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Boxmaking at Penland: Finished work

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The next step towards the small press project has been taken – my two weeks of boxmaking at Penland this August with Sarah Bryant were a big success. We covered a wide range of enclosure structures, some of which I’ll share in their finished format today. These projects will feel more like boxes than enclosures to contain books, but that’s a bit deceptive. In enclosure design, the book often takes the place of the inner box tray or sits within the tray just as any other object would. I could have chosen to build enclosures for books in these formats, but by building boxes for objects instead, I could explore the structures without committing myself to making an enclosure that was a perfect fit for a book form.

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One of the things we experimented with at Penland was making our own bookcloth. Though I brought my own fabric, we also had an impressive stack of fabric as part of our communal class supply. The fabric came to us by way of Sarah’s friend David, who was originally supposed to be our studio assistant for the class but unfortunately passed away before the session. My understanding is that his sister gave Sarah the fabric for us to use. I’ve never met David, or even swapped emails with him, but the idea of making him present in class by working with materials he had collected for us had such resonance for me that I set my own cloth aside and worked exclusively with his. One of the projects that came out of this was a series of comic book boxes, two of which I was able to finish in the session. They’re both simple boxes – just a tray, feet and a basic lid – but I love the pop art appeal of them. For the deeper box, I loved the sentimentality of the image of the couple in Hawaii; most of the panels from the comic fabric were somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but divorced from the rest of the panels this one is quite sweet. The shallower box, with its goofier message, got a great reception from other students; it was probably my most popular project despite its simplicity.

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We also learned how to insert a magnetic closure, which I fused with the structure of a Japanese bone clasp wraparound enclosure to produce a custom box for a friend’s tarot deck. This box was probably my best from a purely technical standpoint; the wrapper fits very snugly, so snugly that I had to surround it with weights at first to get the bookcloth to relax and allow the wraparound action to happen correctly. Once I did that, it was a perfect fit. I set a linen ribbon into the bottom of the box; it sits under the cards and provides a lift-up hinge mechanism to remove them from the box. I folded under the end of the ribbon twice and machine-stitched it closed for a finished edge once I got home.

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My most ambitious class project was a large box a little under a foot square for storing my embroidery projects and unusual supplies. I have several things still in progress from my workshop a year ago with Rebecca Ringquist, but I’ve felt hampered in my work because my supplies aren’t well organized. This box has compartments for pieces of fabric I’ve collected for embroidering as well as my hoop and my current projects, a compartment for my needle threaders, another for my Sajou thread collection, a spot for my needle books, and some smaller compartments for threads I’m using for my ongoing projects so that I don’t have to dig them out of my thread boxes every time I sit down to work. I absolutely adore how this box came out, but it was a real technical challenge. Covering any box this large is an odyssey, especially in an environment like Penland where our glue was drying very quickly. I also built the compartments to various depths – obviously nobody needs a tiny compartment three inches deep for their needle threaders! – which meant building little platforms within the box tray to raise the bottoms of the smaller compartments.

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And finally, the wrapper itself was a challenge. I wanted to create a wrapper that would open in the center, but Sarah and I thought that might be tough for a beginner since the lid wouldn’t have much support on the left side of the box, where there are a lot of big compartments and not many walls. Instead I opted for a bone clasp wrapper. In retrospect I don’t think bone clasps were the best choice for this box. The wrapper is double-thick book board, which makes the bookcloth loops for the bone clasps look oddly overstretched. That said, I got a great fit for a box this size, and I think the bone clasps came out nicely for my first time working with them.

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You might be noticing there aren’t any pictures of the campus or the studio in this post; this would be because I didn’t really take any. It’s always tough to know what to say globally about an experience that didn’t go well; I’d prefer to avoid pointless venting but at the same time hesitate to paint a rosy picture of a place I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others. I certainly learned a lot about the mechanics and techniques of boxmaking at Penland – though certainly now that I’m home, I’m noticing that I was sloppy on some of the pastedowns inside the boxes, more so than I would have been on a professional project. Sarah was a wonderful teacher and her instructions were just great. Unfortunately, though, the overall experience wasn’t a great one; I found it almost impossible to do creative work at the program and came home drained and exhausted in the worst possible way. I won’t talk too much about the experience of being pregnant at Penland here, but please do get in touch with me if you’re pregnant and considering Penland. There are some downsides that I don’t think a student could know about without talking to someone else who’s already been. I’m not afraid to travel and rough it, even while pregnant, but if I had been fully informed about Penland specifically I would have declined my funding and opted not to attend. That said, I’m so glad I got the chance to work with Sarah and my fellow students, and I look forward to sharing more of my work at the workshop with y’all in the future.