After the 2013 publication of Nick Basbanes’ On Paper, book artist Tim Ely called the author and requested the unbound sheets of the book, just as they appeared off the press. Basbanes’ editor kindly obliged, and off On Paper went to Washington State to Ely's art studio where he forges one-of-a-kind, handmade books that have been compared to illuminated manuscripts for their impeccable detail and expression.
Basbanes didn’t hear from Ely for five and a half years, but considering that Ely's work is found in private collections as well as the Library of Congress, Yale University, Smith College, The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Lilly Library, and the Boston Athenaeum, there was hardly any rush. Then, earlier this spring, the artist sent Basbanes a note saying the book was ready, and had it shipped to Massachusetts under the most careful of conditions.
Unwrapped, Basbanes came face-to-face with his book, now clad in a creamy off-white clamshell box with marbled borders. The book itself is now bound with strips of handmade Japanese paper, papyrus strips, and leather. Peppering the front and back boards are Ely’s own glyphs--symbols the artist calls “cribform” that take on different meanings depending on their placement and the tool used to create them. It is, said Basbanes, “a most exquisite piece of art.”
Ely, who had been doing what he called “a slow deep read of On Paper,” set himself a goal to “require every self-proclaimed book artist to read it and know it,” likening the use of paper to the “idea of drawing as a major expression,” finding inspiration in using paper as “a medium for telepathy.”
“Beyond deep reading, I have found that the best way to become informed about an event or gather a bit of enlightenment is to make an expressive book,” Ely said a few years back. Indeed, his work is a kind of bookmaking alchemy, fusing the ancient art of monastic manuscript binding with contemporary expression.