DEBORAH CROMBIE: A couple of years ago--wait, make that a couple of books ago--a friend gave me the gift of an Iona journal. Influenced by reading Elizabeth George's Write Away, I'd decided I wanted to keep a novel journal. This was not just a progress record, or someplace to scribble snatches of scenes, but a record of the evolution of ideas in a novel. It's always hard for me, once a book is finished, to explain where I got the idea for that particular story. A novel is such a slippery creature--ideas and story lines work their way in, willy-nilly, from such unexpected sources, and I seldom remember how they merged together.
But I wanted a special journal, something to inspire me and make me stick to my goal. This gift, crafted from leather and handmade paper, was just the thing, and I've been hooked ever since. My notes have been spotty, but I keep at it, and am now into my third novel journal. And, oh my, is this one gorgeous. I'm hoping it will inspire a book that lives up to it!
And here to tell you more about Iona Journals, is the artist/craft person herself, Mychal Mitchell. (And I dare anyone, techie or Luddite, not to want one of these treasures.)
DEBS: Mychal, you were a interior design/architecture student. Tell us how you got interested in bookbinding, and specifically, handmade journals. (This is such a great story!)
MYCHAL: Well, after graduating from Arizona State back in 1992, I scraped up enough money to go backpacking around Europe for several months. My favorite classes in school had been architectural history related, and so I was super excited to see all of the old buildings I had read about and studied for years. I took a journal with me that my roommate had given me for graduation, and was filling it quite quickly with sketches, and watercolor paintings, and musings on the culture....until one day five months into the trip, I was in the Termini train station in Rome, which is filled with tiny little thieves, and one made off with my pack, journal inside! I was pretty devastated to lose that book...5 months of writing and sketching...gone! Luckily a few days later in Venice, I met a friendly (and deliciously handsome, I must admit!) street artisan to whom I confessed my frustration at being without my constant companion ( said journal )...and he quickly whisked me down an alley to his friend's bookbinding shop. What a thrill to be in his little bookstore...to be surrounded by the smell of leather, and such exquisite books! Growing up in Arkansas, I had never seen anything like what he was making, and was completely mesmerized. Seeing my enthusiasm for his craft, the old gentleman allowed me to spend several afternoons watching and assisting with his bookbinding. I certainly wasn't thinking this was my next job, after all, I had just spent 6 years getting my degree.....I was going home to become a famous architect! But as fate would have it, that was not to be.
DEBS: But you didn't immediately come home from Italy and decide to go into the journal-making business. How did you get from there to here, with a thriving studio in creative East Austin?
MYCHAL: I actually bought a journal from the lovely little man in Venice, and I took it with me everywhere! I did a bit of traveling around the states and moved to Seattle. Then took a job on a fishing boat in Alaska, and did that for a couple of seasons, and the journal just got more fabulous from the wear. I filled it quite quickly, and was rather spoiled by writing in a book of that quality. It would have been difficult to go back to the cheapy ones I'd been used to before. I searched high and low for similar books, and came up empty-handed. So I bought a scrap of leather and some beautiful handmade watercolor paper while on a west coast road trip with my friend Brienna. While she made beautiful intricate beaded jewelry, I tried to recall what I had learned the year before in Italy. We sat side by side on the beaches of California and Oregon, practicing our crafts to give to friends and family, until we were approached by a cafe owner who needed a little booth in front of his place during an upcoming street fair. We agreed, and set up a card table with our wares on it, and I think I sold 5 journals that day. I remember saying to Brienna afterwards "Wow, we're eating Thai food tonight! My treat!!" That really was a huge splurge for us at the time! And that was the beginning really. It just kinda grew little by little over the years. I really took it slow, and didn't try to do too much too quickly....I was still thinking that I would eventually "grow-up and get a REAL job".
DEBS: Can you tell us how you make the journals? What materials do you use, and the process involved?
MYCHAL: I really try to be as "green" as I can. We use only surplus oil-tanned leathers. These are typically full hides that have been passed over, or rejected by larger manufacturers of handbags, belts, & boots. If a hide has even the tiniest imperfection, the big guys don't want to work their machinery around it, whereas my customers tend to gravitate toward those very pieces. I cut everything by hand, and so I actually try to highlight those particular "imperfections" by placing them right on the front of the book. The small leftover pieces usually are used for making our "cubs" ( little 3"x3", 40 page pocket books ). Most of my books have no scars or brands or stretch-marks from the cow,..but those that do tend to sell quickly in Texas! Our papers are all archival. 2 of them are custom made for us from recycled fabrics, and are treated specifically so that they don't bleed or allow inks from fountain pens or markers to soak through. We also recently started carrying a smoother paper that is not handmade, but it is awesome, and eco-friendly due to the fact that it is made from Bamboo. We tear every single page of our books to size by hand from the parent sheets which are typically 20"x30" or larger. Also, the hemp twine that we stitch our books with is hand-waxed entirely by us. It is very labor intensive, stitching a book by hand. There are no glues in our binding method, which makes the book more durable in the long run. Glues tend to break down over the years with fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and can cause the pages to fall out. Stitching the papers directly into the leather ensures that the two will remain a unit for many future generations to enjoy. Most of our leftover leathers and papers that are too small for our cubs get donated to local schools for art projects. I feel really good about the low impact we have on the environment. Trying to keep the landfills empty!
DEBS: You must meet interesting people at art fairs all over the
country, and have some very interesting customers. Can you tell us
about some of them?
MYCHAL: Ahh yes! I just returned from lunch with one of my favorite customers, Mikey. She is such an inspiration! When we met years ago at an art show, she had never really done art in her life, but was more sports minded gal. Then she saw my friend Benno's journal ( Benno is another story altogether!) She was so moved by his watercolor paintings that he fills his books with on his travels, that she decided to do an illustrated journal of her own upcoming trip to Africa. She bought a book called The Decorated Page, and really learned most of what she did with her journal from this book! And I must say, it has inspired thousands of folks! She's a gem of a person, as well as being an incredibly creative human being! ( And the fact that we both were given a boy's name at birth sort of bonded us immediately! Yes, my name is pronounced like "Michael" ) I also meet new fabulous people at art shows every weekend. My fellow artisans in the show are constantly amazing me with their skill and genius, and then the folks who come and show me what they've done with my books are always blowing my mind a little. I am just a craftsperson....I am good at what I do, I do know that...but I also have to admit that I don't always feel very artistic or super creative. It just makes me giddy sometimes seeing what my work brings out in other people. It truly is inspirational!
DEBS: Lately you've added antique hardware to some of your journals. How did you get interested in that, and how do you find the pieces?
MYCHAL: Oh I do love the new hardware pieces. I've been making the books as a business for almost 18 years now, and I was needing something new to give them a little boost....and I needed a new creative outlet. So I was thinking about the locks we used to have on diaries when I was a little girl. That made it so special and secret! So I headed out to Round Top, Texas ( halfway between Austin and Houston ), where there is this crazy gigantic flea market/fine antique show every year, to search for some inspiration. After digging around for hours, I found what I thought was an old decorative hasp that Icould attach to the cover of a book. I was able to find a male counterpart to use with it, and a sweet vintage padlock, and it sold almost immediately. But when I went searching for more, I couldn't find any, until some old geezer pointed out that what i had used had not been a hasp, but an old icebox hinge that just happened to have a perfect size hole in the front of it. Those particular hinges were nearly impossible to find...so I started searching for various icebox hinges, and had a metal worker friend cut slots in them so i could turn them into "hasps".....and it worked! Now I'm kind of obsessed with finding these old pieces for the books. It has evolved into using door hinges and doorknob back plates, and so forth. The rustier, the better. I've also been playing with patina solutions a bit, to try to get some blues and greens in the copper rivets that i use to attach the hardware. It's a little like being a painter, playing with the solutions and trying to get the perfect effect....sometimes frustrating, and sometimes pretty fun, I must say! It's really not a bad life at all!!
DEBS: So, dear REDS and readers, if you are as smitten with Iona as I am, visit Mychal's website and take a look at these stunning books. They come in all different shapes and sizes; they can be used as photo albums, sketch books, diaries, quilt journals, or--novel journals. Your imagination is the limit.
And just to get you started, Mychal is going to give away one of her "cubs", which is just the right size to tuck into a purse or pocket and go everywhere with you! I'll announce the lucky winner on tomorrow's blog, and in the meantime, Mychal will be checking in to answer questions and respond to comments.
(Oh, and by the way, my new journal looks very much like the teal one in the picture with the hydrangea, except mine is a lovely deep violet-wine color. You should be green with envy.)
And just for fun, I'm adding an impromptu pic from my first Iona journal. This is No Mark Upon Her in progress. Other pages have story threads, character names, photos clipped from magazines that suggested characters or settings. You can do anything, really, even if you don't consider yourself very artistic. Enjoy!