I know it has been a while since my last post on the CBBAG Altered Books Round Robin, but I have been taking some time for contemplation of Round 7. 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 seven 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, Round 5, Round 6.
I have felt a deep sense of responsibility and no small amount of emotion to respond to the book that is currently on my desk. This book has passed through the hands of six previous artists to reach me. My response to this book has been the most visceral and emotional of all the books to cross my desk throughout this Altered Books Round Robin. It is not for any reason connected with the choice of book itself.
The original artist’s concept is simple and clear: We are to respond to the book on the theme of what is most important in life. There is nothing inherently emotional in that theme or in my response to it. However, the tenderness of this particular book is that it began its journey not long after the original artist lost her husband. That she could find within herself any creative voice to give to this project was masterful enough. In this case, in deference to the artist and her privacy, I will not name her. I will say, though, that, unlike some of the artists in the Round Robin group, this artist is personally known to me. I had the privilege to work alongside her on Salt Spring Island a year ago, during the profound and spirit-altering workshop with artist and author Nick Bantock. I witnessed some of her epiphany during those days, as she did mine, and I still feel the threads that bound us all tug at me a year later.
But what brought tears to my eyes and an even greater tremble to my hands was the tender and solicitous work wrought by each of the subsequent artists. It is as though each artist in his or her own manner has used this little book to express in a silent and profound way their regret, their sympathy and their sorrow for our colleague’s loss and pain, to reach out to her in acts of simplicity, beauty and open giving in her time of need. Each artist has offered her a gentle quotation of words to comfort, words for the future, words for peace. And it was in this book that I saw the true depth of the artistic community I have become privileged to share. I have been so moved by the extra care evident in these works, and feel a responsibility to meet them equally.
And so to the book itself. It has been altered so much that I cannot determine what the original volume was. The book is a volume of essays that were originally bound in a side-stitch method with ribbon through two sets of holes. The artist chose to unbind the book, with the intention that it should be worked loose-leaf, and that she will rebind it when it arrives home. Things have been added, the pages have been re-arranged and altered. The content begins to form an unusually coherent new whole, characterised by a higher level of thought and care than has been evident in any of the other books.
It is unusually fine timing for me to face this topic on which to work. Through trial and fear, pain and healing, my own concept of what is important in life has altered beyond recognition. In the last two years, I have cast away the things that do not serve me well. I have winnowed the wheat of my life down to the whole kernels that feed my soul, and allowed the chaff to blow away on the wind of change. My spirit feels distilled down to the clearest, finest, most potent liquid. I have the clearest sight I have ever enjoyed of what is real and truly important in life. And yet it is the most difficult topic to convey visually. I have waited and thought, allowing the concept to percolate. At last, it was time to begin the work.
I feel it in my body
I feel it in my soul
Those words echoed around and around in my head and seemed to encapsulate all that is important to wholeness. A running counterpoint to that threaded through my thoughts:
Peace of spirit
Calm of mind
I couldn’t move away from these words, felt the pound of them in my head like surf against the shore, the sway of my spirit to the song as it has always done. I understood with certainty that these were the words I needed to give to my colleague. They were for her, some subtlety in their message was needed, cupped in the hollow of my hands and offered to her pain and sorrow.
I began the work on cold-pressed watercolour paper by laying down background colour in chalk pastel, rubbing it well into the texture of the paper with a moist cloth. Brick reds and midnight blues were toned with brown to convey a strong, brick-built foundation of connectedness to the earth. I began to write these words on the paper in flowing script. I wrote in different sizes, colours and directions, turning the paper, allowing the words to overlap and run into and through each other, intersecting, crossing, merging. Some collage elements began to work in, and then I turned to gold and silver pens to embellish. Aging the pages with inks in burnt umber and deepest French navy blue was the final step.
As I worked, lifting some of the words with colour, easing others into the background, I felt the solidity of the words between my hands. With my head down over the work, and a feeling like the kneading of bread dough, the creation of these pages became a three-dimensional thing, kneading and massaging the meaning of those special words, proving the thing and allowing it to rise. It was finished when it told me it was finished, and I pushed my chair back from my desk to study what had emerged.
Unlike every other piece of work I have ever done, there was no plan in commencing or executing this work, however loose. I was responding, half-lidded, to the press of the words from inside me, the urgency of their need to be committed to the page, to carry their deep message from my hands to hers, from my heart to hers. And in a way I have never before been able to do, I surrendered. I surrendered myself and my creativity and my hands to the urgency of a different voice. Without resistance and without hesitation. I have no personal sense of whether the piece that emerged has any beauty or any value to another observer. I just know it was meant to go where it was most needed, and I became a conduit. In every way, my experience with this particular altered book has been unlike any other, a visceral outpouring in which my higher intellect played no part. I wish it well on its final journey home. And I wish for its owner
Peace of spirit
Calm of mind