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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.

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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.

Filtering by Tag: bookbinding

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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Welcome back, #Booktober

Mary Sullivan

Every year when the leaves begin to turn, the air becomes crisp, and we wait for morning frost on the grass, I know we've come to my favorite month of the year, October! Why October? Well, it's birthday month for me and my two siblings and Mom makes the most incredible chocolate chip cookies ever—that is if she can keep us from eating all of the dough first!

Plus, there's Halloween. Love Halloween. I can also start to at least think about digging out my sweaters and scarves, make a list of the things that I could knit (but never seem to have time to) and then, of course, I bind a lot of books. I mean A LOT of books. I call this time Booktober.

My absolute favorite binding is the Springback binding. This is a demonstration of how a springback operates before the custom laminated card spring and split boards are covered by leather and decorative papers. 

My absolute favorite binding is the Springback binding. This is a demonstration of how a springback operates before the custom laminated card spring and split boards are covered by leather and decorative papers. 

Right around October, for those of you who aren't in the craft/trade show circuit, you may not know is that there's a short lull between the slew of shows during the hottest, miserable months of the year and the gradual pedal-to-the-metal snowballing of shows that begin to fill nearly every weekend until the end of December.

I do a lot of bookbinding demos at trade shows and festivals towards the end of the year. Last year at "Dickens of a Christmas" in historic Franklin, TN I dressed in Victorian garb and sewed books on a frame, a traditional production binding method used at a time when the trade was becoming more mechanized.

I do a lot of bookbinding demos at trade shows and festivals towards the end of the year. Last year at "Dickens of a Christmas" in historic Franklin, TN I dressed in Victorian garb and sewed books on a frame, a traditional production binding method used at a time when the trade was becoming more mechanized.

During this brief lull, as an artist and small business owner, I begin to prepare for this high-selling time by checking inventory, advertising, filling orders, and of course making new work. It's a season that many small businesses like mine depend on, to finish out the year on a high note. It's a time not just to sell work, but also to make connections, meet lots of new people, and connect with the people that use my books. 

The majority of my work is useful and perishable. Not perishable in the sense that it will spoil or that my books will fall apart, but perishable in that I design every book to be thoroughly and lovingly used to the very last page—written in, drawn in, carted around in a satchel, and tossed on counter tops at the coffee shop. The bottom line is that I build my books to last. Nothing makes me happier than being contacted by a former client who's just finished the last page and is back for a second or third journal.

During the month of #Booktober, I step outside of my usual bookbinding comfort zone by using different materials and methods of binding. This  watercolor journal  uses a walnut-dyed, handmade flax paper as a cover, thick watercolor paper, and decorative stitching on the spine! 

During the month of #Booktober, I step outside of my usual bookbinding comfort zone by using different materials and methods of binding. This watercolor journal uses a walnut-dyed, handmade flax paper as a cover, thick watercolor paper, and decorative stitching on the spine! 

These are the sorts of things that I think about in October, as I'm powering through my last production cycle of the year. Binding new books, working with beautiful materials like leather, linen blend cloths, and gorgeous papers in a range of hues and jewel tones that I haven't had a chance to use all year. Booktober is an opportunity for me to let loose in the bindery and mix all of these wonderful materials to make books that would otherwise never come into being.

CHB papers

To share this manic binding time with the world, I also share photos, quotes, and "did you knows" on social media. This year, I'm also doing something a little different. Every day in the month of Booktober (starting Monday the 3rd), I'll list one unique blank book for sale and share the live link to that one-of-a-kind book on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Every day a new book will be offered up and once it's gone, it's gone. I'm looking forward to #Booktober. Won't you join me?

Be sure to follow me on social media to get your hands on the daily #Booktober offering!

Facebook: www.facebook.com/CrowingHensBindery
Instagram: @crowinghensbindery https://instagram.com/crowinghensbindery/
Twitter: @crowinghensbind https://twitter.com/CrowingHensBind
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/crowinghensbind/

Art, Wine & Springbacks!

Mary Sullivan

Join me Tuesday evening, June 28th from 7-11pm at the legendary local wine and entertainment hub City Winery in Nashville, Tennessee for 'TREND' an exclusive arts, fashion, and music event hosted by RAW:Artists Nashville featuring the city's most buzzworthy up-and-coming creative talents! Tickets are only $15 each and tickets purchased on the Crowing Hens Bindery RAW:Artists page will also be entered in a drawing to win a deluxe handmade springback journal—an $85 value!!! 

*One entry per ticket, multiple tickets equal multiple entries. Tickets purchased elsewhere on the site are not eligible for this drawing.

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Talking shop in the shop.

Mary Sullivan

Julie Sola's store, Fat Crow Press at the Idea Hatchery in East Nashville.

Julie Sola's store, Fat Crow Press at the Idea Hatchery in East Nashville.

For the past few months I've been filling in at Fat Crow Press, the retail store of Julie Sola, a like-minded printmaker and former coworker from Hatch Show Print. On top of being an entrepreneur, a printmaker, an author, artist, and seamstress she is also a veteran wardrobe manager for touring musicians. Think Kiss, Madonna, Motley Crüe, Kanye West & Rod Stewart. When she’s on the road I manage her store on the weekends. Because our printmaking processes are identical I bring my own blocks to carve so that customers can witness the process, ask questions, and learn more about her work and printmaking in general.

One linocut in a forthcoming series of prints loosely inspired by state flowers, trees, and insects.

One linocut in a forthcoming series of prints loosely inspired by state flowers, trees, and insects.

It’s been a wonderful experience for me in so many ways. I have some place to be, something that self-employed craftsmen often struggle with. I get into the retail mindset, a role I had not practiced since working at Hatch Show Print. I get to imagine how I would eventually run my own brick-and-mortar store. But best of all, I get to talk shop.

The most recent block I finished this past weekend while tending Fat Crow Press was this block for a postcard.

The most recent block I finished this past weekend while tending Fat Crow Press was this block for a postcard.

Half of being a bookbinder, printmaker, and craftsman is doing the work. The other half is promoting it. This includes learning how to explain your profession, how and why you do it. You become an educator, a proselytizer of craft practices.

Sometimes you get a clean slate, a curious person who has had no exposure to your craft. Those encounters are magical. As you explain the process, you glimpse a twinkle behind their eyes and realize that you are opening up a world of possibility to a person who had no idea that it even existed. And then you meet those interested people who truly get it. They’re either in the club, they’ve watched the ball game, or they simply appreciate what you do because they recognize that it is important.

I met one of those people this weekend. This gentleman and I talked letterpress, linocuts, and bookbinding. I didn’t have to defend my craft against e-books or e-mail. He didn’t shove me in the mainstream and make me swim against today’s current of technology. The man got it. He came into the shop not once, but twice to show off Julie’s work to his friends and to chat with me some more about my bookbinding. I gave him my card, we shook hands, and he was excited to send me his letterpress printed business card that he had recently commissioned. Smiles, it seems, breed smiles and it was the highlight of my week. Until Monday.

Coffee, check. Feet up, check. Full hummingbird feeders, check. Let the birdwatching begin!

Coffee, check. Feet up, check. Full hummingbird feeders, check. Let the birdwatching begin!

Mondays are typically my day off when I work on the weekends. And I had a full schedule of coffee, cats, and bird watching until I checked my work e-mail. And there he was, this man. Not only had he taken my business card, but he had also looked up my website, browsed my store, and contacted me.

Denim & Sienna Scribe, one of many new ruled and blank springback journals that are now available in my online store, featuring hand painted pastepapers and Italian linen-blend cloth. 

Denim & Sienna Scribe, one of many new ruled and blank springback journals that are now available in my online store, featuring hand painted pastepapers and Italian linen-blend cloth. 

I have spent this past year building inventory, applying to trade shows, teaching, and building a website and an online presence. It’s a lot of work for a one-woman-show, especially in the first year. Product is made, trade shows are packed and unpacked. The studio waxes and wanes in tidiness, and occasionally the online store gets restocked. After a full year of production I have bound hundreds of books and pulled thousands of prints. And Monday, thanks to this man and his interest in a springback journal with ruled pages, I finally photographed and listed my latest inventory.

Thank you, sir for that friendly and unknowing kick in the grown-up pants. I hope you enjoy your new journal. Tell your friends, make them jealous, and pass along that business card. You, sir, have made my month!

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