Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.


I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.


Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.

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A tale of two sketchbooks continued…..

An exhibition visit last weekend and a previous post about sketchbooks have prompted me to write this short extension to the A tale of two sketchbooks post of a couple of weeks ago.

Last weekend I visited the Mondrian exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.  In the museum, as well as this blockbuster show there was a smaller exhibition of work by the Haagse School, a group of Dutch artists working in the Dutch capital at the end of the 19th century.  There was a good collection of interesting paintings but actually what caught my attention most were two walls in the exhibition that had been given over solely to displaying the sketchbooks of some of the artists involved.

These small, and very intimate glances into the working process of the likes of Breitner and Israels were quite captivating.  It is the sort of exhibition display that I would like to bring my pupils at school to see.  Direct, small scale and personal, these are visual documents that somehow bridge the gap between the artist and the finished work.  You see a visual connection with the finished paintings, but also, a much more apparent and obvious presence of the artist themselves.  These are after all books that lived in their pockets or bags, objects that travelled around with them and were a sort of personal forum for the development of ideas.

Sketchbooks are important, we can learn much from them.  In many ways, it is a shame that they are so rarely of display in our museum.  There are places online where examples can be found and pages turned through, such as here.

sketchbook

There are also places such as The Sketchbook Project where the drawing books of lesser known artists and creative people are receiving an online place where others can turn through the digital pages.  I’ll certainly be drawing the attention of my pupils to this source of documentation of the creative process.

A tale of two sketchbooks

Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.

I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.

However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.

Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.

Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.

The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.

So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.

Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.

Travelling with a sketchbook

Two or three times a year I go either away on holiday or a short break. Mostly these trips involve a lot of outside time, often in quite remote places. About five or six years ago I started to take a sketchbook with me, on reflection I think this was because my own work as an artist had become increasingly related to the landscape and I think that I thought that by more careful observation of it I might actually learn something.

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That was six years ago and my work still very definitely has a landscape connection to it and I continue to take just a small black hardback book with me, either A5 or A6 and a small set of twelve watercolours, a pencil, a brush and a black fine liner pen.

What I do on these trips does in one way or another feed back into more carefully worked out ideas, but it has also become something in its own right. I have never thought of myself as a great technician, certainly not when it comes to a material such as watercolour, but I do enjoy the challenge and speed of it all, as I pause for a few minutes with my family most often as company.

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I have just come to the end of a two week break from teaching, the first week was spent in good weather in the landscapes and forests around where I live in the Netherlands, the second week over the border into the Eifel in Germany.

The resulting filled pages will  certainly never be exhibited, so a post on my blog certainly seems a good alternative.