Saturday, 22 November 2014

An Interview with Rosie Sherwood

'Tree' (c) Rosie Sherwood
Words and Women spoke today with book artist and publisher Rosie Sherwood, who has an exciting new project up on Kickstarter. Rosie is from London, takes photographs using toilet-roll tubes, and can fold an origami bird in less than two minutes – blindfolded. Rosie talked to us about crowd funding and the future of publishing, and explained her new book, a hybrid of short story, photography, comics and poetry. Rosie’s work can be found at Tate Library and Archive, Chelsea College of Art and Design, The Poetry Library, and The National Gallery of Scotland. Her arts journal Elbow Room is sold in bookshops across the country, including Foyles and the bookartbookshop.

W&W: Hi Rosie. Tell us a little about your work as an artist.

Rosie: My work as an artist is driven by my desire to tell stories. Storytelling and art have been at the heart of my life for as long as I can remember, and the two have become intrinsically linked. Valuing that relationship pushed me beyond my photography degree to a more multi-disciplined approach, incorporating sculpture, text, the comic book, book art and more. Immersing myself in book art over the last two years – including studying for my MA at Camberwell – really unlocked the way I approach my art. Artists’ books – books which have been wholly or primarily conceived of by the artist and produced as an original work of art – offer not only a whole new way of approaching form, sequence and narrative, but also a different way of disseminating work through book fairs. This hands on, affordable, and democratic way of making, producing and selling my art is proving to be something I love.

W&W: You also head up a publishing company. How did that begin?

Rosie: I founded As Yet Untitled Publishing during my MA, a micro press through which to produce my own books and an arts journal, Elbow Room. The idea for Elbow Room was born in a tiny bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, which was selling handmade zines. The work on sale was fantastic but also indicative of something that has always frustrated me as an artist: the idea that different art forms must sit separately, on different shelves in different sections of the bookshop. This division seems to run counter to the way the arts truly evolve. I have always been equally inspired by film or music as I am by photography or literature. I wanted to create a journal that offers a space for a wide community of artists, celebrating art in all guises under the one title. We have been running successfully for two years now, so the idea seems to be working.
'Pinhole' (c) Rosie Sherwood

W&W: The Ellentree is your latest book. You’ve put it on Kickstarter and it’s raised  almost seven hundred pounds in less than a week. Can you tell us what it’s about?

Rosie: The Ellentree is a short fantasy story. It follows Evelyn, a young man with an eye of red and purple who walks in two worlds. One is our own; the other a world he has no name or explanation for. He slips between the two uncontrolled and unwilling. To find his way back to our reality, Evelyn is pursuing a trail of fallen leaves from a mystical tree. He must find the rumoured Ellentree, or be lost forever. The narrative is told in alternating chapters, switching between Evelyn and a young woman who keeps encountering him in our world, perhaps the only person to see and remember him.

W&W: Where did The Ellentree come from? What gave you the idea?

Rosie: The idea for The Ellentree could be seen as starting in two places at two different times. The first, my grandparents’ garden one summer, many, many years ago. I was bored and for reasons I cannot now remember, I started making white origami birds that I hung from their apple tree. Those birds never quite left me, and I continued taking the occasional photograph that included origami birds.

The second and perhaps more definitive starting point for the story came in the summer of 2009. I was reading a book about writer Neil Gaiman. It was here that I first came across the 24-hour comic book challenge. Started by Scott McCloud and Stephen R Bissette as a creative exercise, the challenge is to create an entirely new 24-page comic that is written, drawn and inked in 24 continuous hours. I decided to give the challenge a try and though I technically failed (I don’t really draw so it was never going to work) the idea of Evelyn and the Ellentree was born.

After that the story, the photography and the origami all fell into place, and I started to work on what has eventually become the book currently on Kickstarter.

W&W: Why choose crowd funding?

Rosie: I am drawn to crowd funding for the same reason I like artists’ book fairs and comic conventions. At its heart crowd funding is about a community built around a common interest, in this case art. It is about people talking to each other, engaging with and supporting artists. The arts are in huge financial trouble around the world as governments cut their funding budgets. Governments seem to think the arts are a luxury we cannot afford and do not need. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We need art in all forms to help us grow and change, learn and question. We need it to help us dream. This is something governments should be helping to build; yet they are not.

So into the breach steps crowd funding, allowing artists to break from traditional funding bodies, side-step governments all together and appeal directly to the public, the community, the crowd. At a time when artists are struggling, people are reaching into their pockets and spending what little they might have on the development of the arts. This is an extraordinary thing that should be celebrated. It is everything I love and hope for in the art world. It is community taking on the old-fashioned role of arts patron and it is pure magic.

When I completed The Ellentree it wasn’t so much a choice as an obvious step to take the plunge and put it up on Kickstarter. I truly want to make this book as a crowd-funded piece, and I hope people will want to help me do that.

W&W: There are a lot of different art forms and genres involved in The Ellentree. How do they come together to shape the book?

Rosie: The Ellentree is a lot of things at once. I have cherry-picked my way through the forms and genres I am working with, taking elements I am inspired by and feel compliment each other. The layout of a poem coupled with the narrative of a short story. Photographs because I feel the history of photography as an art believed to tell the truth (the medium’s greatest lie) lends something to the story. Photographing the surreal installations of origami as a way of bringing visual scope to the fantasy genre. The way we read word and images, the white space and the page as parts of the sequential narrative structure of the comic book. These things come together, shaping the book’s content, yet they hang together because it is a book.

W&W: What do you think will draw people to this book? And what will they take away from it?

Rosie: I hope people will connect with the book in multiple ways, even in the same reading. For some people, it might be theoretical. You might be drawn to questions of photography in comics, photography as narrative, seeing is believing. You might be drawn to the visual art.

But there’s also an emotional content for me. I read a brilliant analogy by musician and writer Amanda Palmer recently. She said all artists use themselves in their work, throwing their lives and emotions into the blender of their creative process. How recognisable they are in the completed work depends on how high they turn the blender on. By the end any semblance to self in your work might be undetectable to even your closest friends.

In making The Ellentree, I had the blender set on high for a very long time, but the story still has seeds of my experience. Evelyn’s search for The Ellentree, the world he slips into, even the young woman who sees and recognises him – these were all ways I found to talk about depression, and to celebrate the freedom creativity offers.

I hope above all that the idea of the Ellentree as a wish granting, mystical entity, and Evelyn’s search for hope, will grab people’s imaginations.

W&W: So with seven years in the making, this project must have travelled a lot. Whereabouts did you take the photographs?

'You' (c) Rosie Sherwood
Rosie: Many of the photographs are taken on Hampstead Heath in the heart of London. That was my stomping ground and studio for many years. Some are taken in Devon, on the beaches and even on Dartmoor while trying to avoid the wild ponies. One of them was taken in the West Yard of Camden Market on New Year's morning.

W&W: Tell us about your writing process.

Rosie: I always knew this would be a visual book and so the writing and photography happened alongside each other. It became a symbiotic process, whereby each sentence I wrote or photo I took inspired or demanded the next stage of the story. I didn’t want the text to simply explain the photographs or the images to solely work as illustrations. The aim with The Ellentree is to tell the story of Evelyn’s search in two mediums, written and visual, and so it was important to work through creating the story in both forms.

W&W: Origami birds make up the leaves of the Ellentree. How many origami birds do you think you’ve folded?

Rosie: I have probably folded nearly two thousand birds. The first lot got wet and mangled in the snow. The second I gave away, imagining the book was complete, only to realise it wasn’t and having to start making them all over again.

W&W: Do you have a record speed?

Rosie: A family friend got me to make one blindfolded one Christmas. I could do it in less than two minutes.

W&W: Tell us how Kickstarter works.

Rosie: Kickstarter works on an all or nothing funding model. Artists pitch a project on the site, complete with description, video and budget, and then they have a set period of time, in most cases a month, to try and raise the funds. During this time interest and support of the project will hopefully grow, developing a passion and community around a project.

What I like about Kickstarter is that its all or nothing method protects both the artist and those supporting. You pledge money to the project, and it will only be taken if the artist raises enough to actually complete the work. This keeps people spending their money safe, be it £5 or £500. As an artist you are also safe in the knowledge that you won’t have to struggle to complete a project with a fraction of the funds you needed.

The more people pledge, the more excited people are about the project, the better the artist’s chances are of actually being able to complete it. Artists on Kickstarter need people to pledge and then help spread the word in the hopes that everyone, artists and supporters, can see the project realised.

W&W: What kinds of rewards do you have for people who donate?

Rosie: I think people imagine they need to have lots of money to support a Kickstarter but that’s not true. I have rewards from £5 that include a specially designed hand-written thank you card, a download of an original song written for the book and a hand-folded origami bird.

I also have the book itself, limited edition posters, canvas totebags, and limited edition signed photographs. Hopefully there is something for everyone.

I am hoping to find myself making another few hundred origami birds in December to send out to all the wonderful people who have supported The Ellentree.

W&W: How much money do you hope to make, and what will it be used for?

Rosie: The target for The Ellentree on Kickstarer is £10,000, which seems like a lot of money until you imagine that it could come from pledges of £10 or £20 from hundreds of people. Most of the money will go to printing and binding it as professionally and beautifully as possible through Ditto Press. The small amount left will be used for distribution, from artists’ book fairs to bookshops and collections around the globe.

W&W: Artists’ books pay attention to the book as a physical object, as well as the story contained inside. Do you see the recent rise of artists’ books as a counter to ebooks?

Rosie: I have attended a number of conferences over the last few years that have dedicated a lot of time to questioning the rise of the artists’ book. Why now? What’s happening? What is the future of the book going? Is the artists’ book an answer to the death knell sounded by the ebook?

I think there is probably some truth to artists’ books being a counter to ebooks. We enjoy the handmade, unique quality of artists’ books just as we enjoy craft fairs and independent shops. However I also believe that something more complicated is going on. There are book artists’ working with the ebook as an extension to the book form. There are also publishers, mainstream and independent, producing beautiful paper books, such as Visual Editions' The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and Jonathan Safran Foers' Tree of Codes. I believe the ebook has the potential to become simply a different way of making a book, with its own intrinsic narrative qualities, rather than a replacement for the book as we know it today. In doing so it might also free (or force) the paper book to try something new. If as a result of this process people gain a rekindled love affair for beautifully produced books then I, as a book artist and indie publisher, will obviously be thrilled.
Rosie Sherwood

W&W: What can people expect from The Ellentree once it’s published? Tell us about your dream object.

Rosie: My dream object. That’s an excellent question. My dream object is a book that feels nice to hold. A book where the images and colours stop you in your tracks. A book that people enjoy reading, and want to keep on their shelves when they are done.

I also really want to make the edges of the pages colourful.

W&W: Sounds beautiful. Good luck.

To watch Rosie’s Kickstarter video and donate, follow this link:

Rosie Sherwood is a multidisciplinary artist, independent publisher and scholar with an MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Art. She is a visiting lecturer, has been published in the Arts Library Journal, and recently had her first solo exhibition at the bookartbookshop. Her work is collected by Tate Library and Archive, Chelsea College of Art and Design, The Poetry Library and The National Gallery of Scotland.

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