• Emily

Art, Rocks and Forests

It’s been almost a year since The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow was published. It was published on 26th September 2019 and I remember it because that’s my older sister’s birthday. For a book about two sisters, that felt like a pretty lovely coincidence!


I wanted to write a series of blogs this month about the making of the book, but that hasn’t quite happened… So today I decided to write about my art background and how that’s shaped my writing. I started diving back into all the artists that influenced me whilst I was at Art School then I got overwhelmed and realised this could become a very long and very over-excited essay. So instead, here are a couple of pieces by a couple of artists that have stuck in my mind for years.


The first is by Ilana Halperin, a Glasgow-based artist. She works across a range of media including drawing, sculpture and photography and there is so much story-telling in her work, which explores geological intimacy and the relationships between people and the places they inhabit. One of the first works by her that I saw was called “Nomadic Landmass”, which began when she visited the Eldfell volcano in Iceland to celebrate their simultaneous appearance in 1973 and therefore their 30th birthday together. She writes that the project “followed a chain of events including field work in Mammoth Cave, the longest cave in the world; a conversation about a crystal shard with a geologist in Glasgow; an interview with an Arctic explorer in Lapland, who later went missing en-route to the North Pole and an inexplicable connection with a German baker who lived at the foot of Eldfell.”


Years ago, I volunteered on the Travelling Gallery, which is an art gallery on a bus that travels around schools and community centres. I was lucky enough to be volunteering during an exhibition by Ilana Halperin called “We Form Geology”. She filled the bus with gems and minerals found across Scotland which the children and I could touch and chat about and try to imagine the span of years they represented. One of the pieces she showed was about the intersections between stones created in the body and geology. The connection between the stones that form inside our bodies, like bladder and kidney stones, and those formed outside our bodies has really stayed with me; an interconnection of geology and time.


The last exhibition I saw before lockdown was by Katie Paterson at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. When I was beginning the planning for Book 2, I had a print-out of one of Katie Paterson’s pieces stuck above my desk, and it was exciting to see it in the exhibition. It’s called “Candle (From Earth into a Black Hole)” (2015) and it is a scented candle that burns down over 12 hours, creating a journey through space via scent. With the candle is a drawing describing each layer of scent, and it’s this that I’d printed out. I like how big the idea is, how huge the concept of travelling through space, and how everyday the descriptions of the scents are: Earth smells of forest; Moon smells of burnt almond cookie; Mars smells of an old penny; Outer Space smells of raspberries and rum.


On her website, it says that, “her work collapses the distance between the viewer and the most distant edges of time and the cosmos.” Her work is poetic, playful, romantic but also rooted in rigorous collaboration. She works with scientists, specialists and researchers and goes to extreme lengths to make subtle gestures like chiselling a grain of sand from the Sahara desert, or broadcasting live the sound of a melting glacier.


I’ve been thinking of one of her works - "Future Library" - a lot recently, as I’m currently writing about trees and time. This piece of work is unusual in that it won’t be completed in the artist’s lifetime; it is a living work. As I write this, a forest in Norway is growing that will be cut down in 2114. From the trees, 100 books will be printed. Over the next hundred years while the trees are growing, a different writer each year is invited to write a text that will be held in trust, unpublished until 2114 when it will be printed on the paper made from this same forest. Katie Paterson writes that: “Future Library has nature, the environment at its core – and involves ecology, the interconnectedness of all things, those living now and those still to come. It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.”


I find writing hard (though don’t we all). It is exhausting and frustrating. But when I write, I get to ask questions and make connections, I get to learn about connections that already exist, and to think bigger than a short burst of time.


Artworks like these expand my thinking. They make me think about our environment, the connections between people and place, the expanses of geological time and what it might feel like to hold a piece of meteorite in your hand. They wake me up and shake me up and inspire me to think deeper and question more. They challenge my imagination.


How about you? What challenges and inspires you? What would your artwork for the future be?


You can find our more about Ilana Halperin’s work here and Katie Paterson’s work here (with more info about Future Library here).