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Nashville, Tennessee 37211

Crowing Hens Bindery is a one-woman bindery and letterpress print shop that specializes in traditional handmade blank books, letterpress printed stationery, limited edition fine art prints, unique book jewelry & letterpress-printed decorative papers. As the owner of a Nashville-based private business, I do my best to honor the heritage of fine craft and art that saturates my community and region. All of my products are designed and made by hand in Nashville, Tennessee from high quality materials available using traditional bookbinding techniques. I aspire to create beautiful, useful work that becomes a part of your everyday life.

Blog

Bookbinding, printmaking, and toolmaking are elements of my business and my profession but they're not necessarily in step with today's fast paced digital culture. 

This blog, "Meet Mary" will be an opportunity for me to demystify my work and allow me to describe my products and their manufacture in greater detail. Whether I'm working on a production run for a new run of springbacks, developing a new line of decorative papers, or experimenting with new techniques or materials for boutique tools, my goal is for you to be able to see my work in progress and get to know me as a person, craftsman, and small business owner.

Rediscovering Purpose

Mary Sullivan

I’m back in the bindery again, finally getting into the rhythm of shop life as I work to complete custom orders, answer a backlog of emails, and attempt to keep in touch with new friends and colleagues that I met in Idaho more than a month ago. I am also writing a blog series on the experience. You can read the first installment here!

My Oldways crew for the first 2 weeks on our last morning together, holding completed Gothic and Romanesque bindings. Click names for personal websites and ambitions. Top row from left to right:  Brien Beidler ,  Kerri Cushman ,  Brenna Jael . Bottom row from left to right:  Jim Croft , yours truly,  Roger Williams , Laura Miller, Evan Davis,  Alyssa Sacora ,  Kelly Moody ,  Kimberly Kwan , and resident poet Justin Williams. Not pictured: Melody Ekroth (photographer),  Peter Thomas , and the 3rd-week crew yet to arrive.

My Oldways crew for the first 2 weeks on our last morning together, holding completed Gothic and Romanesque bindings. Click names for personal websites and ambitions. Top row from left to right: Brien Beidler, Kerri Cushman, Brenna Jael. Bottom row from left to right: Jim Croft, yours truly, Roger Williams, Laura Miller, Evan Davis, Alyssa Sacora, Kelly Moody, Kimberly Kwan, and resident poet Justin Williams. Not pictured: Melody Ekroth (photographer), Peter Thomas, and the 3rd-week crew yet to arrive.

During my interview with Kelly Moody, our Oldways leather instructor, for a forthcoming episode of The Ground Shots Podcast, (subscribe and support on Patreon!) I said that my biggest takeaway from this workshop was definitely the people I met. The chemistry was wonderful and downright spooky. It felt like everyone had been best friends for decades which is the last thing you’d expect from a group of 12+ strangers. It was unlike any other workshop experience I’ve ever had, for people to fall in with each other so easily and earnestly. I miss them all dearly and I will challenge myself to develop these new friendships and not to disappear as daily life throws mindless minutia at me. 

There was another thing I took away from the workshop, something unexpected but perhaps something I was hoping for: permission. Permission to change. Permission to try new things. Permission to reprioritize myself, my business, and the parts of my job that bring me joy.

The focus of the bindery has constantly evolved over the course of five years of being in business. I designed my business this way so that it would allow me to do anything and everything to stay engaged and diversify my skills. I’ve designed a full in-house inventory of high end journals, notebooks, art prints, decorative papers, book jewelry, even shirts and mugs that I sell on Tee Public. I’ve completed custom book and print commissions. I sell my goods both wholesale and retail while managing three websites and all of my social media profiles. I’ve tried out the trade show circuit, taught workshops, and performed bookbinding demonstrations in Victorian era costume. I’ve given lectures, served on panels, and experimented with book arts installations. It’s a lot of work for one person and much of the work behind the scenes, what you don’t get to see, sometimes keeps me from the studio.

Some of the work such as accounting, web management, product photography, filling and shipping orders, and responding to emails are directly related to the bindery. Other things like working part time jobs are indirectly related. While they obviously keep me out of the studio they make it possible for me to come back to it.

At one point earlier this year I was working three separate part time jobs in addition to the bindery. It was too much, but the problem was that I loved each of them. I was teaching an Intro to 2D Design class at Middle Tennessee State University, a prospect that has always intimidated me. I got to teach students not only how to make art, but how to see and think about art. I was on the frontlines of educating a new class of talented artists, activists, educators, critics, and consumers. That’s a huge responsibility! I hope I made an impact on my students to think critically about their potential and the power and responsibility they have as young, engaged artists. I know I grew more confident as an instructor and I can’t thank my buddy Thor Rollins enough for lovingly kicking me in the pants to try it and the department for giving me the opportunity. 

Taken on my last day of teaching at MTSU after our final critique.

Taken on my last day of teaching at MTSU after our final critique.

Part time job number 2 is one that I’ve worked on and off for over 10 years, starting back when I was employed at the famous Hatch Show Print as a letterpress poster printer and designer from 2006-2011. I worked at FRAMED! part time as a framing technician and consultant for longer than I’ve been binding books if that says anything about how great the job was. After I graduated from the University of Iowa Center for the Book and started to slowly grow the bindery, I went back to framing because I needed camaraderie. Working solo in a home studio for a few years does a lot to morale, even for an introvert. I made many friends at the frame shop and learned from a woman who has grown a reputable, successful small business purely by the caliber of the work and by word of mouth. The work we did, the solutions we designed, and the sheer volume of input and output was astounding. If there is one piece of advice I would give to young artists it’s to work in a frame shop. The knowledge of how to properly and safely house artwork, no mater the media, is a valuable tool that you will get nowhere else.

My third and newest side hustle is completely unrelated to bookbinding and physically demanding: rigging. Rigging? Yup. My best friend, with whom I’ve rock climbed for almost 13 years now, her partner works for a locally owned rigging company at a convention center in downtown Nashville. He’d been trying to recruit me for years, knowing that I love to climb, that I like a good challenge, and that I’m a hard worker. Earlier this year I tried it out and fell in love with it instantly, not because it has anything to do with bookbinding, but because it had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Each day is a challenge both physically and mentally but somehow I always manage to come home with an abundance of energy—to create, to workout, to socialize, to take care of myself. I learn something new every day that I rig and I can feel myself getting stronger.

Exhibit A: My fictional Victorian storefront carved as stationery.

Exhibit A: My fictional Victorian storefront carved as stationery.

It’s strange, the expectations we put on ourselves to be successful, how we measure our own success. Even before I earned my MFA and moved back to Nashville I dreamed of a brick and mortar store with a quaint Victorian storefront full of equipment and retail stock and employing fellow bookbinders and printmakers. It didn’t matter that I had no savings, that I had no previous experience growing or running a business. It was the shiny pot at the end of the rainbow that I imagined for my business and for myself. At the time it seemed like a reasonable, albeit naïve goal.

 I also never would have dreamed of holding down a part time job much less three just to make ends meet, or even admitting it to anyone outside my circle of family and friends. I thought that revealing that I was holding down multiple jobs would somehow invalidate my work as a bookbinder and tear down that third wall that might reveal me as an imposter. My experiences this year, especially at the Oldways workshop, has changed my thinking and I now have permission to accept that I may always have another job besides the bindery, and that most small business owners have some sort of side hustle they may or may not talk about. I also came to realize that there might be some practical advantage in doing so.

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Earlier this year I was interviewed by Rob Wilds for an episode of Tennessee Crossroads, a local NPT show that highlights successful local businesses and artists. Before the shoot date it occurred to me that while I had been busy with my various part time jobs I had rarely set foot in the bindery except to fill a random online order or reprint a greeting card design. My bindery had been forgotten, it was an afterthought, and just as I was about to be filmed hard at work I realized that I was woefully out of practice. The book that I finished in the episode, which was shot in February, was the first book I had completed in months. Even still, I was running the risk of burning out. This realization hit home, and hard.

My health had also steadily degenerated. I was exhausted, my back hurt all the time, and workouts had become more infrequent. I wasn’t sleeping well, I was eating poorly, and I wasn’t socializing—I didn’t have the time! On top of all of that I was creatively drained. I had no energy or inspiration to create new work and I was running the risk of disappointing clients by simply not having enough time in the bindery to complete commissions. I needed to make some changes.

I realized at Oldways this year, taking the workshop for the second time, how much I missed the creative exploration that comes with building historic bindings; making the tools, making the materials, the whole learning process. After all, my entire master’s thesis revolved around an all but extinct style of stationery binding that became an obsession because of its meticulous design and utility. Since I started my bindery I have had a vision of the kind of books I’ve wanted to design but haven’t given myself the time or granted myself the authority to begin making them.

My rustic Oldways-style springback: a ‘vellum’ laced springback binding, bound entirely from materials made or found at Oldways.

My rustic Oldways-style springback: a ‘vellum’ laced springback binding, bound entirely from materials made or found at Oldways.

The last time that I attended this workshop nine years ago I accepted bookbinding as my calling. This time around I was hoping for a similar impression—a realization, some guiding force that would help me sift through the self-inflicted chaos of the past year and make sense of my path moving forward. But in my distraction of Oldways euphoria this desperate pursuit of inspiration was swept aside, replaced by making, exhaustion, and community. Every now again these feelings surfaced through the din of the Hollander beater or in the flames of a late night campfire and I confided in my colleagues over a generous cocktail. Every answer was the same, just like those I received from my family and friends back home.

Pursue the work that makes you truly happy and weed out the things that keep you running in sand.

This is where I am right now. I’m weeding. Expectations, obligations, relationships, side projects, hoarded tools and materials—everything is now being examined. What does this mean for the bindery? It may mean that some of my offerings will expire as stock runs low. I might change their design or process and make fewer of them to suit this new energy. My output may decrease but the work I choose to put my energy into will be far more meaningful and engaging for my clientele and myself. I’m reexamining my intentions both professionally and in my own life to prioritize what gears me up instead of what wears me out.

The change isn’t going to be (and hasn’t been) easy. I’ve relinquished two jobs that I loved, both of which managed to come along exactly when I needed them. I see some of my dear friends and former colleagues far less than I would like as a result. I’ve accepted a new part time gig that offers new challenges and a flexible work schedule that allows me to prioritize my time in the bindery. I like to think of myself as a strong person—begrudgingly petite, sure but strong for my size. But rigging has also highlighted how physically weak I’ve become from ignoring my health, fitness, and nutrition.

I am also reexamining my personal and professional expectations. When I started the bindery I began growing bonsai from seed, watching them slowly grow in small pots on my window sill. They were supposed to teach me patience. Some have survived and some have not, but I have consistently planted new seeds to see what pops up next. This year I also started collecting spent pencil nibs in a small medicine jar that I harvested from a fire dump at my undergraduate university. It was intended to be a metaphor for my persistence. Dropping an extinguished pencil into the bottle was supposed to measure my progress and reinforce how hard I’ve been working. The truth is that I already had a collection of half-used pencils and the mirage of whittling full-length pencils down to the nub as evidence of hard work was a false measure of success.

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This tiny bottle has now come to represent something else—purpose. I’m measuring the weight of my decisions and focusing my energy on what drives me, what inspires me to make. I’m reexamining the things in my life that energize me and excited me. I’m investing my time and energy into the people, places, and things that allow me to prioritize my passions and myself. I want to be reminded to work slower, more deliberately—making decisions because I want to, not out of a misguided sense of obligation. More than anything, I want to be constantly reminded of why I was initially drawn to a centuries-old trade and recapture the obsession that consumed me when I first began to make books. I’m finding purpose again—in this jar, in my life, and in my trade. And the pressure and fear of not being able to live up to unrealistic expectations is slowly, gradually diminishing—like the pencilettes and the space inside this previously useless bottle.

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