Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On the Handmade (Part 2): Q&A with Christine McNair

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On the Handmade (Part 2): Q&A with Christine McNair

(Part 2 of 3. I'm reposting the introductory text from Post 1 to set up the context for Christine McNair's response.)

It’s been said that the hand-written letter is becoming lost to us, or that for many of us, it has already disappeared. I’ve heard too that longhand itself is no longer being taught in our schools. The physical nature of our hands is quickly adapting for work within the new digital realm. Small wonder that the word ‘digit’ experienced sematic drift; its emphasis of meaning shifted from ‘finger’ to the infinite zeros and ones of programming code. Our fingers came first; then we counted them. (Ah, but now, I’ve got your digits in my I-phone.)

There are some creators who do continue to use their hands in the scribing of words for their poems, stories, novels—and through the endangered art of hand writing letters, to be then sent off by post without certainty the words will ever reach their destination.

Letter writing is only part of the work of the rare species who create beautiful things in various forms. I say things because the realm of kinship that encompasses the mindful, intentional work seen in letter writing is essentially limitless: art postcards, small run hand-bound books, assemblages of found objects, word talismans, poem-art, collages, epistolary montages—created by one, given only to a few; sometimes not given at all. With no larger audience in mind, the connection is particularly intimate. These things are not ephemera. They’re not short-lived or transitory. They are gestures, long-held gifts, not products. In a way, the items become sacred artefacts.

I posed questions to Phil Hall, Christine McNair, and Jennifer Still, three creators who gather words, images, and tactile elements to craft works of art to be held in the hands of, or heard by, only a few people, or one, or none.

Sandra Ridley: Can you describe some of your work in this mode, generally speaking, without giving too much away about its private nature?

Christine McNair: I work with my hands in my daylight hours. I’m a book conservator. I pull together fragments and make them whole. I piece ephemera. I follow the path of other pairs of hands that put particular things together and try to assess the meaning and structure inherent in the artefact. Each one contains its own node of insistent truth and persistent identity.

In my private hours, I might dip into design bookbinding or edition work. This is separate and unique from the conservation work. The edition work focuses on reproducing sameness across a volumed spread. The design bindings are often about tearing things apart or fragmenting out an idea. As opposed to traditional bookbinding where you are focused on producing a certain type of book, the design binding is about the book as art object. The whole entity rather than exclusive emphasis upon the craft. It's about both execution and concept.

Some of the latter work is for public consumption. Some of it is not. I take a perverse pleasure in producing something beautiful that no one else will see. Because it’s ultimately so much dust on the windowsill.

I think there is intense value however in putting your hands to work. There’s a puzzle in it that I find soothing and deeply moving. I often feel the same way about tools that show their wear.

SR: How did you come to this practice? Has it always been a part of who you are and how you engage with the world and those around you? Or is it a new experiment for you?

CM: I suspect I’ve always been ‘crafty’, in the best sense, where I make sense of things through making them. The practice I’m talking about flirts between the notion of craft and art. (In the elementary school yard – a weird girl pinching the grapevines that grew wild in the back into shrunken ugly wreaths.)

The particulars of the book work came from my work at Gaspereau Press where I assisted with some hand binding. Then took an interest and gobbled courses up in Halifax and then the conservation studies in the UK. Further courses in design binding, edition binding, historic binding practices, monoprinting, letterpress, and onwards and onwards, neverending. The making of many books and weary work and all that. I’ve been studying and binding for thirteen years but I’m still a novice in the face of the mountain . There is always so much more to know. It keeps the practice from becoming stagnant.

SR: Do you see your creations as separate from or integrated with your larger writing practice?

CM: Largely separate, though there are exceptions. I enjoy binding or typesetting other people’s work. There are personal projects that incorporate everything I have to give (including the writing). But I’m pleased too with those projects that have nothing to do with anything other than good hand work.

SR: Is there a freedom in creating in this way?

CM: There’s a largess? The simple joy of physical memory is retained within the hands and there's a quiet ‘no’ space where other thoughts bubble. Sometimes that form of intense concentration on craft and artefact is akin to a waking dream for me. Working with my hands gives me the intellectual space for writing. It provides me with intense personal satisfaction. I tumble when my hours are taken up by too much editing or academic work. I sometimes wonder if that's a failing but ultimately it just is. If you don't follow your pleasure then there's no point in the day to day at all.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sandra Ridley

Sandra Ridley’s first full-length collection of poetry, Fallout, won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for publishing, the Alfred G. Bailey prize, and was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award. Her second book, Post-Apothecary, was short-listed for the 2012 ReLit and Archibald Lampman Awards. Also in 2012, Ridley won the international festival Of Authors’ Battle of the Bards and was featured in The University of Toronto’s Influency Salon. Twice a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, Ridley is the author of two chapbooks: Rest Cure, and Lift, for which she was co-recipient of the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Her latest book is The Counting House (BookThug 2013). She lives in Ottawa.

You can contact Sandra throughout the month of September with questions and comments at

Go to Sandra Ridley’s Author Page