Chattanooga's Katherine Becksvoort builds on a traditional literary craft
Sometimes it’s perfect. Sometimes it’s punch-and-bind, fastback, or even limp vellum. What? We’re talking bookbinding types, of course. Bookbinding as an art form and a practical craft has proliferated over the past 1500 years in the western world. Today, book publishers use heavy machinery to glom together thousands of books an hour, but there are still aficionados who savor the experience of creating a hand-bound, hand-made book.
Katherine Becksvoort is one such person. “Bookmaking is a very exact art form for me,” Katherine says, “which brings both peace and comfort to my busy world. Balancing a full-time job while running Iron Press Book Company can get quite busy, especially with craft shows or markets most weekends throughout the spring, summer, and fall.”
Katherine founded Iron Press Book Company in 2014, and a year later she graduated with a nursing degree from UTC. Her day job at Erlanger Hospital, not surprisingly, can sometimes become a day-and-night job.
She spent last weekend at the Summer Shade Festival in Atlanta’s Grant Park, where she sold several sketchbooks to a repeat customer, a happy-looking girl who looked to be about 11. (See for yourself on the Facebook page for Iron Press Book Company.)
“I am honored to create the template for someone else’s creativity or outlet,” Katherine says. “I often get creative insight from the customers who purchase from me.”
Examples abound of her creations bringing quiet joy to others, or taking a part in someone’s life. “One woman bought a book from me and wrote a letter to her sister on the first few pages,” Katherine says. “Her sister wrote a letter back on the next few pages. They have done this now for two years, and the book is almost finished. They bought another book from me and plan to do this again, eventually creating keepsakes for each of them.”
A guest book for a wedding turns into a memoir of the first year of married life, slowly growing into a family heirloom. Journals for cancer patients or others going through difficult journeys in life; sketchbooks for young people setting out on an adventure before college; a crop-rotation journal, year by year, for a farmer in tattered overalls—the hand-made books become stories of their own, combining with and transcending the words written inside them.
“I know my books have been carried to far-flung areas of the world as gifts for hosts, or travel journals for the person who bought them,” Katherine says. “I remember a woman who bought a book to carry with her on her first tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“I imagine my books being thrown into bags and carried around the world, or even on everyday adventures at work or at school. It’s exciting for me to know a piece of what I have created with my hands has become something that someone else reaches for with joy, to create or share or remember, or to be expressive.”
Katherine has an online presence “where a customer may contact me to see about my current selection and availability, and then order directly from me. As I make each piece to be one of a kind, the artist and the customer can collaborate together on what they may be looking to purchase.”
How did she arrive at this position of artisanship? Though not formally trained in bookmaking, Katherine says it all began “with a lifelong interest in both book craft and papermaking, and by taking classes at Bookworks in Asheville, NC.” Traveling the country as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide for a decade, she gained skills by collaborating with other practitioners of book arts in many communities, including Bozeman, MT; Asheville, and Chattanooga.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, to American parents working abroad, Katherine moved to the United States at age five. She attended middle school on Signal Mountain in the late 1980s, graduated from Red Bank High School, and took a gap year (somewhat exotic in those days) to hitchhike and backpack around Europe and southern Africa. She has put her earlier UTK degree in geography to good use, traveling the world here and there with backpack and compass, including through-hikes of both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Her love for bookmaking came from both her parents in different ways. “My father is a mechanical engineer—exact, mathematical—who can figure out the puzzle to solve any structural problem,” Katherine says. “My mother is a watercolor artist and loves the vibrancy of the natural world, which is incorporated in her work.
“Both these attributes come into play strongly in my bookmaking craft—being both creative and structurally sound, providing a beautiful handcrafted product that will last as a timeless piece for the client.”
Chattanoogans interested in manual bookmaking arts and crafts should be aware of Book Arts at the Open Press, an affiliation of artists like Katherine who have an appreciation for and skills in traditional, contemporary, or experimental books, sponsoring workshops and events periodically for newcomers to the craft.