Playing with (book) structures

I have long been interested in making simple book structures. My work previous to this project had included making a series of small Coptic bound books that then became the repository for recording some aspect of the landscapes I was visiting. The stitched binding remains exposed on the spine of the book, which is made up of page ‘signatures’. Bound together with a series of interlocking stitches, the book structure becomes a unit that flows beautifully in your hands or can sit open in a variety of curves through to a full circle. Using a fairly substantial, good quality paper for these books, I became fascinated by how this basic structure as my ‘blank’ unit could then be dyed, printed, dropped in puddles or dipped in exposed estuary mud, collecting some physical aspect of the landscape, just as I had also treated similarly ‘blank’ units of hand woven thread.

So it was only natural that my initial thoughts for this project were to make books. But… surely that would be too obvious? Wouldn’t everyone else be making some sort of book? Just because the starting point is a collection of books the creative response could take any form…

I considered something less bookish… I had thoughts about possible directions:

using the shelves on which the books are kept

the spaces within these shelves

the repetition of the book unit

the scale of these large books – making something big!

But I kept coming back to that incredible exposed spine. Just because something seems obvious doesn’t make it wrong. That gut reaction I’d had about ‘my’ book seemed just as relevant for my intuitive desire to explore this stitched bound book structure. Furthermore, to have some sort of continuation of themes between projects seems very justifiable. After all, we divide our work into ‘projects’ to present to our audience but really an artist’s work is a continuum, an ever-evolving line of inquiry.

Smelly old books

I read a newspaper article about the science of the smell of old books (The Guardian, 7 April 2017). This explains that those very distinctive and evocative smells that we experience when we open an old book, or even just enter a room with lots of them in it, are linked to the chemical composition of books and what happens when they slowly decay. The description of these smells as being similar to coffee or wood, or being burnt or earthy resonated with me. These are all natural substances or processes and ones that I am interested in and comfortable exploring in my practice. The smell of a book is affected by the way it was produced and from what materials, which depends on its age. Also of importance is how it has been kept, whether it has travelled and by what means.

These old book smells are definitely present when you enter the Fifth-Sized Book collection at Newcastle Library. Removing a book from the shelf and opening it up is most definitely a multi-sensory experience.

Page 17

Earlier this year, during the time that I was developing my ideas for the Fifth-Sized Book Adventure, I was invited to take part in an exhibition initiative by the Embroiderers’ Guild. This group exhibition under the title ‘Page 17’ was to be shown around the same time that the Newcastle Library Project would come to fruition. In fact it is on show this weekend at the London leg of the Knitting and Stitching Shows. Participants in Page 17 were invited to take a favourite book as their inspiration for a new piece of work for the exhibition. I don’t know what is on page 17 of ‘my’ book, just as I don’t know what is on any of the pages due to it being bound shut. However, I liked the synchronicity of this project with my current thinking and decided to accept the invitation.

The requirements for the Page 17 exhibition were set out by the organisers and are quite specific due to the nature of the show and its location. This gave me a set of constraints within which to conceive a piece of work, something that can often be quite useful as a starting point. I decided that I wanted to explore the exposed spine and to continue making small units, bringing them together to make a larger whole. These would then be encased in an acrylic box, showing mismatched stitched spines and page edges in a block that would remain tightly closed and restricted.

Constructing this piece proved a useful testing ground for the library work. I planned out the units that would sit within the clear box and then made them one by one, fitting them together at the end like a sort of jigsaw.

The bright white of the paper and stitch was too ‘clean’ to relate back to my old worn starting point, so each unit was dipped in tea to gather more sympathetic tones and marks along their folds, stitches and edges. Fitted back together the piece became a study in texture within a constricted form: rough torn edges and uneven junctions between units, all contained by clear straight boundaries.

Page 17 will be shown at the Harrogate Knitting & Stitching Show 23 – 26 November.

Unidentified Book

This is the second in a series of posts about the Fifth-Sized Book Adventure. For the rest of October I will be posting every couple of days about this project, explaining how I have created my contribution to it. My role in the project includes sharing my process of developing work, for the participants on the project, but I also wanted to make this available to anyone else who might be interested in following that journey.

Having listed (in a previous post) some of the qualities that interested me about the Fifth-Sized Book collection, I realised that it was the physical nature of the books that I was interested in. How could I choose a particular book because of subject? That approach wouldn’t be right for the way I work. I am interested in the materiality of things. It was the way that the books had changed over time that really grabbed my attention: the way that page edges or corners had become scuffed with use or marked by contact with hundreds of people’s fingers and exposure to light; the torn and worn covers or those missing parts of their covers; the marks made by institutional stamps that were now integral to the pages, recording a history of ownership, use and classification.

One particular book stuck in my head after that first visit to the library. It was a chunky volume, sitting on a shelf amongst different sized books. Its spine was missing, leaving the stitching on the inside of the spine exposed and showing how the thick book had split into three sections. The whole volume was tied untidily with old string to keep the sections together. This binding and the loss of the spine cover meant that there is no way of knowing what the subject of the book was.

On my second visit I made straight for this volume, confirming my gut reaction that this was the book upon which I should focus my work. This seemingly very old book was a most intriguing object and by not knowing what its pages held it would remain for me an object whose physical state greatly interested me.

When this book is touched it leaves a mark on your fingers and any clothes or surfaces it comes into contact with. What remains of the leather cover is breaking down into a powdery brown dust. The exposed stitching on the spine is clogged with residue of the glue that previously held the cover on. Some sections retain fragments of the spine cover, with one small area showing blue with embossed gold detail, like a glimpse into the book’s previous state.

Le Mans exposition

My exhibition in Le Mans, France opened this weekend, hosted by the town of Le Mans and facilitated by Atelier de Genevieve. I’m incredibly grateful to Genevieve for organising and curating the exhibition. The layered, peeling paint and crumbling textures on the walls of the Pavilion Monod make a wonderful backdrop to the neutral tones of my work. The exhibition is on until 29th October.

5th size book adventure

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about a project I am currently involved in: the 5th Size Book Adventure based at Newcastle Central Library. I am one of a group of lead artists on this Arts Council England funded project, commissioned to share my experience with the participants and make new work, the development of which will be visible for the participants to engage with as they wish. There are around 20 participant artists who are all creating work in whatever medium they use (and it is wide-ranging) in response to the 5th size book collection. They are also recipients of a programme of professional development sessions. All the work will be presented in November in an exhibition in the library itself.

What is a fifth sized book? There are various different ways of classifying book sizes. Most library books, in the UK at least, are classed as 1st size (up to 27cm). There are second, third and fourth dimensions and then anything over 63cm is classed as fifth size.

At Newcastle Library the fifth size book collection is an eclectic mix of subjects, sizes, formats, ages and states of repair. The shelves of third, fourth and fifth size books are all out of access to the general public and the main thing that unites them is their non-conformity with the more standard book sizes on the standard library shelves. It struck me, when being shown the collection, and whilst walking past the area where newspapers are collected and stored (for 1 month after publication), that newspapers are a more ephemeral version of over-sized books. The local newspapers, the Journal and the Chronicle, therefore might be considered part of the collection.

To be invited to take a whole collection of books on such wide-ranging subject matter as religion, architecture, Shakespeare, poetry, history, atlases, dictionaries and many more is a pretty wide starting point. Some might choose one particular book, either by careful consideration or picked at random. The subject matter of that book might take one off on all sorts of creative journeys. Some might decide to focus on the collection as a whole; its physicality; the fact that it is hidden away from public view. Others might concentrate on the whole idea of scale: large scale, possibly small scale, even changes in scale.

I picked a few volumes off the shelves for a closer look: The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer; One Day in the World’s Press; Goethe’s Faust (this had a library stamp on every page); Illustrated Catalogue of Bookbinding. The borrowing history in the front of this last one was interesting because it was first borrowed on 20th August 1904, recorded with handwriting in pencil. It was then borrowed 18 times during the next 30 years. On 5th September 1949 it was borrowed and the record was made with a stamped date for the first time. It was borrowed five more times until the last recorded date stamp on 26th May 1966.

After this first visit I listed the things that had jumped out at me:

Shelves

Rows

Repetition

Gaps – views through to more books

Books leaning

Different angles

Piles of books

Stacks

White Gloves (some of the books are fragile but we were actually given gloves to protect us from dusty and disintegrating covers)

Worn covers

Embossed spines

Leather

Book cloth

Textures

Split covers

Too fragile to open

Dust and staining from perishing covers

Worn and grubby

Weight

Greys, blacks, browns

Bubble wrapped

String holding one book together

Gold lettering

Pattern and texture on spines

Massively varying subjects

Ridged spines

Curled corners

Loose edges of spine

Findings in a line

We hung Findings last week at the Ropewalk Gallery, Barton on Humber. This gallery suits my work very well in both scale and environment and I am really pleased with how the exhibition looks. Having hung this body of work on three different gallery spaces during the Knitting and Stitching Shows last year it is good to have had some time to reflect and then show it again, making a few changes to how the work is presented. There are some additions as I sold some pieces from the original show; some pieces have been re-mounted for the wall rather than being shown on plinths; my recent walking book series has been incorporated as these book structures record many of the locations that feature in the rest of the work.

This time the work hangs in one continuous line, so you can take a journey through the objects, studying each one in turn. Each individual piece is intimate in scale and the detail is all-important. Together they form a much bigger whole and I hope that they tell a story; each viewer reading a slightly different narrative.

Shall I take you on a walk around the gallery? I can’t show you every piece (there are over 200) but this will give you a good flavour of the work…

As many of you will know, there is a publication which accompanies this body of work. Findings, which has close-up images of much of the work as well as writing that links the pieces to the places that they record and essays by Nigel Morgan, is available to order here. The exhibition continues until 3rd September.

Saltaire Arts Trail

The lovely Saltaire Arts Trail event is on this coming bank holiday weekend. I am opening my studio at The Butterfly Rooms as part of the Open Houses trail – we’re number 20 on the map. We shall be open 10 – 5 Saturday, Sunday, Monday (27th- 29th May). Do come along and see the space I work in. I will have a variety of framed and unframed work available, as well as books and cards etc.

If you’ve never been to Saltaire then this is the perfect excuse to visit the World Heritage Site, have a look in all sorts of buildings and houses in the village, meet some lovely people and have a generally arty time – I am a little biased as I was involved in organising the event for 5 years!

DIS/rupt

DIS/rupt opens today at the Museum in the Park and tomorrow at Lansdown Hall Gallery, Stroud. This exhibition and associated events is by the Textile Study Group and is launching as part of SIT select. There are twenty members showing work across the two venues and some of us are teaching workshops linked to the project. You can read more about DIS/rupt here, book onto workshops, the DIS/rupt symposium and see all the other events happening here and you can read a bit more about the work I have made for this exhibition here.

The Private View for the exhibitions are this Friday – do come along if you can.