Timothy C. Ely

Tim C. ElyTimothy C. Ely is an renowned and enigmatic figure in the book world. He is part of that discipline, yet lives and works in a universe apart. His one-of-kind manuscript books combine elaborate and often mysterious painted and drawn folios contained within finely crafted bindings, which are his inventions or variations on traditional binding techniques. Each book carries layers of both materials and meaning. Close study of each drawing can elicit revelations, personal to each viewer.

Born in Snohomish, Washington in 1949, Ely has been making books since he was a child, mixing drawing, painting, and words in his journals and stapled comic books. His childhood interests in such topics as astronomy and chemistry have carried forward into his adult work. He was deeply influenced by his father’s hardware store and the local public library, where he spent his time after school. It was later, during his undergraduate studies (Western Washington University, BA 1972), that Ely’s philosophy of art, expression, and books began to coalesce. Following graduate school (University of Washington, MFA 1975), Ely undertook a self-directed study of bookbinding and began to fabricate the work he is known for today: a fusion of his unique take on English style binding techniques with his visionary drawings.

For the last forty years, his books and other works have sprung from a central core of concepts, owing to a fascination with obscure or seemingly incomprehensible forms inspired by science and other projections from the history of the human imagination. This spectrum of inspiration includes such things as fractured and whole grids, cypher systems, landforms and landscapes as viewed from a satellite, and the archeological overlay of some of these sites, especially those containing libraries. Originally, the atlas format provided a platform for the rendering of his complex maps, which gradually gave way to an expanded psychological viewpoint of a larger universal scheme.

Much of Ely’s work is richly annotated with his own glyphs he calls “cribriform.” While they are made up of a finite set of marks, they take on many different “meanings” depending on the tool with which they are drawn. He has written and spoken often about the roots and evolution of these drawings. Gestural in their formation, these trailings evoke a sense of language and meaningful discourse. Though suggestive, they never yield up a firm translation.

With a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1982) Ely traveled to Japan, Italy, and England to study bookbinding and paper making. He then moved to New York where he established a studio and taught at the Center for Book Arts. During his decade in New York, Ely traveled to Europe, Central America, and Scandinavia lecturing, exhibiting, and teaching. From New York, he moved his studio to Portland, Oregon, back to his native Pacific Northwest. He has had numerous solo exhibitions, most recently at the Jundt Art Museum and The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and has participated in countless group exhibitions. His work is in many private and public collections, including the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, the Getty Research Institute, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Lilly Library. 

Ely currently lives in rural Eastern Washington near Spokane.


See all books by Timothy C. Ely  


Click image below to purchase a copy of Timothy C. Ely: 8 Books

Timothy C. Ely: 8 Books front cover 

Recent Timothy C. Ely exhibit at The Schack Art Center in Everett, WA