Terra Incognita
photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films

The Secret Life of Daniel E. Kelm

Timothy C. Ely
21 December 2006

The bonfire was huge, covering a space the size of a large truck. It was hot and bright and at first look I felt like I was viewing a crash site rather than a change of the season. The wheat fields were lit by a soft orange glow and in my imagination the archaeology of the medieval book was in attendance.

It was a celebration of the winter solstice back in the hills of the Palouse, a place I now call home, viewing the Milky Way and taking stock as we tend to do this time of year. The fire was beautiful and hot and provided a way of bringing light into darkness—and it was a dark night. The fire was provocative and brought up many ideas and reflections. I could not help but marvel at the fact that humans have probably celebrated or been in awe of this celestial turning of the year since before Stonehenge was erected. As I stared into the process of fire, this rapid display of oxidation and transformation, the launch of millions of red particulate sparks into space, I also thought of my friend Daniel Kelm.

I had known of Daniel’s work but had not met him until a fire brought us together. It was a gathering of colleagues to help Daniel get back on his feet after losing everything in an apartment fire in 1986.The distractions of that weekend kept us from fully launching our acquaintance, so it wasn’t until later, when we would find our works exhibited side by side in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that we had a chance to connect. We were both gawking at the placement of our work and were in a mood of that self-congratulatory energy that infuses any lively exhibition. The strange nature and common ground of our books that were on display provoked us toward the need to continue our discussion off site and that idea held great promise. The connection was perfect and I am delighted to say we have been friends for twenty-one years now.

As my friendship with Daniel gained ground and our first collaborative works were made, I observed many metaphoric truths about him. Being a Virgo, his expressive walk through the world is deliberate and articulate. Although astrologically he is an earth sign and I am an air sign, I think that in practice he is a fire sign and I am a water sign. Daniel’s great personal transformation through the fire of 1986 launched his great work and as I look at it, I find it imbued with fire just as mine is submerged in water, lending a dynamism to our collaborations and contributing to my view about where he sits in the world of traditional, if not wet, bookbinding.

The work of Daniel Kelm has many sources and influences. He uses refined technologies of modern bookbinding. His immaculate surface design techniques and his interests in the sciences, especially chemistry, are a potent alloy. He has a fierce romantic side as well, where his interests in poetry, alchemy, and mystery bring flavors to the surfaces of his books.

Daniel has studied deeply the alchemical motif, its four primary elements—fire, air, water, earth, and its attendant imagery. Though often sourced from the ideas of Plato, the notion goes back to ancient Egypt and perhaps earlier. This four-element idea broke down under the scrutiny of modern experimental chemistry, for the world is a condensate of many more than a mere four elements. But as a metaphor for process, it is perfect. Daniel uses the transformation of earth to water to air to fire as a design device. The symbolism and the sigils used for centuries bring to Daniel’s alchemical books a connection to a mysterious past and an arcane, poetic way to think about and utilize materials.


photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films


Alchemy is difficult to assimilate as so much misunderstanding is attached to the common view of it. It is not about change but about transformation and can carry with it a certain stigma of pseudo-science or faux-religio-mythology because it operates on many levels, from the psychological to the material. It is easy when reading popular accounts of the work to get it completely wrong, so I will digress a bit and lay out a simplified explanation in order to provide a footing from which to view Daniel’s work.

I use the 1666 Great Fire of London as the marker for that period when alchemy was undergoing its transformation and cultural downfall. It is clear that its demise began easily a generation before with the reign of James the First. The various recorded frauds that were perpetrated, the forgeries of alchemical documents, and sleights of hand all are evidence that this work was open to many possibilities. In our own time, the mention of alchemy will cause scientists to wince and scholars to wilt, for it is both a minefield and a place of potent imagery.

To set the scene for the alchemical process, one must first imagine a time before measurement and the scientific method, also a time of trial by denouncement rather than evidence. Alchemists were observers of nature and the material world. These were thought to be separate. Their doctrines and writings were wrapped in whatever religion was prominent in the land. Egyptian alchemists wrote of Hermes and Thoth, Persians thanked Allah and nodded towards the prevailing mythology of the phoenix and in the Christian West, alchemical writings seem to be dipped in an esoteric Christianity. As the practice of alchemy was seen as sorcery and was largely frowned upon, this may have been an intellectual firewall designed to ward off whatever local authority might become aroused.

From Babylon forward, humans have been trying to understand the world and by the middle of the 17th century, western Europeans were beginning, from the new footings provided by physics, the telescope and microscope, and calculus, to expand their vision. Often it is the case that a new direction invalidates the old and such was the case with alchemy. It was impossible for an artistic metaphor of material to stand up to the rigors of mathematics. The frauds of alchemy are known, the madmen are revealed in history, and there appears to be no trace of the alchemical gold or the Philosopher’s Stone.

However, the list of the alchemical contributions is huge and one can trace just about every advance in medicine, herb lore, metallurgy, chemistry, ink-making, gunpowder, fireworks and food preservation like vinegar, wine, and miso, back to some observant mixer who, with patience and awareness, advanced the human cultural stream. Our popular view of alchemy is skewed and the romance is nostalgic. Alchemy is a radical pattern and the poetry is in the pickle.

Daniel’s connection to and use of alchemical inspiration is so intricately woven into much of his work that it is difficult to separate for the purposes of illumination here. However, I would like to focus a bit on the classical metaphysic of the alchemical mind.

photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films


Of the four elements, fire transforms most rapidly. Despite a deeply traumatic experience with his house fire, Daniel loves fire and fireworks, the look of them and the speed that attends their transformation.

He is a master of the dry mount press, a tool for rapid, heated bonding, and has pushed that venerable appliance beyond where any human to date has gone. The dry mount press and the tacking iron are primary to his arsenal.

Daniel has designed structures that utilize fusion-based adhesives and hot melts. The wet, cellular fill which is so common to bookbinding is nearly eliminated in his work. Where paste imbues the paper, leather, or cloth with a quality of damp swell, it demands that one wait for things to dry, for glues to gel, and for the laminated material to shrink back to its former scale. The resulting marriage often creates tensions that result in curling. Hot melt or dry mounted laminations, on the other hand, require none of the long cure time normally associated with the work of the binder and most often deliver a dead flat and geometrically true finish. Daniel has challenged even the longest of traditions of leather work in bookbinding and invented new applications and uses for dry mount adhesives with leather.

In his world of streamlined surfaces and minimal, weightless form, Daniel has moved the binding of books from a metaphor of “heavy tomes’’ to a near science-fictional, Borgesian lightness. His gift to us all is seeing that the book need not be carved in historical stone but can be a buoyant hologram of liminal paper.



Air is dynamic, fleeting stuff that seems to move. When Daniel “exposes a work to the elements,’’ he is literally putting it outside where air and water, in the most common forms of wind and rain, can do their work. These distressing motifs bring in the poetic and unseen forces, things that can turn a work in wholly different directions. Air carries dust. A surface that is coated to receive it gets a fine film of pigment or patina powdered on it.

Air is both subtle and critical for the bookbinder and the alchemist. As air passes over a work and the surrounding temperature fluctuates, the work changes as tensions in the papers and boards either tense up or relax. Humidity, which could be called invisible water carried in the air, is absorbed and those tensions relax.

photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films


Water is a carrier and attracts yeast spores and bacteria out of the air. Water is, alchemically speaking, the polar opposite of fire and demands other methods of  working. Materials dissolve and may be distilled out of a watery bath. Hair, cockroach legs, and all sorts of detritus drift on waterways, suggesting a greater dynamism. The vigor of life is more active and in constant movement as the activities of living and inert systems can travel on water spots and rain drops.

The notion of water is critical in Daniel’s work, for ideas of balance prevail, and though his construction techniques utilize the fire metaphor, the desire of water to flow parallels his restless inquiry into the nature of books, poetry, and life.

photograph by Jeff Derose/One Match Films


The earth element and its measure are also determinant directions for Daniel’s more personal books. Earth Book One from 1989 is a piece that reveals his Neo-Platonic nature and interests in philosophical or so-called sacred geometry. Geometry means “measure of the earth’’ and at its earliest, this was its task. As the process of measure became more abstract in the hands of the Greeks, this discipline in its entirety became a way of describing space. What else is a book but a vision of the space-time continuum? With Daniel’s invention of the wire edge binding, the book as a spatial referencing and imaging tool took on an entirely new identity. This binding structure is one of the greatest developments of 20th-century bookbinding because it gives artists a new, completely original set of tools and expands the platform for expression.

The wire edge structure and the measure of the earth are two things that, when worked in tandem, can result in balls of poetry—globes for imaginal navigation and playthings for philosophers. I feel certain that any Greek mathematician would not only marvel at the construction of Daniel’s polyhedral forms but revel in the insights that are revealed when working with such books. The Greeks worked their methods on scrolls, which are books in the spiral format—Daniel’s books are self-reflective of the forms that the books seek to explain and as such are self-illuminating.


The objects made by Daniel Kelm are always difficult for me to place in the context of art history. The edges of definition get blurry and I like to think that we can transcend our inbuilt need to categorize, and thus move on to the more vital activity of looking at the objects. I like the idea that when I view an art object it can be simultaneously a book, a sculpture, and a carrier of poetry; a crystal of thought.

These objects, like crystals, refract a small percentage of the overall weave of ideas and emotions, of nerve firings and memories, and of inspirations that all whirl together to finally become a specific “something” that attempts to reconcile all of this “stuff’’ into one coherent fusion. I am less moved by work that is easily categorized, for that process establishes limits and narrows the field of view. In the work I favor, the horizon is always shifting and therefore can always be new. Daniel Kelm, in his work with books and the apparatus of the mind, continues to move my horizon far forward and I am indebted and inspired.

Daniel’s books, his machines and jigs, and deep musings are on the cutting edge—to be viewed without opinion and in a state of the most open-mindedness one can muster, for they challenge deeply held notions of what a book comprises. In Daniel’s work, the conventional craft techniques of the bookbinder are present and in full support of the ideas they carry. If it is assumed that a bookbinder will be a good craftsman, Daniel has hand skills so enviable that this could appear to be his mutant power. It is rarely assumed that a bookbinder will be a good artist but Daniel Kelm is a fine exception.

In a time when the arts of the book are pin-balling through the culture, where scrapbooks and memories are recorded with shaped scissors and gumdrop papers, the high art and mastery of Daniel Kelm stands alone. This exhibition represents a slice of light into the mind of an artist whose work will certainly enter the art historical matrix of humankind’s most grand device.

© 2007 Timothy C. Ely, Colfax,WA/Abu-Simbal