Posts Tagged ‘text and image’

Fly away on paper wings

August 29, 2014

Poster for Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press


I’ve recently been working on a very exciting project: an artist’s book on a similar scale to my huge Thames to Dunkirk (now in the British Library) but with a very different concept.  I’ll be showing it as an installation at the beautiful Bloomsbury gallery that is the new home of poetry publisher Enitharmon Press, from 22nd September to 17th October.  [Please note the exhibition is now closing on 15th October.]

I’ve set all 55 poems of Songs for Sappho, a brand new love song cycle by celebrated poet and author Maureen Duffy, whose 80th birthday was marked last autumn at a splendid Symposium at King’s College, London, her alma mater.  The poems chart the changing weathers of a passionate, living love, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together.  All the moods and colours of the poems are reflected in their dazzling variety on sheets of handmade paper, to be bound together in a contemporary illuminated manuscript, or Book of Hours.  But for their first flight, they will be shown in this installation, hung aloft in Enitharmon’s airy bright space like washing on the line, or prayer-flags in the breeze.

The title Paper Wings is from Maureen Duffy’s poem Life Writing (from Environmental Studies, Enitharmon 2013):

                                                         I box up

my archive, my writing life.  Do I feel bereft

seeing it vanning away to its hope of an

afterlife?  ‘We will be remembered in our songs,’

Sappho promised and Behn begged for her verses’

immortality.  These children grow up and fly away

on paper wings or cruise like Milton’s fallen angels

through the ether, and I rarely visit unless asked.

The idea of the poems flying away on paper wings is present throughout this new song cycle, written during the same period as the poems in Environmental Studies.  So many of the Songs are messages flying through the ether, virtual words spanning virtual space connecting the parted lovers. When I first read them, I saw them aloft like smoke signals or flying through space like paper darts, and later I came to see them as though slung up high from a fine unbreakable line between two fixed points, both connecting them and measuring/mapping the distance between them, while the words of the messages are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

Fifth Song (text by Maureen Duffy) from Paper Wings (artist's book by Liz Mathews)

Some of the poems are swift as Cupid’s arrow, some light and gauzy as a heart-shaped kite, while others hang heavy as wet washing on the line, and so I envisaged this installation allowing us to glimpse or catch these intimate messages in flight.  But I also recognised Songs for Sappho as a true song cycle, a sequence of love poems in the eternal present, without a beginning – because this love is prefigured – and without the (apparently inevitable) end of the affair – world without end, amen – circling back on itself like the seasons in an endless cycle of renewal.  This cyclic aspect suggested to me the physical form of a concertina artist’s book, where the linear sequence allows the end to turn back upon itself to join the beginning in an unbroken circle of continuity.

The circle is itself a recurring theme in these poems, from the two hemispheres that make up the lovers’ metaphysical world, to the ring where love and war fight it out, and the bowl of sky given by the poet to her beloved.  And this world of love mapped by the lovers’ words and dreams is centred on the heart, a heart-shaped earth (like the ancient cordiform world map found buried in the archives of the Museo Correr in Venice), and completed, first, last and always, by the lovers’ ‘meeting lips’.

This is not to say that the weather of the world of love is unrelievedly sunny: many poems lay bare love’s pains and sorrows, absence, anguish and yearning, evoked by ‘the dead hand of winter’, heavy hanging clouds, wearying rain or imprisoning snow. Yet with the natural cycle, spring returns suddenly, ‘summer renews’, and the world is again alive for the lovers, a real solid physical earth, their ‘earthly Eden’ a ‘safe landing’ for the ‘loving symbols in wings’.

In the form of both the book and its pre-construction manifestation as an installation, I’ve aimed to reflect these themes and poetic preoccupations, allowing the connections to reveal themselves gradually as the reader moves through the cycle, without (I hope) blocking out other insights and interpretations.  A primarily visual first response to a poem can sometimes open other ways of apprehending – revealing sounds, rhythms and structures more clearly, for example.  I believe this love song cycle to be very important, a lasting work that will be widely celebrated and acclaimed, and I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity by Maureen Duffy to work with the poems.

Paper Wings book front cover

Here at The Pottery Press (our small tiny press, occasionally publishing limited edition artist’s books) we are also publishing a printed version of Paper Wings, a digital facsimile that combines some aspects of both the artist’s book and the installation, to accompany the exhibition at Enitharmon.  The book (ISBN 978-0-9930171-0-0) is out on 22nd September, and will be the first printed edition of the poems.  And there’s also a dvd version documenting the work; in this artist’s film, Maureen Duffy reads each poem as the pages of the book turn and the complete song cycle unfolds.  The film was made here in the studio at Potters’ Yard by me and my partner the writer Frances Bingham, and is released by Potters’ Yard Arts, also on 22nd September.  Both are available from The Pottery Press; contact thepotterypress[at]

Spiral of light (text by Maureen Duffy) artist's book by Liz Mathews

In the exhibition, the Paper Wings installation is framed by other artworks, hung apparently more conventionally on the gallery walls, but these are also (mostly) artist’s books, made from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded into a sequence of pages; with these books, I aim to set the text so that it can be read both page-by-page, and as a single whole image.  The wall-hung works continue the theme of airy phenomena set by Paper Wings, from Maureen Duffy’s great spiral galaxy in Spiral of light, or her ‘ropes of stars’ in Vision of the Floating City, to Jeremy Hooker’s ‘white birds’ which are the feet of dancing women flying round a flowery meadow in Women dancing in a field of poppies.

Women dancing in a field of poppies (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

And of course, what also continues is my own visual response to these wonderful texts: when I first read Maureen Duffy’s novel Londoners many years ago, I saw the words (in her hero Al’s meditation about the Reading Room in the British Museum) flying round the dome of that great round space, as I saw Lorca’s dreams fly up, singing with joy, and Dylan Thomas’ ‘other air’ streaming again with ‘a wonder of summer’.  The spiralling form of some of these books evokes that circling renewal of the seasonal cycle, while other books like No end (shown below, setting a stanza of Jeremy Hooker’s powerful poem Written in clay) take the form of an endless river flowing onwards…  These simple forms folded from a single sheet of paper contain both individuality and unity, as the page-by-page sequence coexists with the completeness of the whole image, reflecting how the individual words combine in unexpected ways to create new meanings within the poem.

No end (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

No end, p1 No end, p2 No end, p3 No end, p4 No end, p5 No end, p6 No end, p7


No end, back cover and slipcase


No end (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews


Some installation shots in the gallery follow:


Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press

Paper Wings detail

Paper Wings in the window at Enitharmon




light wells

March 28, 2012

My next exhibition, light wells, is set in the light-drenched spaces of the meeting rooms of the London Centre for Psychotherapy in leafy Kentish Town, just down the road from my studio. It’s on from 23rd April to 7th September 2012, and visitors are welcome throughout the exhibition (Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm) by appointment (please phone 020 7482 2002). At midsummer, the LCP will be hosting an open day and exhibition event, long light, when I’ll be there talking about mudlarking, making artist’s books, and the poetry that inspires my work. Meanwhile, here’s a preview:

light wells: perspective, perception and imagination

There is always some kind of light contained within the dark.

The painter Winifred Nicholson expressed this conviction through her work, painting light and colour with a visionary awareness, seeing everything with the joyful prismatic aura of living light: a ‘rainbow of light, rainbow of darkness’.

The group of works brought together in light wells examines the relationship between the inner life and its outward expression, the light contained within the dark vessel, showing through the delicate, complex structure of the physical, like sunlight through the leaves.

Sometimes the light is the natural light of the sun, moon or stars flooding the landscape, sometimes the glancing illumination of perception and insight, sometimes the visionary half-light of dreams.

As a lettering artist, I work in clay, handmade paper and driftwood from the Thames, but my primary structural medium is words. I see my work as a way of fishing the letters up from ‘the deep o’ the pule’, mapping their celestial dance, dredging them from the well, finding them in the driftwood’s grain – a way of seeing the light in thought, word and physical form.

In this collection I have worked with texts about perception – how the light falls on the mind’s eye; about perspective – how we individually interpret what we all see; and about imagination – the light within.

Each text inspires a different form, or physical means of expression: sometimes the text will suggest to me the containment of the vessel, the earthy embodiment of clay, the cosmic transformation of the fire, the circling flow of the throwing process. Other texts suggest the light-bearing transparencies of the paper, or the spiralling sequence of the pages of an artist’s book, or the dual-natured transitional form of water-carved driftwood.

With each text, I seek to give an initial impression of its meaning (the ‘whole’ image), which is confirmed and deepened by a more considered reading – so that the text is literally ‘read’ as integral to the form of the work, and the word-by-word or letter-by-letter details become structural elements in linked sequence.

Most of my artist’s books are made from a single whole sheet of handmade paper, which is folded, painted, lettered and torn into a sequence of pages; it’s important that it can be reformed and seen as a whole image, that its integrity is unbroken, but it also can be read as a flowing sequence of pages, allowing the reader to turn and handle the painting as a book with all the enjoyment of its feel as a space-containing ‘volume’.

I like the link here between the pages’ spiralling flow and the inner spiral of the clay vessel’s thrown form: this is reflected and brought to the surface with the setting of the lettering flowing round the vessel, drawing the reader into an awareness of its physical form, dimensions, weight, volume, in the act of reading the text.

On paper, I use an unconventional lot of mark-making tools, including wooden clothespegs, chopsticks, slate shards, feather quills – and my favourite lettering ‘pen’ is a little driftwood stick picked up on a beach of the Thames. On the clay, I always letter with a brush, freehand onto the raw dried pot. I love unglazed clay – its stoney feel, colour and texture – and I like to let it breathe, to allow the fire deep in. But the glazed clay has its own light-bearing, wetness-remembering qualities, too – I like the two feelings to coexist in a pot.

When I’m working with driftwood, I don’t interfere with the river’s carving, except to incise or highlight the lettering; the beautiful shapes formed by the tree’s growth and the water’s intervention seem to hold the letters of the text within the grain, waiting to be revealed. And when I’m working with paper, I like to let the light show through from the ground. I love the handmade paper’s responsiveness, how it soaks up or resists the colour, how its texture affects the flow of the ink, how it meets me halfway, instead of sitting there impassively waiting to be painted on. I love a bit of unpredictability in something I’m making – I want it to have a life of its own.

light wells: an exhibition of work in clay, handmade paper,       and Thames driftwood

by Liz Mathews

23 April to 7 September 2012

London Centre for Psychotherapy, 32 Leighton Road London NW5

Visitors welcome by appointment throughout the exhibition;           Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm – please phone 020 7482 2002

long light midsummer open afternoon Saturday 23 June 1pm-4pm

Admission free

One fresh spring abiding

October 1, 2010

Though it’s suddenly October, I’m still on the riverbank,

by the waters, all the summer long

(Wordsworth, from the Prelude)

enjoying the watery green shade. Moss is another little elephant, made from an A3 sheet of handmade paper, painted, lettered, torn and folded:

Before it was torn and folded, the sheet looked like this:

The brushwork, the colours and the setting of the lettering combine to give a strong feeling of the beautiful text by Coleridge, as you turn the book in your hand, following the flow of the words in the spiral of the design, to the source.

There are now more than 20 elephants in the herd – and more come along all the time, so it’s been a good summer for them since I made the first ones in early Spring (see Shelley’s Cloud and the Bookworks page). Later in October I’ll be showing you the largest (so far) – a double elephant called Love flows. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished two new Riverlight paintings:

There is ever one fresh spring abiding

(Thomas Campian)

Now the salt tides seaward flow

(Matthew Arnold)

All these works are signed one-offs, for sale. The little elephant books like Moss are £150, and these two watercolours (42cm x 30cm) are £80 each unframed or £120 framed in beech. If you’d like to know more, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

Constable’s clouds

April 26, 2010

My new series of One Elephant books has grown into rather a large herd already, including some Small Elephants, which I’ll be adding to the Bookworks page soon. At the moment I’m working on Volcano Cloud (of course), but here I’ll show you one I made last week’s: Constable’s clouds

The full sheet looked like this before lettering and tearing:

And like this after lettering the text, tearing, folding and unfolding:

I was reminded of Constable’s uplifting words when the sky was so beautifully empty of planes last week, but then, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, either.

One-off, signed artist’s book. For sale in my next exhibition.

Shelley’s Cloud

March 30, 2010

At the moment I’m working on a group of artist’s books called One Elephant books, made from one sheet of handmade paper, rather than constructed with several individual sheets. One of the first is called Shelley’s Cloud.

I’ll show it to you page by page (6 pages), and then talk a bit about the making process:

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to choose this text to work on in the week before Easter – we’ve already had the showers and rain, and the rest seems inevitable. Shelley’s poem The Cloud is also the source of my cover image text:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water

The book is made from one sheet of paper (one elephant – 56cm x 76cm) painted with acrylics and watercolours, lettered with inks, then torn and folded into 12 pages about 19cm x 19cm. The images can’t reproduce the pleasure of unfolding and turning the book as you read it, following the spiralling line of the text.

One of the things that excites me so much about this form is the unchallenged entity of the material; I always like to use whole sheets of paper or tiles or fragments torn from a whole and reconstituted, without any extra material added, nor anything taken away. I also like the way that the spiralling /cyclic line becomes a linear sequence, with the unstated interconnections of the pages, when translated from the original one sheet to the book format.

This is one of the first three One Elephant books I’ve just made; the others are called Van Gogh’s Clouds and Waters, and I’ll be adding them to the Bookworks page soon. There are six more books to come in this series, which I’ll add to the page as they’re done. I will be showing some in my next exhibition, and some will be for sale.

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details.

All photos copyright Liz Mathews.

Permission is needed for any use of images from this blog.

Hope of Poetry

March 8, 2010

A space made with words

The lettering on this tall bowl is set so that it maps the physical contours of the bowl for the eye to understand, with colours that reflect what’s happening in the text, and with the lettering responding to the curve of the vessel and the physical implications of the text.  The lettering is applied with a brush, and then fired into the body of the clay, in this case without a covering clear glaze, to allow the earthy texture of the unglazed clay to surface.

This articulation of form allows a tactile apprehension of the pot’s dimensions, its enclosing of space, expressing the individuality of each vessel I throw on the wheel. The sense of a space made with words is then extended by the setting of the words to reveal their meaning.

Here the text is from a poem by Valentine Ackland called Hope of Poetry, where she presents her belief in the future and her faith in poetry as a physical thing, vulnerable like a tender little green plant, but strong and unquenchable like a flame. I’ve set the text around the earthspace of the clay vessel, mapping the contour with concentric rings of colour that reflect the text, and using these bands of coloured text to make the bowl appear almost see-through, to draw the eye inward.  And I’ve used the parallels and tensions in the text to mirror the outer and inner surfaces of the vessel, to allow the viewer to apprehend the relationship between without and within, and between text and form, and to see through to the core of bright fire at the heart of both.

(This text is taken from a gallery talk given on 19th May 2008 at the Southbank Centre.)

Signed one-off. 19cm high x 19cm at rim.

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below or click on contact details.

All photos copyright Liz Mathews.

Permission is needed for any use of these images.