A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The City Libraries in Edinburgh have been putting on some great events recently: talks with well-known authors in the main Central library, interactive chatty events in libraries all over the city with enthusiastic participation from audiences. It’s been heartening to see the library triumphantly reaffirming its place in literary life of the city and as a central part of local communities – particularly in these worrying times.
So, when I was asked if I might be interested in taking a look at the Fox Gospel exhibition – a collaboration between artist Tessa Asquith-Lamb and writer Rafael Torrubia – I was delighted. Not only that, but it fitted in neatly with this month which, it turns out, is Vulpes Libris’ third birthday. Yes, we are three years old! Who would have thought that the motley crew that gathered together back in the day would still be finding things to talk about over 1000 posts later? But here we still are…
So, on to Fox Gospel.
It is rather lovely to enter a library – in this case the Fine Art Library on George IV bridge in Edinburgh – and find it full of images occupying every nook and cranny of this nook and crannyish space. This is a small humble exhibition comprising poetry, drawings and illustrations inspired by fairytales and folklore from around the world – from places as farflung from each other as Iceland, Spain and Siberia.
The medium of the illustrations change according to country and legend – with a dark charcoal drawing to accompany the piece, Spartan, pencil and ink to show us a contemporary school story Danny (who loves Zorro – Spanish legend), collage and coloured paper to represent Tiriganniaq and paper cut for pieces like Lisitsa. Beside these illustrations, stories and poems are displayed.
Now, here, I must admit to my own tastes and prejudices. I am not overly keen on very long rhyming narrative poems (judging by a few of her entries on here, Moira might be the better reader for that). Many of the poems were both rhyming and very very long. Or long prose poems. I imagine that these poems might have been influenced by forms and styles of the past. I was somewhat frustrated that there was no information here about the context or background to these – nothing to let the uninitiated into the secret.
There are also short stories, sometimes many pages long, clipped to the wall. As an exhibition, this is a tough ask of a viewer. What someone might manage in their own home is less likely in a public space with limited time to spare. Perhaps, with more information – more of an inroad into the influences – this would have been easier to navigate and negotiate. I hope some of the library users and browsers will enjoy picking these up and having a read. As it is, with a limited timeslot to see an exhibition, I have to admit I did not (could not) read through all the short stories on offer or do the writing in this exhibition any kind of justice, although I should mention my enjoyment of the contemporary story “Danny” about a boy who loves Zorro.
In general, I found myself yearning for more space on the page…Less words. Less verses. I particularly liked Lisitsa and Refrskald – the latter being nicely evocative, meaningful and with an earthy imagery. But also digestible in an exhibition context.
Tessa Asquith-Lamb is a very skilled etcher as you can see here. In this exhibition she experiments with a number of techniques and styles other than etching: pencil, collage, ink and watercolour.
Most successful and interesting in the eyes of this viewer, were the coloured papercuts –designy and with the impact necessary for a wall-mounted exhibition. There were other pieces I really loved: Spartan (above) – a tiny charcoal piece- had an intriguing dark power to it and Tiriganniaq (at the bottom of this post) was impactful and interesting in its use of materials.
It was nice to see pieces where text and image really came together. Perhaps, one of the most successful pieces as a collaboration – again – was Refrskald, based on an Icelandic myth and I can reproduce that here. Although, I still have a quibble about the type. I would have loved to see something where the words looked as artistic and were incorporated somehow into the image – to become a truly organic piece of art.
And this is what I yearned for in the exhibition as a whole.
I really wished, if Fox Gospel was conceived as a book, to see it as a book. Not a posh published affair, but a wild creative Blakean book. A one-off artistic book. Why, I wondered, had the two creators not made the book themselves? The words and images merging into an organic whole?
At the end of the day, it seemed to me that there was a lot of creativity and inspiration going on in this exhibition – like the pages of a sketchbook: full of possibility. But I didn’t quite get a sense of overall meaning or an overarching vision. Similarly, the two creators here have played with numerous ideas and styles, but in putting their theme through every possible permutation, there is a danger that the exhibition becomes more scattered than unified.
Perhaps, at some point in the process, intriguing though they are, both artists need to push past their influences in order for the real voice of Fox Gospel to sing out boldy and with meaning.
INTERVIEW WITH RAFAEL TORRUBIA AND TESSA ASQUITH-LAMB
Intrigued by the background and the myths behind this project, I asked its (very delightful) creators a few questions. They kindly answered them at extremely short notice and talk very inspiringly about creativity, inspiration and influence.
I wondered if you had any more background on the project in terms of the different myths from different countries. What was the starting point? Do you have any further information about the different myths and their meanings?
Rafael: We started investigating the different iterations of fox myths from different countries after the first piece ‘Refrskald’ which means ‘Fox Song’ in Old Norse. I originally began looking not at myths and folklore, but at the different names for the fox in various languages – the way they sound, and the rhythms they offered for a piece. (Tiriganniaq is a particularly interesting example of this, as it’s the English translation of an Inuktituk word which uses a different set of characters to our own, which I used to frame the piece.)
From looking at the various names for the Fox, I got into researching the etymology of various words and phrases – such as ‘foxing’, to describe the coppery-brown stains you get on aged paper, or ‘fox wedding’ which is an old English saying to describe rainfall on a sunny day.
There’s a fairly substantial amount of myth and folklore behind most of the pieces, although it’s usually a seed of inspiration which I then try to develop into something new. I’ll give you a few examples based on the illustrations you asked for, and if you need any more let me know.
Lisitsa ‘Little Fox’ is a recasting of a traditional Ukrainian folktale called Sister Fox, paired with a narration of the interminable struggle for the Ukraine during the Polish-Cossack-Tatar War (1666-1671) and the subsequent protracted aggression by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. It’s done in a style similar to that of Mikhail Lomonosov, who wrote an epic poem about the capture of Khotyn (1793), a Turkish citadel in the Ukraine.
Spartan is based on an Ancient Greek legend retold by Plutarch (line 35) about a Spartan boy who steals a fox, as part of his initiation into manhood. On returning to the village, he is discovered by his tutors and conceals the fox beneath his cloak to avoid discovery and dishonour. The fox panics, and begins to claw and bite at the boy’s stomach. However, he remains unyielding until the fox chews through his innards and he falls dead, whereupon his tutors hail his fortitude as the epitome of Spartan courage. Cheery stuff. I thought writing a literal translation of this would be a bit gothic and grim, so in ‘Spartan’ the fox is a metaphor for the anticipation and fear a young Spartan might feel on his first foray into enemy territory.
The Spartan story came to us by way of Tess’s discovery, but I’ll let her tell you about that.
Tessa: I was staying in a hotel in Dublin that had a painting in the bar of a very worried looking boy wrapped up in a cloak with a fox’s head poking out of the cloak, its muzzle caked in blood. I asked the girl behind the bar what it was about and she succinctly summed up the story as this: ‘Boy steals fox. Fox bites Boy. Boy dies’! When I got back I couldn’t wait to tell Raf about it and find out what on earth the story was really about. When I was working on the illustration for this piece it was really difficult to get the painting out of my head, but I am pleased with the mood of balance in the finished piece, in which man and fox face each other in an uneasy embrace surrounded by flowers and stones.
Rafael: Greek legend has proven fertile soil: the giant Teumessian fox resurfaces in another one of our stories ‘Big Red’ – which recasts the legend as a 1970s cop movie.
Refrskald (‘Fox Song’ in Old Norse) has its origins in the Scandinavian tradition of the skald and the long centuries of raids on isolated island and coastal monasteries during the Viking Age. Aesthetically, it was inspired by the Monymusk Reliquary and Will Maclean painting of Bard Macintyre’s Box, but as with most of the pieces, the inspiration and the history merge until something new emerges. There is a live video reading of Refrskald on our Youtube channel, which explains a little more of the history.
Tiriganniaq is based on Inuit myth, and proto-Inuit myth, particularly some of the concepts explored by Hugh Brody in his book The Other Side of Eden. It’s primarily created from whole cloth though. Love at the end of the world. You can’t beat it.
How did the project come about – which came first the words or the drawings?
Rafael: Generally, I write something and then Tessa illustrates it. Very occasionally, Tess will give me an illustration, which then becomes a piece, which then gets re-illustrated with something new, as with “Paper Tree”, which is based on Georgia plantation folktales about fox spirits which would come to throng the graves of the dead.
Tessa: Yes, usually I respond to Raf’s poems and stories, except in the case of “Paper Tree”. This story came about after I showed Raf my etching ‘Let Me Show You’ which has a tree with papers held between its branches. The etching was about how I felt about the poem Raf had written about my work, and in the image I am showing it to my fox, hence the title. I have been giving Raf copies of all my etchings I have produced since we started working together, as echoes of our collaboration can be seen in my other work, and I felt it was important that he should see how the collaboration was having such a positive effect on my work. Raf used the etching as a starting point for a wonderful short story, which I then illustrated in an entirely different way from the original etching, this time in soft coloured pencil, with a ring of shadowy foxes surrounding a sleeping girl.
You are talking about it as a book rather than an exhibition – does it exist as a book right now or is it something you hope will be a book someday?
Rafael: We are currently finishing up a PDF copy of the book, although we are very much on the look out for any publishers interested in producing a print copy. We’re also hoping to tour the exhibition more, with a forthcoming exhibition at the English Speaking Union, as well as coffee shop readings and Youtube broadcasts. There are a number of new pieces not present in the current exhibition which we hope to add to forthcoming events.
How did your collaboration begin – how did you know each other and what was it that made you think of working together?
We began working together as a result of the Words on Canvas group at the National Gallery of Scotland, which I attend regularly. Tessa presented some of her prints for us, which I wrote a piece in response to, entitled “Fox Gospel”. Tess really liked it, so I then decided to stick my neck out and see if she fancied working on something. Then nine months of our lives vanished in a blur of writing and illustrating and strong tea.
Tessa: That day last November was really extraordinary. I sat in a room and heard someone read a poem about my etchings which so perfectly captured their mood and my own sense of narrative that I was just amazed. I couldn’t believe someone could understand my work and translate its message into words after having only seen it once. I read and re-read the poem so many times and took a lot of strength and encouragement from it. I was delighted when Raf suggested we try working together, and the whole experience has really changed everything for me. The fox is a symbolic animal in my etchings, who represents my creativity, and I have loved watching him spread through Raf’s writing and my new illustrations.
There is a lot of different media used in the illustrations – I gather that sometimes this reflects on the different countries and myths being used but not always – can you tell me anything more about this?
Rafael: I’ll let Tess take this one…
Tessa: One of the most amazing things to come out of this collaboration has been that it has encouraged me to experiment with lots of new ways of working and all sorts of materials. I have been concentrating on etching for many years supported by sketchbook work, and it was wonderful to create new ‘finished’ artworks in new materials again, like papercuts, watercolour, coloured pencil, ink and collage. It reminded me of the freedom you feel at art college when anything seems possible. After Raf has read me a poem I sometimes see a very clear image of what I want to illustrate, and other times re-read the piece many times before I finally decide what will work best. I get very obsessive about accuracy and do lots of sketches and research to make sure things feel authentic and fit time periods and the artistic traditions of each culture involved in the piece. Examples of this would be the paper cut I made for ‘Lisitsa’ which is based on Ukrainian paper cutting techniques, where the paper is cut on the fold. Although in my example I could only do this for part of the image, as I wanted the two sides to be very different and ‘answer’ each other in their moods of love and war, as the poem can be read in this way too. The illustration I made for “Tiriganniaq” is based on felted blankets made by Inuit artists, but in this example translated into a collage overlaid with coloured pencil. I try to incorporate as many elements from Raf’s poems as possible, without making the finished image look too laboured and cramped. Above all I want the artwork to ‘reveal’ itself as you read the stories and poems, until by the end of reading a piece you feel that the picture and the text have become one experience.
Lastly – why foxes and what is it that you wish people to take away from this experience?
Rafael: The fox is Tessa’s beast, although I’ve grown to think quite fondly of it. What I’d like people to take away is a sense of the beauty and richness of our shared myths, a little thrill of these sinister, delightful, dark and dreaming stories that they can store in their skulls and think about on the bus to work, or riding the last train home.
People will likely take what they need from these new myths though. That’s kind of what they’re designed for. If it encourages other artists and writers to work together, that would be fantastic. If it entices people to follow what we’re up to, even better. We always need more good souls to spread the Gospel.
The Fox Gospel Exhibition is showing at the Fine Art Library in the Edinburgh Central Library from 4th-29th Oct.
All images are copyright of Tess Asquith-Lamb