Gwen Diehn is all about journals–handmade journals. She designs each one with a specific purpose in mind, the purpose itself being the driving force and inspiration behind the book’s design and functionality. She uses some journals to capture ideas, designs, and thoughts before they flit away. Others help her organize, remind, and document. Gwen knows first hand how journals can streamline your life while opening doors to creativity. I was able to catch up with her and ask her a few questions before she began her annual pilgrimage to teach a journal-making class in a tiny town in Tuscany, Italy.
LK: How long have you been making journals/books and how did you get started?
GD: I’ve been keeping a journal since elementary school and a sketchbook since I was in college art classes. I started making my own journals around twenty years ago, when I took a couple of bookbinding workshops as part of my art-making. I had begun to see books as a new way for me to express art ideas, an extension of my printmaking and drawing practice.
At first I used the blank books I had made in the workshops as journals and sketchbooks. I liked the way they looked, but in some cases they weren’t really what I needed for the way I worked. Gradually, I began to draw on an idea from the field of artists’ books–that the form of an art piece is a part of the content and needs to be determined by the concept. I wondered how modifying the form and materials of a journal would affect the use I made of it and the way it worked.
At the time I usually carried around a small sketchbook in which I drew and wrote components, so I experimented with making a book the size that would fit into my pocket. Inspired by a favorite journal where I had already used most of the pages, I toyed with a leather cover since it would be sturdy yet still flexible, and added more pages than was in my much-loved journal.
From then on I considered the purpose of a book when I designed it. Many of my journals are travel or project journals. In the last twenty years I’ve moved to combining images and text in my journals. The figures in this article are of some journals made with purpose in mind. One is a travel journal from Ireland. It has a small piggyback journal that slips into a pocket on a page and can be used when the big journal seems too cumbersome.
Another is my on-going clay-pigment-collecting project journal. Its pages consist of maps of locations where I find pigments, samples of the paint made from the pigments, and small glassine bags of the dry pigment tucked into pockets made out of folds in the pages. The image of two journals shows how I use old journals as reference. One of these is an Italian summer journal that has a section devoted to research on Italian garden structures. The other is my current garden journal in which I am planning this year’s garden and referring to trellises drawn in the Italian journal.
LK: Where do you get your inspiration?
GD: I am inspired by other people’s journal practices. The people I researched, interviewed, and profiled in Real Life Journals are my inspiration. Whenever I have time I research the many ways people have recorded their lives and interests, especially in the past.
LK: What part of the process do you like best (and least)?
GD: I love the entire process. Designing is exciting because at that point I begin gathering and focusing energy that will drive the project, and I can see how the journal will be a great adjunct to things. Making the book is soothing and relaxing. Keeping the journal is comforting as an everyday practice. When traveling, the journal is my home away from home. When I use a project journal it’s the place where I think on paper. Years later, the journal serves as a reference book as well as a good reminder of that time.
GD: A couple of favorites come to mind: a few years ago my youngest son and his wife got married in a small Italian village that I had stayed in many times. Since I had friends in the village, I was the wedding planner and so I made a journal to keep track of all the wedding plans. In the journal I included floor plans and maps, drawings of the table settings and flower choices, charts of 60 people’s flights plans and spa reservations, and so on. The cover is made out of an encrustation of local clay. I had fun drawing, and then painting in it while on the flight to and from Italy to plan the wedding with my co-mother-in-law, Kris.
Another favorite was a journal that I recently made for a small venture that a friend and I have making wallets from recycled materials. We needed a design book and a place to keep track of changes we made in the designs as well as special orders, and consignment agreements. I made the journal out of an old paper grocery bag, and every page is a deep accordion made into a pocket. We write design information on cards that we slip into the pockets; we pull out the cards when we need to refer to them while sewing.
LK: What words of advice would you give someone who would like to try their hand at making a journal?
GD: Relax! You can’t go wrong because no one ever has to see it except you. Don’t confuse journal making and keeping with doing artwork. Making your own journals is a good way to get practice in making books that you give away or show to other people, but the journal itself is a private book. Who cares if it has glops of PVA on the cover? Sometimes I make journals out of recycled materials that reflect the place I’m traveling through. For me, it helps to start with a project or travel or a practice in mind. When I get interested in something and want to study it or research it, I need to have a journal to keep everything in. Then comes the fun of designing with the purpose of the journal in mind, the gathering of focus and energy.
Gwen is the author of two journal-making books, The Decorated Journal: Creating Beautifully Expressive Journal Pages and Live & Learn: Real Life Journals: Designing and Using Handmade Books (August 2010).