Thursday, 12 November 2015

Art Books

Castle Park project: Lancaster Roman Bath House
My article and art book
Here are the products of my work for the Castle Park project, a lottery funded project launched by Lancaster Litfest in January 2013 ( I worked on the ruins of the Roman Bath House taking photos, researching documents and information at Lancaster Library and on line, and drawing sketches. The results are an article on the Bath House and an art book (photos attached) where I develop traditional drawings of the Roman ruins, decoration motifs taken from pottery and my personal, abstract view of the three main rooms of a typical bath house: caldarium,tepidarium and frigidarium. Read the article and look at the pictures of my art book to know more.
Lancaster Roman Bath House

The ruins of the Roman bath house are behind a railing near a 1970s grey concrete building. Its stones are partly hidden by dead leaves. There is an empty packet of crisps in a corner, a plastic bag behind a wall. It was part of a bigger building, maybe the commander’s villa or a hotel, and was used by the troops of the Roman fort, which was on Castle Hill.
            The Romans didn’t use soap but scented oils to anoint the body. The dirt, sweat and oil were scraped off by a slave with a strigil, or blunt knife. Afterwards they could take a bath in the frigidarium, a pool inside the same building. Terence, a playwright of the second century BC, wrote that one felt ‘perfumed and comfortable after a bath, your mind at ease (otiosum ab animo)’. Certainly, having a cool bath after a sauna is one of the divine things on earth.

            Bathing was vital for the Romans, it was a way to wash, keep clean, have a rest and also have a bit of leisure time. In the warm and hot rooms they could play board games or dice, drink and eat. Coins, dating 250-300 AD, were found in the hot room in Lancaster's bath house. It was an important part of their life so the walls were
decorated with painted plaster with geometrical green, red, yellow and brown patterns.
            In big cities like Rome, large public bath houses (thermae) were also a place to meet people, talk of art and literature, have a chat or clinch a deal. Everybody was naked so the rank or social class (often linked to clothes and uniforms in Roman time) wasn’t clear. People mixed, had fun, maybe had sex or got drunk and eventually were clean. Emperors could grant free entrance to the baths and free oil to win the favour of the populace. And though having a bath every day was considered immoral and could weaken the body or soften the character, having a private bath house meant wealth and success in business, ‘for healthy men wash themselves even when it is unnecessary.’ (Artemidorus)

            It was probably built during the period of the emperor Trajan or Hadrian (second century), when the empire was at its apex and had reached its greatest territorial extension. The walls of the two main rooms are still clearly shaped: the tepidarium, or warm room, and the caldarium, or hot room. Parts of the furnace of the hot room is visible as well as the stone pilae that supported the floor. The fire burning in the furnace heated the rooms; the caldarium, which was above the furnace, was like a sauna, unbearably hot but tremendously relaxing, especially for a soldier who had his watch in the bitterly cold and windy weather. It must have been an immense relief to lie in a properly heated room and finally take their ease.

Creative Journal, part 1
My autumn art book.
This year I attended a fantastic art class at Dallam school ( with Janette Phillips ( We  explored creative journaling, which sounds like writing, but instead is creating your own journal using collage, drawings and photos and collecting meaningful items. It was a great opportunity to explore my creativity and use different techniques in painting and drawing, with which I experimented throughout the two terms of the course.
The tutor gave us a rich source of prompts and showed us books with examples, new materials, ideas and guidelines. Finally I was completely free to create whatever I liked, which was exciting and extremely challenging. The tasks were not easy or straightforward and we had homework to do every week, but I could really follow my obsessions, mix techniques and make my own books.
In the autumn term I worked with mostly leaves. I must admit it is one of my passions: the colours and the textures, the symbolism of fallen leaves is something that inexorably attracts me every year. I collected and painted loads of autumn leaves using and mixing different techniques. I used watercolours, coloured pencils, wax pastels, pastels, Brusho, washable wax pastels and ink blocks, felt pens and inks.
We then used collage and contour drawing (a technique used to sketch the outline of an object without looking at your drawing and without stopping) and we made our own books. I created a small booklet inspired by fallen leaves and a Christmas book inspired by my Christmas holidays in Rome (which I already posted in this blog in January).
The photos attached portray my work, starting with a collage, a small booklet with leaves, a page inspired by a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, more leaves with mixed media, the contour drawings of my watercolour palette and a vase with dried flowers and finally my plan for the cover of the Christmas book.
By the end of the autumn term I didn’t have anything to hang on my walls (which are already full) but I acquired a lot of experience and produced some highly original pieces.

Creative Journal, part 2
My winter and spring art book.
Throughout the winter (officially the spring term,though we didn’t have much spring weather before Easter this year) we carried on with our creative journal, focusing on lettering, collections and image transfer. During the last sessions of the course we developed our own projects.
At first we created a page using prompts from a dice or cards (e.g. collage starting with a small image from a magazine, adding white, drawing what is in front of you, etc), which I did drawing a bottle of Sprite and using some white materials and pale colours that reminded me of the weather and landscape of last winter. For the lettering I experimented with the Roman alphabet, trying to make it more flexible and weird (which is hard work with ancient Roman things) and planned my book on Lancaster Roman Bath House for the Castle Park project.
The next stage was to illustrate a poem or a phrase. Fantastic! Just my thing. I chose a poem, of course. I chose Fall by Andrew Motion, from his last collection The Customs House. It was such a deep experience to write each line of the poem again and again using different inks, making the words resound inside me and interpreting the poem at the same time. I realized that illustrating a poem is also a way to understand in depth, making it meaningful.
I drew and painted some buttons for my collection theme, using mixed technique. I also drew an evening sky with washable felt pens and created my ideal living room with famous paintings on the wall (Turner, Morandi, Elizabeth I and Hockney). It would be worth millions!
For the image transfer I used a picture of the Duchess of Cambridge from a Woman’s Weekly cover and painted on it with watercolours. I like the way the final result is colourful and textured, but clear enough to recognize Kate. I also experimented with a coloured background and transferred the image of trees and flowers. I worked on it again, using black ink this time and adding a poem I love: The fenced wood by Jean Sprackland, from her collection Tilt.
Finally I planned and worked on my final project: an art book of my favourite poems. After a long, hard time choosing I selected about forty poems in English, Italian, French and Spanish, rolled up my sleeves and started the work of illustrating each of them in a page of my new art book. Next in this blog.

My poetry art book

How I linked poetry to art.
I started to illustrate my favourite poems a few months ago after an art course about creative journals, held at Dallam School. The tutor, Janette Phillips, encouraged us to plan an art  book project centred on our own interests. I chose poetry, of course.
My first poem was by Andrew Motion, Fall, from his last collection. I went on to choose poems from the poetry collections on my book shelves. This was an excuse to indulge even more in one of my favourite activities, reading poetry, and a great opportunity to link two things I love: poetry and art.
I finished the first art book during the Easter holidays, illustrating more than thirty poems from W.H. Auden, J.L. Borges, Eugenio Montale, Alda Merini, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Sprackland, Pascale Petit, and many from poets in the north west.
At present I am working on a second art book of poetry, as I have so many favourite poems that one art book was not enough. I am also illustrating my own poems, which is more challenging in some ways.
When I choose a poem to illustrate, it is because it has moved something in me, something visual. Reading it, my mind shapes images, colours burst out and the poem takes a life of its own. I suppose there is a similar relation, in sound, between poetry and music.
My pictures aim and aspire to interpret the poems, to complete them in some way, and make them more interesting. It is more difficult with my own poems because I need to be detached from what inspired me in the first place and to treat them as if they don't belong to me. The advantage in illustrating my own poems is that I don’t need permission to put them on my blog!
Here are four poems from my first Art Book of Favourite Poems:
Butcher by Carole Coates (Swallowing stones, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 2012)
Making the Moon Jar by Elizabeth Burns (Held, Polygon, Edinburgh, 2010)
Echo Sounding by Sarah Hymas (Host, Waterloo Press, Hove, 2010)
What the Water Gave Me II by Pascale Petit (What the Water Gave Me, Seren, Wales, 2010)
Many thanks for permission from the authors above to publish their work on my blog.

the butcher came to our home
with his big scissors and his knife
and four aunts to hold me down
he sliced me and trimmed me
all the place between my legs
carved out, scraped to the bone
(Carole Coates)
I illustrated Butcher drawing a simple pair of scissors with a clear traditional shape, making no compromise in its cruelty, because this is what the poem revealed to me. I chose pencils and kept it black and white to outline the appalling reality it shows.

Making the Moon Jar
To make a jar as perfect as those from the Choson dynasty
– enormous rounded vessels used for storing grains of rice –
The potter must learn patience. Over and over again,
what emerges from the kiln is cracked or buckled, weak
at the circumference. Another one, flawed and unglazed,
heaved onto the truck, taken down the truck into the woods,
where she smashes raw white pottery to bits and buries it.
Back in the studio, her hands shape into being two new hemispheres,
slippery as newborns. She balances one into the other, smoothes
wet clay between them, makes them whole. First firing, no cracks yet –
she deeps the vessel in a milky glaze. Another firing, then
the opening of the kiln-mouth, the lifting out: a full moon jar.
She moves around it, strokes the pearly skin of porcelain,
feels the slight ridge round the centre, an equator. Two halves
are joined. Her heart is singing at what her hands have made.
(Elizabeth Burns)
Making the Moon Jar is such an involving poem, leading the reader to the final surprising product, an object of art in itself, round, simple and perfect. I used pastels to draw the jar and accentuate the stark contrast between the white shape and the dark background. I wrote the poem on the jar because the poem creates the jar.

Echo Sounding
Light glosses over tidal streams,
hiding our deepest valley, highest mountain.

Through the gale force and iron stillness, the albatross
circumnavigates yearly, mates for life.

Imagine weeks of greys and blues, slate, silver, sky,
rocking to stay vertical.

Without wind to tauten polyester and rope,
sails are like sextant without sun.

Despite the light and dark there is no night or day,
just three hours shifts, off and on.

the swell breaks on deck. I’ll never
rinse this salt from my ears.
(Sarah Hymas)
Echo Sounding is so evocative: it breathes in the wind, opens vast blue skies and boundless seas. Painting the sky and the sails, I chose the lightness and transparency of watercolours mixed with ink to convey these qualities.

What the Water Gave Me II
The water opened
into the vortex of my daughter’s face.
Her skin was a rippled mirror.

She was wearing the bath around her
like a dress of glistening scales.

She was my fish-flower.

I floated on her tongue
like the word ‘Mama’.

(Pascale Petit)
The words in What the Water Gave Me II inspired this picture: a face with vaguely Asian features surrounded by marine creatures. I used watercolour pencils, which gave me the opportunity to draw details and keep the picture light and loose. It shows a mythical figure emerging from the poem itself.

I completely enjoyed the project and decided to exhibit all my art books at Silverdale and Arnside Art and Craft Trail on 28th, 29th and 30th June in Silverdale School ( together with my paintings on fabric, scarves, masks and jewellery.
Come and see the Trail!

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