in action

I collected Unknown Book from Newcastle Library last weekend, taking my piece off the shelves up on level 6, where it had shared the space with the local interest collection during the Love Big Books Exhibition.

Gary Chaplin, one of the participants in the Fifth-Sized Book Adventure has made a great little film using interviews with some of the artists explaining their contributions to the project. You can see the film here.

Next Sunday (26th November) I will be at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, demonstrating in the Artists in Action studio all day. I will have part of Unknown Book with me, as well as lots of samples and examples of book structures, with which I will be playing and demonstrating. The show is also another chance to see Page 17, the Embroiderers’ Guild exhibition in which I have a piece connected to my Unknown Book project. If you’re at the show do come along to the ‘studio’ and say hello.

Love Big Books exhibition

Unknown Book: Paper, linen, acrylic, acetate, ink, natural dyes, gold leaf.

A collection of hand made book units with stitched Coptic binding in linen thread, using new and re-purposed paper (discarded by the library) and incorporating print, natural staining and gold leaf.

On Wednesday I took Unknown Book up to Newcastle to install in the City Library as part of the Love Big Books exhibition. My piece is on library shelves up on floor 6 of the library in amongst the books that live there permanently. I didn’t know until I got there where my work would go in the library. I’m thrilled with how it sits amongst the ‘real’ books, almost camouflaged.

The exhibition is on all floors of the building, with work in a variety of different spaces. Visitors will either seek out the work and explore the library through the exhibition, or they will come across exhibits whilst using the library for all sort of different reasons. The exhibition continues until 17th November.

Publication

One of the key aspects of this project and my involvement in it was that the lead artists would share the process of developing a piece of work with the other participating artists. Everyone has different approaches, strategies and skills for making a work of art. Understanding something of an artist’s tools can be an enriching and inspiring experience, whether they relate to the medium one works in or not.

Working ‘in residence’ in the library and having direct contact with participants was an obvious way to share experience and knowledge. Writing about the development process is accessible to those involved in the project but potentially might reach a much wider audience. The text that makes up this recent series of blogs is now transferred onto the physical page in a publication called Unknown Book, thus forming a tactile record of the project. The book is available to buy here. I have also taken the opportunity to share something of the process of putting together the publication itself.

Unknown Book is number six in an on-going series of self-published works, each one recording a specific project I have undertaken. These books are bought by people from all corners of the earth and many who haven’t seen the physical work but who are interested in knowing something of it. The books I publish are part exhibition catalogue but they also contain some sort of explanation about the processes involved in making the work. They are a means for me to share my work on a level that is beyond just presenting a ‘finished’ piece of work in a gallery.

Anyone can self-publish and that process has become very easy in recent years with various approaches, including on-demand printing. There are also different ways of promoting the self-publication and if it is something you might consider I would suggest giving that some serious thought: If you are going to spend money on producing a whole load of books you need to be confident that you can sell them. I didn’t set out to become a publisher, but after the first two books I realised it was something I wanted to continue doing and that it might become a significant part of any project I undertake. It also provides me with a ‘product’ that I can sell at a reasonable price and this takes some of the pressure off feeling that I have to make ‘sellable’ work. I bought some ISBN numbers and thus became a publisher – it sounds far grander than it actually is! You don’t have to have an ISBN number to publish but it does mean (in the UK) that the British Library and the Legal Deposit Libraries collect copies. There is a certain legitimacy associated with this, which isn’t necessary but it also means that you can claim a share of royalties via organisations such as the Design and Artists Copyright Society (if the publication includes your own images). So it costs you a bit but there are benefits.

Each time I have self-published a book I have learnt something new, which feeds into the next publication. These are some of the things I have learnt or found useful:

I have developed a relationship with a local printer who has an environmental policy I am happy with (this is something particularly important to me) and who I feel I can talk to without needing to know a huge amount about the publishing and printing industry – I can ask a stupid question and not feel stupid!

I now know the sort of paper finish I like but also what the implications of that are for my images and the environment.

I have a format that works for me and has been consistent through the different books.

I have picked up the basic skills I need to layout a book and get it how I want it to look. Keeping things simple and clear is a benefit.

I do my own photography for the books and I am always looking to learn ways to improve that.

I understand the timescale needed by the printers so I can build that into my work on a project. This means that if the book is associated with an exhibition I may need to have the publication ready to go to the printers before I have finished making the work.

I have a fairly loyal following via social media, through my blog and from exhibitions, which means that I am confident that over a period of time there will be enough demand for a new book to justify the outlay.

The experience I have gained through producing these self-published books is part of the reason I was invited to be a lead artist on this project. The different parts of my practice are all interlinked and one thing leads to another…

Construction

The individual units that make up ‘Unknown Book’ are a series of small Coptic bound books. The structure that encases the books is made up of 106 units in a grid. Some of these are filled with one book structure, whilst others contain a number of separate sections. There are therefore around 250 individual items that make up this collection.

The book structures are made of a mixture of good quality printmaking paper and re-purposed paper from publications discarded by the library. Edges are torn and uneven.

The books made of new white paper have been marked, dyed, stained, printed, wrapped, scrunched, rubbed, scuffed, distorted and dipped. The structures made of re-purposed books, magazines and papers have been bound, scrunched, curled, wrapped, sliced, deconstructed, reconfigured, cracked, folded and formed.

Together these make up a collection of experiments with material, form and process. They contain a record of my thinking and making around the subject of a collection of books; about scale and accessibility; about classification and collections; about the physical properties of paper and the changes it might go through.

In Residence

My first couple of days working ‘in residence’ in the library provided a really focussed period of work on the project. I brought the starting points I had developed, along with sketches, photographs and notes to show any interested participants or members of the public. The ‘big book’ was brought down from the collection to sit on my worktable and provide an important proximity to my working process.

I continued to work on the book units, having now identified the exact dimensions to make. I wasn’t working any differently to how I would in my own studio, but being in the library itself provided a focus and impetus to my making and thinking. The library had been asked to collect together any papers or books that would have been otherwise discarded so that I could potentially incorporate them into my work. The range of these was slightly disappointing, but was enough to start exploring possibilities. The lovely library staff found me a tin of old library stamps and some inkpads, which I played with on the surface of some of my book units.

About a month later I had a second residency session, again working in the library in an intensive way and exploring further the use of withdrawn publications in my book units. This time in the library also allowed for participants in the project to visit and talk about what I was doing, as well as the development of their own work for the project. That sharing of process, thinking and development between the artists involved is a key part of this whole venture. Those discussions are so important for artists to have with their peers or mentors, partly as a means of over-coming problems (that you sometimes didn’t even realise were there), but also in a spirit of support and understanding. Even just describing what you are doing or trying to achieve to someone else can solidify things in your own mind and provide a way forward or even just a confirmation that the approach you are taking is right.

 

Making (decisions and books)

Having made certain decisions about what I was going to concentrate on (book structures as ‘units’, exposed stitching, split sections, fragments of cover, staining, page edges) it was now time to experiment with those details. I sampled different possibilities, identifying exact scale and dimensions and finalising how the work would be presented. These areas were explored alongside each other to some extent. I identified a type of acrylic box divided into units that would sit well within the standard library shelves. I wanted my work to be shown on the shelves, whether that was in amongst the normal book collection or in a gallery space within the library. This acrylic unit (about the scale of a large book) would encase my little books, keeping them safe from disruption by library visitors, whilst enabling viewing from both sides. That containment would also echo the string-bound big book, which cannot be opened: my little books will not be open-able either. The divided acrylic unit had a suggestion of the exposed spine of the big book, which is divided into an uneven grid by the lines of stitching in one direction and the split sections that make up the thick volume in the other. I could fill one of these gridded boxes, or 3, or any number, depending on how long it would take me to make the book units to go within.

Project practicalities

I do feel it is important to consider the practicality of how and what one intends to make for a specific project. Whilst this shouldn’t limit the artistic vision, it has to be taken into account:

How am I going to deal with making something ‘in residence’ in the library (which is a couple of hours train ride from home) and then continue with that making in my own studio?

How will the piece be transported, exhibited, stored afterwards?

These may seem like boring practicalities but they are essential considerations. I have made large scale work in the past but have since worked on smaller and smaller scales. Making a number of units on an intimate scale that can then come together to make a whole that is more then the sum of their parts has benefits:

The work can be portable, so easily transferred from the studio to home (so I can carry on making whilst the supper cooks, for instance).

Progress is easily measured: if you complete one or two units in a day there is a sense of satisfaction and growth associated with that.

Storage is more straight-forward: I have all sorts of work from previous projects that was framed and then takes up the limited storage space I have in my home and studio (and my parents’ garage…).

Displaying the work can be more flexible with a number of possibilities for how pieces are arranged: whether they are wall mounted or displayed on plinths; whether they are shown in lines, grids or randomly. There is something I find really attractive and playful about this ‘open form’ sort of exhibition potential. Maybe the work could be moved about by the curator, or the viewer even.

Within the context of an exhibition in a functioning library there are a further set of considerations to be made. This is where the involvement of a curator in the project, along with understanding, supportive and imaginative library staff become necessary.

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.