Reimagining the Classics

Design / Life

Cowaramup book artist Molly Coy takes the age-old tradition of bookbinding and rewrites its place in history with a unique and artful approach.



The relationship between artists and books goes back millennia, but where – in a modern world of audio books and iPads – can an old-fashioned bookbinder find a niche?

The answer, in this case, is in the southwest region of WA, where painter, printmaker and passionate artisan bookbinder Molly Coy puts ink (among other painterly materials) to paper.


From her studio in Cowaramup, she illuminates me on the rich, delicate and painstaking world of books. “Artists and books have a 1000 year history,” Molly says.


She relays tales of medieval monks applying calligraphy and illuminations through to Guttenburg’s Bibles, which were the first major printed book to roll off the press in Europe around 1455, replete with artist embellishments and illustrations.


Molly’s career detoured from working and teaching in the visual arts into management at the School of Printing, part of Central TAFE.


It ignited within her this ardent love affair with the traditional art of bookbinding and restoration. “With the first mass production of books the world was treated to beautiful letterpress printed on linen, cotton, hemp and flax papers,” Molly says. “Wonderful artistic engravings and fine bindings created books that would last a hundred years – and I dedicated 15 years to lovingly restoring books of this ilk.”


She was dismayed to learn how binding had historically celebrated books and had also played a role in their downgrading, due to the progression of the industry. “Technology increased apace to embrace offset printing, wood pulp paper, ‘perfect’ binding (the biggest misnomer of all time) and paperbacks, which would start to deteriorate as soon as they were opened,” she says. “In my opinion, this was the dark ages of book production.”


The light at the end of the tunnel – according to Molly – is the book arts movement, which sprung up primarily in the USA in 1970s.


It saw “artist books” often conceived, written, designed, printed, and bound by an individual or groups of artists. “This movement was, and remains, artists rediscovering and reinvigorating the traditional expertise of fine press, print making and design binding while also encompassing new technologies,” Molly says. “It challenges the traditional convention of physical design and printed content with bold experimental approaches, pushing the boundaries and redefining the idea of a book.”


After selling her book restoration business in 2015, Molly found time to paint, study and redefine her professional practice. She established a new studio and began studying printmaking, developing a portfolio of block, intaglio and monotype prints. “I discovered that creating books was still something I just had to do,” she says. “This mix of skills led me to the creation of artist books as one of the major components of my professional practice, applying my book making skills into the creation of individual and limited edition artist books, combining mixed media and print-making within the book structure.”


Molly now considers herself a book artist, and says: “Often people are confused by the terms book arts and artist books, they are one of the same thing. The way I would describe it is – books by artists, books of art, and books as art/art objects.”


Book art has grown from an esoteric medium with a few dozen practitioners and no audience to a field with thousands of artists and a wide audience.

The act of publication/making is to produce single copies and limited editions for exhibition. The works often combine linguistic and visual elements, which artists and book designers then integrate with bookbinding, conceptual art and printing technologies. During the last decade or so there have been many gallery exhibits including this type of work, and for Molly it has meant her books being purchased by both public and private collectors. In 2016 she collaborated with letterpress printer Claire Bolton to create a limited edition of 12 original artist books, featuring her own painted pages and fine art prints alongside Claire’s hand printed text, with the South West’s diverse environments and flora as inspiration. Of the resulting ‘HANDSCAPES’ series, 1/12 won the 2016 City of Busselton (acquisitive) Art Award and 2/12 was purchased by the State Library, 3/12 by the National Library, 4 & 5 /12 went to private collectors and 6/12 was purchased by Queensland University for their Artist Book Collection.


As an artisan binder, Molly’s continual evolution of bookbinding skills has now led to the creation of many individual and limited edition artist books that combine mixed media and print-making within the book structure. “My work as a book artist tends to sit in the space between tradition and technology, embracing ages old hand-skills and modern materials but incorporating tactile and sensory qualities to visually describe my emotional connection to place, nature and change,” Molly says. “By painting and manipulating pages, adding text by hand, layering materials and textures I intend to evoke memories and stimulate reflection.”


Molly says book artistry is about finding new ways of communicating thoughts, ideas and emotions.

“Mine, and all artist books, are all about celebrating the ideas of craft and tradition,” she says. “But more importantly those particular qualities of mind, heart and the hand of the maker, that keep art and books both anchored and constantly evolving.”


Her latest works – paintings, prints, artist books and fabrics – are all colourful, layered and textured. “I also use many different illustrative techniques – collagraph, etchings, linocuts, plant prints, metal and wood type – all combining to give a rich indulgence of visual experience and textures,” she says. “As a retired restoration bookbinder I like to keep my traditional binding and finishing skills in play, working in leather, gold foils and leaf.”


Today, as books become increasingly digital, there has been a rise in the creation and appreciation of the tome as an iconographic object. And so Molly Coy and her fellow book artists are helping this ancient medium to transcend, creating pieces of art that will endure into modern classics.


Molly is currently exhibiting two paintings and an Artist Book ‘Layered Lands Capes’ in the ‘South West Art Now’ Exhibition at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery. Her work will be in the Vasse Art Award/Exhibition (April 14 – 21) and the Margaret River Open Studios Event, April 28-May 13, 2018.

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