The Meditative Art of Bookbinding


by Kathy Parulski

I am a lifelong writer, having worked at several newspapers as well as in freelance over the years. I have always had a love of the written word – and of books. Twenty-five years ago, I inherited from a teacher (May Whipple), who was also a mentor and dear friend, many old books, some of which were in need of repair. My sister told me of a conservator from the Yale University Libraries who was offering a course in book repair. I took the course and was hooked. From there I did a three-year apprenticeship with a master bookbinder in Northampton, Massachusetts.

While still studying at the hand of several bookbinders, I began to acquire the equipment needed to start a bindery. There was something deep calling me to this work. I took the leap of ownership of a small bindery and started teaching bookbinding at art centers and schools in Connecticut. I had such an immediate passion for the work and wanted to share it with others.

On the repair side of my work, from the first book I was given to now, I feel an incredible sense of honor every time I am entrusted with a family heirloom so rich with stories and history. Much of my work is the restoration of family Bibles – books that have been handed down from generation to generation and have such meaning in people’s lives. I also love to create journals as gifts – repositories for thoughts, to-do lists, and expressions of gratitude.

As time went on, I realized that spending time in my bindery was actually not work at all, but a healing process. I didn’t name it mindfulness at the time. But, I work alone and at some point realized that the solitude brought relief from the stress – and a much better night’s sleep. Over the years, family and friends would ask, “How can you handle such mindless work? Repairing or folding page after page, paring leather, and sewing pages – doing everything by hand?” I always answer that this is truly the most meditative work I have ever done! The steady rhythm of working with my hands brings such calm and JOY!

The meditative benefits of bookbinding also manifested in my teaching. In one example, from 2000 to 2005, I taught journal making and journal writing to 15 inner city Hartford students for two weeks each summer. They would either come to my bindery or I would go to their meeting place. They were so full of energy it was difficult to get settled and start our work. I needed a means to calm them and so we agreed to begin each class with ‘a moment of peace’ (or brief arrival meditation). The transformation from the nervousness they felt at the beginning to the calm confidence that grew as they created works of art was remarkable. Their journals were beautiful, reflecting their diverse cultures in the choices they made for text paper, for covers, and even the jewelry to adorn them. I still hear from a few of them.

I continue to teach bookbinding because it’s a gift to watch students marvel at their creations and, selfishly, because I love it so much! My mentors continue to inspire my work. I am grateful and feel blessed, to know these generous teachers, personally and through their written work, including my bookbinding teacher and mentor, William Streeter, and mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn whose book “Full Catastrophe Livingnamed what I was experiencing. I recommend Jack Kornfield’s books for inspiration and I rely on “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron – a 12-week program that uses daily written pages as meditation. It is easily adaptable to mindful creativity.

But perhaps the best mindfulness wisdom I can share is from 32 years ago when my husband and I bought our home. About a month before we moved in, we were on our annual family vacation at Cape Cod. At a local flea market I found a set of framed prints that say, “breathe…breathe…breathe…exhale!” The originals were done by a Chinese émigré and the artist’s signature, (called a “chop”), contained the Chinese symbol of breath! This piece still hangs on our wall – a great reminder over all these years to take the time to really breathe.

Kathy Parulski is a bookbinder and book artist, and has taught extensively in Connecticut and New England to both adults and children. Her work ranges from the restoration of family Bibles to original book works using metal edge binding and recycled materials.

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Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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