By the Book

Katie Gonzalez opens up about her journey to become an artist still practicing an ancient form.

Katie Gonzalez, Handmade books, Watkins College of Art

By Ron Wagner

Whatever doubts Katie Gonzalez had about moving to Nashville in 2011 were erased instantaneously when she heard about the inaugural Watkins College Handmade & Bound book arts festival.

“Right around that time, plans were in the works for the very first (festival),” Gonzalez, a professional bookbinder, says. “I found out about that, and I was just so excited. ‘Oh my gosh, I’m moving to a city that has enough interest in the book arts to have a book-arts festival!’”

Handmade & Bound, now part of Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books, is Watkins’s annual celebration of “all things related to the work of book artists” and one of the few of its kind in the country. Another way to describe it might be just this side of nirvana for someone like Gonzalez, who has been passionate about the ancient craft since her days as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. Her success has also led her to become a popular teaching artist on bookmaking as part of the Watkins Community Education program.

Seeing the energy of the students wanting to learn book arts is invigorating, to know I'm not the only one who loves this.

“The University of Georgia had a study abroad program in (Cortona) Italy, and one of the course offerings was bookbinding and paper making. I had never done anything like that before, but it just seemed fascinating to me,” she says. “I completely fell in love with it.”

Bookbinding is simply building a book by hand, but there’s nothing simple about the skill and vision required to fold the pages, craft the covers, and stitch the binding to create something unique and permanent. After Gonzalez returned to Georgia she wanted to do little else.

“When I got back on campus, I found ways to make almost every project into a book,” she says. “My thesis project at the start of my senior year was designing and also hand-binding a series of three books. As many ways as I could incorporate book arts into what I was doing in other classes, I was doing that.”

Gonzalez went on the earn her BFA in graphic design, assuming book arts and income would never be the same thing. But she found and steadily grew a market in for her creations, which make for one-of-kind journals, photo albums, and baby books among other things, and eventually launched her company, linenlaid&felt. Now, it’s her full-time profession.

“Since I moved to Nashville, bookbinding has been my job,” she says. “That was something I had been working toward, and when we moved here it was the perfect time to give it a try.”

It’s no surprise Gonzalez has been heavily involved in every Handmade & Bound festival, and the courses that she began leading at Watkins in 2012 like “Intermediate Book Arts,” “Western Paper Marbling” and“Handbound Leather Journals” have steadily gained a robust following.

“I’ve been teaching the book arts classes at Watkins for years, and seeing the energy of students wanting to learn it is kind of invigorating, to know I’m not the only one who loves this. Other people are excited about it too,” she says. “There’s a fairly big group of people in Nashville who are interested in binding or are doing some binding already.”

Watkins has been a center for arts in Nashville since Watkins Institute opened in 1885 and, a month later, held the city’s first comprehensive art exhibition. More than 130 years later, Gonzalez sees in her students how the college draws leaders in the creative economy and arts education.

“People at Watkins take (my classes) for all sorts of different reasons. Some are really interested in binding books to sell and honing their skills so they can do that, and then other people are looking for a fun, creative project to do one night a week,” she says. “I have some lawyers and doctors who take my classes because they need something totally different than what they do all day long. Bookbinding is that thing for a lot of people.”

In spite of the demands of an eight-month daughter, Lily, and the even-more-recent relocation of her parents to Nashville, Gonzalez has never felt more committed to her medium or to the place that allows her connection to peers and aspiring book artists.

“It’s a really nice combination of having the studio practice and then also having this opportunity to share what I Iove with students and see them get excited and interact with other people instead of working solo,” she says. “I like making something functional, and that’s probably what also drew me to graphic design. But I just really enjoy with book arts making something that’s a work of art in tone but it’s also something that can be useful … I’m sort of on a mission to inspire other people to use their handmade books, because they are functional objects as well as art objects.”

For more information on Handmade & Bound 2018 click here.