Christiana Spens is the Director of 3:AM Press/The Blue Pavillion, who publish paperbacks and artists' books, including a series of illustrated short stories. She has illustrated most of the 3:AM Press covers and has also provided illustrations for Galley Beggar Press. She is also the author of The Wrecking Ball, Death of a Ladies' Man (both fiction), illustrated title The Socialite Manifesto and a book of art and poetry called The Drone Age.
Here she looks at the important relationship between books and the artwork that adorns them, exploring some of the many factors and influences that jacket designers may bear in mind.
When I was 18, and at high school in Memphis, Tennessee for a year, I ventured up to New York City during Spring Break, ostensibly for some interview or other. It was then that I was lucky enough to stumble into an exhibition at the New York Public Library: French Book Art (Livres d'Artistes): Artists and Poets in Dialogue, which I then reviewed for Studio International in one of my first forays into journalism.
The show focused on the post-Second World War period of book art and collaboration in Paris, and the way in which poetry and art, together, were a response to the brutality and chaos of war. 126 artists' books were exhibited, showing how, as I put it then anyway, 'the poet needed the artist to elaborate his meaning in visual terms - and the artist needed a spark of inspiration... They needed each other equally. Amid the devastation of war, artists and poets recognized the most essential front against absolute destruction - human solidarity.'
I was at an impressionable and idealistic age, and I'm glad that was the exhibition I wandered into at that time. It was a turning point in my own development, as well as the beginning (or a first kiss, anyway) of a romance with artists and ideas that have become a lifelong love affair. I could never choose, at school, between writing and drawing, between politics and art, and though I assumed that eventually I would have to make a choice, to this day I am still balancing them all. Juggling a PhD on political violence and propaganda, with running a small publishing company (3:AM Press), and continuing my own writing and drawing, I find the ideas and ideals I came across in that 2006 exhibition more pertinent than ever.
The key to understanding how writing and art can work together is of course contingent on the particular project or function: illustrating book covers for short stories can seem miles apart from the elevated, celebrated collaborations of world famous painters and poets, or the use of art and / or poetry to respond the political disasters. But some key lessons apply to them all.
In book illustration, for example, the task of producing a cover for a story can spawn a minefield of problems and potential dramas. Various issues that need to be resolved include: does the illustration fit with the rest of the list? Will the cover help the book sell? Does the cover match the story, or rather, whose interpretation or experience of the story does it most match? Whose should it match - the author's? The publisher's? The illustrator's? The potential market's? And, talking of preferences, is the cover political? And are those politics (whether sexual, racial, or otherwise) suited to the story, the author, the publisher and so on? Whose politics matter most? Whose style matters most?
Clearly it is an effort to try to please everyone, and an effort that is often in vain. How we experience fiction, especially, is necessarily subjective, and so trying to produce a cover that can appeal to or satisfy all is a complicated task. Having experienced the process from the view of publisher, illustrator and novelist (as well as enthusiastic buyer of books), I have felt the frustration that these dramas can cause from each side - though mostly in the illustrator's role, I have to say, as it is hard to work tirelessly only for someone to complain. But that comes with the territory! Certainly the best part of juggling various roles has been the insight gained into the process as a whole, and the realization, ultimately, that those ideas explained in the New York Public Library were right: that collaboration can be wonderful, for all its inherent difficulties, and that dialogue is essential if it is ever to work.
My best experience of collaboration has been in the production of a chapbook for the exhibition, Passport to Pimlico, curated by Lana Locke this year. Though in the beginning we had grander ideas for the project, Darran Anderson and myself ended up producing a book, combining his poetry and my artwork, which was given out at the May Day exhibition in London, where a utopian space was attempted in homage to the film of the same name, where a small community locked out the state to create their own self-governed world. Darran is from Derry, and I was studying the Troubles at the time, and so Lana's project naturally reminded us of Free Derry Corner - a section of the city that was closed off and self-governed until it was dismantled by British troops in the early 1970s. Free Derry Corner was itself inspired by a similar exercise in Berkley, California, in the 1960s, experimenting with self-government and protesting the government also.
So we took on a similar continuation of that idea, though in the end it did not take up the side of a house, as we had first hoped. In another type of collaboration, I found out I was newly pregnant just before the exhibition, and so we had to abandon ideas of painting You Are Now Entering Free London onto a house in Pimlico, due to the confinements of morning sickness. My father had also died a few weeks earlier, so funeral costs and disarray made an artistic jaunt South seem unrealistic. Nevertheless, the collaboration happened, in a smaller, less expensive form: a chapbook, with the idea taking up only an A5 page, and Darran's poetry within.
It was with some amusement, then, a few months on, that I re-read my old review of the French Book Art exhibition in New York. Having experienced the cross-section of art and literature in myriad ways, my idealism has not changed, really, from that inspired by Magritte, Picasso, and Mallarmé eight years ago. It made me remember the root of their inspiration, and so ours: that even in the midst of death and malaise, art can and should happen. As Martin Amis said recently, poetry did not stop after the Holocaust; it was not even quashed at Auschwitz.
Art and literature are needed more than ever when the world becomes unbearable, and whom we love are lost; collaboration, and dialogue, are how they happen, because they are at the heart of all art. So from the sometimes tiresome difficulties of actually producing books (and their covers), to the exciting collaborations between politics, art and life, we would be wise to remember our forebears, and their original courage and artistic inspiration in the face of life's difficulties.
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