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Sculptures magicked from words

Su Blackwell’s creations, which reimagine literary worlds, go on show in London

Anthony Gardner | September 21st 2015

If you should ever forget the enchantment that a book can cast on a child, Su Blackwell’s paper sculptures will bring it back to you in a moment. Her fragile, intricate creations—carved from and mounted on the pages of the books that inspired them—are worlds in miniature, beckoning you to shrink to Lilliputian size and wander into them.

Readers of Intelligent Life will recognise her work from Robert Macfarlane’s “Landscapes of the Mind” column, for which we commission and photograph a sculpture by Blackwell for each issue. Several of these are on display in her new exhibition, “Dwellings”, which is at London’s Long & Ryle gallery until October 9th. Among them is “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, in which a tiny submarine is suspended among impossibly delicate fronds and jellyfish, while the curling tentacles of a giant squid reach up out of Jules Verne’s classic. Another piece, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, shows the street on which Scout Finch and her family live, with a cluster of houses—complete with verandas, picket fences and fallen leaves—overshadowed by the tree which Boo Radley uses as a postbox. 

Blackwell herself is a shy, softly-spoken graduate of the Royal College of Art, with large green eyes and an elfin face that suggest she would be perfectly at home in a fairy tale. Born in 1975, she grew up in an unmagical cul-de-sac in Sheffield: “But there was woodland at the end of it, so I spent most of my childhood there. Trees and birds—and boats—are recurring themes in my work.”

Her equipment is simple—a surgeon’s scalpel, jeweller’s wire, glue and tweezers—but the level of detail achieved is mind-boggling. For “The Stork Wife”, based on a Japanese fairy tale, she gave the bird a wire frame and then cut out scores of tiny feathers, which she stuck on individually to make the wings and body. It is not surprising that a single sculpture can take her up to six weeks to create, and that the prices in the exhibition start at £5,000.

Having originally trained as a textile designer, Blackwell awoke to the possibilities of books while travelling in South-East Asia: her mind was on her father’s recent death, and a book of beautiful Thai inscriptions prompted her to make a cut-out of moths based on a reincarnation myth. She then turned to books that she had loved as a child: “I bought lots of copies of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Secret Garden’ and started cutting out the illustrations—and suddenly it was almost like they were real.”

She is adamant that she cannot just work with any old book; it is the text, illustrations and associations that inspire her. The most personal piece in the show, “Tarn Hows”, is a landscape fashioned from a book about the Lake District published in the year her father was born: the tarn (lake), which she has recreated by hollowing out the pages, is a place he loved, and where the family scattered his ashes.

Does she ever have misgivings about slicing up a page? Yes, she says. “If, for example, the book includes a handwritten note from the author, I’ll find another copy.” Recently she has taken to salvaging books from a charity shop near her studio: “They throw hundreds of them away, and it just tugs at my heartstrings, so I’ve been saving as many as I can and trying to work with those.”

I’d assumed that Blackwell must work with a magnifying glass, but no. When she adds that she doesn’t even wear spectacles, I begin to wonder whether these extraordinary tableaux are really the work of human hands. It seems far more likely that she has made a pact with a sorcerer, and that every night at midnight a team of white mice descends on her studio, ready to nibble second-hand books into exquisite works of art.

Dwelling is at Long & Ryle, London, until October 9th

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