I am catching up fast, so have been at it again. Today, I have been hard at work on Round 5 of the CBBAG Altered Books Round Robin. As this is a collaborative long-term project that speaks to the very essence of who I am as an artist, I have been blogging about the month’s theme and creative process to respond to it.
For those not familiar with a round robin of this nature, here are the rules: Each book artist in the group begins altering a hard cover book of at least 50 pages on a theme of their choice. The original artist creates one two-page spread of original artwork within the book. They then send their altered book with instructions to the next person on the list, who will create their own two-page spread in the book, and then send it on to the next person on the list, and so on until each altered book has travelled around the group and returned to its home. After seven months+ of circulation, my book should come home to me containing six pieces of original art in addition to my own, and each of the artists in the group will own a similar book. You can read the previous rounds here: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 3 update, Round 4.
Of course, if you have been following this blog, you will know that I have been hideously behind in my fulfillment of this commitment. I have been working hard to catch up, and only blogged about Round 4 yesterday! I didn’t open the box for Round 5 until I had finished with Round 4.
This morning, I made myself a big cup of tea and ceremonially opened the box for Round 5. To my delight, I found within a book called “Silver Tea-Shop” by E. E. Green. The spine is a rich and soft wine-coloured leather, the boards covered in crimson book cloth. The date has been obscured by alterations already placed in the book in previous rounds, so I am not able to be precise. Some research revealed that it was originally published as a serial in the Gippsland Times in 1923, and later published in book form. The inside cover bears a label pasted in from the Mechanics Institute of Montreal circulating library, wonderful vintage labelling and stamped ‘Discard’ in purple ink. The original artist, the estimable multi-disciplinary Pat Strakowski, elected ‘Tea” as the theme for this book. This is the first book I have received to contain cut-outs, pop-ups and other paper engineering.Being an inveterate tea drinker, raised by inveterate tea drinkers, the theme tickled me at first. I perused its pages, enjoying the imaginative alterations throughout. This is a benefit I failed to appreciate in my early participation in this project. At this stage, each book that comes to me contains the work of four other artists to inspire and intrigue me. I have at all times been prepared to respond to the instructions and theme choice of the original artist, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I would also respond to the work of the other artists.
It is hard to describe to you the role tea has played in my life. I am sure it probably began even earlier, but for me the earliest memories are of the blue-rose china tea set I received for Christmas when I was 7. I remember subjecting every two-legged, four-legged and stuffed occupant of our home to regular tea parties, including my English grandmother, Ivy. She always participated with great solemnity and beautiful manners. Between her and my mother, Anita, I was taught early how to properly brew tea: the rinsing and warming of the pot, the boiling of the water, an appropriate period of steeping, a tea cozy to keep it hot, a cup and saucer whenever possible. These are the moments of grace that underpinned my life and gave me a sense of a finer time and better things. As I grew to adulthood, I too carried the ritual of tea into my life. The gracious ritual that creates an oasis of peace to share and communicate with a kindred spirit, a holding of a sweet tradition from times past, a way to step momentarily out of today’s break-neck pace to a more elegant time. All through my own life, I have shared this ritual with my family and friends, as a little gift of care, time and effort to create a special feeling. My sister and I laugh about how we are our mother’s daughters: At one point, I owned something like eight teapots and a tea cozy for every one . . . . When my own daughter was a tiny girl, the blue rose tea set was passed on to her. Many a grand tea party was held with all two-legged, four-legged and stuffed occupants of the household.As I have developed my thinking for my piece in this book, my thoughts have taken a sad turn. Every word, every concept in this book reminds me of my mother, and of some of the finest and most special times we have ever shared. My mother and I have been at great odds for nearly two years, and I have been at a loss for words to heal the breach between us. As I have worked on laying in the background layers of this piece and staining it with tea, my thoughts have all been with her. The pages I chose to alter contain a description of Mary Silver, the chief character, that put me strongly in mind of my mother.In the years I lived in England, my mother and I had a tradition that she began with me nearly three decades ago. Whenever she was visiting England, we would take a trip to London together. During our stay, we would always take afternoon tea in the Palm Court Lounge of the Ritz Hotel on Picadilly. Never was there a more gracious, exemplary example of this ritual than at the Ritz. We always dressed well for the occasion, and took great delight in sharing the ritual. Like two girls playing at tea parties, we enjoyed every nuance of this experience and drank in every detail of the glamorous decor, the elegant food and the copious, perfect tea. These times with my mother were incredibly precious to me, memory making for each other in a world often devoid of grace.When my family and I moved back to Canada a number of years ago, I was soon able to look forward to a visit from my parents. I looked hard for some sort of substitute for our ritual Palm Court Lounge tea. I decided in the end on the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in Banff. Certainly, the location and the surroundings could be no less elegant or spectacular than our customary Picadilly haunt. Including my young daughter in this ritual, we enjoyed our afternoon tea sitting at the best table in the house: In the huge picture window overlooking the full sweep of the Canadian Rockies valley. The tea and service were, alas, a poor substitute for our Ritz experiences, but the charm and camaraderie of the ritual remained.
Nearly 2,000 miles separate my mother and I, but a much greater gulf of sadness and hurt widens the gap. Where words are inadequate, I know that we could turn to this common bond of tea and ritual to bridge the gap and break the silence between us if distance permitted. The technology of today permits constant communication when we want it, but in such a situation, its failings are magnified. No telephone or email or letter can take the place of a good heart-to-heart over an excellent pot of tea.I don’t know what will come next, but I am thankful to this exercise for giving me an opportunity to think it through with my hands and my creativity. Perhaps I might just send her this blog to read, and a good packet of tea to start the conversation. Put the kettle on, Mum.