open studio

I’m really looking forward to taking part in Saltaire Arts Trail again this year on the early May bank holiday weekend: 5-7th May. The Butterfly Rooms, where my studio is, will have three studios open with ‘resident artists’ and we have a pop-up cafe this year especially for the event. I will have work on show from various recent projects, but most of importantly, this is my working studio.

We are venue 20 on the trail. There is always loads to see at this lovely annual event and Saltaire will be buzzing with art, activities and people for the three days. If you can’t make it then you can have a virtual peek at my studio here.

curious objects

Last week I installed North Atlantic Drift: Curious Objects. This exhibition uses a wonderful ‘cabinet of curiosities’ at the Old Low Light down on the fish quay in North Shields, Tyneside. The cabinet, which was designed especially for the space, sits amongst a fascinating multi-media heritage exhibition. There are many drawers of different dimensions and scales, with plinths and boxes on top.

This collection of altered found items and constructed forms are based on objects gathered from northern coastal locations of the British Isles. The materials have been subjected to the forces of North Atlantic Drift (the northern extension of the Gulf Stream); they have been shifted, displaced, scoured, tangled and fractured. Organic and man-made debris, floating on currents or shifted by water and tide, is intermingled, broken down and re-configured.

The space is filled with my altered and constructed objects until 30th June.

drawing tools

I’ve been exploring what there is on my allotment, including all the things I have inherited from the previous owner(s). As well as plants and the structure of beds that contain them (or not!), there are many other objects and materials with potential use to me. The site is a sort of palimpsest, a record of the different layers of activity and lives that have worked the plot.

Rusty old tools, which at first seemed pretty useless, are being put to use at times – if a hammer is a bit rusty it still works as a hammer! I’ve been drawing some of these tools and other objects using my home-made inks. These are made from previously gathered walnuts and oak galls, neither of which I am likely to find on my plot. But I have plans for making inks with things that do grow here.

Drawing really makes me look at the detail of these objects: the nature of the surfaces; the curve of a handle; the structures that make up the forms. It is deep looking and allows for good thinking time.

new year

Happy new year (I know I’m a bit late in getting round to saying that, but it is still just the middle of January). We’re still in the depths of winter, and although today the weather has provided a mix of cold wind, sleet, snow and generally depressing greyness I did notice yesterday that it is getting dark a little later now.

I have news of new projects and new workshops. Back in September I started studying for an MA in Creative Practice. This is a research-based course, the focus of which (for me) will be my new allotment. I have taken on this plot in order to garden but also to explore the site in creative ways. I hope to use material from my plot for a variety of different techniques, recording the site and its changes through the seasons. If you follow me on Instagram (where I post pretty much daily) you will already have seen some of the things going on there.

There is a lot to do over the winter to get my plot ready for the growing season as it hasn’t been properly tended for a few years. However, there is a good structure of beds, sheds and fruit trees under the weeds. I am very excited about this project; about the possibilities it offers for creative engagement with a site over an extended period, as well as the benefits of being outside, having my hands in the soil, growing some lovely things and the fresh start it provides.

I have a long list of workshops which get under way from March onwards and which are all listed on the workshops page with links to the relevant studios for booking. I am looking forward to returning to familiar locations to teach this year, as well as some new ones. Some of the workshops are full, but these have waiting lists (it is always worth being on a list as people do sometimes have to drop out). I understand here are still places available at Lund Studios in early May, ArtisOn in late May, Moor Hall Studio in August/September and the wonderful Masseria della Zingara in Puglia in October.

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.