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Albany Park's North Branch Projects Brings Books and Community Together

By Patty Wetli | October 17, 2012 2:52pm | Updated on November 19, 2012 2:34pm

ALBANY PARK — Bookbinding may seem anachronistic in a wireless age, but the craft is unlocking creativity and building community at North Branch Projects, 3550 N. Lawrence Ave.

Artist Regin Igloria is the founder of North Branch Projects, a featured location during Chicago Artists Month. North Branch provides a communal space and free open sessions for people who want to acquire the techniques needed to make books by hand.

All tools and materials are provided and participants are encouraged to assemble two books: one to keep and one to contribute to the North Branch archive.

Igloria, the director of artists-in-residence at The Ragdale Foundation, opened North Branch in 2010.

"All the books kind of become this public domain," said Igloria, who maintains a personal art studio just behind North Branch's public work room.

Visitors to the North Branch storefront are free to write or draw in the books that line several shelving units.

"The goal is to create a space for people to create art and stories," Igloria said. At the work table, "people are engaging in conversation and working with their hands and each other."

On a recent weekend, Sam Chao, a student at the School of the Art Institute, paid her second visit to North Branch with the ultimate goal of making a sketch book.

"I'm like a beginner beginner," she said. "I never made books before. I didn't know how to start."

For Chao, the process is just as important as the finished product.

"I like folding paper," she said. "It's really calming."

Kristin Ginger, a Groupon employee who holds an MFA in creative writing, is a regular at North Branch, popping in every two to three weeks.

"I love books and how they're made and the history of them," she said.

The challenge for Igloria is to draw people to North Branch who are not already members of the artistic community.

"My goal was to work with people in the neighborhood and they're the last ones to come in," he said. "It's easy to get the art school kids."

Igloria, who was born in the Philippines and moved to Chicago when he was 3, grew up in Albany Park. His parents live five blocks from the North Branch studio.

"The further I got involved in the art world, the more removed I was from my family," he said.

The intent behind North Branch is to make the arts less intimidating and more accessible to Albany Park residents and to provide neighbors with the opportunity to discover untapped creativity.

"To me, that's more interesting, more challenging and more important," said Igloria.

He emphasizes the use of nontraditional, found materials — like a book cover crafted from a wine box — to remove economic barriers that might discourage people from pursuing bookbinding.

"People in this neighborhood are not going to spend $20 a yard on book cloth," he said. The key is to eliminate whatever's "holding them back from creating and recording an idea."

Selenia Sosa is a neighbor who frequents North Branch. (And yes, people still ask if she's related to Sammy. The answer is no.) A student at Northeastern Illinois University, Sosa lives around the corner from the storefront on Central Park.

"I like it because they're personalized," she said, while working on a sketchbook she planned to give her nephew as a gift for his approaching eighth birthday.

Sosa found the social and meditative aspects of bookbinding equally appealing.

"We end up talking," she said of her comrades at the work table. "Sometimes we're so engrossed in our work, it gets quiet."

One unique side benefit for Sosa: the skill she's gained using a knife and thread. The biology major plans to become a surgeon and all the cutting and stitching involved in bookbinding will eventually come in handy.

"It's good practice," she joked.