Several years ago during a course at Penland, I shared a meal with Margaret Couch Cogswell, then Artist in Residence of Penland's coveted three-year residency program. I was just beginning my transition from government contractor to artist and wanted Margaret's input on the shift at mid-life.
She was forthright and generous with her perspective, encouraging me to focus on the work and tune out the noise in my head about it being too late or that I needed to have a formal art degree before I'd be taken seriously. After all, look at what she had accomplished by following her own advice.
Fast forward a few years, and Margaret is once again dispensing generous, accessible advice on how to follow your bliss. In her first book, Book Play, Margaret invites us into her whimsical world of handmade books and bookish objects...wearable crowns, tiny wheeled sculptures, hand painted journals, and more...all ours for the making by following her friendly, clear instructions.
Margaret shows us how to create a slew of original projects, many of which make clever use of unfancy materials and supplies. Nonetheless, I found myself making a shopping list of things to try, enchanted by many of her ideas: milk paint, black gesso, shellac flakes, baling wire, tin, oh my!
More important than materials lists and how-to's, perhaps, is how Margaret lets us in on part of her process. From her ongoing relationship with personal journals ("the foundation of my work, a visual narrative that supports my interior and exterior worlds") to how she found her footing as an untrained drawer and painter—her story is one that inspires.
Through Book Play, Margaret marries accessible projects with fine craftsmanship and the art of the book. By emphasizing the correct-but-not-overly-stuffy way to get the job done (she loves a good glue stick!) and sharing beautifully-shot images of her own fine work, a standard is set that elevates the craft. It's like she's saying, "It's just fine to be a beginner, but don't compromise on doing good work."
Thoughtful interviews with six accomplished book artists place the projects in a broader context, while Margaret's own explanations about why she chooses specific materials further reinforce the gestalt of her book art:
"Pencil is a primary material in my work for two reasons. First, it represents impermanence and vulnerability—with the swipe of an eraser it is gone. The second reason represents a central theme running throughout my work: honoring the common, everyday objects and moments in our lives."
Once again, I find myself appreciating Margaret's unique contribution as a book artist and teacher. But what's special about Book Play is that now more people—beginners and seasoned artists alike—can experience Margaret's kindness and special brand of encouragement through her book.