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Your life is a poem

The title of this post is a quote from Naomi Shihab Nye taken from the 'On Being' podcast. A few of their episodes contributed to the inspiration of this project - especially John O'Donohue's interview, which you can listen to here. It has been far too long since my last post, so I thought I’d share a few things that have been keeping me busy. Last semester, I decided to undertake a major project that was based on family oral history. I knew I wanted to do an etching and artist's book, and I knew I wanted the concept to be based on the idea that as human beings, from all outward appearances we are quite small or ‘compact’, but within ourselves there is an entire universe to explore – and thus, a lot we don’t really know about each other, no matter how close we are to our loved ones. I began by drafting a proposal (which was part of the course requirement), and submitted the following:


Hidden Landscapes: an exploration of memory, transience and a poetic mapping of the 'self'

How can the book be used as an instrument to record, represent and preserve the memories of those that came before us? Memory – both lived and inherited - is a complex and nuanced phenomenon that goes beyond the narrative of personal history; it reveals itself with the intense feelings, rhythms and ambiguities of poetry. It involves not only the retelling of a story, but our deepest, most intimate responses to those stories. Through a series of in-depth interviews with close relations, I will examine the notion that a large part of our identity is not fixed, but in constant flux. By exploring memory - which includes recollections of past experiences and personal responses to them - I will attempt to map my understanding of how my elders – starting with my parents - have grown and changed over time. Using a range of intaglio print processes and interview techniques, I will explore ways to record, interpret, imagine and represent their memories within the folds of a book. I will also attempt to convey a process of discovering the complex construction of the ‘self’, and to arrive at a closer understanding of how my family’s past has shaped my own identity.

The purpose of this project is to explore how memory changes over time and to discover, through the process of unfolding, the infinite and poetic landscape within the ‘self’ - one that is constantly in flux. I will explore ways to interpret and represent visual, emotional and spiritual elements of memory in order to present to the viewer both the possibilities and impossibilities of this pursuit. The aim will be to prompt viewers to question their perceptions and impressions of loved ones by asking: can we truly know the complete vastness and finest details within another? The intaglio process will serve as a metaphor for these impressions, and the book form will attempt to convey the open and closed characteristics of those we love. The purpose of the final work will be to communicate to the viewer that those we are close to - and who leave such an indelible impression on us - can at the same time be so far away, secretive and in many ways ‘unreadable’. While those we love may often share several details from their past, there are also innumerable gaps that leave us questioning what details were missed or withheld. Through the book form, viewers will have the opportunity to interact with, unfold, refold, open and close a landscape of memories, and realise both the intimacy and the distance that we experience with family members and loved ones. This project will use collected documents - including photographs, letters, memorabilia and diaries – as memory triggers, and a range of interviewing techniques will be used to facilitate different types of memory recall. The resulting narratives will inform the creation of a landscape of memories in the form of an unfolding book. Research material on how to conduct in-depth, life story interviews will be used to inform the facilitation of interviewing and documenting. The book format aims to explore the range of possibilities with unfolding and refolding as a process of discovery, and will align with the concept of uncovering or ‘peeling back’ layers of a person. It is also intended to serve as a metaphor for a hidden landscape under covers - in this case, book covers - and to examine the notion of scale when encountering a person, particularly a loved one. Through researching the possibilities that can be achieved with the artist’s book, I intend to contrast the compact, physical dimensions of a person with the endless breadth of memory that lies hidden within.

A range of intaglio print processes - including copper plate etching and collagraph - will be used to explore the notion of memory as both an impression and as a fading phenomenon. Other technical possibilities will be considered (such as paper mechanics, cutting and thermochromic inks) to explore the notion of faded, layered, fluctuating and absent memories. Methods of containing and preserving the collection in the form of a box or book cover will also be considered. How the book is opened, read and interacted with is significant, since we choose to interact with people in various ways to learn about their most intimate memories and identity. Possibilities for interaction, folding and unfolding, positioning and touch will also be explored.

The final project will allow audiences to have a personal and interactive experience with an artist’s book installed on a table. This will allow viewers to uncover, reveal and contemplate the poetic aesthetic of memory and to reflect on the significance of their own or inherited memories of others, particularly close familial relations.

Additional Research

Atkinson, R 1998, Qualitative Research Methods: The Life Story Interview, SAGE Publications Ltd, SAGE Research Methods.

Banister, M 1986, Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques, Dover Publications Inc., New York, New York.

Golden, A 2000, Creating Handmade Books, Sterling Publishing Company Inc., New York, New York.

Gubrium J.F. & Holstein, J.A. 2001, Handbook of Interview Research, SAGE Publications Ltd, SAGE Research Methods.

Gubrium, J.F., Holstein, J.A., Marvasti, A.B. & McKinney, K.D. 2012, The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: The Complexity of the Craft, SAGE Publications Ltd, SAGE Research Methods.

Krause, D.S. 2009, Book + Art: Handcrafting Artists’ Books, 1st edn, North Light Books, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).

Leaf, R 1976, Intaglio Printmaking Techniques, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York.

O’Donohue, J 1997, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, HarperCollins Publishers, London, UK.

Reimer M & Matthes B 2007, ‘Collecting Event Histories with TrueTales: Techniques to Improve Autobiographical Recall Problems in Standardized Interviews’, Quality & Quantity, vol. 4, no. 5, pp. 711-735.

Thomsen, D, & Brinkmann, S 2009, ‘An Interviewer's Guide to Autobiographical Memory: Ways to Elicit Concrete Experiences and to Avoid Pitfalls in Interpreting Them’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 294-312.

Wasserman, K 2011, The Book as Art, 2nd edn, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York.


Next, we were expected to undertake research and create experimental artworks to share in a group critique. After many hours interviewing my parents and transcribing about fifty-thousand words, I decided to share two, text-based artists books that contained all of the word-for-word narratives they shared with me. These represented approximately the first half of their lives (and was most certainly incomplete). Their oral histories contained much of their childhood memories, some adolescent and early twenties, all the way up until their first child. From that point I ceased interviewing as I needed to move on to the ‘making’ segment of the project, but I plan on interviewing them again soon. I was amazed and quite moved by so many of the stories they shared. As much as I’d love to share them here, for obvious privacy reasons they will remain stored away for a while.

I then set out to make a prototype of the book (essentially, a blank construction of the book design). I knew I wanted to create a concertina as the idea was to create a landscape of memories – one that could be flipped and folded in on itself to create new and unexpected compositions, allowing the view to discover elements or themes not previously noticed.

After creating the prototype, I began collecting images – mostly old family photos and old photos of the towns my parents grew up in. I couldn’t believe what I found on the internet! I had even discovered photos of Batawa’s Sokol club and female Czech dancers from the 50s – all of whom my mother recognised and had a story or two to share about. I integrated a few of these and then continually added imagery as I went along. I rarely ever start out with a complete drawing before starting line work on the copper, but I do need to have a few lines mapped out to get me started. Things generally start flowing from there.

After the line work was completed, I began aquatinting. I found this process incredibly stressful! As I’m still in the midst of learning the aquatint process, I was concerned that my ‘dot ratio’ wasn’t sufficient, but with extra reassurance and guidance from the expert printmakers at RMIT (Richard Harding, Robb Dott and Andrew Gunnell), I got the results I was after. The air gun for the aquatint spray was constantly getting clogged with the Lascaux acrylic solution, and it took me almost a week to finally get a decent coat of aquatint on the two plates – which were a little bit on the large side! After that, my next concern was how long I should etch each layer for. I tend to err on ‘less is more’ when it comes to bathing in the ferric, and I decided to use different coloured acrylic paint for each layer so I could distinguish one layer (which gets subsequently darker with each layer) from the next.

Once I was satisfied with the outcome of the first two plates, I etched and aquatinted a third, more 'free-style' plate of the same dimensions. This consisted of text taken from the interview transcript.

Next, I had to start thinking about paper and ink! The paper I had been using wasn’t soaking up enough of the ink, and initially I thought there was something wrong with the way I etched my plates. After receiving some sage advice from the lecturers and technicians at RMIT (my goodeness, they are absolutely brilliant) I switched to Hahnemuhle 300 gsm rag paper, and mixed some Charbonnel 55981 and 55985 in a 60:40 ratio, and, since it’s ‘winter’, I warmed the copper on the hot plates. The results were dramatically different after tweaking the ink ratio and paper. I may leave talking about setting the press pressure for another day!

Once I was satisfied with the prints, I began constructing the solander box and the book. I made bleed prints of the pages, but decided to use an X-Acto knife to cut the paper ends as they needed to join together as seamlessly as possible, since the imagery from each separate print needed to blend together evenly. I used Japanese rice paste to do this, and was pretty happy with the results. I must have measured the dimensions a hundred times before folding. One millimetre off and the pages wouldn’t fold so neatly together. Okay, maybe one millimetre is a slight exaggeration…but certainly two! I was quite happy with the final results.

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