I was struck by this neon on my way home from a newly allowed jaunt in town – made bright to shout out – but muffled by its own habitual shutters. Metaphor for current self? Imperative to broken world?
I’ve been so grateful to be back at live events these last few weeks, the Poetry London 100th issue celebration, and the following night, a real buzz at the Forward Prize readings. Both these were held at the Southbank Centre. It felt great to be back in that quintessentially public space and share the sensations zipping off language, reforged and flying about in the London air.
Last night more treats, as I sat mesmerised listening to Marcia Farquhar read from her new book Pushing 60 at iconic venue The Horse Hospital, another treasured space. She’s a born performer, funny and serious at the same time.
It’s also been epic to work in real rooms with other people again. I wheeled my trolley of art making gear to Walthamstow, where I was part of two inspiring projects that support refugees and asylum seekers: Stories and Supper & Stories in Transit which had teamed up on a couple of Saturdays for some creative collaborations. We worked together to create new songs and banners to welcome Little Amal to London. I learnt a lot from everyone there and loved working with Debsey Wykes who swiftly made everything into a song as if it was no trouble at all.
Also I’ve been teaching some of my classes live again at The Royal Drawing School, though most remain online. I have been lucky to work with some life models who can act. The two IRL ‘Drawing a Story’ classes I ran over the last weeks involved a lot of speedy costume and character changes, as Lidia became a frog, a king, three brothers and various other characters… – and Richard became Sita, Rama, Ravanna, Hanuman and a great variety of demons, in the section I told of the Ramayana. I used this book as a springboard: Rama and Sita, Path of Flames, one of the four books I’ve collaborated on with good friend & storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton. We would love support with our next collaboration, which is a book called The Mighty Goddess, coming out next year with the The History Press. We have a Kickstarter campaign waiting in the wings.
Other areas of watch & repair have stretched to me patching my parka, replacing the pins with stitches in a sweet old patchwork quilt, and getting to the next stage of studio sort out – which is being masterminded by young artist Joe Hill. His eyes light up spookily at the prospect of creating an organised HQ from my mayhem.
I’ll be escaping both home & studio this Sunday, in Manchester, where I’ll be reading upstairs at The Peer Hat . I get to share the bill with two fabulous poets, Nell Osborne and Sarah-Clare Conlon – so I’m looking forward to meeting them and hearing them read. It’s free and doors open at 6:30pm. It’s been put together by Tom Jenks of zimZalla, publisher (as perhaps you know by now) of INDEX. This is Index’s northern launch. Do come if you can.
For the cover of the UK edition, a handsome hardback out with William Collins, a compromise was reached between my twirly analogue suggestions and the corporate giant’s thwack that was needed to pitch the book squarely into the mainstream.
Luckily this was arrived at through the great skills and collaborative decency of their in house jacket designer, Jo Thomson, whom I knew to trust, because I’d seen her work on some of the most striking jackets of books I’d actually read.
I always stare at the tables laid with the latest sellers in bookshops and play games with my eyes and their graphics. Which are the books that cry out to be picked up? Is it the ones with lush colour, or a touch of the handmade, or a stunning dose of clever, succinct type?
Jo T used my papercuts and swatches from my painted palette and devised a ‘mid century Cairo shopfront’ lettering for the long title, which needed to occupy the central space of the front. The use of gold in the lettering, and an embossed black for the papercuts around the words, really made for a stand out design, and once I’d got over the ‘kill fee’ (which halved my payment for the jacket work) I was pleased with how the book ended up looking.
For the US edition of Marina’s book – I am designing a new cover. I can have the freedom of the whole rectangle for imagery – as NYRB has a uniform house style: with the text along the bottom in a clean san serif upper case.
The editor of the US edition, Edwin Frank, also proposed a change of title: so it will become Esmond & Ilia: an Unreliable Memoir. It is to be a paperback, another change in terms of the look, less grand, more portable.
All jackets involve many conversations – often between editor and sales team, rather than necessarily with the author. They’re not called jackets for nothing, they’re the clothes a writer’s words are dressed up in to go out alone and make their way in the jagged, crazily book-laden world.
Marina quite rightly persisted in nudging me until I’d got the tiny approximate portraits of her parents right.
This was a breakthrough for me, as I really don’t think I’d imagined lively likenesses possible in the medium of papercut, preferring to concentrate on objects – things with their own inherent graphic qualities like coffee pots and envelopes!
I’m still going through lots of hand painted paper in a great variety of shades, turquoise, golds and yellows, blues, corals purples and oranges – looking for post war ex pat Egypt, something to evoke the glamour, the complicated people and histories layered within the pages.
I was startled to notice that I’d settled on orange and ultramarine in my favourite version, as I began to realise these were the main colours I’d chosen for the new edition of my own book: Velkom to Inklandt, coming out this autumn.
Inwardly I sighed. This orange and blue is a default palette for me, especially if I want to evoke joy. As when I was a child and we went on a summer holiday to France, I was bowled over by the gigantic Orangina posters plastered to the side of buildings. Beautiful, like summer. I insisted on drinking orangina although I really didn’t like it.
Naturally for the first proper graphic job I did, which was for a charity bike ride in 1989, raising money for AIDS organisation London Lighthouse, I hit on ultramarine and orange. I made a papercut and primitive colour separations which made the printer groan. (That was Steve Sorba at Aldgate Press , a co-op and a London institution, still people l’d always choose to work with. Steve turned out to have been to the same primary school as me in Battersea and once he knew that he treated me with respect, lol.)
I see two of these old works are from Septembers, so I expect the leaves turning orange against the blue skies of autumn are also part of why my brush and eye would have naturally turned to this pair of complementary colours.
There’s energy in that orange, a little fire summoned. Even proper ultramarine is from the warm end of blue, up with the purples rather than the icy greens.
Today I noticed that my front window canna lily had sprouted two new flowers, and that the clothes I put on were allied to the paper cuts I was making. If I had to find a cardigan, I think we know where we’re headed.
Autumns mellow fruitfulness. Very lovely of course but I don’t much like the way it leads to the awful dark afternoons of winter. All I can advise is that we arm ourselves with books, colour, and a good pinch of paprika in the goulash.
Thank you for reading my blog, and good luck with new terms, and any other changes looming.
I wrote about paper cutting in a previous post – and now the book that these were made for is out in the world and getting the excellent reviews it deserves.
Inventory of a Life Mislaid is an ‘unreliable memoir’, a complicated layering of memory, research and invention – that re creates the world of the author’s early childhood.
Marina Warner tells the story of her parents – who they really were, as people, experiencing the love and trials of a flawed romance against the backdrop of a bombed out London and then a bustling colonial Cairo just after the second world war.
Each chapter is conjured by a real object found amongst Warner’s late mother’s possessions. These are the items from the inventory of the title. It was these that I was asked if I’d consider making paper versions of for a series of chapter header vignettes. I’d worked with Marina Warner a long time ago, making ink drawings for her collection of seventeenth century French fairy stories: WonderTales, (Chatto and Windus, 1994.) Back then she’d found my number on some wrapping paper I’d designed as one of my doomed post art school money-making schemes. I traded briefly as someone who made cards and wrap for Paperchase, code name Sybil Tongue. She’d been given a present in my ‘waltz wrap’ and tracked me down as she had a hunch about whoever’d drawn it!
We spent a good ten minutes on the phone in my old studio before she told me who she was. When she said her name, I became suddenly polite. Marina Warner! Being a life long fairy tale aficionado I was already a fan.
When I came back from Berkeley last summer, I drove over the river to have a reunion cup of tea with Marina. We sat on two chairs she’d arranged on the pavement outside her house, where she’d organised a little card table piled high with the mysterious objects of memory. It was a very special jumble sale. Each thing held aloft in turn and it’s place in history talked about.
I had already read the manuscript and understood the gravity of the film canister, the futility of the brogues as means of transformation, the promise of the powder compact… Marina put her mother’s two worn out rings on her own fingers and the project began to sparkle into shape.
How to translate the astonishing light-shooting behaviour of these rocks that had magicked Ilia from the bright sun of southern Italy to the black soot of London?
Cutting ice from black paper is the kind of impossible task I like. I was pleased to locate in my stash of collage books a little volume I’d already hacked up due to its treasure house of phrases: Practical Gemmology (1948) A page describing the different cuts of stone seemed just right for showcasing Ilia’s jewels.
The great thing about working in graphic black and white is that light is one of the most exciting tools one can play with: whether by leaving it to the blank page to furnish it, as in a silhouette, or by using reversals such as these above, to imply the solidity of three dimensions. I also enjoyed expanding my repertoire into found printed material as with the rings, or as below with these movie star hoopoes.
I combed the usual sources (my studio floor, charity shops and peoples’ front walls…) for old books and magazines that fitted the period or place, and tailored them into the story as it unrolled. I had lots of great conversations with Marina, who understood my process intuitively and allowed for my intermittent departures and translations back and forth from the objects themselves into my parallel imagination.
We had a wonderful time, like two girls poring over the strange ingredients of a spell.
If you’d like the chance to hear Marina talk about her beautiful, long and heartfelt work on this book, and more about the ways we found to collaborate to make it a worthy offering to the ancestors, we will be live online this coming Wednesday night at University of East Anglia as part of their lit fest: UEA live, click here to book. We’ll be hosted in conversation by poet Alison Winch , whose brilliant work I also recommend.
A tool I love to use is a scalpel. I don’t like the word scalpel, with its whiff of surgery and pain, but for operating on paper, there’s nothing quite like one.
These last few months I’ve been through a lot of blades. My priority job once back in London from America wasn’t really a backyard mosaic. It was an immense new book by Marina Warner, called Inventory of a Life Mislaid .
She’d contacted me about creating vignettes for this memoir whilst I was still away, and sent me the manuscript then. The book recounts her parents’ life and her own early life in Cairo, after World War II and before the Egyptian Revolution. It is full of sharp eyed detail and emotionally rich detective work, alongside scholarly wonderings that emerge from her interrogation of personal memory, real archive material, language and collective myth. Packed with history, it is affectionate, erudite and atmospheric. I loved reading it, and responding to the world it conjures, with sheaves of black paper and my scalpel and cutting mat.
I made over 90 vignettes including five full page section dividers. I will write about it some more when it comes out with William Collins in the spring.
Marina Warner and I will be ‘in conversation’ at the University of East Anglia Literary Festival, UEA LIVE , so do book if you’d like to be part of the event.
This work really sharpened me into new intricacies with my blades, and after the boosting time I’d had in California, working with colour, I decided as well as making very graphic black and white images – I could experiment with distinct colour palettes for some of my projects.
I was pleased to be commissioned by friend and fellow writer Gemma Seltzer , who runs an early morning writers’ organisation called Write and Shine, to make an artwork for her winter programme.
For this I devised a palette, and thought about the ideas she’d mentioned: mystery, mischief, and winter, with its long nights and festivities that counter and also celebrate the dark and the cold. I included six types of steam and a soft red to warm the scene, and I cut some mountains from the last page of an old atlas that I found on my street. So lots of place names beginning with z are built into the landscape to take the reader and writer on a zig zag journey through their imagination.
If you are an early riser, I really recommend Write and Shine with its welcoming workshops and retreats. An inspiring way to start the day.
I was back in black and white after that, to make a book cover for Nine Arches Press. Poet and publisher Jane Commane had decided to publish an amazing one hundred daily sonnets written by Jacqueline Saphra during the first lockdown, as a special non-profit, limited edition book, to raise money for The Trussell Trust, (as well as raise spirits via its poetry.) I made a papercut cover that will be embossed on the clothbound hardback in an edition of one hundred. I’m proud to be part of this beautiful enterprise.
Gemma then also wanted a second image for her Write and Shine January- February programme, something to reflect workshops on the theme of the path ahead, drawing on moonlight and sunrise. I enjoyed creating a new palette around these times of day, using papers that I painted specially to cut, and reimagining the city as a place built of books, pens, pencils and crayons, again with the mind-focusing magic of a hot drink on the horizon to symbolise the waking hour. I’m only sharing a close up detail of this as Gemma is yet to launch the full image on the waiting world!
Working within these strict yet flexible palettes, I was reminded of a time long ago when I worked mixing colours for my mum, Susan Collier, in her textiles studio. I’d just left art college and had no work or idea how to begin, so she took me on as a lowly painter of tints or backgrounds. I had to get these right with a precision I could barely grasp. A tiny drop of Naples Yellow to grey a mauve, no more than a wink of Burnt Sienna or Bengal Rose to nudge warmth into a white. My mother was meticulous about these things, and would shriek if I added great globs of excess gouache in her presence. My paint mixing really lacked subtlety, a quality that often eludes me still.
As this month approached, I was contacted by Laura Seddon, creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum. She wondered if I could make a piece of artwork to give out to subscribers for a Hannukah gift. This was to accompany a series of video conversations with five talented contemporary female musicians, all working with klezmer music.
All five are asking questions about tradition and innovation and Jewishness too. This music programme, brought together by cellist Francesca Ter Berg, is part of the museums current trailblazers season.
I made a playlist of their music and tried to let my scalpel dance in sync with the sharp turns and inventive rhythms I could hear coming through my speakers.
Working closely with my own parallel inner dialogues re tradition, innovation and Jewishness, seemed to dovetail with the ideas in the music – its timeless weave of gaiety and melancholy.
Paper cutting, like fiddle playing, is a strong traditional form across much of northern and central Europe. I have been inspired by visits to Chateau d’Oex in the mountains above Geneva, where a creaky wooden museum groans with old paper cut treasures made locally by deft scissored Alpine folk. Even my German Jewish grandmother, who was not ‘artistic’, used to snip little heart shaped paper baskets and boxes to put sweets in at this time of year. And thinking of presents, I had a whim to cut some of my papercuts further, so had a couple of them made into jigsaw puzzles online.
Scalpels and scissors are potentially scary – maybe symbolically adjacent to Brexit and social isolation. But before I rest my implements in the name of peace & the imminent cushions of some holiday collapse, here’s one more papercut I made last night.
We have some amazing & lovely neighbours on our road in Brixton, and during this year we have been so grateful for their friendliness and local community spirit.
Like on quite a few streets in recent years, our more organised inhabitants decided to plan an advent window display, and though I sighed inwardly in a grinch like way, I took on yesterday’s date, the 17th, to ‘do’, as part of it. I remembered how much I’d liked the all embracing ‘happy holidays’ decorations in Berkeley. With the help of our pets, Zippy & Morris, I managed to get over myself & cut out some fun for our window.
Thanks for reading my blog. May your inner light keep you warm and safe from sharp troubles in this turning sharp-blunt world! Happy Holidays!