One rainy Winter Thursday in Queanbeyan, the mayor opened a specially prepared book and the new local library was officially opened. Sandwiched between stacks, I peeked out on the invited guests including Aboriginal elders, engineers, artists, poets, bureaucrats, librarians and significant locals. All of us had assembled to celebrate the birth of the new public library, which was fondly coined the ‘living room of Queanbeyan’.
As the speeches progressed in a cadence of references to stories, children, education and communal gatherings, my eyes fell on shelved titles that I would like to browse on a separate occasion (‘The Encyclopedia of Symbols’; ‘Ancient Chinese Embroidery’; ‘Sacred and Profane’…).
It was clear from the community’s response to the opening that all of us had gained immeasurably from library membership- ranging from casual browsing to concerted study. Whilst comparatively humble in its aspect and offerings, this local library nevertheless presents a set of ‘information keys’. They silently but surely jangle with the prospect of linking with the world- unlocking time and cultures and questions. Right then, between the stacks, rain falling outside, speeches unfolding; my utter freedom of enquiry again struck me as an enormous privilege…
For the public library artworks, local artists were invited to interpret the theme ‘the word and its many expressions’. For several months prior, I had been playing with the mid 18th century European concept of miniature theatrical sets. I had been taken with the interwoven simplicity and imagination in these sets. Mostly for the children’s amusement, I had been mocking up family holiday scenes and pop up gift cards. When I learned of the commission opportunity I decided to tell the story of the development of the written word in a series of large-scale polymer clay panels (my preferred medium).
My work began with research into the origin of words, in particular, which cultures had made significant contributions to the development of written words; in what form; and what was an identifiable artistic style of the relevant time. To convey my concept to the judging panel, I mocked up a large cardboard model. This embodied all my design decisions about colours, placement, order and content. This initial work consumed at least 60 hours over about 3 weeks. Fortunately I was able to draw on some of my background in archaeology and even some of the research behind early collections of my polymer clay accessories.
I delivered my tunnel book model to the library in a big blue cloth bag- both emblazoned with my name and telephone number in bold black indelible ink. To my amusement, (when the time came to collect my model and begin work), the librarians handed over the bag with relief. They had been tripping over it and declared ‘we had no idea who to contact in order to return this’! So much for the word if it is never read!
My series of tunnel book panels begins with an artistic impression of the latest bamboo-covered e-reader and culminates with humanity’s beginning: a kindled hearth and the earliest known prehistoric cave paintings (from Chauvet in France). As if the viewer is researching the origin of words, the remaining pages traverse time and space, featuring writing and artwork inspired by:
- Persia: Achaemenid / Old Persian script (525BC)
- China: Oracle Bone script (1200BC)
- Aegean/ Greece: Minoan Linear A script (1700BC)
- Egypt: hieroglyphs (2700BC)
- Sumeria: cuneiform (2900BC)
Each polymer clay panel (with acrylic, metal leaf, alcohol ink, metal beads) has been textured, shaped and oven-cured before assembly. I used a variety of techniques, including caning, carving, sculpting and painting. I made each panel in pieces, regretting always that my baking was restricted by my oven size. Panels measure A3 but the oven could accommodate marginally more than A4. Concealing joins occupied a good proportion of my assembly time, as did fiddling with an assortment of uncured shapes (to maximize baking cycles).
Making and baking, including sealing/ varnishing occupied around 60 hours. Working late into the night- often up to 2am in order to meet the deadline, I was ever grateful that I had prepared such a detailed model. I needed only to scale up the design by 20%. I departed only once from my original design and this occurred in the Egyptian panel. About two inches from the base of the panel, I had designed a carved strip bearing agricultural scenes (rows of ducks, oxen and their attendants, threshing wheat etc). I ultimately omitted this strip because I felt the detail in it would be lost against the metal leaf and alcohol inks in the Egyptian panel and the sea of the Minoan panel.
I fixed polymer clay panels to each other with cyanoacrylate glue and panels to their frames with two-part epoxy resin. In order to strengthen finer polymer clay pieces and guard against slumping over time, I cut a fine latticework of MDF pieces and glued them to the mainframe behind the more fragile polymer clay pieces. Since I could not rush the drying time of the glue, assembly was a cyclical process taking several nights per panel. I used an antique gold furniture wax to buff the edges of the frames- to suggest the gold gilt edges of antique books. Assembly occupied around 20 hours.
Someone might be interested to know how I feel about the finished work. I regard it as a successful execution of my concept and quite unique- it is the only polymer clay tunnel book I have ever seen in Australia or overseas. The scale of the work also exceeds the regular scale of polymer clay works, including my own, so I feel I have met a private challenge. I am most delighted with my execution of the Sumerian king- carving him required reverse engineering of the original artisan’s handiwork. What a thrill to tie my hand an eye to the work of a once attentive hand and eye from once upon a time…