Daniel E. Kelm examining Neo Emblemata Nova

photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films

The Observer and the Observed:
The Bookworks of Daniel E. Kelm

Mark Dimunation

Chief, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Library of Congress

It is a clear spring morning in Easthampton, and Daniel Kelm and I are sitting in his office drinking tea. We have just completed a tour of The Wide Awake Garage, a long warehouse loft space that has been home to his bindery since 1985. We are surrounded by books and the predictable detritus of a binder’s work day. With thirty years of work behind him now, he is a seasoned master bookbinder and one of the most original thinkers and teachers in the field. His work spans the gamut, from edition bindings to traditional design bindings to wildly creative structures whose manipulation triggers the text. Conversation with this mild, good-natured man is peppered with philosophy and references to synergy and transformation, and yet there is nothing arch in his meaning.  He speaks of art as the intersection of body and spirit. All of this conceptualizing is used to conjure up the “art of useful things.” 

Behind me are shelves teeming with scientific instruments and machines—apparatus of every ilk—some ancient and curiously alien in appearance; others simply outmoded and waiting expectantly for new purpose, like a museum of potential. Kelm refers to this as his Laboratory Theater for Poetic Science. It is part of his quest to achieve integration—to find the intersection of art and science, heart and mind. He looks for the point at which materials, form, and movement intersect, and he looks for this to inform his bookworks.

The door opens from the neighboring classroom workspace of the Garage Annex School, where he and other leading book artists have taught a variety of workshops since 1990. A student apprentice approaches with a blank sample binding that is simply sewn with boards. It is identical to the dozen or so bindings I had observed at her workbench just minutes before and is clearly the latest iteration in a series of repeated attempts. Kelm rotates the book in the air, running his palms along the flush fore-edges and operates the cover’s hinge. “So you see, that works much better,” he says quietly and calmly, as he hands the binding back to her. “Now, do it again.”

Craft Mystery

This instruction, which seems a predictable exchange between master and apprentice, carries a much deeper resonance for Daniel E. Kelm, artist and bookbinder. His meaning here moves beyond the understood notion that the craft is developed through practice; in essence he is instructing the student to interact with her work at a level that allows her to directly participate with the binding. In his “Prolegomena to Any Future Discussion of My Bookwork” (1994), Kelm embraces an approach to his art and, indeed, to his understanding of the world around him, that begins with “the standpoint of direct participation in its mystery:”

Becoming expert in the handling of materials requires the coordination of mind, body and material through countless repetitions of controlled movement until, amazingly, the conscious sense of control disappears and the movement becomes self-informed.  The merging of mind and body within the material environment is the essence of Craft Mystery.

Kelm’s reference point is alchemy. This is not nearly so surprising as it appears on first blush. Kelm studied and taught chemistry at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s until he tired of the discipline’s rationalist stance. He left academe and turned to the arts, specifically the book arts, partly in hopes of finding an experience that more directly unified emotion with intellect. (“The spell of Mind was broken,” he would later write, “and Body reawakened.”)  He was drawn to alchemy because of its sense of the relationship between the emotional and the intellectual, the exterior environment and the internal impulse. “Alchemy is the only science that does not separate the observer from the observed.” It is not a process of removed observation, but instead one that seeks out the relationship, the interaction between the object and the viewer. They are joined.

There is a quiet logic to this as Kelm discusses the underlying influence of his work. So much so that it comes as no surprise that Kelm envisions bookwork in the same fashion; that the language, the symbols, and the materials should reference the content: “A book is most successful at telling a story when all components work together toward a single effect.  So why is it that we expect words and images to be used to artistic purpose, but rarely demand the same of the binding?” He looks for the interaction between the binder and the book, the binding and the reader. 

Daniel E. Kelm examining Neo Emblemata Nova
photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films

Letting Go of Perfection

The progression of Kelm’s bindings over time has its own narrative. His early work in the 1980s signals the steady rise in skills and expertise in the traditional craft. Kelm’s work in this period is often meticulous, beautifully crafted, and yet the work is always his own. He started in the University of Minnesota library bindery in 1978, beginning with traditional fare and working on cloth bookbindings. He relocated to Massachusetts and quickly moved on to leather bindings and advanced book work skills. By 1982 Kelm had already moved into edition bindings, collaborating with David Bourbeau at the Thistle Bindery in Easthampton to produce bindings for two Cheloniidae Press titles. The following year he established his own studio and hand bookbinding business, The Wide Awake Garage, in Northampton, and in 1985 moved to his current location in Easthampton.

From the very start, Kelm produced one-of-a-kind client bindings as well as edition bindings.  Both were characteristically impeccably produced with an appreciation for fine materials and intelligent structures, often with a sense of dimensionality imparted from the tooling and onlay work. His binding for Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1982) was one of his first design bindings, which he refers to as interpretative fine binding. As he discusses his work, even with the benefit of time and experience behind him, Kelm comments: “Even still, sometimes all I can see are the missteps, the errors.” I wonder out loud if this continues today as a response to his current work.  Is this internalized critique how he views his bookwork today? “No,” he states with a definitive tone, “that subsides over time. Once I knew I could achieve a certain perfection, I let go of the goal. It no longer defines the motive behind the work. When you let go of perfection, you allow the book to be what it is.” The notion can easily typify Kelm’s bindings over the past few decades, this process of letting go in order to permit the book to take form.

Whether the bindings are for clients, for editions, or for his own unique creations, they speak to this sense of releasing and delivering the book, rather than containing it. As with most artists, this view of the creative impulse emerges from several sources. As we talk that afternoon, we discover that we are cut from the same cloth. Both of us are Minnesota boys, born within months of each other.  His home was St. Paul, mine was Minneapolis. We talk of childhood and fathers, accordion lessons and state fairs, building things and imagining things, fond memories and harsh times.  From his childhood emerged a boy’s perception of needing to rise to an unobtainable and ever-shifting expectation. As an adult he has the experienced observation that perfection is not the goal. All that falls between informs his work. Kelm’s art is the product of lessons learned.

Kelm holds true to his vision; there is always an immediate and astute sense of the binding’s dialogue with the book. This is true of his earlier, interpretative sewn bindings as well as his most recent constructed bindings and casings. Early on Kelm quite literally culled images from the text for his design bindings. The raised onlay of the unique binding for Four Centuries of Fine Printing (1985) suggest the discussion of design contained within the covers. The 1990 binding for the Arion Press Moby Dick similarly alludes to the text. In these earlier bindings, Kelm is more literal and his work re-employs images from the text as direct sculptural renderings on the surface of the cover. The edition bindings for the Cheloniidae Press’ Tortoises (1983) and The Jumping Frog (1985) both offer up three dimensional creatures. His extraordinary work on the individual binding for Thistles and Thorns pulls forward the image of Abraham, reworking it into a larger, menaced image. Here the book, in all its aspects, becomes portrait. That same capturing of a character’s essence looms with dark clarity in Kelm’s binding for Pennyroyal’s Frankenstein (1984). The creature’s portrait is hauntingly and evocatively reduced to the cast paper figure of a single hand on the cover.

Daniel E. Kelm examining Neo Emblemata Nova
photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films

The Binding Integrated

The Frankenstein project was important for another reason. Kelm had proposed a limited design binding project for five copies of the work. The dimensionality of the interpretative fine binding and the attending suite of prints required that a fairly specific box be built for the book. A traditional clamshell would not suit the need. Kelm instead engineered a box that closed at center, more like a suitcase, and utilized flaps and clasps. The structure required a strong, precise edge and a reliable hinge. Kelm introduced a metal rod, embedding it in the edge of the box flap. The result was an unique box that responded directly to the work. More importantly, it prompted Kelm to develop the wire edge binding, one of his signature bindings. A wire edge binding is built out of separate signatures or single pages, each of which has a wire attached to its hinging edge. The units are joined together by linking the wire to a metal or thread bridge. The resultant structure is a flexible one, well suited for flat display openings and articulated codex or accordion configurations. This structure is used to brilliant effect by Kelm in his recent manipulated bindings, and its potential for the codex is fully integral to the character of the metal binding he created for the third volume of Peter Koch’s Ur-text (1994).

Wire edge binding opens the opportunity to incorporate new, unorthodox materials into the binding structure. This was certainly the case with his binding for Toni Dove’s Mesmer (1993), one of his many bindings done in collaboration with Steve Clay’s Granary Books. It is an example of how Daniel Kelm makes a binding poetic. In an effort to demonstrate to Kelm the kind of effect she was envisioning for the binding of Mesmer, Toni Dove went to New York’s Canal Street and returned with a cache of materials—perforated aluminum sheeting, plastic mesh and iridescent plastic film. “Can you make these into a book?” Kelm took the single signature that made up the work, broke it into three parts, and turned the binding to the outside.  Mesmer emerged, encased in a cover of silver metal with mesh end sheets and a gleaming hint of metallic blue. The binding became an “articulated exoskeleton with ligaments holding the fleshy interior to the bones.”

Daniel E. Kelm examining Neo Emblemata Nova
photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films

Transformation by Fire

Kelm’s experiments with binding structure coincided with a period in which he reassessed his understanding of his art. The impetus was a catastrophic event that realigned Kelm’s personal relationship with his work and challenged his notion of how to conceptualize a book. And it occurred fully laden with alchemical analogies. On June 14, 1986, an early morning fire destroyed his home and much of his accumulated past. Kelm understood the event as an experience of the elemental fire, a transformative force in alchemical terms, as if he were “literally in the furnace.”  Out of this came a cleansing of sorts, a re-evaluation; he recalls it as a “transformation by fire.”  Kelm shifted emphasis, focusing on life as the vehicle for his work. His bookwork reflected a similar reassessment. He moved away from traditional fine binding, seeking out “binding structures that did more than passively carry text and imagery.” His dialogue with the book grew increasing complex. 

Bindings gave way to constructions; no longer a wrapping for the text, they actually intersected content.  Materials, ideas, and structures were integrated. Kelm re-envisioned his work not as interpretative bindings, but as artist books. His structural bindings read similarly. The sculptural Earth series from 1989, the recent edition of Mars (2005), and any number of his collaborations with Timothy Ely reveal in a more sophisticated fashion how the structure of the book fully integrates the experience of the book. With Kelm’s constructed bindings, the viewer is asked to operate, manipulate, or piece together the binding. When they do so, they are not only reading the book, they become part of the reading. The observer and the observed become one. It is alchemy.

In Earth III (1989) Kelm encourages “participative involvement” as a means of play and reading.  The black cloth container—it is a really a sanctuary—holds three folding book objects in form-cut recesses. Each is composed of triangles and squares, hinged together with Kelm’s familiar wire edge construction. They represent The Book of Intellectualization, The Book of Symbolism, and The Book of Earth Itself. The first book offers up text as texture; not a literal narrative but rather words as symbol and meaning. The four elements are represented by their corresponding colors: red for fire, yellow for air, white for water, and black for earth. When the objects are folded, the resultant geometric forms display the series’ symbolic language. The three books link to create a pathway, a spiral, that then can be pulled and gathered toward a center created by The Book of Earth Itself, a pyramid, which is now surrounded by a sloped mound of text(ure) and the symbols of the four elements.

His most complete and provocative work, however, is certainly found in the books produced in collaboration with Timothy C. Ely.  Investigations: The Four Elements: Water (1989), one of a series of interactions with Ely on the elements, elevates this notion of integration into a majestic experience. The pages of the book are offered up in a triangular, upright box, encrusted with materials from sacred sites—an altar for the mysteries contained within. Each of the five accordion books is comprised of four equilateral triangles hinged together and covered with Ely’s imaginary maps of an unknown geography. The books, and the forms they can create when interlocked, are based in the Platonic solids, the five building blocks of matter (tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron). Each book can form a tetrahedron, two together a octahedron, and all five create an icosahedron, a twenty-sided sphere. This globe-like structure, covered with Ely’s mysterious mapping and his cryptic language, emerges as an enchanted globe from an alien world.

Years later, Mars (2005) offers a more understated and elegant approach to presentation and structure. As the first book of a proposed series on the seven alchemical metals, Mars represents iron and the God of War. When the container is opened, the reader is confronted with three versions of iron—a 19th-century canon ball, a modern, polished sphere, and a fragment of a meteorite. These are, for Kelm, the three characters of Mars; military Mars, scientific Mars, and celestial Mars. The accordion book is sculptural, a dodecahedron of twelve pentagonal panels.  When linked and opened flat, one side reads “God of War,” the other “Ares Mars.” The book is accompanied by pamphlets, one of which provides the narrative of the work

The power of Kelm’s symbolic universe is most poetically yielded by a pure book structure. Free of encumbering text, Religio Mathematica (1990-2007) is a structure built with hinged triangular shapes. Using the four alchemical colors as its only source of language, the structure uses the revelation of the colors to create the text within the confines of the folded shape. The books begins folded into a cube; only red is exposed—fire. It unfolds into linked pyramids of white and black, water and earth. Further sequences unfold an alchemical story that is exclusive to Kelm's world and vision. When Kelm manipulates the book, it seems to snake from one shape to the next. To hear him recite the incantation of the book is magical. The unfolding of the cube marks the birth of the universe; the ultimate closing of the lotus signals its death.

With this pure, abstract piece Kelm has achieved his Book. Text and binding are fully integrated, the reader and the book wholly interdependent. His craft and his vision now merge to create a single experience—reader and book, observer and the observed. The success of the piece comes from Kelm’s own sincerity and modesty. In his effort to embrace and impart his own hard-won view of the world, he has stepped aside to let his books speak for themselves: “When you let go of perfection, you allow the book to be what it is.”

>> read "The Secret Life of Daniel E. Kelm" by Timothy C. Ely