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Go ahead and judge Jana Pullman’s books by their covers

The binder and book artist has been awarded the 2013 Book Artist of the Year award from the Minnesota Book Awards committee.

Jana Pullman's cover for Sigurd Olson's "Open Horizons"

We are rich in books. So rich that when we are done reading them, we don’t think a thing about instantly deleting them or stowing them into the Little Free Library down the street. Gone. But long before all that, books might be the most special thing a family owned. And those books were treasures, not just in their content, but also in the supreme artistry that bound them. Leather covers, gold deckle and leaf, plate illustrations so beautiful that today dealers remove them from old books and sell them as art prints — they just don’t make books they way they used to.

Well, except for Jana Pullman. The binder and book artist has been awarded the 2013 Book Artist of the Year award from the Minnesota Book Awards committee. In other words, they judged her books by their covers, and found them amazing.

Pullman’s business, Western Slope Bindery (named for her geographic origins in Utah), is dedicated to all aspects of book art, from binding new books to restoring old books. Some of the books that come into her able hands are very old indeed.

“I worked on a book printed in 1535 that had been rebound in the 18th century and then repaired again in the 19th century,” she said in an interview. “The last repair was not done well and caused more damaged to the pages. All of the pages had separated along the folds and had to be mended together, resewn and a new binding made. I then made a storage box for the book and the old cover so the history of what this book had been through could be save along with the book.”

Known for attention to detail

Restoration can involve simple tear mends or binding repairs, but sometimes Pullman has to pull out all the stops. She is known for her attention to detail and fine hand skills, and can paint, sculpt in leather, make paper, and replicate outdated and even ancient bookmaking techniques. She has been working in the book arts for 30 years, after falling into it by chance.

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“I was an art major specializing in printmaking when a new class was offered on letterpress printing and artist’s books,” she said. “That was back in 1981; I got hooked immediately.”

She came to the Midwest to hone her skills, and stayed. “I wanted to study hand papermaking, and this one of the things that brought me out to the Midwest for my graduate studies. Most book artists and binders learn about paper, but I was also fortunate enough to spend several years as the papermaking apprentice at the University of Iowa Center for the Book working with both Japanese and Western styles of papermaking. I still make paper, but it’s no longer my main focus.”

Her clients include institutions and individuals, and she won’t name one book as valuable above the others.

Artistry, creativity

“Most of the books that I work on have personal value to the owners and to them, the books are priceless,” she says. Each book gets the same minute attention, whether it is bound for a museum or a shelf in a family’s home. Bringing old books back to life is fascinating work, but Pullman’s new book bindings show off a different level of artistry and creativity — and moves her focus from the past to the future. So naturally, she started a blog.

Water book cover
Pullman’s cover for “Water,” a commission for Designer Bookbinders

“About the Binding” details the process and inspiration behind these projects. Pullman sculpts a wave across the cover of a books of poems called “Water.” She turns an illustration from a 1968 books of Aboriginal folk tales into a hand-dyed leather homage to the original artist’s work. Another hand-painted cover graces Sigurd F. Olson’s “Open Horizons.”

 Step by step, Pullman shows how it is done; a natural teacher, she teaches conservation and bindery skills at the Minnesota Open Book and across the country. And, as spectacular as her bindings may be, they always take the words inside into account.

“I like to try new techniques and materials in my design but I feel the binding is a part of the larger whole, so it should reflect the contents of the book and the time period in which it was made in,” she says. In other words, she judges a cover by its book.