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.

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.

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