Bound to his books Ties that bind: Baltimore man , who crafted a book for the pope, practices the ancient art of binding.

November 17, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

One day, Dan Schiavone got it into his head -- that vessel of ideas always percolating under a gray felt fedora -- to learn the ancient art of bookbinding.

Three years later, Pope John Paul II was accepting one of Mr. Schiavone's custom bound volumes as a memento of his visit to Baltimore.

The book was commissioned by Catholic Relief Services as a gift for the pontiff. Somewhat humbled by the request, Mr. Schiavone recalls telling the agency's officials:

"Have you seen this guy's art collection? Why don't you just get him a pair of flip-flops."

On Monday, five of the East Baltimore artist's handmade books -- including a replica of Eileen Egan's "For Whom There is No Room: Scenes from the Refugee World" that Mr. Schiavone, 33, made for the pontiff -- will go on exhibit in the Tuttle Gallery of McDonogh School.

While the texts include a range of prose, from the memoirs of a German immigrant to the poetry of a penitentiary inmate, the common threads are the bindings of Mr. Schiavone.

His hardcovers are made of cardboard and tight cloth, hand-sewn and glued with marbled endpaper inside and original artwork out front. The same work is done by others (enough to warrant an 800-member Guild of Bookworkers in New York), but Mr. Schiavone is rare in that he is self-taught and built most of the necessary equipment -- including presses and a sewing frame -- from scratch.

"I'd never been the kind of artist who was very much into technique," said Mr. Schiavone, a painter who was not the kind of boy to sit around and build models. "My work is rougher looking than most, but what's the sense of doing something handmade if it looks like a machine did it? I've always been more the art-brute type, but I can follow directions."

The directions he followed came from a 1963 book called "Creative Bookbinding" by Pauline Johnson, who writes: "At one time well-constructed and beautifully embellished books were regarded as a major art form."

Mr. Schiavone decided to turn local publications into art after attending a lot of poetry readings around town, often in the company of Fells Point writer Glenn Walker Moomau. At the readings, he found tables of self-published chapbooks -- grass-roots literature usually photocopied on cheap paper and bound with staples.

"Dan just got it in his head that he wanted to start making books. I was very skeptical, it's very complicated," says Mr. Moomau, whose "Don't Go Back" in 1993 was Mr. Schiavone's first book, in a run of 100 copies. "I was fascinated when he pulled it off -- the sewing and gluing and pressing. You carry books around all your life but you don't know how they're made."

It was through Mr. Moomau, a blues harpist now teaching writing at American University, that Mr. Schiavone wound up binding a book for the pope; a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend deal.

A colleague of Mr. Moomau's admired "Don't Go Back" and asked if Mr. Schiavone might work with a manuscript of a German immigrant who grew up in Poland before the Second World War.

That resulted in 1993's "As I Remember" by Arnold Reske. The colleague, Dan Gunther, later went to work for Catholic Relief Services and when officials of the Baltimore-based organization wanted to give the pope a book during his recent visit, Mr. Gunther suggested Mr. Schiavone.

With a month's notice to accomplish something he'd never done before -- bind a book in leather and make it worthy of a world leader -- Mr. Schiavone was reluctant.

"I went to the meeting telling myself: 'I can't do this. I don't want to do this. I'm not going to do this.' And when they ask me, I say: 'Yes.' "

"For Whom There is No Room" is Eileen Egan's account of thousands of refugees she has known and helped since 1943, the year Catholic Relief was founded. Mr. Schiavone fashioned a new binding for the book, published by the Paulist Press, and tooled into its cover an illustration inspired by a Kathe Kollwitz woodcut of the Holocaust called "The Mothers."

Mr. Schiavone's interpretation shows two people sheltering a younger person with their bodies.

"There was no room for error with this one," said Mr. Schiavone, recalling flubs with other books, including 1993's wildly ambitious and visually gorgeous "Dead Letters" project with the poet David Franks. "With the pope book, I had to play it safe in every way."

For Mr. Schiavone, a man of focus and quiet determination, safe is not the way he likes to make art. At the University of Arizona he studied under Robert Colescott "who believed that the most creative people weren't necessarily the ones that didn't make mistakes."

Any list of the most creative people in Baltimore would surely include Dan Schiavone.

So busy that he has to make time for his first love, painting, Mr. Schiavone directs a nonprofit group called the Fells Point Creative Alliance, writes essays, and plays the organ so well at the Polish National Catholic Church on Broadway that the pastor gave him a faded yellow, 1979 Chevy Caprice out of gratitude.

His day job is installing and trouble-shooting computers at local high schools and automating school libraries. Straddling antiquity and the future, Mr. Schiavone has put World Wide Web pages on the Internet and made books by hand. Though the returns on book binding don't cover the cost of materials, he prefers book binding.

"I'm into the aesthetic of a book, the romance of a book and the smell of musty old libraries," he says. "That's why people will plunk down money for something made by hand."

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