THEY sit as old friends do, having a laugh, a drink, a smoke listening as a record spins on an old record player.
The tiny, intricately detailed skeletons, wrought from the torn pages of an old book, are the final work of the mysterious artist who last year had Edinburgh’s literary world agog as she left her miniature works on library bookshelves, in museums and even on a table at the city’s book festival.
The skeletons, the 11th and last piece to be produced, sit on a shelf in the office of Ian Rankin, to whom they were sent last November. But for the first time, they’re being shown to the public, rather aptly, in the pages of a new book all about the mystery sculptures published just as the other ten hit the road in a national tour.
Ever since the first paper sculpture of a “PoeTree” appeared at the Scottish Poetry Library last March, people have wondered just who was behind the ornaments which seemed to be inspired by the city’s literary landscape. Who was this person who could leave such fragile creations in such public places without being spotted?
Looking for clues in the book – Gifted: The tale of 10 mysterious book sculptures – is as useless as trying to decipher the artist’s identity from the handwritten notes she left.
Written by the SPL’s director Robyn Marsack – with photography by Chris Scott – the book traces the timeline of the sculptures: when they appeared, what they were made from and their relationship to each other.
Robyn, pictured below, says she still has no idea about the artist’s identity, despite having communicated with her about the book. “I just don’t know who she is,” she laughs. “When the publishers approached me about the book to go along with the exhibition, I had to try and contact with her. So I wrote to Ian Rankin, who knew her, and asked him if he could get her to contact us and she got in touch by email.
“That’s how we communicated, It was unusual but she was lovely to deal with. However, there was no clue in the email address as to who it was. So I still don’t know.
“She’s no interest in being a celebrity, she’s interested in books, words and ideas.”
She adds: “The book works as a catalogue for the exhibition, but there’s also a very strong narrative in it, as it’s written in order of when the sculptures were found. We hoped to recreate something of the feeling of excitement and wonder as these things were discovered. It’s by no means exhaustive but it does help to relate one sculpture to the next.”
The first sculpture was the PoeTree, an old book with a paper tree apparently growing out of it, sculpted from paper with an eggshell attached to it by a line of Edwin Morgan’s poetry and a card which read “We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books . . . a book is so much more than pages full of words . . . this is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas . . .”
“It was very apt as the library has the Edwin Morgan archive,” says Robyn. “It was obviously well thought out and with the other works you realised the sculptor knew exactly what each place was trying to do, what they embodied.”
The second sculpture was found in the National Library of Scotland. This time it had a crematorium feel to it, with a coffin sliding between the pages of the fanned book, a gramophone perched above it, all crafted from Ian Rankin’s novel Exit Music. The third was discovered at the Filmhouse and this time was paying tribute to “all things magic” – like the silver screen itself. The complicated sculpture had an audience watching as the characters from a film came alive, galloping out of the screen.
Then there came the tiny dragon inside its egg and nest in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – again a reference to Edwin Morgan and his poem The Last Dragon. It was soon followed by two at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: the first a delicate teacup the milk swirl on its surface reading “nothing beats a nice cup of tea and a good book”; the second a small child lost in the open pages of a book, designed to look like the branches of forest trees.
A seventh, a magnifying glass, appeared at the Central Library again with a Morgan reference, and then an eighth at the Scottish Poetry Library – although it soon transpired that it was in fact the tenth, with two others previously undiscovered showing up at the National Museum of Scotland – a T-Rex from the pages of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and a Jekyll and Hyde-inspired sculpture at the Writer’s Museum.
“The pieces are all about to go on tour so people can see them all together,” says Robyn. “I think when people see them they will be stunned at the level of detail.”
The artist has written an epilogue to the book. In it she tells how one day she woke up and decided that she needed to do “a bit more than sign a petition” and admits that it was selfishness which drove her on.
“Many have attributed selflessness to this project but at its heart is the opposite. At its heart is a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums . . . a woman who still wants access to these places and yes, wants them for her children and maybe one day her children’s children.”
She also drew a map of Edinburgh for the book, of the places where the sculptures were found, and posted in a set of detailed drawings so people can create their own PoeTree.
She credits Ian Rankin with being an inspiration as editions of three of his novels were used in the sculptures and his face appeared on one of the audience members in the Filmhouse miniature. “To me Ian Rankin embodies Edinburgh. He lives in and writes of the city,” she says.
Rankin, who does know the artist, says it’s “extremely flattering” that his books have been used to create works of art. “What’s not to like about it?” he says. “Here’s someone who doesn’t live in Edinburgh, who got a view of Edinburgh through books, and who decided to do something for the city yet wants to remain anonymous and isn’t doing it for financial gain. And people seem to like the fact that it’s going to remain a mystery.”
He adds: “There’s so much work and love and affection gone into them that it’s great more people will get to see them.”
Gifted, priced £9.99 (50p goes to the SPL) is published by Polygon. The tour of the sculptures begins in Aberdeen this week, but will be at the SPL from November 24 to December 8. For details visit www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
• March 2011: The first sculpture of a tree is discovered on a table in the Scottish Poetry Library.
• June: Late in the month the second sculpture is found in the National Library of Scotland. Just a few days later a third one appears at the Filmhouse.
• July: The discovery this time is at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with the sculptor creating an egg in which a tiny dragon sits.
• August: Two sculptures apppear at once at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – one on a signing table the other at the UNESCO City of Literature stand.
• September: Yet another sculpture is found this time in Central Library on George IV Bridge. Cuts to library services are on the agenda, and the sculptor leaves a note stating “libraries are expensive” - although the second “e” is scored out and replaced with an “a”.
• November: Three sculptures are discovered across the city – again at the Scottish Poetry Library and then a dinosaur at the Museums of Scotland and finally at the Writers’ Museum.
• Ten sculptures seemed to be end of the adventure – but then author Ian Rankin is told to expect a package at the Edinburgh Bookshop. Inside it are the intricate figures of skeletons, smoking and drinking and listening to music.