post purgatory and post-post purgatory with a commissioned sketchbook

As promised to myself on my laundry list of “to-do”s for the summer, I will finally tend to some blog posts that have been in draft purgatory for far too long. And by far too long I mean over three years…but this one doesn’t date back that far, just a couple years–more precisely to my first commissioned bookbinding job, a sketchbook, circa my second semester in my MFA program. So why care at all about relinquishing these purgatory-placed drafts now? Well, in part because this summer weather has Dante’s Inferno and the nine layers of hell on my mind and they’re mostly just photography based posts, and who doesn’t like photos? Not only can I shamelessly reminisce through my old photos, but it’ll clear my drafted list and my blog conscience.

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Coptic Binding Workshop with Julia Miller



It has been a while since I posted. Mostly because, well, grad school and other things. And while finding words is usually not a problem for me, lately anything longer than an photo caption has been a challenge–sad to admit, but it’s kind of true. For reasons I won’t go into now, I’ve temporarily lost my writing mojo. So this post, and possibly the next few, will be mostly photo based (but who doesn’t like photos?).

This past semester I was fortunate to participate in a weekend workshop with the legendary Julia Miller, author of Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. As a book historian and bench-trained conservator, Miller has done extensive research and model making of the Nag Hammadi codices. In this workshop we focused on the Morgan Library’s MS M.671.1, a 13th century prayer book written in a dialect of Coptic and Arabic. MS M.671.1 features an interesting combination of Coptic and Islamic binding characteristics–one that Miller believes to be transitional binding. The workshop was so great–not only did I come away with a historical model and Islamic endband mastery, but also with the realization that I just really want to be bookbinding historian extraordinaire Julia Miller.


MS M.671.1 measures 108 x 95 x 12 mm with cartonnage boards. Here I’m crinkling paper before pasting them together to create the cartonnage.


Applying gum arabic to some select interior folios for burnishing in the fashion of Islamic papers (scans of two interior pages shown here)


Busy working


Coptic sewing using hand-spun thread


The beginnings of an Islamic endband


Secondary part of the Islamic endband


preparing the leather for covering


Making our own leather stamping tools from wooden dowels




this must have been taken during lunch break


Lower cover (back) of Julia Miller’s model of MS M.671.1 which features the leather spine repair seen on the original


Upper cover (front) of Julia Miller’s model of MS M.671.1


tooling the cover


Making my goucho style leather toggle. A tightly wrapped strip of leather that is pierced with an awl and the tail fed through the pierced hole.


Miller’s historical toggle examples


Covered binding and completed Islamic endband


My completed model of MS M


completed model of MS M.671.1 — the original shows rather skewed tooling so I tried to stay true to that, despite my OCD.


completed model of MS M.671.1

3rd Semester in Review

A collection of photos from my third semester (circa Fall 2014)–I’m almost caught up to the year 2015! This time I even graced you with some semi-informative captions.

Letterpress III- Imagemaking on the Vandercook Proof Press


Bookbinding III



Historical Course: The Transition from Manuscript to Print

(My favorite time in history! Had the opportunity to study more early printed books from the University of Iowa’s Special Collections. I wrote an in-depth material and historical analysis of the small leather book photographed below.)

2nd Semester in Review

I’m finally getting around to posting photos of my 2nd semester work, circa Spring 2014, in the MFA Book Arts program. This is just the beginning of my attempt to take care of a serious blog backlog (some drafted posts have been in post purgatory for two years!). If I had been better about this at the time, these would all have detailed blurbs about each project, but for now I’ll just bombard you with pretty photos from semesters past.

Bookbinding II


Letterpress II


Topics in Book History: Materials, Makers, & Users

First Semester Review: Calligraphy Blackletter Hands

The third and final instillation of my “First Semester Review”. Finally! It’s halfway through the current semester aaaaaand I’m still posting about the last one. Oops. But now I can (hopefully) move on to posting more current/super cool things I’m working on! Well…that’s my goal anyways. We’ll see what grad school has to say about that.

For those of you that don’t know: I’m left-handed.

Yup. I said it. I’m part of that small whatever percent of the population that gets asked the most obvious/peeved question by on lookers while writing “Wait, are you left-handed?!”. Noooooo, I just decided to pick it up today.

Clearly, this lefty has some rightie-world issues. Calligraphy is one of them.

My love for lettering started, well, a long time ago though my modern lettering practice began mostly while I was in Ukraine. I would spend hours writing, sketching, and analyzing. So not only am I a self-proclaimed typography snob, but a hand lettering snob, too. Basically, I love letters.

In my adolescence I bought a “Calligraphy Starter Kit” and tried as I might, I SUCKED. I thought it was hopeless and couldn’t for the life of me understand why my letters never looked like the ones in the book. Little did I know that it wasn’t my skill at all (for once!), it was literally because I was doing it wrong (though not by fault).

Wrong you ask? Oh, I mean wrong because I’m left-handed. But how?!? Well, because calligraphy is actually designed for right-handed people. The pen nibs, strokes, and angles are all designed by dragging the pen rather than pushing the pen the left-handed way.

I can’t even get most regular pens to work so why should I think calligraphy should work. Thankfully lefties are quick adapters — we have to be! — and on the first day of class, as the only lefty in sight, I finally figured out the great mystery behind why calligraphy never worked for me.

It’s because I have to write at a 90* angle. 90*s!!! (no, not the band)

Let’s get this straight — I’m not a “hookie” or a “sideways writer” or any of those weird terms people call lefties. I hold my pen/wrist like any other rightie out there…just…with my left hand. So imagine having to turn your paper 90* and learn to write your letters sideways and work on a sentence from top to bottom. Talk about mind-blowing. It wasn’t easy at all. And though things got easier with endless hours of hand-cramping practice, it still didn’t feel natural.

I’m (clearly) still beyond frustrated since I’ve tried to turn my well practiced lettering art (that I do mostly in pen and pencil) into a calligraphed hand but my style doesn’t transfer well into 90* side ways writing. There’s always hope of course. I’m sure with years of sideways writing practice I’ll improve. But at least for now I’ve mastered a few blackletter hands and can sideways write all the love letters to Dracula I could possibly fancy.

Rant complete. Now enjoy some photos.

First Semester Review: Bookbinding I

Continuing with my series, I now present a semester review of Bookbinding I.

I love bookbinding. Like, I really, really love it — which is why I’m continuing in Bookbinding II this semester. Prior to this class, I hadn’t had any experience in bookbinding, well, other than constructing mock-ups of pamphlets and books for graphic design. Even back then, the mock-up production phase was my favorite part of the whole graphic design process (that should have been my first clue). There’s so much precision and exactness in measurements and production that this highly anal retentive girl can just go to town with! It’s great. Basically, to be semi-melodramatic-but-also-totally-serious, bookbinding changed my life. If I’m not making books I quite literally miss making them. Some might say I have a problem, but it’s a problem I’m very okay with having.

First Semester Review: Letterpress I

A while back I had the idea of creating a “Semester Review” on Borscht & Babushkas as a way to share with you all what I’ve actually been up to in my MFA Book Arts studies. And also, you know, just so you have some evidence that I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth or that watching marathons of LOST is not the reason I’ve been slacking on blogging (although that does sound quite nice).

This is part one of three in my “Semester Review” series that will feature my classes from last semester: Letterpress I, Bookbinding I, and Calligraphy Blackletter Hands. Well…actually it’s a three year MFA program so technically this is Part One of Six which would make this post Part One (A)…or something like that…

All technicalities aside, I’m absolutely loving my program –– which is good because it’s uhhhh pretty much my entire life. While I haven’t exactly had time to post recipes with tantalizing food photography or every reminiscent thought I’ve had about Ukraine (I’d probably run out of blog space if I did that), I have for the most part semi-diligently documented my work throughout the semester (thanks camera phone!). At some point I will take much nicer photos of my finished projects, with a real camera, but I find the process photos just as interesting and I hope you do as well.

(click on the first photo to view in a larger slideshow format)

Field of Dreams

For the past couple months I’ve been dealing with another running injury, this time my other leg. NOT COOL LEGS, NOT COOL. I’ve thought about sawing them off. I might have a good shot at the special olympics that way. But I’m pretty sure they don’t take self-amputees, so I guess that’s not really a good idea. I’ve been dealing with running injuries since…March basically. First my left leg, now my right. Ugh. Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling. All I want to do is run. Run across the country and grow a long beard. Oh wait, that was Forest.

When you’re not dealing with injury, running is one of the greatest things. You don’t need any real equipment, you just lace up, and go. Anywhere. It’s freedom at its purest. Running outside in Ukraine always felt so freeing — well, when I wasn’t worrying about the 2,348 million things that came with running there. But those moments running solo in the fields, watching the sun set over my village, or seeing a flock of crows take-off from the newly plowed land – those moments were breathtaking.

My Ukrainian village isn’t the only place to feel that way though. My hometown in Illinois is dotted with forest preserves and prairie paths that take me back to Ukraine (I mean not literally, I couldn’t run that far, but mentally). I guess if I run far enough out of Iowa City I’d surely end up in some cornfields…but some things just aren’t the same.

Throughout two years of my Peace Corps service I dreamt of having the luxurious option of going to the gym. Especially on those days when the windchill crept at a low -20*F and I had to go on a training run, or when I grew tired of my MTV yoga videos, Tony Horton’s voice, or lifting Ukrainian children as dumbbells…I dreamt of the gym and all its glory.

In Ukraine, I ran throughout the winter with very limited running accessories, ran the same routes a billion times. I severely rolled my eyes when anyone in my distant homeland complained about having to go to the gym. I thought, “COOOOOME ONNNN you guys, I would trade 100 goats for that option!”. But…that was then.

Now I’m at a big 10 university where most of my tuition dollars are funneled into a state-of-the-art gym that looks more like the inside of a Carnival cruise ship and has a (rather ironic) lazy river running through it. Yea. I’d never been to a gym like that since my family is a family of YMCA people — the kind of gym where you’re lucky if they have A/C, the machines might be built in a Flintstone fashion, and the average age is 78.

Basically, the first time in my new gym caused a near melt-down. I went to the gym looking for a simple bike machine to ease my running pain and found only touch screens and gaming programs. I tried about 4 different machines, feeling overwhelmed by the options, the choices, the buttons that aren’t actually buttons because it’s a screen. An elderly woman watched, judging from behind me (probably not, but it felt like it). She clearly had no problem operating these machines, but I felt SO DUMB, so out of place, so behind. I’m a young person, and young people are supposed to know these things, right?

I gave up on the bike and wandered to the treadmills, since those are something I can usually figure out. Even then the machine was way more complicated than necessary, and my attempt to run brought tears of pain. Great. Crying at the gym. Those people muse have thought I was a loony for sure. It wasn’t the best gym day. I left thinking of how much I wish I could run and how overly state-of-the-art the gym has become.

Basically, I’m back to first world problems — the hot tub’s too hot, too many options for dining out, the gym is too techie, etc.  I finally have a gym, and I’m complaining about it, ha. That’s really what it comes down to. I have that option yet all the terrifying techno mumbo jumbo machines make me dream of running in the fields of my Ukrainian village (though, maybe without the packs of wild unfriendly dogs).

I’ve been missing my village. Of course not every aspect of it, I’m quite alright with not having to take bucket baths again, hearing pigs being slaughtered or cat sex at night. Nope, don’t miss those things. But I do miss the simplicity. I miss walking through the fields and hearing only the wind.

Grad school has been keeping me busy, busier than I’ve been in a long long while so my nights aren’t spent writing anymore, which I really do miss. Instead I’m waist-deep hand binding books, setting and printing metal type, and practicing blackletter (gothic) calligraphy — but I love it, so that works. I guess my socially atypical rejection of technology fits rather nicely with the work I’m pursuing. All I need is a time machine set to 1450 (oh and I’d need to be a man cause I would never go back in time as a woman).

Annnnnyways, time has been passing quickly and most days I feel so distanced from Ukraine. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m still readjusting, or that I’m busy with school, but in so many ways I’ll stop and wonder about my Peace Corps service and think “Huh, that really did happen.” I’m not really sure how to describe the feeling. I feel a bit like Kevin Costner finding sanctuary in the open field but not knowing exactly why. Well, except I don’t hear voices telling me to build a baseball field. But most of the time, Ukraine feels like some sort of weird and distant dream — one that involved zero baseball but a lot of mayonnaise, marshutkas, and mesh.

It’s technically only been 5 months since I left Ukraine, but I haven’t heard anything from the Ukrainians I invested time to make connections with. It makes me wonder if I didn’t try hard enough, if they even remember me, if they’ve forgotten. I miss seeing my students, their hilarious personalities, and watching them grow. I miss writing about the ridiculous things that would happen in my week. At the moment I feel so disconnected from it all. I’m standing in the field waiting to hear the voices, waiting for them to remind me, for it to come back and ground me.

But it all grows hazy in the distance.


September 1st

Some of you might be wondering what I’ve been up to since I haven’t been blogging as religiously as I had in Ukraine. I know, I know, shame on me! But really, I’ve been a little lost — lost in lala letter land (feverishly practicing my lettering skills) and lost in America and what exactly I even write about anymore. Maybe I can’t write without Ukraine. Maybe Ukraine was my writer’s mojo, for it certainly did supply me with endless stories of drunken dealings, cultural confusions, and transportation trepidation.

Now my life is…is….boring? Okay, boring might not be the right word. But it’s certainly much less exciting and spontaneous (not that every day of my life in Ukraine was just that). Really, I shouldn’t say life is boring per se because in reality I just moved to a new city and started my graduate studies in Book Arts — something that couldn’t be more perfect for my interests. My studies in and of themselves are pretty freaking awesome!!! and I’m already in love with my classes (Letterpress I, Bookbinding I, and Calligraphy Blackletter hands) and the work I’ll be doing this semester.

But other than that, uuuuh, I have no life. Ha. It’s true.  But let me tell ya, my lettering skills have improved significantly because of it! I haven’t been here very long and I’m no newbie to moving somewhere new and ‘integrating’, but making friends here seems so daunting right now.  Amongst volunteers, you were basically all insta-friends, though closer to some than others. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to have a normal social life…or have normal anything…though I’m not sure normal is what I want anyways.

Yesterday was the first U of Iowa football game which meant that there were about 4 times the number of (most likely underage) undergrads day drinking than entire population of my village. If going to Walmart made me freak-out, you can bet I didn’t really care to be around tailgating mayhem. So like a true loser I walked from my apartment to campus to get some art supplies for homework. Ended up forgetting my wallet (d’oh!) and had to walk back thinking I’d avoid the stadium but ended up on what is apparently THE tailgating street. Nothing reminded me more of just how out-of-place I’ve felt since coming home than walking against the tailgating flow as the only sober person. It felt like everyone was a blur around me, a blur that I don’t feel like I can really relate to (well, actually, I was probably the blur to them). Before even moving to campus, while I was applying, I had premonitions that I’d feel pretty out of sorts in this super American environment. I knew, even then, that this would be a major change so it will take some time.

While I can’t relate to the blur of tipsy tailgaters or the guy wearing a beer box on his head, I can relate to geeking-out with my fellow classmates on all things book. My fellow classmates get me on that level at least and it’s great to be around art people again. And I really do see potential friendships there (I mean, our classes are pretty damn small so I hope we’re friends!). Also, the internet tells me there’s a Peace Corps association for the University of Iowa that I’m hoping to get involved with and meet people that way. So I know I’ll have friends here eventually (there is hope!).

But for now it’s a whole lot of missing my Peace Corps friends and Ukraine, still feeling slightly out-of-place, figuring out this blog, yearning to travel already, loving my classes, and of course lots of lettering practice.

Now, enjoy some photos.