Ruth Downes, Miniature Bookbinder Artist

Paper Legends, opening Friday, Jan. 20 at Gualala Arts, features unique, amazing paper artists who will inspire and delight us. Ruth Downes is among the dozen artists, but before launching into the story of her library of teensy tomes, here’s the list of other artists who will also command our attention: Donnalynn Chase, Jackie Gardner, Paula Haymond, Polly Hutcheson, Mirka Knaster, Susan Lewis, Sharon Nickodem, Janet Self, Elizabeth Solomon, Shayla Workman and Amethyst Widner. *

Reception is in the Elaine Jacobs Foyer 4-6 p.m.

When the Covid clamp-down-lockdown descended, Ruth Downes expanded her artistic panorama. What began as an experimental dip into bookbinding became a highly skilled, passionate adventure into miniature bookbinding. Ruth discovered the key for entering the portal of flow, that magical part of the creative process when play and work are the same thing, when concentration is intense with a feeling of ease, when you can’t wait to begin work and while you’re at it you can scarcely stop.

In these few years of the plague, Ruth has created 168 mini-books. Most of them are special editions of antique, rare books. She includes the complete text whenever possible. The two longest books–Alice in Wonderland and Culpeper’s Herbal have 200 pages.

Ruth classifies her library into “before and after sewn bindings.” After much experimentation, she has learned that sewn binding has superior quality and durability. Note the large embroidery needle on the very small book on this story’s opening image. BTW, the gold edges of pages are made with gold acrylic spray or a stamp pad.

Both Ruth’s parents were librarians–of course, Ruth doesn’t let us forget library cards.

As a grad student Ruth worked in the inter-library loan department, where she filed and retrieved antique, esoteric, rare books. Here she is now–specializing in mini antique volumes.

By downloading and resizing original work Ruth enhances books we would probably never come across. Here is her hand-made version of Designs and Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci–about two inches high.

In the Paper Legends show, Ruth has two works–a 4.5″ x 5.25″ hand-bound, letter press edition of Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover and a wall piece entitled Open Book: The Arc of Protection.

Cover for Porphyria’s Lover. Photo by Ruth Downes
Ruth’s linoleum block illustration. Photo by Ruth Downes.

Ruth began the Porphyria project when she was a teenager. After a 26 -year lapse, she created ten linoleum block illustrations and pursued the book-making process. The project was dropped for another 15 years. This brings us to the Covid lock-down when Ruth launched into book binding. For further elaboration on Ruth’s history and complex binding process, see her Artist’s Statement at the show.

Before we go on to Ruth’s second piece in Paper Legends, let’s light up her reaction to the poem’s meaning. Robert Browning’s lyrics end with a disturbing twist–the lover ends up strangling Porphyria. Ruth explains, “This book is a beautiful object expressing an eloquent poem on an ugly subject, and I’m seeking to give it a positive impact by donating a portion of any sales proceeds to Project Sanctuary, a domestic violence shelter in Ukiah.”

Each of Ruth’s projects connects sentiments and information from days of yore to contemporary life. This is also true for her Open Book: Arc of Protection, in which she tenderly circles round her personal life.

Open Book:The Arc of Protection. Photo by Ruth Downes.

Ruth comments, “It’s about how my mom tried to protect me from the world when I was little, and now that her health has declined, I’m trying to protect her (from incompetent or indifferent medical care) and find that I can’t completely do so.”

Ruth’s curiosity, persistence, sensitive ethics and attention to excellence elicits a big WOW! I am looking forward to more surprises at the show. Visit Paper Legends--the exhibit is up Jan. 20 – Feb. 5. Enjoy!

*For more information on Paper Legends, see the article in Gualala Arts newsletter–Sketches, found on their website

*Contact Ruth Downes: downeswhitestudio [at]

5 thoughts on “Ruth Downes, Miniature Bookbinder Artist

  1. Wonderful!! So creative, clever and persevering!

    Thanks so much for sharing, Gretchen!

    Sending love,






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  2. Such a passionate appraisal of your friends work. And such work!! Great bindings from what I can see of the pictures, VERY COOL library card inside!! Quite an accomplishment, wish I were there to see them. Bibliophilic joy for her in her grad days, such fun!


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