Monday, September 16, 2013

Artist comission for Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili is a well known and internationally exhibited turner prize winning british artist, born in Manchester England. He might better be known  as... "that guy who paints with elephant dung", but more accurately he is well known for his intricately designed canvases infused with african motifs.....and his painting of the black Madonna.

I was honored to meet Chris and his family when they stopped by the bindery a couple of years ago, as I've long been a fan of his work, and of the fact that he manged to rattle Mayor Guilliani's cage all those years ago with his Madonna!
He was meeting to discuss the re-production of smaller artworks that he had created on a much larger scale and in goatskin. He had had some done before and I had seen them so I knew it was feasable, there were only two things that really concerened me.....the size of the skins(what animals), and the nature of the framing and base (warping etc.....)

Well, we shook hands said goodbye and I forgot about the whole thing until I got the call earlier in
april of this year - "'s going ahead, and we need it by the beginning of june..." - nuts!!!

Then began a frantic set of calls to all known and unknown associates to research a warp free base that wouldn't be to heavy (MDF was out)....and some animals large enough to do the job. Also, this is not a one man job, I knew I was going to have to call on someone highly skilled to help me, or hold my hand, either who?

I called Nicky Oliver (Black Fox Bindery, London) or mentioned on facebook, would she want to come to New York to help me,  she stupidly agreed and was a little stunned when she arrived, as was I. I had known Nicky briefly when we past each other in the old binderies of LCP back in '99 to 2000, and we were I think aware of each other. To think that a decade or more later we'd be collaborating on a project in New york city as proprietors of our own binderies would have been ridiculous. We were to spend the next 30 or so days in each other's company
for most hours of the day. I also called Nicky not just because I thought we'd get along and work well together, but because of her prodigious skill as a colourist and dyer of animal skins, which will become apparent later.

So, Nicky's on the way, I got 2 weeks to get everything ready...the base, the skins, the dyes etc...and all the rest of it. I had been sent a scaled up version of the small A4 original artwork, which had been printed to 6ft high by 4 ft across, which would make dissecting the artwork into more manageable pieces a lot easier. Pinned to the wall I marked it up the distance on either side.

The base - after much conversation on the book-arts listserv(valuable resource), and with my friend and talented conservator working now in england Abigail Bainbridge,  I found that the notion of using Aluminum honey-comb core panels came up intriguingly a couple of times. The immediate advantage I was assured, by Abby especially was that the honey structure with an Aluminum skin on either side would prevent the expected warping produced by laminating skins and material on one side. It would also provide a solid base without unduly adding to the weight of the piece(20-40lbs max). The base was 1/2" thick, and the skins on either side of the honeycomb structure were approx 2mm thick.

Just one note - Abigail Bainbridge is an extremely knowledgeable conservator and part time instructor at Camberwell....I have long said that when she does end up running a major institution, that shes to give me a job...I am hoping that wont be too long.

The adhesive - what was I going to use to adhere the skins to the structure? Laminating the surface with a fabric using epoxy resin had been suggested, but upon discussion with a specialist art framer, I discovered that a piece of heavy watercolour paper could be successfully laminated the full length of the core using PVA. First I decided to laminate a layer of airplane linen to one side, and turning over the edges of the frame(which had been filled in with epoxy for a flush edge) so that the leather had a surface
to go over when being turned over the frame. The paper was laminated and cut flush...this then further provided a surface to draw the artwork over the frame, retrace then cut and paste the numerous inlays of goat and calf into place. The frame was filled in on the other side and left to dry on 1 of the 8ft by 4ft benches in the bindery with larger sized boards placed ontop with much labour, for pressing and to keep flat. This Nicky and I accomplished in the first half of the day.

Dissecting the Artwork - luckily for us denise
had found a massive light-box lying on the street in chelsea back in 2006, and its been with me ever since and vital to PDB operations. We were able to take the scaled-up print out and trace over it using sharpies...which in-turn enabled us to see the outlines when the print out was laid on the bench underneath an over-sized roll of tracing paper....job done.....The tracing then pressed onto the surface of the watercolour paper on the frame........
What we were left with was the artwork, broken up into pieces and outlines on the frame.

The skins - I had at our disposal several alum
tawed skins, and oversized un-dyed goat and calf skins big enough to tackle the larger pieces. The first problem was the size of the pieces needed. I did look into using buffalo skins, but they didn't prove adequate. I was able to secure large un-dyed goats up to 10ft sq and some even larger calf skins from stephen seigel of Seigel leathers USA, which proved ultimately very useful. We had to decide what skins we were going to use first. Here the genius of our division of labour served us very well.  Oversized templates were made from the seperate outlined pieces and labeled, then having worked out which skins were going where, the skins cut and Nicky's colouring could begin.

The colouring - an epic process mapped meticulously by Nicky, completed using tests colour charts, recipes, all posted on the wall, before the skins were cut. Nick decided to start
with the Pink, the loudest colour, and after some initial tests discovered that the neon of the pink yellow and oranges were best matched using the alum tawed goat, as it had a very bright white base and made the colour really thats that settled...the pinks were cut out oversized, and with enough room to turn over the fram at the edges. Once the colour had been acheived the skins were cut and dyed, then cut again and glued onto the surface of the frame.

In choosing a particular skin several things had to be considered; continuity (the same part of the same object had to be done using the same skin, ie the backround pink all alum tawed skin); the size needed and available in skin (the middle backround being the largest peice had to be cut out of the calf, then for continuity the other size was made in calf also), not least balancing these 2 with how the colour reacted to the different materials.....It was complicated.

So we were off, Nick was in the corner with her syringes like a mad scientist, and my job was to cut and paste it all together, sometimes bevelling on and off the board retracing and cutting.

Next we started on the figures, Nick dyeing an over sized piece of calf for the woman, then me re-cutting with the appropriate bevels and pasting it into place, and so it continued, with occasional breaks after major applications to stand it up and compare it to the print. Nick used this time to see what else she had to add by way of shading and colouring once the main pieces were on.

I think the hardest part for me was inlaying the large yellow and red calf backround in the middle between the figures, matching up the bevels etc...., just the size and awkwardnes of having to do it standing on the frame, insane!

If you had to ask, the hardest part for Nicky was the TROUSERS! such odd colours to match and capture in the right place that in the end she had to make a paper template for the colouring.

I think the most pleasing from a colour point of view and for how easy it went down are the pinks yellow and oranges of the alum tawed skins, there is a section there against the blue water and inset in a black backround that just looks like a massive candy sandwich....delicious! Nicky really surpassed any
reasonable expectation of matching the original.

In total there were approx 90-100 seperate pieces of calf goat and alum tawed goat all hand cut dyed and inlaid together.

The whole piece was finished a week early and we had time to take out pieces we weren't happy with and put them in again, turn the edges over the frame and touch it up at our leisure.

In the end the whole pieced was framed and hung.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Box Challenge - End game....or is it?

Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been 6 months since my last confession.

This does not mean by any means that I have not been hard at work, and posts over the next few days will I hope illuminate.

But first......some news.

As many of you know, or may not (I'm not offended), for the past 7-8 years, before PDB existed, I have been working on a project making custom design boxes for first editions.

Today, I decided to stop for the time being and take a break. There are many reasons, but I think the most important was that I just ran out of steam. I went as far as I could with the project so far, learning many new techniques and applying them with some modicum of success....printing, painting, dyeing, inking etc...etc...

It has been one of the most important and influential jobs I have done to date, although I wouldn't like to say I am ever to do......but I called it quits, for the time being it a temporary sabbatical...

The first 30-60 boxes were awful looking back, but when I started to experiment I really found my stride, and after 300 or more completed I have progressed as a binder a great deal.

I couldn't hand letter in leaf, now I can comfortably hand tool in gold in all kinds of ways.....I knew little of onlaying, now I don't think there is an onlay in existence that I haven't completed.

For this I am very grateful to the client in giving me the freedom to do what I liked, and to my middleman "A" who had my back the whole time.

A bookbinder has a choice at the beginning of their career. Work and get gainful employment and work in the trade.....or remain true to the original passion of what makes them want to be better. In my opinion the most successful binders choose the latter, and while they may not enjoy immediate success, they will enjoy much more deeper, gratifying and long-lasting victories.

I chose the first, and was all too eager to take on anything that came through the I feel its time to step back, and hopefully re-discover just what it was that made me want to be a bookbinder in the first place.

This is not the end, but perhaps I can take a break and approach it anew with renewed pep later. Over the coming months, there may be even a restructuring of PDB that reflects this new outlook.

My next post will include a review of a project completed for the artist Chris Ofili.

As a wise woman once told me in the Wyvern bindery back in london...

"Theres more to life than money"

but then again, you gotta be rich to think like that...