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.

coastal

Alice_Fox_Staithes_to_Runswick

Last week was a working week away from home on the North Yorkshire coast: a week of walking, reading, thinking and developing work towards my Findings exhibition; a week of changing weather, windy cliff-tops, cold fingers on the beach, fossils and falling cliffs, stunning views…

Alice_Fox_limpet_inside upside-down limpets, marks on rocks left by limpets, pebbles and pellets…

Alice_Fox_Staithes_limpet_ring_on_rock

mud underfoot (and half way up the trousers), mud on woven thread, mud trails left by periwinkles at low tide…
Alice_Fox_Staithes_periwinkle_trails

As ever, there are more images here.

findings

Alice Fox 25 broken limpets

Anyone who follows me on Instagram (where I post images almost daily) will know that I am starting to develop new work based on a series of collections of objects. Ultimately I am working towards an exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Shows 2016, which I’m really pleased to have been selected for. My working title is Findings. I have been developing ideas for this over some months now, thoughts whirring away in the background while other things happen. Findings will be a series of responses to objects I have collected in different locations.

Finding:

1. the action of finding someone or something.

2. information discovered as the result of an inquiry or investigation.

Alice Fox limpet variations

The first group of objects I am exploring are a collection of limpet shells I brought back from Anglesey in the summer. I didn’t collect the complete shells: it was the ones with holes in that I was drawn to and I came back with a couple of hundred of these. I love the subtle variation in a series of items like this: they’re similar but all unique. Some are really worn down and smooth; others are rough and intricately mottled; some have a jagged broken top; others are almost perfectly smooth rings. I’ve been experimenting with replacing the broken section with a stitched/woven ‘patch’.Alice Fox limpet 'mended' Some of them end up mended completely, others partially filled. Some are being filled in across the inside, leaving them with a sort of woven plate across that reminds me of the limpet’s ‘foot’.

Alice Fox limpet with stitchweave1

As I work away at these experiments (inquiries, investigations. . . ) the results are starting to form a new collection: a collection of my Findings.

collections

Alice Fox beachcombing

During the half term holiday I was away with my family on the west coast of Scotland. I’ve been coming to these parts all my life and I can feed off a visit like this creatively for months and more. Although the weather wasn’t brilliant it was easy to be on the nearby beach every day, at least for a brisk walk, and at most for a leisurely afternoon playing games, cooking and pretending it was a bit warmer than it actually was.

Alice Fox collected objects

As ever, I came home with a head full of thoughts, images and ideas and a box full of ‘things’ to continue that process with. Now my little collection is laid out in my studio and slowly I’m getting to know the various objects.

review

Alice Fox recent work

I’ve just spent a really inspiring and thought-provoking weekend with the Textile Study Group, of which I am now a member. We meet twice a year to learn together and this weekend we had Lesley Millar with us to guide our study and discussion. Members of the group are given a professional review every five years and, being new, I was included in the rota of reviews this year. I had a very worthwhile session with our mentor Jane McKeating, which as left me with a lot to think about. We discussed my recent work and future direction and developments. Selecting the most relevant work to bring together for something like this is a useful exercise in itself. To have it looked at by fresh (and such experienced) eyes is a little daunting but so useful. I feel very lucky to be a member of such an interesting and active group of artists where sharing, developing and educating (of others and each other) is so embedded.

By the way, if you wish to vote for me in the 2015 Craft & Design Magazine Selected Maker awards you can click on the badge on the right or go here. Voting is open until 31st March and you can vote for as many of the makers as you want to.

space

Alice Fox studio experiments

I suddenly have some space to start exploring new ideas, or rather ideas that I’ve been having over the last year but not had the time to engage with. The book I’ve been writing is now finished, or at least delivered to the publishers. There will be editing and tweaking to do but the majority of it is complete. The last year has been pretty much focussed on the book and touring Tide Marks, alongside a fairly hectic workshop teaching schedule. Apart from finishing off my report to Arts Council England for Tide Marks, that is now complete too. So, what is next? I have a number of projects to be getting on with. There are various group exhibitions next year that I will be making work for, so what follows is a period of development of new work. This is exciting and daunting. Where to start is always an issue. The best things is to get in the studio and see where things get to. So often we are forced (by time constraints) to commit to an end point before we’ve hardly started. It is a challenge to allow things the space and time to develop without knowing what that end point is going to be.

deep, enchanted silt

Alice Fox Severn Estuary mud

While I was down in Gloucestershire with Tide Marks I took the limited opportunities I had to get out of town and see a bit of the area. I was particularly keen to get to the Severn and see a bit of the estuary: the closest to being by the sea I might experience for a while. During the exhibition, which I was responsible for stewarding most of the time, I got to talk to a lot of people about the work on show. Most assume I live by the sea and it always seems a bit ridiculous when I explain that I live a good two hours drive from both the east and west coasts of northern England. Following these gallery conversations I have been reflecting on what it is that draws me to the coast, physically and creatively. I can justify the starting point of much of this recent work by explaining about the Spurn residency and that makes sense, but I am aware that it really goes deeper than that. I know that much of the ideas and images of coastal detail that I have been exploring and that continue to preoccupy me come from places visited all through my life, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. I think that we all have a relationship with the sea and its edge, which stems from childhood and holiday;, the feeling of escape to such places; the ‘clean slate’ and the new possibilities that are created twice a day by the tides; the fact that standing on a beach looking out to the seeming infinity of ‘the sea’ can be restorative and settling even if the weather and water are stormy. Despite living away from the coast the images and ideas from a visit to such a place can sustain me creatively or pre-cooupy me for months or longer. Each experience is added to the memory bank and re-enforces something I’m trying to explore.

My work isn’t all tied to the coast, it is really tied to whatever place I am in at any one time: it is about my experience of landscape, whether that landscape is my garden and the streets around my home or somewhere far-flung that I’ve travelled to. We present work in distinct ‘projects’ but it is really a continuum: everything leads on to the next thing. So when people ask if i’ve ‘finished with this coastal thing?’ I certainly haven’t finished with it: I don’t think I ever will, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean that things won’t move on. I am aware that the found object has become more and more important. The connection with beach-combing is obvious, but collecting small items of importance to me is also something I’ve done all my life: as a child it was dead insects, feathers, shells. Bird skulls were a particular prize from beach holidays and I still have some of these collections. These treasures have always been part of me understanding and studying the detail of the world around me. I see the objects that find their way into our pockets as tangible links to the places we visit. Of course this is a very common practice. This extract from Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places sums it up nicely:

For as long as I could remember, we had picked things up as we walked. Humdrum, everyday rites, practised by millions of people…. Now, though, collecting offered a way both to remember and to join up my wild places…. The objects seemed to hold my landscapes together, without binding them too tightly.

It was good to be by the Severn and I would like to get to know this estuary better. After my first degree I worked for a year on a conservation project tied to the River Severn and got to know little bits of its vast catchment, although almost exclusively further upstream than where I visited this time. All through my physical geography degree and my subsequent career in nature conservation my focus was on rivers and wetlands. Wet places excite me in all sorts of ways! It was good to re-connect just a little with this mighty river. The section that is tidal is fascinating because it sits between the worlds of the river and the sea. There is the constant change of the tidal range and this amazing mud that is exposed twice a day. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her poem The Riverman:

The river breathes in salt
and breathes it out again,
and all is sweetness there
in the deep, enchanted silt.

On returning home I picked up my current bedtime reading book Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and read this passage that was, by coincidence, about the part of the Severn Estuary not far from where I had been:

Here the otter forages in the slippery inter-tidal zone. It’s not ground and not water, shining with a slow seeping that is almost impossible for humans to negotiate.

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t scoop up a handful of the sticky stuff to have a proper play with.

Alice Fox Severn Estuary edge

frugal acts

Alice Fox Notes on the back of an envelope page detail

I’ve been playing about with old envelopes and have made a series of small note books using them.  I’ve always loved the patterns you get on the inside of many envelopes and often keep them ‘just in case’ they might be of use.  Now I’ve found a way of using them and giving them another life.  I’ve enjoyed playing with some of the printed marks on them, deliberately including bits of text, stamps and those little windows that allow you to see the address on the letter inside.

Alice Fox Notes on the back of an envelope inside found text

I’m reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees at the moment.  Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I’m a fan of nature writing and there is a pile of such books permanently on my bed-side table, either waiting to be read or ready for me to dip back into a favourite section.  There is a chapter where Deakin describes visiting the artist Margaret Mellis, which I read the other day.  Because he is focusing on trees and wood he is particularly interested in Margaret’s use of driftwood for her sculptures or assemblages. He also describes her drawings made on opened out envelopes and he makes an observation that really struck a chord with me:

Letters, like driftwood and ideas, arrive out of the blue.  They are gifts.  The envelopes, like the driftwood, had a former life, and would generally be discarded.  Mellis gives them new status and a function.  Ingeniously reusing an envelope, or driftwood, to make a picture is, in the context of environmental politics, a deliberately frugal act. Both were once trees, and what would otherwise have been wasted is turned to good use. (p 188).

The phrase ‘a deliberately frugal act‘ has stayed with me since I read it as I know that many of the decisions I make both in my life in general and in my artistic practice are just that.  I am excited by the possibilities of the found or discarded object and see it as a challenge to make use of them.  If by doing so I can reduce the consumption of new materials that is another challenge met.  This doesn’t mean I won’t use new materials but I am always considering carefully how and when I do.

I’m currently preparing for a series of workshops over the next month introducing people to printing and dyeing with rust.  I am gathering collected rusty things as well as a range of materials on which to make our rusty marks.  Fittingly, the first of these workshops next weekend will be held in a salvage yard.  I’ll let you know what we find and how we get on.  If you fancy making some notes on the back of an envelope then the little books are available here.

production line

There’s nothing quite like a production line to give you a feeling of satisfaction at achieving small goals.  Making and writing Christmas cards in between other jobs this week I have been reminded of how rewarding repetitive tasks can be.  Whether it is weaving, stitching, folding paper… once in your stride the task is repeated fluidly and with rhythm.  Paying attention to the smallest detail of the movements; applying just the right amount of pressure; placing something exactly where it should be; enjoying the physical movement of each small element; mind focussed yet available to explore and reflect at the same time.

thinking time

I’ve taken to the woods… I’m in a period of mixed activity: planning, proposing, thinking, updating etc.   Most of this is based at home and I do find that a change of scene works wonders when I’ve had enough of the computer screen and the same walls.

My nearest woods are ten minutes walk away and they are glorious right now.  Even on a grey damp day like today there is a riot of colour and a plethora of detail to be noticed.  I might draw; I might stop to write notes on what I’m thinking about; I might take a few photos; I might pick up a pocket full of acorns or a handful of leaves to play with back at home.