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.

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

Northey Island

This time last week I was on an island surrounded by water, mud, birds, boats and a clear blue sky… Northey Island is in the Blackwater Estuary, Essex and has only two houses on it. One of these was ours for the weekend for a workshop through which we explored the island and recorded our experience of it.

The approach to the island is via a causeway that is covered for a few hours at high tide. It only takes half an hour or so to walk right round the island. Salt marsh and mud continue beyond the land you can safely walk on, creating tantalising patterns that extend toward the watery edges and change with the ebb and flow of the tide.

After a period of bad weather we were blessed with a dry weekend of sunshine and blue skies, a keen wind and stars at night. Spending much of the time outside, we undertook a series of mark making, drawing, printing and recording activities, with students exploring different aspects of the place. We also shared our marks in a collaborative exercise one evening.

Then we made a series of books with our marked papers, which became our personal records of the place to take away.

published

Chaptern 6 Sense of Place

My book is published today! So now it is available to buy from all good bookshops. Of course there are various ways of getting a copy (and various prices on the internet) but if you want to buy one directly from me I have signed copies available in my shop.

I’m really grateful to the contributing artists whose work is also featured in the book, enriching it with their inspirational words and stunning images: Jilly Edwards, India Flint, Claire Wellesley-Smith, Catherine Lewis, Dorothy Caldwell, Joanne B Kaar, Lotta Helleberg, Jennifer Coyne Qudeen, Hannah Lamb, Debbie Lyddon. The practices of these wonderful artists’ are all bound up with their own experience of and respect for the natural world.

I’m just getting ready to go off to the Festival of Quilts at the NEC. I will be demonstrating in the Virtual Studio on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Do come and say hello if you’re there. Oh, and I might have some books with me…

the book has landed!

NaturalProcessesCVR

Well almost… The books have arrived at Art Van Go for the launch this Saturday (25th July). Do come along between 12 and 4pm if you are within reach. I will be there with a pen to sign copies and I’m told there will be cake too! On the walls in the gallery space at Art Van Go there are lots of examples of my work featured in the book. The exhibition, called Here & There, will be up until the end of August. The book is officially released on 6th August so the 50 copies we have for the launch really are hot off the press and prior to the publishing date. Once I have some copies in stock myself they will be available to order here. I will be at the Festival of Quilts at the NEC on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th August. I’ll be demonstrating in the Virtual Studio and I will have copies there too.

Leaf Stitching book

BB Book cover 2.indd

My Leaf Stitching books have just arrived, hot off the press from the printers. The book is now available here. This book forms a photographic record of a series of experiments with leaves and hand stitch that I have been playing about with for a couple of years. As it says in the afterword: This book illustrates a line of inquiry, the following of a thought process.

Some of the pieces that feature in the book, and others that don’t, will be exhibited this Autumn at the Society of Designer Craftsmen Gallery, London.

oak

Alice Fox oak leaf quilt in progress

Just as the new buds are unfurling in the woods I am using last years leaves. I am working on my largest leaf stitching piece so far. This is a sort of experiment, just to see what happens when I try to scale up something that I’ve been doing previously on a hold-in-the-hand scale. These leaves are pretty fragile, although they were collected at a point when the winter hadn’t completed its job of weakening and breaking down the fibres. Pressed and dried flat they are generally doing what I want them to and I am learning all the time what the boundaries are. As I work on this piece in the studio my Leaf Stitching book is finished and at the printers. I hope it will be available in the next couple of weeks.

sketch

Alice Fox badger drawing 2

I’ve just posted off my entry to this year’s Sketchbook Project. My book is called Contemplating the Badger and is made up of drawings of a dead badger that I met last September. Encounters with wildlife in this way provide a closeness that we are never afforded when they are alive. It may seem morbid to want to study an animal that has met with an end like this but I see it as an opportunity to understand more about them. It was particularly moving to find this young badger freshly killed (by a car) within days of the badger cull being re-started in the area of the country I was visiting, something I strongly disagree with. Very sad. One of my all time favourite books is a collection of drawings from wildlife by Keith Brockie. Many of his studies are made from dead animals: the model stays still! I have had his books since childhood and I go back to them again and again.

Alice Fox Badger drawing

In order to fit my badger into the small format of the standard Sketchbook Project book I took the book apart and laid the pages out together so that I could work on a larger scale. I drew from a series of photos I had taken. The pages were then re-constructed back into their book form. The drawings are therefore broken up and somewhat abstracted. I have also included on my pages words from a poem of the same title as my book by Nigel Morgan:

I stopped the car I was alone,
I snapped it three times
with my phone and now
it lies here on his desk,
three shots of this dead thing,
its dark blue pool of blood
that spills half on the road
half on the grass, from deep
inside its side it’s dead,
and really still,
and still
it has a such beauty,
still.

This weekend there was a magpie dead on the road near my house. My daughter told me it was there so we went to look. It was laid out in the middle of the road. I removed it from its undignified position and spent a couple of hours drawing it.

Alice Fox magpie drawing

Contemplating the Badger will eventually be able to view either as part of the Sketchbook Project tour or via the digital library, once it has arrived and been processed. Previous contributions to the project can be seen here and here.