What is The Ellentree and where did it come from?
As with all art it started with that most fragile of things: an idea.
I have come to the realization that there are ideas or pieces of work in the life of an artist that catch and hold tight, driving you hard and not letting go until they are complete. These pieces of work make you as much as you make them, and they leave you changed forever. These pieces never let you go completely, you could probably keep working on them forever but if there is a moment when a state of finished-ness is reached the sense of intense release and joy is incomparable. I use the word release carefully, for that is what I feel, not relief but release; as though long ago I had taken a deep breath and I have finally let it out.
But when did I take that deep breath?
When was the idea born?
In the summer before my art foundation I was bored at my grandparents and made a handful of white origami birds and hung them in the apple tree to photograph. The birds stayed with me, growing and changing in context and meaning during BA. Then in the summer before my final year I read a book about Neil Gaiman and came across the concept of the 24-hour comic. The 24-hour comic is a challenge in which you write, pencil and ink a 24-page comic book in 24 continuous hours. I failed at my attempt but the story of The Ellentree came into being. It took a lot of editing from then to now, a lot of photographs, and more than a lot of birds. The idea kept pushing and pushing, unwilling to let go or be put aside until, after years the only thing left to do was be brave enough to launch it into the world.
But how to be that brave with a project you have been working on for a decade? How do you make a choice that it is as finished as it is ever going to be, that the time has come, that it is time to breath out and release?
During the making of The Ellentree I have stood on beaches, in fields of flowers, on Dartmoor and in forests among my bright origami birds and wondered if the book could do justice to what I was seeing. It was when I realised that the birds themselves formed part of the overall project that I knew it was finished. It was when I realised that no element of the book from the text to the tree itself need be bound solely to the pages of the book that I was finally ready.
Being a book artist does not limit you to the codex, the page and its boundaries, rather it offers you a vehicle with which to speak. The book can be held, it is private, intimate and tactile, offering a physical connection between you the artist and you the reader. This connection is part of what makes the book special, and part of what makes the form both so challenging and so satisfying to work with. However some projects demand both this intimacy and something louder. For the book need not stay between its covers, it can be as limitless as your imagination. It can be pages bound together with rainbow thread, but it can also be part of something larger, part of photographs on a gallery wall or a sculpted tree and hundreds upon hundreds of origami birds. Striking this balance, crafting the space between the pages and the tree itself is when I knew the project reached a state of finished-ness.
But knowing something is finished is one thing... But how do you release something that has meant so much to you for long, something that holds so much of yourself inside it, something so intensely personal, something that for so long has been so private?
The way I believe art works there is a moment before release when the artist makes a choice to let go. Every piece of art will mean something different to those who encounter it. They might understand and even be inspired by the artists’ ideas but they will always have their own interpretations. So that you as the artist can find joy in this rather than suffer through it, one must be willing to let go, to release your work into the wild and hope it finds an audience that connect to it for their own reasons. When the piece of work has driven you as hard as The Ellentree has driven me, when it is part of the fabric of your being, when making it saved you and working on it over a period of years has brought you untold moments of private joy how do you share it, how do you take that deep breath and let go?
I make art because I want to, and I make art because I have to, it is who I am and I would do it even without an audience. But I also make art for others, for an audience, for that moment when someone, anyone, whoever and wherever they might be finds something they need or something they love in what I have made, whether I know it happens or otherwise.
There is no place in the world I would rather have launched this book than Turn the Page. It is an artists’ book fair of particular peace and beauty, in a city that seems to really understand the benefit and beauty in art and literature. Seeing the book out and the tree up was a surreal and magical moment I will never forget. Talking to people, reading my work and looking into the eyes of strangers, watching people encounter the sculpture or carefully pour over the pages of the book made taking the plunge and releasing it not only worth while but meaningful in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I do not make work for others, but I have to admit that knowing it means something to my fellow human beings brings new life into a piece of work that means everything to me. Breathing out was worth it. Now it is time to breath in again and see where the next step in the journey of The Ellentree takes me, because despite being finished it isn’t over.