments are when she is completely out of her element, such as when she decides to tail one of the murder suspects in her car. She bumbles sometimes, but always in the right direction, and usually with a witty, self-deprecating internal monologue.

Museum (and library) politics can be be more heated than a Texan summer, and Clavir strikes it out of the park again for realism with her inclusion of bitter rivalries amongst departments as a plot device. The tension between curators and conservators is palpably taut. This is the part of a museum, much like the conservation lab (situated in the basement, another home run for accuracy), that most non-museum people never get to see. Because of it’s setting in a Native-art-focused museum, there’s also the added element of indigenous art politics thrown into the mix, which, as a former anthropology major, I found fascinating.

Most importantly, let me just say that this is the only novel I've read, thus far, that uses all the right vocabulary to describe the art and act of conservation. I've read several other novels featuring conservators-as-protagonists; some have been cringe-worthy, others acceptable (Robert Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures was my first foray into literary descriptions of the field). Given that the author is herself, a conservator, I'm not surprised about the accuracy of her portrayal of the profession. There's such a dearth of realistic portrayals of conservation and conservators in popular media that it's refreshing when an author uses "conservator" instead of "conservationist". Case in point, this quote by the protagonist herself, who mentally chafes when she is referred to as a "conservationist" by the police:
"What the hell? The "your conservationist" in question, me, Berry Cates - my lab stool was practically behind them, and they were talking as if I didn't exist..."That's conservator, by the way, not conservationist," I wanted to shout, "I have had specialized graduate training in the preservation of art and museum collections. Not trees."
All in all, I found “Insinuendo” to be a rewarding read, particularly since I didn’t have to mark up my copy with notes railing against the inaccuracy of the portrayal of my profession. It’s a compelling story, with a personable narrator, and an interesting setting that allows the reader to peek into the behind-the-scenes world of conservation, minus the rose-tinted glasses.

"The Mystery Reader," Suzy Morgan is a 2009 graduate of the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a certificate in advanced studies in conservation from the Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Historic Record. She has had internships at Northwestern University, Syracuse University, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Ringling Museum of Art. She is currently the web developer at the Newberry Library and continues to work in private practice as a book conservator and preservation consultant.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn

Anna Nyburg. From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press 2012. ISBN 9781584563143. 192 pages. $29.95.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wolff

Anna Nyburg’s book, From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn, was my first introduction to this early twentieth-century German artist and practitioner of the book arts. Nyburg, a lecturer in German at Imperial College London with a PhD in Exile Studies, explains that her book closely considers Weissenborn’s life as a whole, especially in the context of his time in exile. Weissenborn, who died in England in 1982, spent his first forty years in Germany before emigrating in 1938. He taught perspective and drawing at the Leipziger Akademie für Graphische Künste und Buchgewerbe, until he lost his job due to his wife being Jewish. Weissenborn had friends and supporters in England, including other German artist émigrés, but particularly the British writer Victor Bonham Carter. These connections proved instrumental in his ability to make a livelihood as an artist, illustrator, and publisher in his new country.

Nyburg takes the reader through a quick history of the book arts and publishing in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s and the influx of émigrés in these fields to Britain during the mid-1930s onward. Many exiles brought skills and knowledge that contributed to the cultural life of Britain, and Weissenborn was one such artist. The reader learns of his life and work, with asides concerning other notable people in the art and publishing fields.

Growing up in Leipzig, a center of publishing and book production in the early decades of the 1900s, allowed for a young Weissenborn to learn by exposure to the rich cultural life in the city. His father taught at the Leipziger Academie, where Weissenborn studied, and where he later became a professor. Many practitioners of modern graphic arts were affiliated with this school during these years, including typographer Jan Tschichold.

Weissenborn’s artistic talents included typography, drawing, painting, and printmaking, such as woodcut, linoleum, and wood engraving. His drawing and art practice appears to have been an important part of his daily life, even during his service in World War I and in his six-month internment in 1940 as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. When released, Weissenborn taught art and created illustrations and fine art. He and his first wife divorced, and he eventually began the Acorn Press with Lesley Macdonald, his second wife. The Acorn Press produced illustrated books, all with close attention to fine design, printing, and craft.

Within her narrative of Weissenborn’s life, Nyburg includes his early bookplate typography in relationship to early graphic arts and design, his art experiences in the war and internment camp, his work as a teacher, and his publishing ventures. Weissenborn used what he saw in his art: the landscape scenes in the villages through which he traveled, common objects from the routines of internment such as garbage cans and vegetables, and the bombed-out buildings in London. While his post-World War II artwork took on less dramatic subject matter, Nyburg tells of his war sketches as source material for the book illustrations in The Diary of Edward Thomas (Whittington Press) some sixty years later.

Weissenborn’s life in internment reveals his commitment to his art and craft and, as Nyburg states in her introduction, a man resourceful and adaptable. She explains how Weissenborn devised alternative materials and methods for creative expression. His printmaking involved using margarine and graphite as ink and floor covering as a printing block. The painted-over windows of his quarters became his canvas, with scratch marks revealing light and image.

Weissenborn’s teaching commenced again after his internment. Nyburg interviewed former students, and these lengthy quotes from those who knew him bring a welcome new perspective to the narrative. His excitement with the work was something he wanted his students to feel. Lola Quaife recalls, “He said, ‘Never draw unless you are excited by what you see.’” And it is a lesson she hasn’t forgotten. (p. 123) Weissenborn himself seemed to find excitement in both the remarkable and the quotidian, as his war and internment artwork demonstrates.

Nyburg portrays a man whose temperament seems to have contributed to his ability to deal with the challenging life circumstances he faced. She draws on what appears to be an extensive family archive, as well as interviews with family and friends, to do so. However, in her attempts to explain the complex nature of his personality, she includes quotations or information that complicates my understanding of him. These often occur in the examination of his familial relationships, such as with his second wife, Lesley. (p. 153). Nyburg tries to explain Weissenborn’s comments and personal feelings, but I am not sure how well this works in every instance. For example, in her discussion of his World War I journal, letters, and sketches, she compares his comments in these materials with the novel of the same war, All Quiet on the Western Front. While I appreciate her attempt to understand Weissenborn’s reaction to his war experiences, I think a comparison of a teenage soldier’s diary to a fictional story somewhat of a stretch. (p. 37) In such a short work, perhaps omitting some of these details or suppositions would have made for a clearer understanding of Weissenborn’s life, if not his character.

Despite these instances, I enjoyed this book and came away with knowledge of people and episodes in history I would like to further explore. Exposure to an artist’s work, life, and process can both inspire and teach. Contemporary practitioners of the book arts can benefit from knowledge of the historical figures in the field, even as they work in the modern practical aspects of the craft. Weissenborn lived through periods of difficult circumstances and great change, in society and technology. Whether a reader has an interest in the European book arts, or in an interesting life of the era, this book would be a good step into that world.

Stephanie Wolff is Assistant Conservator and Book Arts Instructor at the Dartmouth College Library. Her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) degree from Dartmouth College focused on the book, including its historical, cultural, and artistic aspects. She shows her artist's books in exhibitions around the country.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bind-O-Rama 2013 - Cut-away Binding Structure Models

While 2013 is still no longer so very, very young I would like to introduce the Bind-O-Rama theme for this year...

Historic Cut-away Binding Structure Models

These can be historic or contemporary, complex or simple, but should be exquisitely and creatively crafted to reveal the layers of the book. Examples can be seen in the University of Iowa Library's digital collection from the conservation lab, or see below for an example of a German-style springback.

Happy binding and look forward to your entries at the end of the summer OCTOBER 31.. Details and form will be out early summer real soon HERE.

Cheers, Peter

[Edit 6 July]

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sarah Bryant Lecture at Hobart and William Smith College

Sarah Bryant of Big Jump Press published an article on the making of Biography entitled "Evolution of an Artist’s Book" in the last issue of The Bonefolder, Vol 8. She recently spoke about Biography and her latest work Fond at Hobart and William Smith College in scenic Geneva, NY. These works explore what "we" are made of and defines us, as well as the extent to which small, personal items encapsulate the bigger picture. Assistant Professor of Architectural Studies Kirin Makker introduces the lecture and curated the accompanying process oriented exhibit in Houghton House.

Those that could not make it can view the lecture below

... or directly on YouTube at <>

See for the story of Fond, and for more information.

An illustrated lecture about her work Biography is online at

NEW on 12/12 an interview with Susan Mills on the Bookbinding Now podcast series.
Designer, printer and binder Sarah Bryant is the proprietor of Big Jump Press. She was the 2008-2011 Victor Hammer Fellow in the Book Arts at Wells College and the 2011 winner of the MCBA Artist's Book Prize.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Airbrushed Decorated Paper - By Amy Borezo

One of my great  pleasures in hosting the Bind-O-Ramas is to to see binders and book artists challenge themselves to try new techniques and often create something truly special. In this case the standout for me is Amy's decorated paper. Below her description of how she created it. Thank you Amy. View all entries featuring bindings of "The Bone Folder" in the 2012 Bind-O-Rama here.

Our guest blogger today is Amy Borezo, book artist and edition binder.

For the Bind-o-rama exhibit featuring the set book The Bone Folder by Ernst Collin (translated by Peter D. Verheyen), I was inspired to create a version of the German Stiffened Paper Binding. The portion of the text itself which most interested me was the section on decorative papers. While the binding style is modest, I wanted the decorative paper used for the covering material to be inventive — having both a modern feel to echo the graphics of the time period in which the book was written, and a contemporary, process-oriented sensibility. To accomplish this, I used a bone folder (in keeping with the title of the book) to score a pattern on paper, which I then folded and airbrushed to create a unique geometric design. To begin, I first scored a hexagonal grid onto a piece of Cave paper using a metal bonefolder. Next, I folded the paper into a concertina in one direction (horizontal) along the scored lines. Leaving the mountain and valley folds intact, I aimed the airbrush so that the paint would only hit one side of the mountain fold with red paint.

Click to enlarge.

I then turned the paper around 180 degrees and painted the other side of the mountain folds with the airbrush in yellow. The color dries fairly quickly and I was able to now flatten the paper and begin folding along the diagonal scored lines. I changed to white paint and repeated the process of aiming the airbrush to only hit one side of the mountain fold with the white paint. I decided I liked the variation of having heavier coverage of white near one corner with a gradual fade to the other corner. This effect was easy enough to produce by angling the airbrush slightly.

Click to enlarge.

I flattened the paper again and folded along the opposing diagonal for the final application of white paint. I debated whether to continue along more folds, but felt like the resulting pattern was visually strong. I particularly like that the final design has a strong Art Deco look and that the paint was used to capture the physical process of the pattern being made through folding. I finished the binding by adding a subtle color fade to the book cloth on the spine with the airbrush in red.

Click to enlarge.

Go to Amy's blog for detailed views of this fantastic binding.

Amy Borezo received an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from RISD in 2000. After graduating, she worked both as a bookbinder in a production bindery and as a book mechanic at Daniel Kelm's Wide Awake Garage where she learned that you can reinvent the book each time you make it. Amy is now a contemporary book artist and the proprietor of Shelter Bookworks, an edition binding studio in Western Massachusetts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bind-O-Rama 2012 Now Online

Though often cursed as constraining choice, set book exhibits can also be fun as exemplified by the entries that largely stayed true to the Germanic nature of the text. High-points for me were the decorated papers and the adoption of more basic structures, including the stiffened paper binding. Sometimes less is more. We hope you will enjoy this exhibition featuring the work of established and  nascent binders.

Now Online – Click Here to View