Friday, 18 March 2011

Books Books Books

I'm a total book fiend. I read a lot and we have bookcases piled up in a most ungainly fashion all over the house. The only thing better than a novel is a notebook/sketchbook. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been absolutely bowled over by the look and feel of a beautiful hardbound book and spent a crazy amount of money because I simply must have it.

When I was at college, back in 1995 I had the good fortune to be friends with one of the world's most amazing art teachers. I've mentioned him before (in my biography I believe), but his praises cannot be sung often enough. A humble man, at that time in his mid 40s, John was my hero. He had such a wonderful manner about him and a wickedly mischevous sense of humour. he was warm, friendly and aside from my husband and sister, the singularly most supportive and encouraging person in my life. I often wished he'd been my dad, or at the very least that he'd been in my life for longer than the time he was. I could tell a thousand stories of our adventures together, but I don't have time today. I should write a book sometime.

Anyway, back then I was given to spending many extra hours in college, often working until I had to go home to bed. It was a year of intense progress and gaining of skills and knowledge. Of course, John was instrumental in all of this. He had so many things to teach and I wanted to know everything, so we made a great team. He knew my love of good paper and books and one day offered to teach me how to make my own books using the traditional library binding techniques that he'd learned as a student, back in the day when such crafts were passed down to be kept alive.

We did this one differently than other lectures. John gave me  list of materials to bring and I shopped for waxed thread, bias tape, cloth, the perfect paper, glue and all the other bits and pieces. It was doubtless more exciting because I had never done anything quite like it before, as well as the fact that it was feeding my love of all things sketchbook. I distinctly recall the slight confusion and my inner debate as to what we could possibly be using bias binding for.

In the days since this, I have often appreciated that John spent so much time with me in one to one teaching sessions. Having gone on to instruct students myself I now have an understanding of how it feels to have someone really want to learn, and the desire to take them under my wing as they progress. Even after I left college and went on to university I would go to life drawing class in the evenings, with John sneaking me in so that I didn't have to pay (he knew I couldn't afford it). I would take some sandwiches and salad for our dinner, which we would eat in the deserted college canteen after the day classes ended but before the night students arrived. He would teach the others and let me sit on the floor with all my drawing materials, sketching away as I do, like a crazy person who is in fear that someone will suddenly appear and steal it all from them at any moment.

So, back to the bookbinding. We worked step by step. John demonstrated and I copied. He gave me all kinds of little hints and tips, telling me which stages needed to be done slowly and precisely, which needed to be done swiftly because the glue must be at an optimum, what changes I could make to personalise and so on. The result was my first ever handmade sketchbook, possibly one of my proudest moments ever. This teaching method is what I now like to employ where possible. The sort where you can engage with someone and impart the little tricks you've learned from your experience.

I went on to make a small library of books. This was the year prior to my degree and I was to arrive at university with enough books to take me through almost to second year. I branched out and created some that were A2 size for my bigger drawing projects, as well as adding pages of different papers in all colours and textures. I dyed and embroidered fabric for the covers and generally had an amazing time with it.

Fast forward from 1995 to 2011. John is gone now. He died in 2003 aged 54 from a sudden and massive heart attack. He was alone in his house and nobody found him until the next morning. It was a terrible shock because he was always very healthy and took great care to exercise every day, eat well and generally lead a good life. His mother's heart broke, as did mine. I will always remember the long talk I had with her when I found out he'd gone. We cried on the phone and spoke of him for hours. She told me how he used to discuss me and my work, not that I ever felt worthy of the praise he gave me. As a mother she had wanted me for a daughter in law, which was so sweet and probably the highest accolade I have ever had as a person. John's Mum was a formidable lady for whom I always had the greatest love and respect, and hearing her open her heart up to me like that was so touching.

All this is in my mind because yesterday I made two books. It's been a number of years since I last did this and I'm a tad rusty, so I sat here at my desk and slowly went over my memories of that bookbinding lesson. I smiled to myself as I remembered it all, thinking of John, wishing he was around to give me advice on what I'm doing now. Not the book thing, but the change of direction and all the decisions I am needing to make. He always had very wise words to offer, which would do the trick. He would send these little notes through the post, scrawled in his beautiful artist's handwriting upon index cards, just a sentence or two,

"Make your portfolio read like a story unfolding in a book", 

"They wouldn't have been so harsh with their questions if they didn't think you were worth their time" (this one when I went for my meeting to try and get a place on the degree course I had my heart set on),

"Expect a severe dip in mood now that the term is over and you can relax for a few weeks. Don't let it take you by surprise. It's normal and you'll be fine".

I could use some of his little encouraging fortune cookies at the moment. Not that I'm flagging in my work, more that I feel I need to make some decisions. It's never easy when you come to a crossroads, especially for a ditherer like me.

I have Jay now of course. Not that I would compare the two, as this would be a disservice to both of them. Jay encourages and supports me every single day and has a belief in me that I could never match inside my own head. Even now when I am here not earning much toward our upkeep and (as I see it) indulging myself in my work, he is full of praise and admiration, so much that I sometimes feel a fraud. John's confidence in me used to make me feel the same way.

I am clearly getting to the stage where I am investing an emotional aspect into my work. This is what I wanted, though I'm a little bowled over by the effect it's having on me. It's like travelling back to that magical four years when I was studying, the time I look back on as though it were a dream. I've accidentally been in contact with some inspirational people this week too, reminding me that there's another side of me that I've perhaps negelcted a little recently. I've done a quick comparison of office me (from the past few years) and present day me, coming up with the resulting differences. There's a long way to go yet, but I'm back on the road of discovery, having shed the things I don't like from my life.

Fridays always throw me. It's the day when tiredness hits after a week of long hours, or the day emotions hit, or as last week, the day my back gives out after pushing myself too much. Today is no different. I both look forward to and dread them a little, never quite knowing what to expect. Generally I will need to rest a bit, as I will do today in between bouts of work.

I'm working on the sandwich van tomorrow and possibly Sunday (the most regular and lucrative earning power I have these days) so I'll be on my feet all day. I'm concerned for my back, but I can't hold off from life due to it. I'll be taking all my creams, pills and bravery along to reinforce me. I may even take along a stool to rest on bewteen jobs, as there's nowhere to sit if I need to.

Today for the most part I am going to be making book cloths. This can be done in a fairly relaxed setting, maybe even on a drawing board on the couch. Imagine that luxury! I have plain calico here which I used yesterday for one of my efforts, but now I want to move on and dye/decorate it for the next batch. I have this glorious idea of creating a whole host of varied and beautiful pieces which I will go on to sell later (if I can bring myself to part with them - no, I must). I still haven't started marketing any of my work, I'm too busy generating it. I need a salesperson to step in here, or something.

Also I should tidy up a bit round here. With the best will in the world it's a messy business that I do and I have never managed to lose the guilt of living in a tip.

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