I chart my life in books. A book title can spark a million memories: I re-read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every year, and will always remember it as the first book I bought with my own (pocket) money when I was 9 years old.
And I will never forget the day I discovered Sylvia Plath. I’d wandered into the local public library looking for something to read. I was a teenager with largely unformed tastes, so I was reading everything from Danielle Steel to Anthony Trollope, and pretty much anything in between. The poetry I’d been exposed to at my very traditional grammar school hadn’t travelled far beyond Wordsworth and Robert Browning. Like many schoolchildren back in the day I’d been forced to memorise John Keats’ To Autumn; you know the one: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun – that one.
Modern poetry – the stuff that didn’t rhyme, that didn’t even seem to make much sense – was a whole new world for me. I still remember the shock when I opened the library paperback copy of Ariel and read The Night Dances. It made very little sense to me, but it was breath-taking and magical. That was the start of my love affair with Plath’s poetry that remains as strong to this day.
I came to making art relatively late in life, whereas books – and writing – have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Nevertheless, a quick glance at my bookshelves is a reminder that art, too, has been an insistent thread running through my life. I don’t have a huge library of art books, but my collection does serve to tell the story of what art has meant to me during the various stages of my life.
The earliest art books I bought were about Van Gogh, Dali, Gauguin: safe, but not too safe; artists with appealing back stories (to a moody teenager trying to find her place in the world).
When I discovered feminism, I clung to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe as possible role models. Later, in the late 1990s, the Young British Artists arrived. Damien Hurst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas et al. Whatever your opinion of the phenomenon and the three-ring circus that developed around the Sensation exhibition, art – as understood by the mainstream press and gallery-going public – was never going to be quite the same again. ‘Mellow fruitfulness’ was out of the window. In its stead came ‘in-your-face-is-it-even-art’ art. At the time it seemed edgy, challenging, like punk rock had been back in the late ‘70s. Coinciding as it did with BritPop and ‘Cool Britannia’, everything suddenly seemed possible. Of course it didn’t last, as these things never do (or even should, perhaps) but it left its mark on me. I even wrote a very short story inspired by Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995), which ended: “She needs to add my name to her tent: I’m sleeping with Tracey, snug inside her tent, breathing in the stale breath of ghosts but sleeping. Sleeping nonetheless.”
It wasn’t until the penultimate year of my BA degree in Humanities that I studied art formally. At that time the Open University offered a module in Renaissance Art, which paid as much attention to the Northern Renaissance as to the Italian art of the period. For reasons I still don’t entirely understand I struggled to get good marks for my essays, but I enjoyed the course so much that I decided to do my MA in art history rather than literature, which had been my initial plan.
The Open University’s MA course was really the defining moment for me. I started making art during the first Covid lockdown, but it was the MA that really sowed the seeds. Somewhere along the line I must have figured out how to write essays about art, because I ended up with a distinction, but the real lightbulb moment that came out of my studies was to think about art in the broadest terms – not just pictures hanging in galleries, but everything the eye can see. The whole visual world. For me, that was a complete game changer, as was the fact that the OU course encouraged students to look well beyond the big name crowd-pleaser artists.
My dissertation was broadly about built heritage, and as part of my research I learned about Elsie Matley Moore, who lived for much of her adult life in Greyfriars House in Worcester. She studied at the Birmingham School of Art but is best known as a copyist whose main interest was in the preservation of medieval art (in particular, her watercolour depictions of stained glass windows). I don’t know whether or not she ever considered herself an artist, but it got me thinking about the role of the artist and the question of, simply, what is an artist and who gets to define who is and who isn’t one?
Somehow, by some convoluted process I can no longer remember, I discovered the work of Kurt Schwitters, a name I’d heard only once, many years ago, when one of his works turned up on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Finding out more about his work and life led me to other artists. I was finding art I really cared about, that excited and inspired me. Art about which I was truly passionate.
As I made my first fumbling steps towards making my own art, I drew on the whole of my art memories, from the Marshall Cavendish ‘Great Artists’ partwork that I collected dutifully each week in my 20s, slotting each magazine into the leather-look binders, to the esoteric exhibitions I’d seen in galleries of modern and contemporary art. Everything went into the mix, but books are still vital to me, not just to learn about art and explore the work of artists whose work speaks to me, but also as a major physical element in my art.
I buy old books from charity shops and then deconstruct them. I use everything: the pages, the endpapers, the covers, the spines. I love books not just for the information they contain, but for their formal qualities, these astonishingly beautiful examples of the bookbinder’s craft, and for the traces left behind on them by their previous owners.
I own fewer and fewer books these days as I buy novels almost exclusively on Kindle. The physical books that get to stay on the bookshelves are necessary either because they’re not available digitally or because they need to have a physical presence. In a way I am both a hoarder and a destroyer of books, although I like to think of the books I take apart – often quite battered, neglected, unwanted books – as being given a new life in a different form.
Helen Kitson © 2021. Mixed media collage on a vintage book cover
Helen Kitson © 2021. Mixed media collage on cradled wood
In a way, I feel I’ve come full circle. I started writing poetry when I was in my late teens, when poetry felt as fresh and exciting to me as art does now. I thought the only way to be a ‘proper’ writer was to write novels, and although I did publish two, it’s really not a form that suits me. Although I have very little desire to write another novel, I have a project planned that would marry art with poetry, with the aim of producing a limited edition chapbook. I don’t like selling copies of my artwork, so a small book would be a nice way of producing something in multiple copies. I think this will be quite a long-term project and that’s okay – I’m no longer in rush to do everything at once and I no longer care about producing something ‘saleable’. It really is, as I always meant it to be, about the art.
Leave a Reply