A visit to the website of Ipswich, UK, artist Lois Cordelia
is like diving into a whirlpool of the senses and imagination. From beautiful paper cuts, to creative cartography in which each section of the British Isles is represented by iconographic images, to mixed media sculptures, there is always a sense of vibrancy and movement.
No wonder she was chosen as one of the artists entrusted with creating one of the Sitting With Jane Austen-inspired BookBenches to commemorate the 200 years since the author’s death. Her design entitled Look Upon Verdure (a quote fragment from Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price) incorporates, among other joys, Cordelia’s own recreation of Austen’s handwriting and signature copied from her will.
Lois Cordelia’s “Look Up Verdure” BookBench
I was delighted to meet Lois at a recent reading of The Widow’s Fire
in the UK and arranged this Q & A about her work and the Austen project in particular.
Q.1: First of all, could you tell me a little about the process through which you ended up designing one of the Sitting With Jane BookBenches? How did it come about?
Lois Cordelia: Firstly, Paul, many thanks for your kind words of introduction and invitation to share my responses to your thoughtful and interesting questions. Being a visual artist rather than a writer, I shall strive to do them justice. It was a great pleasure to meet you, too.
For those who are wondering what a “BookBench” is, it is a real bench seat, shaped like a chunky book with its spine facing downwards and half of the pages curled over to make the seat – an art trail of decorative BookBenches therefore seems a perfect way to commemorate a much loved literary figure while engaging with every age-group in a public setting. Unlike the majority of art trails, members of the public are actually encouraged to sit on the BookBenches as well as take photographs with them, hence they are not only beautiful but also functional pieces of street furniture, with the added implication of encouraging people to sit and read a book. Sitting With Jane was a trail of 24 Jane Austen inspired BookBenches located in and around Basingstoke in Hampshire, UK, over the Summer of 2017, presented by Wild in Art and Destination Basingstoke.
When I first heard about the Sitting With Jane trail, I tried to imagine Jane Austen sitting on a BookBench. Perhaps she would have sat there jotting notes, or reading, or dreaming her next novel into being. As a visual artist, I know how important it is to sit and dream, and, sadly, how hectic modern lifestyles can prevent us from ever doing something as simple as pausing to take in a beautiful view. Austen spent her formative years growing up in the beautiful countryside of Hampshire, specifically in the village of Steventon, which to this day retains much of the timeless rural charm that Jane would have absorbed. Convinced that Austen must have made reference to such an activity as sitting and taking in the view, I set about scouring her novels for any imagery that might relate to this idea, and was not disappointed. Through the voice of the shy Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, Jane writes: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment”. These words seemed to me the most perfect adornment for a Jane Austen inspired BookBench.
Jane Austen’s handwriting: “elegant and effortlessly creative”
To accompany this quotation with visual imagery, I loosely based my BookBench design on a painting I had done several years previously of a pair of garden chairs beneath an arch of trailing wisteria. I adapted the original to feature a Georgian Period park bench, more in keeping with Jane Austen’s time, and emphasised the wisteria, which would have first crept into English gardens around the same time.
I was delighted when my design was accepted for inclusion in the Sitting With Jane trail, thanks to the generous sponsorship of De La Rue, manufacturer of bank notes, founded in Jane Austen’s time and whose headquarters are still located near Basingstoke. September 2017 also saw the UK launch of a new ten pound sterling banknote, issued by De La Rue, featuring a portrait of Jane Austen, who is therefore the only woman (apart from the Queen) to be represented on a current English banknote (following the earlier withdrawal from circulation of the old five pound notes, depicting Elizabeth Fry).
Q. 2: I am always fascinated with the relationship between visual art and literature. Writers visualize events and people and then encode that drama into words so that the reader can then reinterpret the words back into images. The Sitting With Jane project is in some ways a reverse of this process, i.e. taking a writer and turning her into a physical work of art. What was your vision of Austen and her work and how did it relate to the image?
Lois: There is a Greek term for the creative process in which one art-form can relate and respond to another: ekphrasis. Visual art can be a response to poetry, or literature, or music, or dance, or vice versa, in any combination. Often, a tiny fragment of one artistic medium is enough to inspire a whole new creation in another.
I’ve already described how my initial vision of Jane Austen sitting thinking and writing in a quiet rural location in Hampshire inspired my BookBench design. But I wanted to get to know Jane more personally in order to evoke something of her spirit through my artwork.
Instinctively, being a visual artist, I looked at Jane’s handwriting.
In today’s fragmented digital age, handwriting is losing its elegance, becoming disjointed, rushed, and even obsolete. Uniform typefaces replace the colourful idiosyncrasies of hand lettering and obscure much of the writer’s character. But in Austen’s time, handwriting was still an art in itself, something to which to devote time and precision. Fortunately, there is no shortage of examples of Jane’s beautiful penmanship, especially in the form of her letters, so I spent many hours analysing these to get a better feel for the mind that had expressed itself through this hand. This exercise suggested the work of an elegant and effortlessly creative mind, a lilting dancer, self-assured, yet humble. Looking closely at Jane’s handwriting gave me a fresh respect for her and a deeper insight into her character.
As an artist, I regularly work in a number of different styles and art mediums, and so I decided to create my own handmade paper-cut stencils to evoke Jane’s handwriting as part of my design for the BookBench. Cutting each stroke of Jane’s pen out of a piece of paper using a surgical scalpel allowed me to create a precise stencil for the lettering. In addition to fragments from Mansfield Park, I also included Jane’s signature, copied from her will, which features a special form of the capital letter ‘A’ that she appears to have reserved exclusively for her surname. In this way, I could incorporate quotations as part of the actual artwork and Jane’s signature beneath for an added personal touch of authenticity.
Q. 3: More generally, do you find words — poems, plays, novels, or philosophy — a useful starting point for your work?
Lois: Words are a very powerful starting point for my work. Words and art are both expressions of human consciousness and as such are inseparably linked. A lifelong fascination with language, etymology, literary imagery and analysis has often inspired me in my visual art, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so. I love words and freely confess I use far too many of them when writing, and have to prune back ruthlessly when editing. I do not consider myself a writer, though as a visual artist I find it extremely valuable to be able to communicate effectively through words as through pictures.
I am fascinated by handwriting and the way it affects the appearance of text. Even computer generated typefaces can subtly influence and interfere with our perception of language whenever we read advertisements, posters and signs.
Contrary to my parents’ and teachers’ expectations, I took formal art training only as far as A-level, preferring to choose a degree subject that would include not only aspects of visual art but also literature, history, philosophy, culture, and languages. I gradually focused my studies on languages, taking in modules of Arabic, biblical Hebrew and Greek, Amharic and Sanskrit along the way. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the links between words, thoughts, imagery, and even the supposed mystical dimensions of ancient scripts.
I am particularly interested in the way memory once played a crucial role in the transmission of purely oral traditions, which only later became ‘fixed’ in written form. I challenged myself to memorise an entire pre-Islamic Arabic poem, Lamiyyat al-Arab by al-Shanfara, and even though the poem was riddled with obscure and archaic expressions that would be as much use in everyday conversation as regurgitating bits of Chaucer, the experience allowed me to glimpse a distant past in which storytelling was far more than a children’s amusement but rather a lifeline to ancestral heritage. Witnessing this process of ‘fossilisation’, in which a fluid utterance that works on many levels becomes set in stone and therefore prone to overly literal misinterpretation, has taught me a lot about the dangers as well as the powers of the written word, in particular as regards religious texts. It also forms an interesting parallel with visual art, in which a fluid thought is pinned down in a visual form. Suffice to say, human consciousness of every era tends to express itself primarily through words. Language is a living thing and its evolution can never be halted. I cringed when I first heard of blogs, memes and hashtags, but have learned that they have their place.
Eventually I focused my university studies on Arabic, partly because it has an obvious relevance to building bridges of understanding in our fraught contemporary world, and I am endlessly grateful for the insights, experiences and friendships it has bestowed on me. But Arabic has also had a powerful impact on my visual and artistic expression. To this day, I am aware of the influence of Arabic script on my own handwriting as on my art. Arabic calligraphy encompasses a vast spectrum, ranging from formal geometric patterns that are not obviously writing at all to lyrical cascading waterfalls of ink that seem more reminiscent of musical notation. Interestingly, when I resumed visual art after spending four years studying Arabic, everyone remarked that I had made a huge leap of progress in my art. Above all, what I learned from endless hours of effort in mastering Arabic script was effortlessness.
Q. 4: I note that on the same project you also did a speed portrait in 60 minutes of Austen herself. Is speed is an important part of some of your work? What qualities can speed of creativity give to visual art? Is it for instance about vibrancy, movement, or escaping inhibition?
Lois: I seem to gain a reputation for being a “speed-painter”, which is an interesting term. I rarely set out to work against the clock, but I do surprise myself and others at how quickly I paint. Between forty to ninety minutes is about average for me to complete a painting from scratch. The challenge is to capture a likeness or an essence within a few seconds or minutes, and then spend the rest of that time bulking it out, so to speak.
Even in the case of my paper-cut art, which may seem the opposite end of the scale to my speed-painting, taking many hours of painstaking work to carve out an intricately detailed result, I balance the surgical precision of the blade with something far less precise: the initial sketch for one of my paper-cuts is often a 30 second effort, gradually honed and refined, just as in my speed-painting.
The 60 minute portrait of Jane Austen that you mention was painted live at the Ark Cancer Centre in Basingstoke on the evening of the Sitting With Jane BookBench auction, at which all of the BookBenches went under the hammer to raise vital funds for this charity. While I painted, I talked with dozens of visitors. The portrait was later auctioned separately to raise additional funds for the Ark. — Following the auction of my 60 minute speed-portrait of Jane Austen, I received a request asking whether I might be persuaded to do a second portrait of Austen for an avid Janeite in the USA who had set her alarm clock in order to be able to bid in the Ebay auction but had fallen asleep at the crucial moment! So I have since completed another portrait of Jane.
Similarly, I completed the entire paintwork on my BookBench “Look Upon Verdure” in the space of about 4.5 hours, including all the imagery on the front and back, the sides, and the lettering. Admittedly, as explained above, I had prepared my own paper-cut stencils to evoke the spirit of Austen’s elegant handwriting, which sped up this part of the process while painting live at Festival Place in Basingstoke in February 2017.
Public art; beginning the BookBench
Working in public is a crucial aspect of my work. I perform live demonstrations of my speed-painting almost every week, and this has the effect of making me work more quickly, simply because, when you have an audience watching your every brush mark, you have no excuses to hesitate. You have to overcome all your inhibitions and launch in. Moreover, you have to maintain the pace right up until the finishing touches, to sustain people’s interest. It becomes a performance art, and this gives it a vitality that it might otherwise lack. I often quote Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished; it is only abandoned.” This puzzled me when I first heard it, but I came to understand that, if you truly “finish” art, you kill it. There should always be something left to fill in, because this is what allows the spirit to move within the physical form of paints and brush marks. A painting completed in the space of an hour or two tends to retain a lot more freshness than one that has been laboured over for months on end. Less is more.
Q. 5: Related to this, as an educator working in the arts, do you think speed one of the ways people connect with their vision?
Lois: According to graffiti artist Banksy, “The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it.” The point is not so much to work against a stop clock, but to preserve as much of the energy and spontaneity that inspired the first few marks as possible, and above all not to fiddle obsessively with your work. In my painting workshops, I encourage people to launch in directly with a large brush and sweeping movements from the shoulder (as opposed to the relatively tiny arc of the wrist or the fingers), and without first taking several hours to meticulously draw every detail in pencil. This approach instantly loosens up the painting style and the results flow swiftly. People are amazed to realise that less effort and time can produce something so vibrant.
Every now and then it is an excellent discipline to work against a stop clock, so long as it doesn’t trigger panic and paralysis. Just as a deadline focuses the mind for a task, drawing or painting against a timer encourages the artist to focus on the essential and leave out the rest. I have attended life drawing sessions for many years for this reason, and now run a drawing group myself, because I find the exercise of timed poses so valuable. A pose might be as short as 30 seconds, or as long as several hours, with breaks. Some sessions even feature a moving pose, in which the model never comes to a complete stop, and the artists are therefore forced to capture a fleeting impression of motion.
As the saying goes: less haste, more speed. As confidence and skill improve, painting becomes more and more effortless, but it should never be a frantic rush. It may take an experienced artist only a few minutes to capture a likeness, but in reality it has taken all the years of patient practice that went before.
Q. 6: I imagine you must have had many encounters with Austen fans as you were working on the BookBenches project, which was, again, timed. What kind of reactions and interactions took place while you were working?
I travelled 150 miles from Ipswich to Basingstoke in February, carrying all my paints and other equipment on the train as I often do, to paint my Jane Austen inspired design onto a blank BookBench for the Sitting With Jane trail. I was the first of several artists to occupy the public painting space (a temporarily empty shop unit at the bustling Festival Place shopping centre), and for that reason, I was proud to be an early ambassador for the trail, engaging dozens of passers-by in conversation as they watched me at work, explaining the relevance of the BookBench for a literary art trail and telling them about the significance of 2017 being the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Adjacent to the painting space, a number of elegant period costumes were displayed to help set the scene.
The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Within minutes of starting, people stopped to remark: “Love the colours!” The more my painting progressed, the more people paused in their busy shopping activities to stand and watch it unfold, and the more they engaged with the idea of the trail. People told me about their favourite Jane Austen novels and films, told me how they came from the same village in which Jane Austen had been born and lived as a child, and above all how much Jane still means to people in Hampshire and how proud they are of this connection. Children’s reactions especially were delightful to watch: suddenly they would fall silent and stand mesmerised, watching me paint.
Lois Cordelia on the finished BookBench
During the duration of the Sitting With Jane trail, my BookBench was located in the heart of the picturesque village of Overton near Basingstoke, close to the headquarters of the sponsors, De La Rue. Appropriately, the view from the BookBench was framed by leafy green trees, allowing people to “look upon verdure”. My partner Jason and I travelled down to Overton to visit my BookBench and were touched by the warm and friendly reception we encountered from local people. Everyone wanted their photographs taken with us. Jane must have often visited Overton to go shopping and to post her many letters – I posted a few myself while I was there, with this in mind. Throughout the Summer, the social media channels were full of Jane Austen and the BookBenches.
In September 2017, my BookBench was sold at the Sitting With Jane auction, raising £6,750 for the Ark Cancer Centre (the second highest bid of the evening). Thanks to the generosity of Laura and Matt Haystaff of the Topiary Salon, “Look Upon Verdure” is now on permanent display at their stunning beauty salon in Old Basing. The shimmering and iridescent paints I used for the design now gleam in the shiny salon lighting and reflect in every bright mirror. And so the Sitting With Jane legacy lives on. People are still talking about the BookBenches. As I write, a glossy new book about the trail has just appeared in print, with a strictly limited edition of 500 copies, telling some of the colourful stories behind the BookBenches.
I think Jane Austen would have greatly approved of the Sitting With Jane trail with its emphasis on elegant art and culture depicted on book-shaped canvases. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!”
Thanks for these wonderful answers, Lois! See Lois Cordelia’s website
In January I’ll be looking back through my year with Jane Austen which has been a (happy!) whirl. Presentation commitments took me in Canada from New Brunswick in Eastern Canada to Vancouver in the west and many places in between. In the US, I presented to the Jane Austen Society of North America AGM in California and finally I ended up in Europe. I’ve met many fascinating people, shared ideas and thoughts, and have emerged feeling enriched.
For those who wish to flex their literary revisionist muscles you still have time to enter the New Hook Literary Contest. Hit this link to see the details.