Interview with RMC member Christopher McAfee
Interview with RMC member Christopher McAfee, January 2017
by Pamela Leutz
Book and paper conservator, book artist, teacher, musician and owner of 21 ukuleles, and father and husband – just some of Christopher McAfee’s many attributes. I remember meeting Chris at the Guild of Book Workers Standards of Excellence over 20 years ago. He made an impression on me as someone who was kind and genuine, an enthusiastic newcomer to the world of bookbinding. Through the years he stayed active in the Guild of Book Workers, serving as Standards Chair from 2006-2012, and as-needed auctioneer at the popular and entertaining auction that culminates Standards.
Chris established his career as a book conservator and instructor in Utah, first at Brigham Young University, then as Senior Conservator at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Department, and most recently back at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library as Head Conservator. Throughout his career he has also taught in various capacities at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library Books Arts Program. After getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking from BYU, he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts from the University of Alabama, a curriculum developed and taught by Paula Gourley. When asked about Chris, Paula said, “Chris brought a strong work ethic, dedication to learning and traditional craft, and showed tremendous initiative in his approach to all things. He balanced being a graduate student with deep commitment to family life and fatherhood. I remember having a conversation in which he expressed that he saw himself as having ‘a leadership role,’ which has definitely come to fruition. One day, he brought in his ukulele, and serenaded the class with his song, ‘Fish Are Swimming in Cement.’ We had deep conversations about life, activism, bookbinding, history of books and printing, and the strong influence we shared from the writings of Wendell Berry. Chris has said several times that ‘You're the first person who ever told me to slow down.’ ...by slowing down and taking care at every step, excellence in bookbinding can be achieved. From my point of view, Chris has achieved this, with humor and humility.”
To get an idea of Chris’ affection for the ukulele, check out one (or all 20) of his videos with his various instruments from his collection, https://www.youtube.com/user/AmazingChristophoro; in each video he describes the ukulele and performs a short song. My favorite video, though, is the one in which he sings “Popular” with his daughter during open mic at the 2016 Utah Uke Fest. He strikes me as a person who works hard, does good deeds, and is mindful about living a meaningful life.
Interview with Chris 1/6/17
Chris, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our newsletter. I remember first meeting you at Standards.
Dallas  was my first Standards. The next one was in Alabama, and I helped to plan that one. Isn’t that the one where you won the book press? I remember you ran out happy.
I was so happy! That was the best Standards ever! How did you get interested in bookbinding?
I was a printmaking major at BYU and a woman named Rebecca Wagstaff came to teach a bookbinding class. I fell in love with bookbinding. My printmaking teacher and bachelor of fine arts advisor had gone to the University of Alabama to learn letterpress printing. I was sewing a book in the printmaking class one day, and I said, “I think I could do this forever.” He said, “Why don’t you?” That prompted me to go look at the University of Alabama, which is where I ended up getting my Master’s degree.
As I understand it, there had been a printing program with a binding teacher who was primarily supplementing the printing program. They were teaching binding and edition binding – simple bindings a printmaker could use. Paula Gourley fleshed it out into a bigger bookbinding program. I finished in two years, but they told me most people finish in three years. I didn’t know that was an option so I felt like I had to finish in two years. They usually have the classes for two years and your third year is spent working on your thesis project – a final project. At least that is how it was then.
I didn’t know what I was going to do. I majored in art. I thought I was going to go into being a printmaking artist or something like that. Then I had a flood in my closet. A water heater had sprung a slow leak, and we hadn’t known it. I had three boxes of memoirs in my closet, and it ruined a lot of things. They allow you to do an internship for credit between the first two years of the program. I got interested in conservation, thinking, “What could I do to repair these, but also, how could I help other people to prevent this from happening?” Paula found an internship for me at the University of Cincinnati. We were poor and had a son who was around two. I wouldn’t be able to afford an internship if it wasn’t paid, but when they told me it was paid, I did the 5-6-week internship at University of Cincinnati. While I was there, my primary project was disbinding bound pamphlets that were bound into volumes, and then resewing them into pamphlets again. I realized that I liked doing it and that I could work on anything as long as it was book related. That is when I seriously considered conservation. While I was at the University of Cincinnati, I was working with Ginny Wisniewski, a conservator. She came to me and asked, “Are you a Mormon?” I said, “Yeah.” At that time, Pam Barrios was here at BYU, and they were hiring a new conservator. Pam is not a Mormon, but she was required to hire a Mormon for the conservation job. She went to AIC and asked if anyone knew someone who was a Mormon conservator. Ginny said, “I think the guy working with me is Mormon.” Ginny told me I should apply for the job at BYU, so I did, and I got the job. They told me they would wait for me to graduate. That is how it all happened.
It seems like your career path opened up for you.
It did. I didn’t choose the career as much as the career chose me. It just kind of happened, one step at a time. I just kept doing things that seemed right. I was an art major, and people would ask, “What are you going to do with that?” There is not really a good answer. I would say, “I think I’m going to teach art.” That kind of satisfies anyone who thinks you can’t do anything with art. I didn’t really believe that was what I was going to do, but I didn’t know what I was going to do.
You seem to be pretty prolific in doing your own work in book arts.
I’m not as prolific as I’d like to be. I feel like I don’t do very much. I actually feel like I’ve progressed more slowly than people who are doing art full time. Six years ago or so, I was in a motorcycle accident. I had taken a motorcycle class, and I was going to buy a motorcycle but didn’t end up getting one. I had a friend who had taken a class at the same time as me who had a motorcycle. I asked him to come show me and refresh me on how to ride a motorcycle. He explained everything and I said, “This all sounds familiar – I remember all this.” So I took off on the motorcycle. About 50 feet later, I hit a tree and broke eight ribs and was in the hospital for two weeks. When I came out, I said, “I have to start doing the things I want to do.” I’ve been doing more since then. Not just bookbinding work—I’ve started doing more musical things, especially with ukuleles.
I think I’ve watched all of your You Tube videos about your ukuleles.
Oh really? I know I’m not great. I don’t know if I could be a professional, but it’s fun, and people enjoy it, so I do it. Six or eight months ago, I started leading a group at the local library for people who want to play the ukulele. They come and gather, and I lead the group once a month.
You seem to be a very giving person.
I try. I find that I’m not as good about that with my own family, but I’m trying to be better there too. I don’t know why I’m that way. My parents were divorced when I was five and I was raised by a single mom who I think had a good heart. Life was hard. We were poor. Now I have more money than I’ve ever had in my life. We are not wealthy by any means, but my wife and I are both aware that people don’t have things, especially my wife, sometimes to a fault. She’ll go buy clothes for kids in the neighborhood if she knows they don’t have any money. She’ll just show up at their door and say, “Here are some clothes for your kids.” I’m an introvert and my wife’s an extrovert. She’s really good at just getting out there. That’s actually part of why I married her. I had dated other kinds of women before I met her, and when I dated them I became more insular so I said I have to marry someone more outgoing or I’ll just stay in my room all the time.
Did you grow up in Utah?
No, I was born in Ohio and lived there until I was 13. Then my mom, my sister, and I moved to Florida. My mom’s parents lived there. I lived in Florida until 1989. I went on a mission from 1986-88. I was in Denmark for those two years, but Florida was still my home residence.
Did you do your mission work right out of high school?
I didn’t do it right out of high school because I almost didn’t do it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Back then, most missionaries left when they were 19. I didn’t go until I was 20. I graduated from high school, and I went to one semester of community college in Florida. Then I goofed around and one day felt like I should go. It did change my life. I think it’s the reason that I’m able to get up in front of crowds and talk to people. It built my confidence that way.
I see that you have spoken a lot to groups about preserving family histories.
It took a lot of practice to do that. I get nervous, but it’s not noticeable anymore.
I remember you being an auctioneer at Standards. You didn’t seem nervous.
I’ve only done it once. It was in Dallas and I was a new Standards chair. We tried to get Bill Drendel, but he couldn’t come. Dominic Riley couldn’t come either. We didn’t know who could do it. I thought, “I think I can do that.” So, I did. The only way to know is to try. I was super nervous about it. Every year since, I’ve been asked if I would do it if they can’t get one, and I hesitantly say I guess I would, if they need me. Last year someone who usually does it at PBI (Paper and Book Intensive) did it.
I’ve always wanted to go to PBI. I read that you taught there. What was it like?
It was fun, outdoors. I was great to hang out with so many people enthusiastic about the book arts. I went to teach case binding, which is pretty simple.
I read that you taught at American Academy of Bookbinding.
I’ve taught three conservation classes at AAB. It’s a fun place to be. The town is really great.
Do you like teaching?
I do. I taught at the University of Utah for a long time. Students would have questions, and I would get these great ideas because of the questions they asked, but I never had time to do anything with the ideas because I was always preparing to teach. So I told Marnie [Powers-Torrey, Managing Director of the Book Arts Program], that I wanted to start doing my own stuff, so I needed to stop teaching. But last semester, another college here, Utah Valley University, decided they wanted a bookbinding class. The printmaking teacher there who wanted a bookbinding class scheduled a class without hiring a teacher. She and Pam Barrios convinced me that I should teach it, so I taught last semester. It did take from my time to do my creative work, and it was the first time I ever taught when my students weren’t totally in love with the process, which made it harder and less fun.
What is your favorite kind of bookbinding work? Is it conservation or artist books?
That is hard to answer. I don’t know if I have a favorite. I think in some ways, over the last couple years, when I started making books to sell at Comic Con, I started enjoying case binding. It’s really simple, but I started liking it. I really know a lot about case binding but I don’t know that I have a favorite type. Every time I have a new idea about an artist book, it’s different, a different kind of sewing or structure altogether. I think what I really like is problem solving. That is in both conservation and art. I like problem solving processes at work. Right now we are working on refining our exhibit process. I was put in charge of that. Yesterday, my co-worker was working on some mounts for a book, and she had a problem that I solved. She said, “You just love problem solving.” I think that’s what it is. I wonder sometimes—I majored in art, but did I want to be an artist or did I just want to solve problems? I’m not sure.
What made you interested in Comic Con?
I have always liked comic books and science fiction. And I’ve always wanted to experience Comic Con at least once. When some local guys decided to arrange a Comic Con in Salt Lake City, I decided to go just for a day to see what it was like. It was super crowded because they were trying to break a record for the most-attended new Comic Con ever. They broke the record, but you couldn’t walk through the space. It was interesting, but I didn’t think I would go back. I have a friend who I went to art school with, and he had a booth and got an extra ticket with his booth. He offered me the ticket, so I took it and went a second time. Then, I thought that was probably enough. He offered to share a booth with me for the next one, so I went again, and we shared a booth. I sell blank books there. Instead of sewing the pages myself, because that takes a long time and I’d have to charge more money, I buy text blocks from Hollanders. I buy some with no lines and some with lines, and I do a process that is inspired by Tim Ely. The University of Utah calls it The Naked Book [https://openbook.lib.utah.edu/?p=1536] because it has neither cloth nor leather covering. I just connect two pieces of binders board with a piece of bookcloth at the spine. I gesso both sides of the board with acrylic gesso and then use acrylic modeling paste to cover the boards so they have a texture. I’ll use templates to get shapes, and I’ll scratch lines in the acrylic modeling paste after it dries. Then I rub paint in. It’s a lot like when I did etchings in printmaking –rubbing ink into a plate; I rub acrylic paint into the book cover. I like the way it looks. I just attach those to the text blocks.
Do you ever take private clients?
I used to take private conservation clients, and then my kids said in their evening prayers, “Please bless dad that he can finish his work so that he can spend more time with us.” My youngest is now 17, so I could probably start it again, but I’m not. I’m interested in doing conservation at work and book arts at home.
Do you sell any of your books?
Not really. I’ve sold some in the past and I sell the things I do at Comic Con. Part of the reason I started doing that was to support my other hobbies. I earn enough money at Comic Con so I can buy more materials or buy another ukulele. My wife just got me a t-shirt for Christmas that says, There’s no such thing as too many ukuleles. I’m willing to sell, it’s just never been a primary reason that I do books. A few years ago, a book dealer in Salt Lake City wanted to sell one of my books. She had a store called Red Queen Book Arts. I kept meaning to go see her, and I never did, and all of a sudden, three years have passed, and I still have it.
Maybe you will have a show.
I’ve been thinking of doing that at the library here. Christina Thomas had an exhibit that she put together in a little gallery we have on the fifth floor. I’ve been thinking of having a little show up there too. I remember in art school, they kept pushing: you’ve got to exhibit, you’ve got to exhibit. And I just never cared that much. I care more about making it than exhibiting it, which means as an artist, I would probably fail financially.
I saw online that you used to have a private business, Small and Simple Press.
Small and Simple Press is still the name of my business. It’s from the
Book of Mormon, “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.”
Thank you, Chris. I very much enjoyed this time with you.
Check out Chris’ works on his website:
https://sites.google.com/site/smallandsimpleworks/ On his website he writes,
“I haven’t printed for years, but I still like the name. I hope that in small and simple ways I can share things that make you think or smile or just wonder.”
“I haven’t printed for years, but I still like the name. I hope that in small and simple ways I can share things that make you think or smile or just wonder.”
Chris’ background in art is evident in his many artist books. For his book Infinities,
which he created for the GBW Horizons exhibit, he uses chalk, acrylic paint, and mirrors.