- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

WINONA, Minn. (AP) - The soft morning light illuminates the small Winona studio, a workbench its centerpiece.

On the bench sit containers of mismatched tools, scissors, brushes. On the wall hangs a wooden rack with spools of thread. On the table, sheets of handmade paper.

The bookbinder leans over the workbench, carefully lines up two edges of paper, and dips a long brush into a container of glue.

“I’m going to glue this without messing it up this time,” Jill Krase says with a chuckle, running the brush along the paper. She is quiet in concentration as she delicately folds the paper, using a bone folder to press the pages.

Books just aren’t made this way anymore, she said. At least not by machines. Bookbinding requires the work of individual hands.

“We interact with so many machine-made objects every day, we can tell when we get our hands on something that was made by an actual person.”

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An accidental discovery

Krase has been bookbinding in Winona for more than 10 years. She operates Ovenbird Bindery out of her home studio, where she makes books and boxes, binds limited editions, repairs books, and teaches others her trade.

The Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/1P1g4KI ) reports that Krase first discovered the art in 2004 when she moved to Winona with her husband, Ethan, an English professor at Winona State University. The Krases soon met Beth and Chad Oness, who operate a small printing press and often print on handmade books. It was there Krase first saw a handmade book. Chad took out paper and needle and thread that day, and showed her how to sew a pamphlet.

“I was like, awesome, yes, I love this - show me everything else you know,” she said. “I just couldn’t shake it after - I felt right away I have to learn how to do that.”

That summer, Krase went to the University of Iowa for a six-week bookbinding course - and from there, the learning never stopped.

“It was one of those things where once you know five things, then you can see the 200 things you don’t know. And then once you know those 200 things, you can see the 1,000 things you don’t know,” she said, adding: “It’s kind of cruel.”

Krase began edition binding. Then she began teaching workshops, some at home, others at the arts center or area schools. She learned how to make high-quality boxes for books. Soon people began asking if she fixed books - so Krase figured she would learn book repair as well.

The work has become Krase’s primary source of income, but she said her work isn’t about making money.

“I think I’m happiest when I’m making something that’s pretty,” she said.

“I’m really in kind of this strange niche - I think that bookbinders are sort of part reader, part artist and part craftsperson.”

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A step at a time

The paper. The threads. The tools. The need for precision. Krase loves it all.

The process starts with materials. Krase orders handmade paper, paints, and tools online from different cities around the world. She decorates the paper herself using Suminagashi marbling, an ancient Japanese process that involves creating patterns with floating ink in water, then transferring the ink to paper. Krase also makes paste paper, which she describes as “fingerpainting for adults.” It involves dipping paper in water, then applying homemade colored paste and using other objects such as sponges, chopsticks and toothpicks to create designs.

Once she has her paper, Krase folds the pages and punches holes at the fold using an awl, a small pointed carpentry tool often used to pierce leather. Many of the tools Krase uses are carpentry tools - a divider for measuring, a spokeshave for leather. She then sews the pages together with linen thread - most of her books are sewn, not glued. Covering the books often involves bookboard, which comes in different weights and thicknesses, which she then finishes with cloth.

After that, the process involves a thousand variations, she said. Krase spends anywhere from an hour to 60 hours on a given book, depending on its size and complexity. But one thing that stays consistent is the fact that each book is authentic, one-of-a-kind.

“You can tell by the way that the books look and feel that someone made them with care and attention,” she said.

She has studied and learned how to make books from different time periods. Last month, for example, Krase made a medieval girdle book - “a medieval iPhone,” as she jokingly calls it - a book designed to hang from someone’s belt loop.

Krase often looks at models and tries to create her books, but now she is at a point where she combines different techniques from different time periods to create bindings of her own.

“I’m really interested in the book as a physical object . and knowing all of the different ways a book can be made. I have to try and stop myself sometimes,” she said.

Last year, Krase received a state arts grant to make one of each book she knew how to make. The project has served as a sort of capstone, she said, on her “semi self-guided learning of bookbinding.”

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Bred for books

Though a select few practice the art of bookbinding today, Krase believes the art form has seen a revival that can be traced back to the 1960s, she said, when there was a devastating flood in Florence that destroyed many of the Italian city’s libraries.

Book conservators from all over the world traveled to Florence to save the delicate, handmade books. Many were falling apart, which allowed them to examine exactly how they were put together.

From there, bookbinding made a comeback, though more so in Europe than in America, Krase said.

There was once an apprentice system for bookbinding, though that hasn’t been present for centuries. Those who want to learn the trade today often go to Europe to study. Closer to home, they learn the way Krase did, by attending workshops and classes and experimenting at home - “making mistakes and asking questions.”

The art of making books in a digital age also begs the question: Does bookmaking in any form, machine- or hand-made, have a future? While books are no longer the primary technology that hold the world’s information, Krase believes so.

“People keep saying, ‘The book is dead,’ but it’s not,” Krase said. Rather, the book has gone through a transformation, she said. And there’s something about a book that technology will never replace.

“We still want the paper book because of how usable it is. Phones are great, computers are great, but we still want to read on paper,” she said.

“We don’t know where we’re going with electronics. We store our information on here now, but how stable is this? We have books that are hundreds and hundreds of years old.”

“The book just didn’t come into the world like this. This is really a technology that we’ve been working on for 2,000 years, and it’s why our bodies like it so well.”

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A lifelong pursuit

Krase hopes to continue growing her business and perfecting her craft, though it has led to a juggling act between business and marketing and the art of creating, she said.

She recently created a website, as well as a page on the craftmaker website Etsy for customers to order products. This spring, she plans to teach classes at the Winona Senior High School and at Ridgeway. She also plans on giving more workshops at the arts center, as well as teaching community groups.

Krase often enters her work in shows - one of her books is currently part of a National Guild of Bookworkers traveling exhibit. And someday, she said, she’d also like to start writing articles on the craft and theory of bookbinding.

She’s also increasingly taking on custom projects for people who hear about her work. Currently, she has a client from La Crescent who wants to turn his mother’s memoir into a handmade book, one he can pass on to his children, and they to their children.

“When I think about all the aspects of my business - repairing books, helping people make their materials into new books, making one-of-a-kind bindings for special books, teaching workshops - the next thought I have is how much I love doing each of these things,” she said.

For her, bookbinding is a learning process that never ends.

“I think I could spend five lifetimes as a bookbinder and still not have reached the peak of it,” she said. “There’s just always going to be more to explore.”

When she discovered bookbinding a decade ago, she said, it was like finding her purpose, her calling.

“You know, if we’re lucky, we can get the thing that we love and the thing that we make money doing and get a lot of those things to come together,” she said. “And I feel like this is where everything comes together for me.”

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Information from: Winona Daily News, https://www.winonadailynews.com

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