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Artist of Month: Lisa Baumgartner

by on November 02, 2017 3:05 PM

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of Lisa Baumgartner’s most indelible memories is of pulling apricots from trees while riding her bicycle.

She laments that Silicon Valley, as it’s known now, is heavily congested, but that fact doesn’t clutter her mind when she muses on the beauty of those scenic memories.

Baumgartner’s love of beautiful scenes and spaces heavily translates into her artistic life.

Baumgartner is one of the co-founders of the International Women’s Craft Group, based in State College. IWCG offers local craftspeople a space in which they can express their artistic capabilities. They meet every other week to create projects. At their last meeting, they made felted acorns.

Baumgartner’s contribution to the group is her latest hands-on endeavor — bookbinding.

“I’ve always liked doing things with my hands. I garden. Before I did bookbinding I did felting. It’s like massaging wool,” says Baumgartner.

Massaging probably wasn’t an accidental choice of words. Baumgartner holds degrees in sociology and anthropology but wanted to spend more time at home with her children when they were young. To be able to do so, she became a nationally certified massage therapist.

Baumgartner operated as a licensed massage therapist for 11 years. She says it was almost like problem-solving to help someone’s pain.

But wanting a change of pace from the practice that she was winding down, she decided to take a one-day workshop in rustic bookbinding on an artist retreat farm in the fall of 2012. She later built on that experience during a trip to England.

During that family trip while her husband, Hans (a Smeal College of Business professor of marketing and the chair of the department), was on sabbatical, she took advantage of the many activities that Cambridge University had to offer. She particularly enjoyed a group that offered a way for international people to feel involved. They would take field trips and did crafts once a week at a master’s house.

She loved this idea so much, that she brought it home with her to State College when she created the IWCG.

When Baumgartner came across Brignell’s Bindery during the family’s time in England, she became immediately intrigued.

Barry Brignell taught her the art of traditional bookbinding, which added to her previous knowledge from the retreat. She says she was eager to learn, and Brignell was always generous and helpful. She says with a laugh that she’s sure she was annoying at times with her fanaticism.

Baumgartner says she sticks to the more artistic side of bookbinding. She explains that the traditional side is more labor-intensive and reparative, with a high level of craftsmanship involved leading to a more basic look.

“I like trying different things. I’m always trying something new,” she says.

Her workspace is filled with many types of paper, different styles of books, and various projects. She stains some paper with leaves and metals.

Baumgartner’s workspace is a cozy room with her beautiful papers lying about. She gathers some of the leaves she uses from her garden, and talks about the different ways you can use them to put imprints on the papers.

She has made diaries, notebooks, large journals, and miniature-sized books as well. There are a few different styles she uses, such as Coptic, leather, and screw-bound.

“The Coptic binding method is the oldest of the codex bindings,” she notes on her website, “This early binding method leaves the chain-link stitching on the spine exposed, creating a beautiful visual element to the finished book. Coptic-bound books will lie completely flat when open — perfect for writing in.”

For screw-bound, she writes: “This method of binding is ideal for photo albums and scrapbooks. The sturdy, bookcloth-hinged cover on screw-post books folds back, allowing for easy placement, or viewing, of photos. The inner papers are a heavier, acid-free 60 lb. weight paper. There are spacers in the spine, so that the book will not bulge when photos, or mementos, are added.”

Beyond travel, in her spare time Baumgartner enjoys gardening, cooking, and spending time with her family. Her back yard is engulfed with organic fruits and vegetables.

She met her husband while working in the Stanford University library. Once he graduated, he had offers in Chicago and France. He decided on Penn State to be a professor of marketing in 1988. They have now lived in the area for roughly 30 years.

“I was always trying to get us back to the West Coast, but things work as they are meant to be,” she chuckles.

Baumgartner says Hans enjoys woodworking, and they share the working space.

He is looking into making her a new piece of equipment, called a punching cradle, since hers was warped by water. The punching cradle is a V-shaped tool to create the holes for the book pages to be bound together. She lays the papers inside, takes a sharp, needle-like tool, and punches holes into the center folds of the pages.

Baumgartner says she has made hundreds of books now. She bounces between smaller, easier-to-make books and larger and more involved pieces.

“I’ve always been a hands-on, artsy sort of West Coast girl,” she says.

During her time as a bookbinder, Baumgartner has taught around a dozen people this art form. She wants there to be a community for it within State College. “I would love to share the enthusiasm,” she says.

Baumgartner is currently helping an international woman learn English and bookbinding. They have been meeting for more than a year now. Baumgartner says her friend thinks “out of the box” and presents new ideas all the time. “I tend to be a little bit precise about things, which is good, but it is also good to loosen up. Especially if you want to learn,” she says.

One of Baumgartner’s goals is to make a book with a wooden cover. She plans on making it in the Coptic fashion, which she says is the way Christians in Egypt bound their books when scrolls became outdated.

She recently had a show at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County, and has her work for sale within the Lemont Gallery Shop. Baumgartner has even considered starting an online Etsy store.

“The thing with bookbinding is that there’s sort of an engineering element behind it,” she says. “You sort of have to strategize how to get things to function the way you want and be structurally sound. There is a problem-solving aspect.”


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