Book sculptor: Su Blackwell

Book sculptor: Su Blackwell

By Ruth Stokes 13/05/11

Su Blackwell, 35, is a British artist best known for constructing delicate sculptures from the pages of books. Her creations have appeared in high-fashion window displays, exhibitions around the UK and one was recently bought by Helena Bonham Carter. Her newest exhibition, Ghosts of Gone Birds, aims to highlight the rapid rate of bird extinction...

When did you start making art out of books and what gave you the idea?

It was just after I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2003, where I studied an MA in textiles. It was a really long journey. I was interested from early on in making artworks from everyday materials – experimenting with lots of different materials in sculpture, in jewellery, in textiles.

I was travelling in south-east Asia and further north in Laos and I was interested in life after death and how everything is impermanent. I was looking at cyclical materials and I came across rituals and ceremonies where paper was used so I started experimenting with that.

Do you experience a conflict in the idea of destroying a work of art to create another type of art?

When I first started making the sculptures it was quite difficult to cut into the books – especially making the first cut. But I don’t use first editions or very rare books. Most of the books I use would end up being thrown away or sitting in old bookshops anyway.

What do you use as inspiration for individual sculptures?

When I work with books, I start by reading the stories and then creating the works from the stories themselves. I veer towards books with illustrations that I liked reading as a child, such as Alice in Wonderland. And I keep going back to fairy tales – especially Hans Christian Andersen. I find the multi-faceted aspect of fairy tales quite interesting.

Can you explain your creative process?

I start by reading the book and if there’s a particular chapter that I want to create I’ll read that over and over again. Then I have an image in my mind of the sort of thing I want to create and I start cutting into the book with a scalpel. I can’t go into the process too much because it will take some of the magic away!

But the more I make, the more complex and time-consuming they’re becoming. I usually have two, maybe three, pieces on the go at the same time and work them side by side. They probably take around a month usually, but it could take longer.

How does your approach differ when working on commercial and creative projects?

It differs in that I’ve got a team of people who help me on the commercial side. With commercial projects, someone comes up with a concept, tells me what they want and then it’s just a case of making it happen. We usually have around seven days to collate something and I have a team of assistance and I have less to do with the making, so I’ve got a more directing role in the project. With my fine art work it’s harder because it’s me making the decisions.

What is coming up and how do you see your work developing?

The Birdlife exhibition is coming to Liverpool on 16 May, then it’s touring London, but I don’t think the venues have been confirmed. It’s something I feel is quite important. I love birds myself and I’m excited that I’m going to be involved in it.

I’m also currently working on a set design for a theatre for a production of The Snow Queen. I’ll be interested to see what happens with the theatre and see my work scale up and people interacting with it.


Apply for Ideas Fund Green to win £5,000 of funding for a green creative project.

Find out more about Su Blackwell at her website.

Ghosts of Gone Birds opens at Liverpool School of Art & Design on 19 May. The Snow Queen opens on 9 December 2011 at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

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