I interviewed artist Su Blackwell, who creates her delicate, intricate dreamscapes out of paper.
Su says of her artwork, “I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore. I began making a series of book-sculptures, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes… For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder.”
Su has designed art fabric for Liberty London, and illustrations for Intelligent Life Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar UK. In 2011, Su appeared on Radio 2’s Art Show with Claudia Winkleman to talk about her set for The Rose Theatre’s production of The Snow Queen. Her illustrated book of fairy tales The Fairytale Princess was re-released in 2015.
Leslie: Can you explain, please, how you use books as physical and mental raw materials for your artworks.
Su: I carve into the books, they are the material I choose to make my art, but the stories they contain, also inspire the work. I cut out specific words, or phrases, creating a deeper meaning in the work, if you’re prepared to search for them.
Leslie: How do you find the books you use, please? From the point of discovery onwards, how do the books shape your imaginative journey?
Su: I am donated books by libraries, second hand book shops, schools, and am often emailed by someone who is having a clear out. They are looking for a new home for their books, and don’t like the idea of simply throwing them out or recycling them. This is sometimes how I find the books I work with, or for specific books I am in search of, I find them in second hand bookshops or online, on ebay for example.
I always read the books, and they inspire the work. The sculptures are literally and metaphorically made out of the books.
Leslie: Can you describe how your interests in children’s stories and fairy tales has developed in your life, and the importance of these stories for adults?
Su: The stories have always been with me, ever since I was read to as a young child, but I’ve not always been conscious of them. However, I may read something in one of the fairy tales as an adult, which stirs a memory, and I have a recollection, and think, ‘yes, that has been there all along! It’s been inspiring my art work, without me really understanding that’s where the inspiration came from.’
Leslie: How is your own childhood and upbringing inscribed into your work?
Su: It is in everything. I had such a free and wild childhood, despite growing up in an industrial city. Thanks to the green spaces in my home town, I was able to spend a majority of my childhood outside, playing in nearby woodland. I feel lucky to have had that childhood, however, at the time, I did feel like I was doing it to escape from my home-life.
Leslie: Your work draws on fairy tales with delicate but strong female characters. How does human vulnerability shape your work?
Su: The reason I work with paper, a fragile material, is to comment on the fragility of humans, our dreams and aspirations.
Leslie: Can you describe your latest crowd-funded project, Into the Dark Woods, and its interactive qualities, please.
Su: It’s a book of fairy tales, lavishly illustrated with photographs of my artwork. The interactive part will be in a separate booklet , containing templates and instructions showing you how to make some of the paper objects, which feature in the stories. For example, in the story of The Red Shoes, the object you make is a small shoe.
Leslie: Could you comment on something you mention writing about Into the Dark Woods: ‘The move from flat two-dimensional worlds to take on a three-dimensional quality’.
Su: I think I was making reference to the process of simply reading the book, and looking at the pictures, to actually making the objects in those pictures come alive in 3D. When you make them, they become real objects.
Next week I Interview Raine Geoghegan about how her Romany roots have opened up a new world of film and poetry for her.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
- Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.