Case bound with letterpress printed cloth cover H700 x W460 x D20 mm. 23 folios: 2 end leaves, 1 title, 10 hand-colored images printed on to 225gsm Simili Japon, 10 bronzed text printed onto translucent paper. Edition of 5, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 5 January 2023.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Photos and videos: Courtesy of the artist. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The word ekphrasis refers to the literary practice of verbally representing a visual representation. Think of the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell using words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel, or Donatello’s sculpture of David. Novelists, too. Think of Henry James’ The Ambassadors in which the narrator Lambert Strether describes an imagined stroll through a landscape painting he’s viewing.
Serena Smith has a different point of departure for Ekphrasis. Her dwelling and studio back onto a Leicestershire country park — “part arboretum and part community”. Highlighted with maple, Tibetan cherry and Himalayan birch, the planted woodland of ash and beech with its defined paths offers up “artefact of living trees” as much a constructed work of visual art as any urn, painting or sculpture.
In this bookwork, ten pages of text printed on translucent paper overlay ten images printed from stone. The text reflects on the “wandering, watching and thinking that happens in the parkland”, but then it turns internally to the studio, the ephemera collected from the woodland, and the stage before the images come into being. The process of making becomes an object of the ekphrastic text: smoothing the stone, using a tool to guide the pencil, sharpening the pencil. And gradually the work reveals itself as a self-reflexive meditation on natural and artificial creation, on word and image, and on trace lines of growth and decay.
The translucent pages of text create a palimpsest-like effect over the folios of images. Until the translucent folio turns, the text is indecipherable. As the pages turn, the textual and pictorial play off one another.
Close-up of text
Single-page view of first lithograph
The lithographic image divides into three parts. The jigsaw-like lines around the image of bark come from a stencil tool, and the result chimes with planning lines of landscape architecture, feeding insects’ tracks in the bast, the shape of lichen and ultimately the Ogham runes mentioned in the text and depicted at the end.
First of three-part close-up of the first lithograph
Second of three-part close-up of the first lithograph
Third of three-part close-up of the first lithograph
The following ekphrastic words bring the lithographic process to life. Taken together, the glossary, Smith’s descriptive text and its ekphrastic focus on the lithographic process transform her stone into a kind of Ogham stone itself.
As the drawing progresses I wonder if the hands of Celtic scribes also tired, whilst scoring the lines of Ogham script into fragments of wood. Cutting short repeated grooves against the grain an effort would have been felt, different to that which allowed the tool to willingly travel along the pathways of growth. Perhaps they too made use of a device to control the errant gesture, and aid inscription of measured lines of written text. This can only be speculated.
What the remaining Ogham stones do tacitly share are ciphered incisions that scale their lichen clad faces with a purposeful regularity that resists embellishment. Contouring the edges, the cut lines navigate uneven corners without detour, and prompt me to ask if these scribes, flesh pressed into stone, also briefly held their breath while negotiating the changes in direction prescribed by the matrix.
A version of the text and all of the images can be found in Smith’s brief essay published by IMPACT Printmaking Journal (Spring 2020) and in the following slide show (courtesy of the artist).
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.
“Brynja Baldursdottír“. 10 March 2023. Books On Books Collection.
“Notes on “Inverse Ekphrasis” as a way into book art“. 16 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.
Ager, Simon. “Ogham“. Omniglot: The Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed 10 February 2023.
Tompkins, Willis W. 1960. Ogham : A Brief Account of the Language and Its Alphabets, Usages by the Druids, and Some Applications in Cryptology ; the Whole Compiled from Various Sources, Edited, Arranged and Furnished with Examples of Alphabets Engraved on Wood. New York: Ogham.
Graves, Robert, and Eileen Hogan. 1978. Ogham : Each Letter of the Alphabet Is Presented with a Colour and Bird All Three Beginning with the Same Initial ; the Whole Alphabet Forms a Calendar of Seasonal Bardic Lore Based on an Interpretation by Robert Graves of the Cyphers Used in the Book of Ballymote. London: Burnt Wood Press.