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March 1, 2007

Interview with Keith Smith

Filed under: Interview — jackie @ 12:26 am

In 1967 book artist Keith Smith created Book One. Since then he has created over 200 unique books, most of which have been seen by very few people.

Besides his one of a kind books Keith has written several textbooks on bookbinding. Most people know Keith through his Book 128, Non Adhesive Binding, Volume 1, Books Without Paste or Glue. First published in 1990, Non Adhesive Binding is his best selling book. You’d be hard pressed to find a book artist that doesn’t have a copy of this book on their shelf.

Recently Keith was gracious enough to answer a few questions about himself and his art.

[TJBookarts] It’s very important for the structure to be related to page content in your books. When you start a book project that incorporates your photographs and artwork, do you have a style of binding in mind or is that something that evolves as you start putting all the pieces together?

It depends.

Keith Smith 1

Keith Smith 2

Book 246, above had to have the binding determined beforehand. I used a single sheet Coptic sewing from Volume IV. This is because the concept had all the pages folded in half. All the text (captions) were vertical, centered on the page. You can read all the text with the book closed.

Keith Smith 4

Keith Smith 3

Book 178 was made because I wanted to show people other uses for the concertina binding.
Concertina binding can be supported or unsupported (no strap sewing on the spine). You can fully extend the pleat on the spine. So the outside of the spine has a drawing.

Secondly, most people use a very small pleat, which is sufficient for structure. But a large pleat offers other possibilities. In Book 178, I use the pleat to have a column of text. The on-going text on all the pleats is interrupted by the pages of pictures.

In another book. The inside of the pleat has a single horizontal photo. You see segments of this picture as you go through the pages of the book. This is like in music with theme and variation. The picture on the pleat is constant (theme) whereas the pages offer many different pictures. It is like when a tenor holds a note while the soprano singles many notes.

Yes, some of my book ideas have specific sewings in mind. They might need a fold book, for instance. Most of my books simply need any codex that opens flat to every page.

[TJBookarts] You mention in your 200 Books book that you are a member of several bookbinding organizations. How important do you feel it is as a working bookbinder/book artist to be a part of these organizations?

I am not a part of the organization. I have been to no meetings or conferences. I am a hermit. I simply am a member, that is, I pay the fees to help support them.

[TJBookarts] Do you have a favorite tool that you use all the time and would feel a little lost if it went missing?

No, I would never feel lost, but I do have ivory handled tools and rosewood awls, which are a treat to use.

[TJBookarts] Out of all the bindings that you do, do you have a favorite style of binding, one that you find yourself going back to and using frequently?

Predominately I use the 2-Needle Coptic Sewing II. Any Coptic sewing opens flat. It requires no glue. I hate the 1-needle sewing described in Volume I. Adding the second cover is tedious. Plus, if the thread breaks in later years, the entire binding is in jeopardy of falling apart. But with the paired stations of any 2-needle sewing, each sewing is independent. Thus, the 2-needle Coptics are more “archival�. Archival is not limited to acid-free materials, but how well the binding will endure.

[TJBookarts]  Do you have a favorite contemporary binder?

I am not a binder; I am a book artist. So I am not qualified to judge binders. But I do love the work of Gary Frost, Hedi Kyle, Daniel Essig and Shanna Leino.

[TJBookarts] How important do you feel experimentation is in bookbinding?

Bookbinding is only an art when it expresses. All art is creating. Creating requires going where no one has gone before. If you follow tracks in the snow it is not the same as being a pioneer.

Arshille Gorky copied Picasso painting by painting. He was not stealing, but learning. Then the final 10 years of his life, Gorky’s paintings were pictures never seen before. (He did not have to sign them.) But, if he had died 10 years earlier, he would not be remembered as a great artist.

[TJBookarts] In what way, if any, has the “digital era� changed the way you make books and bindings?

I started using computers in 1983. I have always since worked with what a computer can achieve.

Keith Smith 5

In the 1960s I worked with photo etching, so I could combine my photos with drawing. In the 70s I worked with photo silkscreening and drew directly on my photo prints. But none of these were what I wanted to do. I wanted to blend from photo reality into drawing reality.
Now, with photoshop, I am able to do this. Above is a picture from Book 230 as an example.

[TJBookarts] As an artist, how does it feel to have your books among some of the best collections in the world?

When I was a student, the idea would have been very exciting. But, you know, I never think about it one way or another. Instead, I wake up each morning excited to continue on my latest project. My work excites me—but only as I am making it. I rarely go back and look at a finished piece. My mind is always in the present. Creating is more exciting than product.
But I am excited Structure of the Visual Book has been translated into Korean, hard cover with 500 color plates. They are now working on a second book and in Bejing they are translating Structure of the Visual Book into Chinese.

[TJBookarts] If you had one tip or piece of advice you would give to someone starting to learn bookbinding what would it be?

Choose an outstanding teacher. He/she might not be a great binder, but one of the finest teachers. Good binders can be lousy teachers and vice versa. It is an art to be a teacher and I have much respect for them.

A good teacher will teach you how to think—then, you become your own teacher.

*To learn more about Keith Smith and his books check out his website at http://www.keithsmithbooks.com/

*All photographs presented in this article are copyright Keith Smith.

• • •


  1. Sounds like a play day to me. I trying to figure out how to use it
    as a weaving record for next year. We are going to do a study of repp
    weave and instead of just sitcing the samples into plastic sleeves and using
    a 3 ring notebook maybe we could come up with something a bit more interesting!

    Hows the fudge? How about finding one of the shelters that does the
    family thing and taking it down there. I have heard of a guy who takes
    pies to the shelters and they are always really appreciated.

    Comment by Holly — March 2, 2007 @ 7:41 am
  2. Thank you for this fascinating chance to hear Keith’s thoughts. He is a true artist and has given so much to the book-binding world. In fact, because of his work and his books I think he has had more to do with creating the climate encouraging artist’s books than any other single person. I liked to hear that he still wakes up enthusiastic!

    Comment by Henrietta — March 3, 2007 @ 9:47 am
  3. This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything - and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

    Comment by Sam Mcmaster — June 14, 2007 @ 5:33 am

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