Spiritual Objects & the Making of a Soldier’s Sketchbook

I once worked on a Catholic church that was designed in the round and had a stone altar. It was designed to look like it was carved out of a granite boulder with a polished top that had engravings on it.  The creation of the altar had all the elements of a typical construction project of this scale, design discussions, shop drawings, engineer’s analysis, coordination with fabricators and contractors.  I was on the jobsite just before opening doing a punch list and an older women carefully approached the alter, touched the top, blessed herself and walked back to her seat to pray.

It caught me off guard.

I appreciated the design of the altar, but to me it was just one element in a complicated project.  I could remember arguments over cost, discussions over constructability and working with the contractor to decide how to get it into the church. When did it cross the line and become something sacred?  The cynic in me could shrug it off, but I couldn’t.  I began to realize that regardless of your religious beliefs  the artist had successfully designed something that could inspire someone spiritually.  At that point the altar no longer belonged to the artist, or the fabricator or the contractor.  It belonged to the church, the parishioners, this woman, and it had begun its own life as a spiritual object.

When I settled that the “The Blue Max Project” was going to involve a soldier’s sketchbook, I hunted on-line until I found a small leather note book that had the right look and feel.

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I new I would have to “age” the book in some manner and at first thought I would try to do this digitally in photoshop.  The examples I saw did not inspire me much and when I stumbled onto the article in Air & Space that showed an example of an actual journal of a World War I pilot, I knew I was going to have to do a lot more than put a few filters on a digital image to make this shiny new leather book with its gold edging look like this.

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I researched techniques for aging paper, found that most of them involved single sheets, not whole books, but settled on a method that involved “basting” each sheet with brewed coffee, wiping it off and blow drying with a hair dryer.  I found I had to place a plastic cutting board between sheets to avoid the whole book from getting too saturated

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Over three weeks I worked page by page, wrinkling the sheet with my hands, pulling at the corners, randomly making folds and crunching the edge.  The binding started to split and the book became fragile and fat with the wrinkled pages.  To get it to lay flat I ironed the pages and at night I put the whole book under a pile of heavy books ( like putting your brand new baseball glove under your mattress after you oiled it).  Some wonderful random things started to happen. Pages soaked thru, telegraphing stains between pages.  I tried to control it a bit but not too much.

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For the cover I took sandpaper and distressed the surface, focusing on the edges.  I cut off the ribbon bookmark and bought a leather string to hold the book together

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Over the last year I have fussed over the approach to this project, struggled with the copy stand, the camera, pens and format.  There is still a long way to go.  The most intimidating part of the project still lies ahead with the writing the story and developing the artwork that will fill this journal.  Is this just an interesting folly, one man’s art project?  Will it be authentic enough that it will give readers another vantage point to view history?  Will it eventually cross the line like the stone altar did and become a real artifact in the reader’s mind?

As I hold this fragile, empty sketchbook in my hand, I am beginning to feel like I did when I was in that church that day, when I realized that the altar was not mine any more and that the object had begun its own spiritual life.  It sits empty under a pile of heavy books waiting for me to complete it.  I hope I am up to the task!!

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