Conversations with Artists

June 12, 2013

HandMade in America talks with CSA artist Mary Carol Koester


When did you decide to become an artist and why? 

I always wanted to be an artist, however, my brother, Greg, was the artist in our family.  I watched him for a long time believing I didn’t have the gift.  Later in life, I started exploring decorative paper arts, creative journaling, and took an occasional drawing class.  When I had time on my hands, I got serious about art work and started studying basic color theory, drawing, calligraphy, marbling and book making.

Why or how did you choose your medium? 

I took my first book binding class from a close friend.  Her enthusiasm for the craft made me take another class.  I loved the materials and the feel of a book in my hands.  I was very interested in the skills required for book making.  I joined a wider group of friends who were interested in starting a bindery.  Things took off from there.

Could you talk a little about why you love what you do? 

Books are beautiful and useful.  A book has to move, it has to stay together. After mastering the technical skills, the creative process can be applied in endless ways.  Binding also involves sewing and I love fashion.

What is it about your work that brings you into the studio every day? 

I like being around all the tools, tables, cutters and bolts of book cloth and, of course, I enjoy making books.  After working out a design, I begin to make measurements, cut the board, the cover material, and the decorative end sheets.  I like the quiet, steady engagement which is built into something handmade.

How long have you been working in your medium?

I’ve been working as a book artist for over a decade.

What’s your design process like? 

I often start outdoors interpreting the emotion of the seasons.  I walk in the woods or around a lake and note the combinations nature prescribes.  I’m often surprised by what I find.  I sketch design shapes and turn them into printable artwork.  I reproduce shapes I like and collage them together.  I look for how things change

Can you give me an example of something that inspired a particular piece of work?

I saw a vine with dark green leaves and an opalescent blue berry. I wouldn’t have thought to combine these colors but they were lovely together.  I passed a black walnut tree losing its leaves in the fall.  At a point, all that was left hanging from the linear branches were round blackened walnuts.  The shapes translated into a printed design.

Does the region inspire your work? 

Yes, very much so.  I grew up and went to college in the northern Appalachians and now live in the southern Appalachians.  A career in forestry put me in the woods for many years.  There, I learned to observe and notice the subtle things, like color differences in the bark of trees, grays, brown, even silver and copper.   I recently completed the Report Card on Forest Sustainability in Western North Carolina which led me to an even greater understanding of the history and culture of Western North Carolina.  I remain interested in our region’s natural, cultural and economic resources.

How have you changed as a consequence of your work? 

I have changed as a result of being a professional artist.  I’ve learned that creativity takes time.  You can’t plan it or compartmentalize it like many things we do in life.  You have to approach it from the side not directly.

What is the path to growing as an artist? 

For me, it is fundamentally about trying to do my best and hoping others take pleasure from my view of things.  Equally important is working from my intuition rather than my intellect.  This helps me grow as an individual and an artist.

How is your work integrated with the community?

The pieces I make are used to strengthen memories and are a vehicle to better knowing ourselves.  They are meant to be filled with pictures and thoughts and shared with others.  Through my work, my own participation in the community has broadened.  I have an even greater appreciation for all things handmade and what a commitment that is.  I see the community as having a high talent quotient, much of it available to all.

What is the most challenging thing about working in your medium?

Patience versus speed.  It’s always a challenge.

Any words of wisdom for those starting out? 

Learn well and expand your influence.

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