Written by Marie Bartlett | Photos by Anthony Harden
When first meeting Mary Carol Koester,it would appear she has devoted her life to fashion and art, since both are such a huge part of her past and present. One look around her meticulously neat, light-filled studio in north Asheville, reflects a person who appreciates the beauty found in calm order and artistic displays. She has been a member of the distinguished Southern Highland Craft Guild since 2011.
Then there’s her manner and style. Tall and soft-spoken, she glides through a room with the elegance of an artist, perhaps a painter or a dancer. Her voice is soothing as explains that she is a book binder, a “fine binder” to be exact, who intricately cuts, glues, and stitches delicate fabrics and soft leathers to create a piece of custom art, a book, a box, a journal, or a keepsake that capture special moments in a person’s life.
She has her own personal keepsakes and inspirational reminders. There are mounted cutouts of delicate patterned designs by her favorite 19th century English designer, William Morris. A social reformer who elevated craft to the status of fine art, Morris’ work was inspired by nature, and he still inspires Mary Carol.
Her favorite quotes—‘Live as Art’ and ‘Creation is Confusion Endurance’—are carefully tacked here and there to remind her that she is on a new, important mission each time she creates something new. There are family photos: her brother, Greg, an architect and artist; her politically active, fun-loving mother, who passed away in 2011; her father, who passed away that same sad-filled year; and her boyfriend, William Henry Price, a painter and fellow artist. Then there’s Jacqueline Kennedy, an icon Mary Carol has loved and admired since childhood, so much so that she almost called her bookbinding studio “All Things Jackie.”
“Look at this,” she says, flipping the pages of a glossy, colorful book on fashion. “This photo was taken in the early 1960s and as you can see, Jackie set the stage for a big change in international style. Such a trend setter; doesn’t she look exquisite? She was such a refreshing contrast to the stodgy styles worn by earlier generations of women in the White House.”
She hands over a prized picture of herself taken in the 1970s at a family get-together in Pennsylvania, posing across the hood of a 1970s Imperial. She is dressed in a stylish sheath that accentuates her slim figure, a black, wide-brimmed hat hiding her lovely young face. And there it is—she is pure Jackie—long, lean, and beautiful.
Mary Carol laughs at the comparison. “I had some fun back then.”
When asked what era she would choose for a do-over, she doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, the 1970s because it was a time when art, fashion, and music were stripped down and scaled back. After we blew everything up in the 1960s, we all had a chance to start over.”
Bingo. Starting over is at the heart of what makes Mary Carol tick. She’s done it more than once. You could call it reinvention. She calls it evolution. First, a male-dominated, decade-long career, followed by a high-powered position in the nation’s capital, then a bump in the road and a major turn that led her to Asheville, lovingly making art from the tools and materials that surround her.
Surprisingly, it all began in the woods. On the far side of her studio wall are certificates that represent this other side of her life, the time when Mary Carol was a forester, as in working for the U.S. Forest Service. She spent a full decade among the Pennsylvania mixed hardwoods where art, fashion books, and a pristine studio had no suitable place. Instead, for ten years, she wore a drab forestry uniform, a hard hat and steel-toed boots, man-handling a chain saw while she worked alongside rough-hewn men who, to test her mettle, would smuggle rattlesnakes in their lunch boxes and offer to share a sandwich. She must have passed because it wasn’t long before she was “one of the boys.”
Granted, she had a good education, a bachelor of science from Pennsylvania State University in 1978 and a master’s degree in forest resources in 1988, with a focus on national and international forest policy. Her first job out of college was handling sales at International Paper in New York City, where she gleefully wore Brooks Brother suits with matching ties as a way to express her individuality. Sales gave her an insider’s view of the paper industry along with valuable contacts in the forestry industry; networking for what would come next—a chance to work as a U.S. District Forester in her home territory of Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
Born into a large family, she was the oldest girl among nine children. Her father was an accountant and a talented musician, her mother a teacher who was trained as a classical pianist. Both were from Pittsburgh. The couple encouraged a love for music, books, museums, and art within the boisterous household, virtually dispelling the mythical notion of “right brain” creativity versus “left brain” logic. Nearly all of their children would go on to become either artists or musicians. Some would play sports. All would find a measure of success.
But first, they were taught responsibility.
“I was reared in a time when kids helped raise themselves,” Mary Carol recalls. “I had to pitch in and help. I remember a blue, over-sized easy chair where I often sat feeding a brother or sister. By sixth grade, I was babysitting for a family of four while the mother was in the hospital having another baby. That may have been why I chose a career over getting married and having my own children. In a sense, I felt I had already done that, so my biological clock wasn’t ticking. It was also a time (the 1970s and 1980s) when women were told we could shoot for the stars.”
But why aim for the Forestry Service when your first love was fabric, color, and style? She can explain.
“I made a trip to Alaska, still considered a frontier, and while there, was taken with the concept of large-scale land management. It had never occurred to me that a place the size of a small country would need a management plan. It changed my way of thinking. So when I returned, I entered Forestry School, assuming I would study environmental science. But all they were teaching at the time was industrial forestry, which required field study. Learning that aspect of it, however, was a good education.”
As a forester, she hit the proverbial trails, cutting high-grade trees, laying out roads, and ensuring loggers had what they needed to transport raw wood from forest to pulp mill for timber sales to domestic and international buyers. In every instance, she was the lone female on the job site.
That would have given pause to many women, but not Mary Carol, who had five brothers. “It went well,” she says. “I always felt comfortable in that environment. I actually liked working with all types of people. Even within your own family, people are different, so I grew up tolerant of others. I also respected the difficult, dangerous work these men did. They were hard workers, and I loved being outside with them.”
After ten years, however, enough was enough. She had the urge to move on. Hanging up her hard hat, she turned in her boots and her uniform and looked around to see what was next. More driven and goal-oriented than ever, she was told by a friend who knew her well, “you better figure out pretty soon what you want because I know you’re going to get it.”
[quote float=”right”]She spent most of her weekends at the Smithsonian and the Renwick Gallery, walking the halls where the best of American crafts and decorative arts were in full, glorious display.[/quote]With field work under her belt and degrees in hand, she was offered a position as national program manager in Washington, D.C. for the USDA Forest Service. It was 1988. The job involved a great deal of travel to all fifty states in order to coordinate efforts for federal funding on statewide forestry projects and to help private forest landowners manage their properties in perpetuity. The goal: to sustain and improve wildlife habitats, air and water quality.
“I loved the job. I was able to visit every ecosystem in the country. It was a great fit for me, as by then I had a combination of writing skills, analytical skills, and field work to bring to the table. I felt that I had finally hit my stride and I was excited about my work. I also had a large number of friends and a very active social life so it was a happy period for me.”
Off duty, she visited the rich blend of museums and galleries in the D.C. area, a throwback to her love of fine arts. She spent most of her weekends at the Smithsonian and the Renwick Gallery, walking the halls where the best of American crafts and decorative arts were in full, glorious display.
Still, life has a way of bringing us to our knees, even in the midst of an idyllic lifestyle. Mary Carol was hit with a health crisis that changed everything. (She prefers to keep the details private.) Forced to retire from federal government with the U.S. Forest Service, it was time, once again, to look ahead, to try something new.
“This was a perfect example of when one door closes, another one opens. What it taught me was that each chapter in life tends to mold us. The pleasures are enjoyed and the difficulties accepted. I also learned that one path is not the only path and that we are capable of resilience and the gratitude it can bring.”
A brother in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, invited her to stay with him while she recuperated. But the place didn’t feel like a good fit. Nearly everyone around was settled with a family, she was a long way from a national forest, and her heart was restless. “I had been to Mount Mitchell, near Asheville, as a child. I thought it was a great area and, with my forestry background, a good place to find consulting work since there were national forests and a research station all in one region.”
She moved to Asheville in 2000. Within eight months, she wondered if she had made a mistake. “I was lonely,” she explains, “and hadn’t met many people. I thought about returning to my family roots in Pennsylvania when a friend advised me to give it just a few more months. By Christmas of that year, I found consulting work with the Forest Service, met some new people, learned about the arts and crafts community and felt that things were finally beginning to jell.”
Now, at last, she could explore the multi-levels of her many interests, perhaps even tie them together. A few years earlier, she had her handwriting analyzed and was surprised to learn the result. “I was told, ‘Ignore your creative talent at your peril.’ I thought, wow, I have siblings who are artists, painters, and musicians. I knew that I enjoyed beauty and even had a sense of style, but I never gave myself permission to be an artist. I thought, wrongly, that if I couldn’t do it well, I shouldn’t do it at all. Now I know there are a hundred different ways to enter the world of fine arts without having to know everything in advance and without having to be perfect.”
Not sure what to engage in first, she took a book binding class and loved it. There was something about the precision, the attention to detail, and the tactile pleasure of handling wood, silk, linen, and leather that appealed to her nature. Most of all, she appreciated that design and function could flow so well together to create works to last—literally—a lifetime.
In 2004 she helped create BookWorks Co-op in West Asheville, a place where other artists and writers could attend workshops for bookbinding, printmaking, papermaking, letterpress, and more; tributes to their enduring love of books and book production. But even then, she envisioned having her own small studio, somewhere quiet where she could create customized works to help families capture and keep their stories alive.
Reflecting back, she says her years in forestry now seemed like a logical starting point for what was to come. “It’s not lost on me that the beautiful papers I use in my books and albums are made from wood fiber. It gives me a sense of pride to know that I’m still closely aligned with the many values and services our national forests provide.”
She found a rental in north Asheville that met her criteria: a creek nearby, one level living, only a few miles from town, and a house on a cul-de-sac. She wanted to buy the place.
“But the deal fell through. Just a few doors down another house came up for sale. This one had all the things I wanted and a larger space for a nice-sized studio. I bought it, had a contractor convert space, install new lighting and a reinforced floor for my heavy equipment, and add storage. In 2006 I opened my studio.” As an extra bonus, her brother John, a multi-talented bluegrass musician, lived just across the street.
This is where Mary Carol performs her magic today, through her business, Azalea Bindery, with four distinct product lines: wedding albums, book notes, life milestones, and custom bindery for those with their own creative ideas. All are inspired by couture. “My books, folios, albums, and boxes are covered in fine silk, linen, leather, and lace, accessorized with delicately painted paper. Each piece helps tell a story or weave a life event.”
One of only a few dozen craftsmen in Western North Carolina who engage in the centuries old art form of book binding, she refers to herself as a “fine binder” and says she and a colleague have started a Fine Binder’s Group to share their skills and introduce beginners to the advanced techniques artisans now use.
Clients come primarily from word of mouth: young brides wanting special wedding albums, retired men recounting their careers or lifelong hobbies, someone writing their memoirs, gift-seekers hoping to give something special to an anniversary couple. All bring to Mary Carol the power of their stories and their desire to share in what they perceive as the important moments of their lives.
Mary Carol loves the human connection in her work. “These people touch me because most have worked so hard for so many years. There is tenderness about them, and a lot of feeling connected to what they wish to share.”
Briefly, this is how the binding process works: she begins with a book board in various sizes depending upon the project, cuts it, and glues fabric or leather to the board, concealing the spine. Once the cover is complete, sheets of decorative paper, utilizing ideas originating from architectural, floral, or geometric designs are carefully folded and hand-sewn together before they are joined to the cover. There are a variety of bindings and stitches, numerous fabrics and leathers in varying colors and styles.
It may sound simple, but far from it. Project time can range from two hours for a small journal to a few weeks for a customized, three-layered wedding album. All pieces are one-of-a-kind using traditional book binding techniques and are environmentally friendly.
Fellow artist Carol Strangler, a nationally renowned bamboo artist, calls Mary Carol “a true craftsman, one of the few people in the book binding industry who is the genuine article in terms of producing high-quality binding.”
Custom book binding originated in India, but it was in Egypt where early Coptic Christians discovered the art of folding sheets of vellum or parchment so they would fit into a book. Religious codices were first printed on sheepskin vellum and bound together in volumes. Just as Mary Carol does today, ancient book binders used wooden boards to hold a book together. It was then slipped into a goatskin bag for protection and transport. Mary Carol uses goat leather for her book covers due to its thin suppleness, softness and durability, and calf skin for thicker covers such as Bibles and other special projects.
By the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution made it possible to make paper from wood pulp. Bindery took a big leap forward too, with machines taking over the job of gluing, trimming, and case-making (a binder’s term for hard covers). Perfect binding was invented in 1895, but the rise of paperbacks and automation soon overshadowed the craft involved in binding a book by hand, stitch-by-stitch.
“This craft involves a lengthy process of training,” says Mary Carol. “There’s always something new to learn. If I had done this earlier in life, I still would have only scratched the surface.”
A good book binder, she adds, needs precision, a solid sense of design, decent hand-eye coordination, and physical strength to handle the heavy equipment for some of the larger boards. (Two of her equipment pieces date back to the mid-19th century and weigh hundreds of pounds). Once again, her years in the forestry service have paid off.
“In forestry I had to learn to use a chain saw and be around equipment that could be hazardous, so I already had a higher level of comfort than most with that element.”
Her best advice to newcomers is to take business classes for the ins and outs of running a small business. “I would also recommend a mentor they can work with closely, learn from, and gain a full understanding of what book binding entails.”
After nearly 15 years in the business of book binding, she says she retains a sense of satisfaction getting up each day and looking over what she did the night before. “I love getting started on a new project to see where it goes. And I love it when I present a client with a finished piece and their reaction is ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful.’”
To get away, she gardens, lunches with friends, visits an art gallery, or hikes. Though she tends to study every tree and plant (she was a forester, after all), she says she’s just as likely to sit on a rock and stare at a sunset as anyone.
Sometimes she contemplates the dichotomy that we live in a high-tech age where products are designed to wear out, while she produces work that can last for centuries. She believes that may be why we’re seeing a rejuvenation of the fine arts.
“Technology is great. I use it all the time. But I still think the more we “computerize” ourselves, the more importance we will place on personal connection. To get a letter in the mail or a handmade item in your mother’s handwriting, those are truly precious keepsakes. I also think there will always be people who understand there is value in the quality of a handmade product.”
[quote float=”right”]Now, when she talks to others who may be undergoing their own transformation, her message to them is to “reach out, try something new, change direction, and don’t be afraid of the unfamiliar.”[/quote]Her signature piece is a three-piece wedding box custom designed to fit the bride and groom. But market demand is diversifying and her business is expanding rapidly. She estimates that she’s seen a 200 percent increase in the number of clients she has served over the past decade, mostly spreading through word-of-mouth and repeat business.
She attributes part of her success to a lifelong drive to achieve. But what might surprise her family and friends, she says, is learning that she’s in a mellower, more present state of mind than ever before. The “moving on” has changed her for the better and she is just as happy in her role as a book binder as she was in her former, high-powered career with the federal government.
“I guess time and circumstances do that to everyone. I still have ambitions. I’ve just softened the way I approach them. I’m still driven, but now it’s a desire to create and to learn something new, rather than a life-or-death proposition.”
Now, when she talks to others who may be undergoing their own transformation, her message to them is to “reach out, try something new, change direction, and don’t be afraid of the unfamiliar. In all likelihood, you’ll find that you can do more than you ever believed possible. I would have been the last one to say that my work as a forester would lead me to this. But it has.”
Her best friend, she says, was an artist for many years, and revealed she always envied Mary Carol because, as a forester, she was outdoors working with nature.
Mary Carol still smiles at the irony. “But I always envied her. One day she turned to me and said, ‘I’m done with art. I’m going to nature. And I said, ‘You know what? I’m done with nature. I’m going to art.’ Now we’re both right where we belong.”
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