Edward Summerton: Birds of the Devil
Is it a bird? Is it a book? Colin Martin, aka the Lonely Piper, takes flight with fellow Dundee-based artist, Edward Summerton, on the subject of both. Inspired by Ladybird illustration, Summerton's book of feathered friends invites nostalgia, mild terror and connections with flu and civilisation. Read on...
Eighteen altered images and 18 writers with Goose feathers in hand and ink in well. A Strict Nature Reserve Publication, the Brainchild of one Edward Summerton, the progenitor of this project, to be published in an edition of 500 individually numbered tomes, slightly smaller than A5 in size.
The initial idea for this project was hatched during a holiday and Genealogical investigation to the Summer Isles off the North West of Scotland in the year of 2004, researching the quasi-mystical pagan roots of the Summerton family name. I should mention that the Summer Isles are the most Westerly point of Summerton’s artistic realm, ‘The Strict Nature Reserve’ where not so strict rules have to be adhered to. Nature’s laws run amok.
The now infamous holiday residence was without electricity, and thus no televisual distraction was on offer—Summerton’s untethered imagination reigned free. Fatefully there were a limited selection of books on a shelf, and one of these books; a forlorn looking dog-eared Ladybird book of birds (illustrated by the legendary John Leigh-Pemberton) triggered something quite unexpected in Summerton. Before he knew it, a red mist of creative urge descended, the book was plucked from it’s perch and an act of petty vandalism committed, in which bird illustrations were covertly extricated under the hardback cover of darkness to be seamlessly altered with gouache and a fine sable. These were then stamped and sent as postcards-cum-cryptic mail-art to Kirriemuir based Poet, Writer and Musician Don Paterson, Tranent based Artist and Ex-Fall Guitarist Tommy Crooks, and to the sunnier climes of the South of France to Sandy Guy. All suspecting fowl play by Summerton they immediately contacted the relevant authorities.
Henceforth the idea for Bird Of The Devil was slowly hewn, this germ quickly mutating to reach pandemic proportions. The bird flew!
Through the music of chance, Summerton being befuddled by forgetting his PIN in front of an outdoor fruitmachine, met and subsequently acquired the formidable writing skills of the folk music legend Michael Marra. Thereafter the project snowballed gaining rapid momentum through word of mouth and song from beak, between artists and writers alike. James Robertson still fresh from a writer's residence at the Scottish Parliament of Rooks was a very logical addition to this unique adventure.
Summerton was attracted to the gorgeous melancholy of the gouache images, ‘a kind of precious European Disney’ and with a dream-like quality something akin to the matte-painted panoramic backdrops found on Hollywood soundstages of old.
Generationally dependent, one look and you are transported to the halcyon days of childhood, nurturing in many a love of birds and a future life artistically driven and played out to a constant background soundtrack of birdsong.
The book shares it name with the solo show which ran for a healthy and elevating three month period between April and June 2006 at the En Tangsogade 4 Udstilling Art Centre in Bovlingbjerg, Denmark, (a Protestant stronghold). The hammer horror ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (UK title) aka ‘The Devil’s Bride’ (US title) starring the legendary Christopher Lee, was the original inspiration.
The volume evokes an off-kilter hallucinogenically-flavoured world populated by Curtain Twitchers and Pornithologists, poised with binoculars and the patience of tainted saints cloaked in camouflaged hide. It is uhealthily interested in the mating behaviour and courtship displays of many of our feathered cocks and femmes, a wholly encouraged and legal perversion, promoted foremost by everyone’s favourite birdwatcher Bill Oddie of ‘Bed-Springwatch’. Twin this with tangential flights of thought from 18 willing collaborators, a quill of writers if you like, converging through the written word and we have a very interesting project indeed.
The accompanying CD of reversed birdsong which comes as complimentary with every copy of the book, portrays a kind of berserk nature gone backwards, and alludes to the subliminal backmasking first popularised by John Lennon on the Beatles track ‘Rain’ in the late sixties, and was then embraced pseudo-satanically by various incarnations of Heavy Metal that Summerton listened to during his headbanging college days in Dundee. Starlings, the open-ended learners of British Bird Life may be heard to utter in a Twin Peaksian midget drawl ‘Paul’s No Deid, Paul’s No Deid, He’s Getting Divorced, He’s Getting Divorced’.
An idea born of creative vandalism that'll surely rescue creative types on an Eider-Downer and cheer them with a surreally tinged jolt to their senses. Unnatural history at it’s most intriguing.
Through a red-necked phalarope trick, our collective perceptions are altered; birds known to science become, through Summerton’s adept brushwork, something other, something sinister. The world printed on paper becomes populated by unknown cryptid avians, such as the pair of swans featured on the book’s cover. Male or female, mute or whooper we shall never know, as they have been transformed through the negation of heads and the joining of necks into an entirely new and curious creature. The body of the swan behind the swan in the foreground becomes an eyeless, legless head, looking not unlike a feathered flower bud just away to burst into a Thing-like alien avian bloom with stamens of innards and rib-cage, a possible jarring juxtaposition of red against the virginal white of petal plumage. A vision seen perchance through the eyes of John Carpenter in his heyday, as he stood reading an unusual bird book in a ‘Little Bookshop Of Horrors’, filed under birds and devils.
For the ‘Bird’s’ release in September at Dundee Contemporary Arts, the streets of Scotland will be resplendently hung with oodles of Snow Bunting in a gesture of celebration, weather permitting of course.
Colin R Martin is an artist who styles himself the Lonely Piper