Recycled paper can be embellished by adding things like more layers of paper, colour, drawings, prints, and even stitching. You can cover the text on the base sheet and create soinething completely – but you can also create added interest by letting a word, phrase, or chunk of text show through paint, or leaving some of it exposed, to emphasis a point, or compose a new message. It’s a technique that some artists use to great effect.
Will Ashford, for example, is a self-taught American artist who currently works with pages from old books. A dyslexic, he has always been fascinated by words. “I rescue, salvage, and recycle other people’s words,” he explains on his website.“Browsing through garage sales, street markets and used bookstores I search for interesting, preferably discarded, old books. When I find a good candidate I explore every page. Like an archaeologist I hunt for the words that speak to me with new meaning. Intuitively, one word at a time, they turn into a kind of haiku or philosophical poetry that I can call my own.”
Somewhere along the way, he explains, images start to invent themselves. “Using graphite, and or India ink, to highlight or obscure my words; I create the image of that invention. Though I strive to make each document visually engaging, I find it is the words that I value most,” he adds. He also uses photocopies and a computer as he works on his words and images, and what finally appears may be nothing like the earlier versions.
His work features human figures, objects, and lots of swirls, circles and flowing lines. Much of it seems to be in black, and he obviously selects the exposed words very carefully, to fit his theme and express his thoughts. Do they relate to the theme of the original book, I wonder, or does he convey a brand new thought?
He discusses his methods in an interview on the Create Mixed Media website (which was previously published in The Mixed Media Artist copyright 2013 by Seth Apter, and was republished courtesy of CreateMixedMedia.com and North Light Books, so I hope that don’t mind me using bits from it). Here he talks about one particular picture, The Face I Show the World: In a Portrait or The Likeness of a Man This image, he says, started with a page from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on art, which he selected because the words ‘in a portrait’ appeared at the top of the page.”I had to find the rest of the words, and this took several tries over many days,” he adds. He was looking for words that might tell another story, and thought the silhouette was an obvious choice. “I removed all of the poem’s words that had been printed on the right side of the main text and at the same time carefully left behind all of the letter o’s as well as all of the dots and periods. From this I created a new visual poem that helped maintain the visual composition of the original page” he explains.
To be honest, I’m not sure that my researches have left me any the wiser. I don’t think I understand his creative process, and the end results didn’t do a lot for me, although the umbrella in the rain illustration in the Distant Stitch Workbook is OK. If we’re talking about altered books I prefer Tom Phillips’ The Humument, and he deserves a post all of hos own.
One final comment on Will Ashford: he seems, over the years, to have worked his way through a number of different styles. Back in the 1979 when he was 31 he was a ‘concept artist’. At that time his best known work was a community project, where people helped him lay fertiliser on a Californian hillside to form a living portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa. Everyone sat back and waited for the grass to grow and, lo and behold, there was Mona Lisa in shades of green, because the grass grew darker in the fertlised areas. Purists may say this is gardening, not art, but oddly enough I like it better than his altered books. It’s wacky, and I’ve always had a weakness for wacky, and gardening is a form of art, and I like the community aspect of this. And people spend hours cutting lawns into stripes (they still do it on the Lower Lawn at Tamworth Castle). So what’s wrong with a grass reproduction of the Mona Lisa?