Book Art

Alan Spence muses on working with a trio of well-known Scottish artists—Alison Watt, Andy Goldsworthy and Calum Colvin 

Judging a book by its cover may still be a dodgy business, but in the case of my three most recent poetry collections, published by Canongate over the last five years, I hope you can do just that. In each case, I was able to choose the images on the book jackets (as well as the size, format and layout of the books) and was able to work with three of Scotland’s finest artists—Andy Goldsworthy (well, he’s Scottish by formation, to borrow Muriel Spark’s wonderful term!), Calum Colvin and Alison Watt. 

The first of the three books, Seasons of the Heart, (published in 2000) is a collection of 150 haiku, little glimpses into ‘the life of things’. They celebrate a clear-eyed seeing, an awakening to the very life we are living, the passing of time, the cycle of the seasons. The title for the book and the artist whose work I wanted to use came more or less simultaneously. I had long been an admirer of Goldsworthy’s work, his use of natural objects and forms, his working with nature and in nature; most of all his sense of transience, the changes wrought by time and weather—seen most dramatically in his sculptures of ice and snow which exist for a time and melt away. 

The work reflects a sensibility which has affinities with Zen. (It’s no surprise he’s ‘big in Japan’!) And his captions to the photographed works (when the work is a process, the photograph may be the only record of its existence) are often pared down, compact, read like haiku in their exactness, the precision of the observation. The image I used on the front cover of the book he describes as follows: 

Red maple leaves,
held with water,

And the piece is located in Ouchiyama River, Japan. The other images on the jacket flaps show similar constructs of leaves-on-rock, held by water, each from a different season. 

In addition to using Andy’s work on the book covers, I wanted to use it in performance, project a whole series of his images as backdrop while reading the poems. I went to visit Andy at his home and studio in Dumfriesshire, and he kindly let me look through his entire library of slides and choose almost 100 reflecting the turning of the seasons. It was a delight to see him at work—he seemed unassuming and down-to-earth—and to take snapshots of a work-inprogress, an arrangement of feathers that would have blown away the next day.

 I wanted one more element in the performance—live music. (I came of age in the 1960s, the time of happenings, and through the 1980s regularly read Performance magazine, intrigued by works that crossed boundaries, collaborations that married different disciplines). For this particular event, I found, with the help of the Japanese Consulate, the perfect music—shakuhachi flute, played by a contemporary master, Yoshikazu Iwamoto, who lived in York. The performance itself was a one-off at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, where it drew an audience of 200 into a shared, still space. 

The next of my books to appear was Glasgow Zen (2003). I’d taken material from a small book of the same name which I’d published in 1981 (in a fairly limited edition from the Glasgow Print Studio, part of a series featuring work by Jim Kelman, Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray and others). In the mid-1980s I’d used some of that material in a performance piece—influenced by Laurie Anderson’s United States, though in a very Scottish, low-tech, ‘haund-knittit’ sort of way—with slides by Mary Walters and music by Jimmy Anderson. This was performed at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and at the Tron and the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.  

The new Glasgow Zen, 2003 vintage, featured much new material and was a lucky-bag of Glasgow haiku, visual and concrete poems, verbatim or ‘found’ pieces. If this was Zen it was urban, demotic, and the book needed something altogether different for the cover images.

 As it happened, I’d recently met Calum Colvin. He’d been commissioned to paint me as part of a group portrait of Glasgow writers, ‘The Kelvingrove 8’, for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and again I was hugely impressed by his work—multi-layered, defying classification, itself crossing the boundaries between painting, sculpture and photography. I saw how ‘The Kelvingrove 8’ took shape in his studio, the painstaking work that went into it, the building of a three-dimensional set, the projection and painting of his portraits of eight writers onto that set, the final trompe l’oeil—seeing it all make sense from one single point of view, the eye of the camera photographing the whole thing. 

I was also taken with the number of things incorporated, a clutter of everyday objects, kitsch and touching, endlessly resonant as cyphers of a time and place, a culture. An afternoon out with Calum involved an expedition to Sam Burns’s salvage yard in East Lothian in search of such objects this particular quest yielded a 1970s table-lamp which found its way into the ‘Twa Dogs of his Ossian’ sequence (a work featuring much Glasgow football iconography in the background. There’s a shared love of the found here—shared also with Andy Goldsworthy.

 Back in his studio, Calum showed me some of his early photographs—black and white images, odd quirky urban moments, caught, rendered poignant or funny or surreal, and I knew these were just right for the covers of Glasgow Zen. The front cover image is of four garage doors, in front of a tenement shell, with ‘L O V E’ graffitied across the doors. The other images show two jackets hanging on a washing line, foreground tombstones echoing the shapes of high-rise blocks in the distance, and a figure carrying a large sheet of board obscuring everything but the legs. 

Detached, wry, witty, the photos complement the poetry, set up an expectation for what’s in the book, reflect the writing in some strange, tangential way that works perfectly. (Again there was a performance element to the project—I read the poems accompanied by projections of Calum’s work, with music by Dick Lee, at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen). 

By the time of the third book—Clear Light (just published, 2005)—I’d already worked on a project with Alison Watt. I’d written text for a book produced by the Ingleby Gallery to accompany her beautiful painting ‘Still’—effectively an altarpiece for Old St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh. I loved the spareness, the minimalist clarity of her work, its sense of space and light. Fastidious in its precision, it renders the surface of things to perfection, while drawing you in beyond that to another dimension, pure spirit. 

Once more we made a performance—me reading in front of the painting on a cold candlelit winter night, with more soaring music from Dick Lee. It gave new meaning to the notion of sacred space. 

Later I asked Alison if I could use more of her ‘white’ images for the cover of Clear Light, and she was delighted to agree. And the two images we used—the single fold of ‘Tuck’ on the front cover, the subtle gathering of ‘Arc’ on the back—in themselves create a meditative state of mind, a receptivity, an openness to the poems inside.

And it’s that quality of consciousness, a unique way of seeing, that I find in all three of these hugely talented artists. They’ve made these little books things of beauty in themselves, almost like artists’ books. I’m grateful to all of them. 

Alan Spence is a novelist and poet, professor in creative writing at the University of Aberdeen where he is artistic director of the annual WORD Festival. His book, The Pure Land, a novel, will be published by Canongate late in 2006