So for my “summer holiday” I decided to take a week off to do something completely different. I have always been a fan of making physical things and I saw an opportunity to work with artist Hilary Powell as a pop-up book apprentice for a week. I threw in an application and didn’t think much of it especially as part of covering letter read:
What skills have I got?
Although I may not have formal arts training, I have been told I am good with
my hands. I am proficient with using scissors (NVQ level 3 equivalent) and
have had experience with a variety of glues (Pritt, super, UHU, epoxy).
To my surprise, I was invited for a group interview at Sugarhouse Studios. It was all the way in Stratford as the book is about the demolition and regeneration of East London presented in a A-Z pop-up book. When I arrived, there were three others and we entered the room. Heavily underprepared and underqualified, we were submitted to a barrage of mean and awkward interview questions such as “describe yourself in 3 words” and “name a time you worked in a team and had to overcome difficulties”. It was a cross between Blind Date and The Apprentice – “contestant number one please!”
Turns out there were 60 applicants interviewed and 10 places so I was pretty chuffed to find out a few days later I was selected. The plan was to make as many of the 170 books that was possible with a team of 10 apprentices which were trained for two days.
The first day we spent at the London Center of Book Arts where we learnt a variety of book making techniques. We got accustomed to the shoe knife as well as the bone folder (made of real cow shin bone!)
The second day of training we had the chance to work out and learn how to make the book itself. It took a whole day to work out how to make all 13 pop-ups and it was exhausting work. Book total: 1/170
The third day was our first proper day of making. As the actual factory/making was part of a performance we were introduced to our “uniforms”. Inspired by the images and scenes of Chinese Factory workers, our uniform were pink lab coats and hats. Luckily for me, I look great in baby pink, but my head was too large for a hat. The book making had teething problems but we all found our speciality and stuck with it (pun not intended). The studio was basically a tatty shed in East London (which is due to be knocked down in a few years time) and was freezing. One of the apprentices even had to go buy a jumper to avoid hyperthermia! By the end of day 3…. Book total: 4/170 …hmm
The 12 hour shifts were long. You’d think repetitive action like this was therapeutic and relaxing. It wasn’t! It was stressful to ensure that you were quick yet precise. I hadn’t worked with PVA glue since primary school and I had forgotten how awkward that stuff was. Day four we had got into the swing of things. Of course, as an ironic twist, it was incredibly hot and the studio became a green house. All those extra jumpers became a moot point and ice cream became the thought of the day. End of Day 4 Book total: 25/170.
It soon became clear that 170 was not going to be possible, but for the last day we got organised and all aimed to make another 26, bringing the total up to 51 (including the artist’s proof). The atmosphere was frenetic, as it was also OpenHouse there were lots of people coming in and talking to us about the project whilst glue brushes flew around the room. By 7.30pm the launch party started around us, but the team refused to slow down. We worked into the evening and by 10.30pm on Saturday we finished our 51st book. There was a buzz of ecstasy and relief as the final book was cased in. What a journey!
For me, the most special part of the whole project was the team. Medical physicists, writers, biochemists, geographers (me!), costume designers all came together to work as one machine. Surprisingly, the different backgrounds worked to our advantage and there were many interesting chats to be had. We survived floods, scorching weather, hail storms and leaking roofs. By the end, we felt as a team that we could take on the world!
The book was presented at the London Book Arts Fair last weekend and it won the Birgit Skiold Memorial Trust Prize. So chuffed for Hilary and the team. I will now put “award winning book maker” on my CV 🙂