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I had a second residency session, again working in the library in an intensive way and exploring further the use of withdrawn publications in my book units.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.

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.

burnt wood

Alice Fox sketchbook Puglia

When I was in Italy a few weeks ago we explored the nearby lanes and land, collecting plant material and objects that we could make use of in the studio through various printing, mark making and construction techniques. Most of what we used then went to the tip when we’d finished with it. There was a lot of rubbish on the lanes, so I feel that we did quite a good litter-picking job, making use of things before they went in the bin.

Alice Fox burnt olive wood sketch

There was charred wooden debris amongst the olive trees, presumably as a result of tree pruning, the brash being burnt on site. I used a piece to draw with on my first walk around the fields. There was also the smell of bonfires in the air all week as neighbouring farms and small holdings cleared the land ready for the growing season ahead.

There were a few objects that I picked up in the olive grove around the Masseria and these came home with me to the studio. I have since been playing with them and forming new structures and surfaces in response. These will form part of Findings, which I will be showing later in the year. There were various nut shells: walnut, almond and acorn cups. The acorns from the majestic Macedonian Oak, which we saw in various places are huge in comparison to the ones I’m used to here in the UK.

Alice Fox walnut shells acorns paper mud

I’ve been making small vessel structures from paper yarn and once the surface of these is rubbed with mud they take on a really interesting quality. These structures are made with a looping stitch, sewing with a needle but building up a three-dimensional form. I used the same looping stitch but with a pliable linen thread on the burnt olive wood, encasing and wrapping the forms, getting to know each line, crack or subtle change in the surface as I work my way round and round the wood. And as I handle the wood the aroma of smoke takes me back to the place that they were found.

Alice Fox Burnt olive wood with linen

stained

Alice Fox weave with found metal (detail)

I’m working on a series of sculptural pieces that are woven in linen, each made specifically to relate to a piece of found metal. I then manipulate the cloth so that it responds directly to the metal: encasing it, wrapping it, slotting through it etc. The metal is then allowed to stain the weave where it is in contact with the rust, with the aid of seawater.

Alice Fox weave with found metal stained

The first uses a metal pipe that I collected on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. The object is linked to the place in my mind because that is where I found it. It is therefore completely ‘of the place’ to me, even if the object has no other significant link to there: I have no idea what its history is prior to me picking it up.

Alice Fox looped weave with found metal hoop

The next piece takes a metal hoop as as starting point. The strip of tapestry weave sits gathered and looped within the hoop, extending either side.

Alice Fox weave with found metal hoop stained

The third piece is shown here just off the loom with its warp ends still waiting to be finished, but looking rather beautiful in their wild arrangement. There is a hole in the cloth, ready for its designated metal to slot into.

Alice Fox weave with hole

Each stage of the process is slow and to be savoured: the weaving by hand, beating each weft down to cover the warp; stitching each warp thread back into the weave; the staining of the cloth by the rusty metal as it dries.

walking collecting making

WCM@C2Cpublicfootpath

I’m part way through teaching a workshop at Committed to Cloth in Surrey. We’ve been blessed with beautiful weather this week: it has actually felt like summer! This has made a real difference to how we have been able to get out and explore the area around the studio.

WCM@C2Cfieldprinting

We have recorded walks in a variety of ways and used what we found along the way in a range of print and mark making techniques.

WCM@C2Cstileprinting

We worked out in the meadow, and at the edge of woods, a short walk from the studio; yesterday printing outside, today manipulating grass and leaves and other gathered materials.

WCM@C2Cmanipulating

WCM@C2Cprintedbook

Tomorrow we finish, bringing things together in some simple book forms and whatever else appears out of the mix of ideas and starting-points we’ve explored.

WCM@C2Cmeadow

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.

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.