Photograph by Rory White

Photograph by Rory White

The Ties That Bind

by MiChelle Jones

Brown Dog Bindery grew out of artist Jennifer Knowles’s love for books and craft. “I love that concept of historic practices and doing something the way it was done twenty, fifty, one hundred years ago,” Knowles said. Fittingly, she lives and works in a one-hundred-seven-year-old house that Nashville artist Jairo Prado also once called home at different times. The space is light and airy, the warm wood tones of the flooring and furniture contrasting with white walls.

Photograph by Rory White

Photograph by Rory White

The bindery is in the living room, where Knowles keeps many of her tools in a large wooden cabinet decorated with Deco-inspired carvings. “I love the patina it has from sitting out in the rain,” Knowles said. This love of old things and weathered finishes comes through in her work where her aesthetic is, she said, “a combination of medieval churches and the Wild West.” Her inspiration comes from illuminated manuscripts, Celtic knots, saddles, and tooled leather.

Knowles founded Brown Dog Bindery—named for Nollie, her Australian Shepherd—in 2010. The next year she co-founded Handmade & Bound, the annual book arts festival. Knowles recently left her position as manager of Cumberland Gallery to concentrate on her bookbinding business. Her specialty is Coptic binding, a distinctive woven method that originated in the second century, and intricate leather or wooden covers she decorates with tooling or carving. She often adds complex Ethiopian-influenced headbands at the top of the book’s spine.

“I try to take on the restoration jobs that other binders won’t do,” Knowles said, which means she often works on books whose value is more sentimental than monetary. These include bibles, dictionaries, and children’s books that have been passed down for generations. One of her current projects, for example, is a book of Russian fairy tales that has been through four generations—and a flood. It came to Brown Dog Bindery with both covers missing, so Knowles will carve the original cover design into a new wooden one.

Her clients generally fall into three categories, Knowles said: people who simply want their book repaired, those who want their book restored and upgraded to a degree, and those who want a more personalized object. Knowles also creates blank journals and artists’ portfolios.

All of the materials used in the bindery are reclaimed or purchased from small businesses. But Knowles said most of her leather is sourced from the Berry Hill Goodwill where she buys purses, boots, pants, etc. She pulled out a buttery-yellow vest as an example. “The feel of that leather could make some absolutely beautiful books if I had the guts to cut that vest up, but I just don’t right now,” Knowles admitted.

Her tools are also repurposed. “All my tools have a history; all my equipment has a history,” Knowles said. One of her presses and a sewing frame are from a retired East Tennessee bookbinder, and Knowles uses her grandmother’s sewing needles to stitch the books. “I have always wanted to surround myself with the objects that other people used.” It’s a habit she’s had since childhood. Even the furniture in the bindery comes with history. Knowles’ books are made from boards from the former Woolworth’s downtown. Her tool cabinet was a gift from her mentor, Bob Roberts of The Gilded Leaf, a Maryville, Tennessee, bookbindery. Knowles first worked with Roberts through the Tennessee Arts Commission’s master-apprentice program, and the pair still collaborate on projects.

Knowles also continues her own art projects, including an upcoming show of book/furniture hybrids made with Brian Larimer, preparator at The Arts Company. The show at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art in Indiana will include a series of small, wooden book shrines and a bench with a seat made of paracord that serves as the binding for pages that hang beneath.

For more about Jennifer Knowles and Brown Dog Bindery, visit www.browndogbindery.com.

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