life design music photography home us film art fashion global notes archive links
 design fashion film music art photography global notes life
[join our email list]

2011: Nigel Poor – Washed Books
Nigel Poor (Washed Books), March 2011 Vhcle Magazine Issue 5, Art
Can you elaborate on where the inspiration for your current project came from?
The idea for my project Washed Books began in 2008 when I was invited to be in an exhibition about banned books. Honestly, it wasn’t a topic I had thought much about. I imagined that in this day and age there wouldn’t be many banned books to explore. Of course I had heard about Lolita being banned in Iran, and that in the States some people wanted to ban Harry Potter, but I assumed these were isolated and extreme cases. Once I began doing research I was shocked by the amount of books that are still challenged and banned; it is hardly an infrequent occurrence. So in order to narrow down the list of books to work with, I decided to use the criteria of books with women’s names in the titles.
I originally selected nine banned books to work with, all incorporating women’s names in the titles. My idea was to use books considered dirty, and to make the piece I wanted to use a process that was not only about cleaning, but that was once considered women's work. I decided to wash and dry each book and use the lint produced by the loads of laundry to create the artwork. Each of the nine books were separately washed with a load of laundry. As the book is washed it falls apart and loses some of its integrity, words are lost and sentences erased. Though much disappears, the lint captures what does not dissipate and traps bits of the book. For the original project, the lint from each wash was then applied to a 8x10 inch panel; one panel per book.
How has your education in the East Coast impacted your creative experience?
I feel growing up on the East Coast and being educated there has had a big influence on my creative experience. I am very much a New Englander transplanted to California. Sometimes I chuckle at the fact that I cannot get away from the Puritanical influence of life in New England. There is that ethic that you work hard, you don’t complain and you go about your business quietly, trying to succeed while anticipating the punishment that is just around the corner if you start to enjoy yourself too much. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of humor about yourself and doesn’t make you too crazy and guilt-ridden.
Growing up you read all those writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Alcott, Thoreau, Whitman, you think about Walden Pond and the transcendentalists - it is a heavy and serious group of people, and they do influence your way of thinking about the world. There are also the distinct seasons, each with a personality and special kind of light and temperature, each has its particular smells and feelings and affects the landscape in sweeping ways. These seasonal changes give a rhythm to your experience of time. Enduring long and hard winters are rewarded by spring, and humid, hot summers transition into the coolness and colors of fall. The life and death cycle become really apparent and it makes you think “carpe diem” my friend.
During my time in graduate school I had a pivotal experience that changed the way I thought about making my own work. I went to see an exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology that showed how natural history museums used dermestid beetles to clean animal carcasses so the scientist could then work with the bones. The exhibit got me excited about science and natural history. After spending a bit of time in the collection I knew it was a place I needed to know more about, so I made a few phone calls and talked to someone in the entomology department and began volunteering. My job was behind the scenes in the collection where I pinned insects that scientists brought back from their field research. To my eye everything about the place was tantalizing in a 20th century kind of way - just a bit old fashion and dusty and ignored and filled with treasures. The back rooms where I worked had endless rows of shelves containing boxes of pinned insects; each insect identified with a handwritten label some dated back to the 1800s. One day I found a box that had been worked on by Vladimir Nabokov, who had an interest in butterflies. Inside the box were his handwritten notes. It was pretty amazing. And by the way, his book Lolita is on my list of banned books.
I had the run of the place and could look at anything, touch anything, explore wherever I wanted. My work desk was set up in a little alcove and on it were tweezers, a big magnifying glass, morpho pins for pinning the insects and stacks of metal boxes containing the insects I had to take care of. Pinning insects is a painstaking and repetitive process, and I loved it. It taught me a lot about patience, careful observation, organizing and working in a semi scientific manner. All of these skills I now use in my studio. Most importantly this experience taught me that when something grabs your attention, pursue it and see where it leads you. Volunteering at the museum gave me a pass to go behind the scenes and just investigate. It also showed me the importance of putting myself out there and asking for access to things that seemed intriguing. Most times when you ask people for something, if you are polite and open, they say yes. And if you follow through on your commitments, you can be given entrance to wonderful and unexpected places.
How has this banned book project evolved over time?
I tend to work on projects for a long time. I start with an idea and then a process takes over. Though I am primarily a photographer, I don’t limit myself to the idea of the photographic image; I am always looking for the correct visual delivery system for the idea. I also like the notion of taking material as far as it can go; how many iterations can you take an object through before it loses its ability to have meaning or ceases to challenge our ideas? So this particular project started out using books, a washer & dryer and lint. But I soon realized there was more that could be done.
As a reader, destroying books in order to produce lint caused discomfort. In order to deal with that, I began to ponder the pieces of books left behind. I wanted to investigate how far these books could go before they lost a sense of potency and meaning.
I began to make photographic images of what was left behind. Laundering took the book from being a concrete object with the ability to communicate a story, characters, concepts, etc., to a maimed fragment of itself. Yet through the photographic process this hobbled book becomes a beguiling sculptural object that has the ability to communicate through the language that survived. If you are familiar with these books, one can recognize sentences, character names and small bits of plot in the fragments. I enjoy the combination of randomness and control the process offers. Random because I cannot dictate how the washing process destroys the books, and control because I determine how the remnants will be dealt with photographically.
I have added another component to the project that requires the help of willing readers to join the process. I am now working with 38 banned books; each book is being read by a volunteer. After they have finished the book, I “interview” them - they give me a synopsis of the story, and I ask them to speculate as to why the book has been challenged or banned. Our conversations are recorded and will be used to create a text piece for each book. Once the project is completed, each book on the list will be represented by a lint panel, a photographic image of the book piece, and a text panel using language collected from the participants’ interview.
What advice would give young photographers or recent photography graduates?
Giving advice is tough because you end up sounding like you have the all the answers, and of course every life is so different and what young people are experiencing now is different from what I experienced when I finished school. People have all sorts of burdens and concerns and we are living in a time where the economy is terrible. So with that stated caveat I will tell you a few things that I have learned and that have worked for me.
1. If you want to make a life as a creative person, you need to be willing, at least for a while, to make money in ways that may not be related to what you want to ultimately do. And you have to remember that you need not to define yourself by what you do to pay the bills. I had a string of uninspiring jobs that paid me just enough to live in a frugal way while I pursued my career as an artist.
2. You need to decide what your priorities are because most people cannot have everything. For me as a young person, owning a house, a car, or settling into a routine life and starting a family were not important to me. I knew from a young age I wanted to be an artist and so I set up my life in such a way that I could pursue that dream. But it is a lifelong negotiation.
3. You need to make a strict schedule and make time for your creative work. A daily practice can be quite helpful. Even if you cannot dedicate hours each day, you need to find a way to do something on a daily basis that relates to what you care most about.
4. Find some place that is just for you; a place where you can put your work up and look at it. Of course it is wonderful to have a studio but that takes time, so just find a wall or part of a wall where nothing else gets hung except for things you are working on and thinking about.
5. Don’t say no to things - volunteer at places that are interesting to you.
6. Spend time alone thinking and getting to know who you actually are. Don’t be afraid of silence.
7. Make lists of what you want to do and accomplish. They can be small or big things, but keep track of your goals and strategize on how to accomplish them.
8. When you start to feel down and listless - get to work. That will always change your perspective.
9. Be interested in other people and ask questions.
What’s your favourite drink?
Ha that one is easy. Almost anyone who knows me could answer this question:
Sapphire. Straight up. With a twist.
Nigel Poor’s work has been shown in various venues including the San Jose Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. She is an Associate Professor of Photography at CSU Sacramento.
See more of Nigel Poor’s Washed Books project in Issue 5 of Vhcle Magazine.