Bookbinder Odette Drapeau has been internationally honored for her modern and dynamic approach to what is often considered a traditional craft. To Drapeau, the book is both “a visual and tactile object where the container and content can connect to generate other visions.” While continually experimenting with new concepts that transform her practice, Drapeau also remains committed to what she calls the true nature of the book—being easy to use and inviting to read. Her professional career spans more than 40 years, from her early studies under book-gilding specialists in Paris and Montreal, to her most recent solo exhibitions at the Lower Saint Lawrence Museum in Québec and Historical Library of the City of Paris. Drapeau is a native of Montreal, where she lives and works.
Lara Palmquist: I first encountered your art through this year’s Nobel Museum Book Binding Exhibition, where your bindings of books by recent laureates Mo Yan and Alice Munro are currently on display. Can you talk about your process and goals in creating these two works?
Odette Drapeau: The Swedish Bookbinders Guild celebrated Nobel Prize-winners Alice Munro (2013) and Mo Yan (2012) at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm by inviting bookbinders from China, Canada, and Sweden to participate with titles from these two remarkable authors.
I felt at home with Alice Munro’s great sensitivity and intense femininity. Creating a “back to back” binding of Runaway allowed me to join the English version to the French translation, choosing white leather for the French and pink for the English. I wanted to unify those books while making them distinctive. Mo Yan’s writing also captivated me—reading his work was a pleasant discovery. Because the meaning of color is very important in China, I chose red and orange to bind a French translation of his two stories “Le veau” (The Calf) and “Le Coureur de Fond” (The Distance Runner); those colors bring luck and happiness.
LP: As a bookbinder dedicated to continually pushing the boundaries of your artistic practice, you have engaged with several unusual materials, including marine leather. What first inspired your interest in fish, ray, and eel skin, and how do these materials continue to inform your work?
OD: I have been dedicated to marine leather for more than thirty years. My discovery of fish leathers— tanned in Gaspésie, Québec—emerged as a lever to unlock change. Suddenly, I had a new medium to work with, a flexible and durable material offering rich natural colors, inviting textures, and varied shades. These new elements enabled me to begin creating original bindings in arrangements comparable to pictorial works without sacrificing the 3D structural contribution of the classic binding.