One of the questions that constantly haunts my professional life is about the transition from my first degree–in studio art, mostly sculpture but with fairly heavy doses of drawing and photography on the side–to theology. To be honest, I don’t like that question very much; the people asking it always seem to be probing for more of a story than there is. I spent four and a bit years (counting a stint split between picking up freelance work and doing data entry for medical research) learning that I didn’t have the heart and stomach of a working artist, and upon recognising that fact I went forth and found something else to devote myself to, and that was all she wrote. Why religion? Because it interested me. Because my natural orientation is interdisciplinary, and the study of religion tends towards interdisciplinarity from first principles, letting me retain my interests in history and literature and, yes, art–but, really, you could probably guess that from looking at where I started and what I’ve published since.
Sometimes people ask what bits of my training carried over, which I mind slightly less. The answer, by the way, is: a good bit of cultural theory, a habit of close observation of what is actually in front of me instead of what I assume is there (I write about this in the third chapter of Culture, Communion, and Recovery–in fact, I am coming to understand that my scholarly work is marked by a preoccupation with different ideas of looking, seeing, and imagining), and an orientation towards solving my own problems (a combination of thinking if not outside the box then at least in a different box from most other people in my field, and, more importantly, no fear of grunt work).
And sometimes people ask me if I still make art. And that’s a question I love and hate, depending on my mood and who’s asking and how much I sense they may or may not understand my answer. One of the things that drove me to art in the first place is that my mind works best when my hands are moving; I spent four and a bit years learning how to make art because I was suffering a confusion between ends and means: I liked the process of making because it helped me think. For me, thinking was the end goal, not the finished piece of art–and most of my finished artworks retained some awareness of their superfluity. So now I keep a piece of knitting at my desk, and work a few stitches here and there as I’m writing (or more steadily as I’m reading) and that does the job just fine, thanks, and as a bonus I usually end up with something that keeps me warm. But there’s also a relationship between thinking and seeing, that training to look very very closely at what is there (even if you later distort it) and while mostly now I exercise that skill in close reading and don’t make a lot of time for drawing, I do find it helpful and healthy to see the world through a lens. Sometimes this has an immediate research benefit–I shot all my own documentation of the large public monuments I wrote about in Remembering Amalek–and sometimes it’s just a way for me to unwind, and re-teach myself to focus on what’s actually in front of me. When I really don’t want to talk about it, I simply note that I’ve got a pretty good (and completely accidental) portfolio of book jacket photography (see here and here).
So here’s another one for the portfolio: the cover for Culture, Communion, and Recovery. I had been so worried about getting the book delivered to the publisher, I’d completely forgotten that they asked me to submit a cover image at the same time, and had a moment of slight panic when I was going over the submission checklist–moreso because there were some definite restrictions on the sort of cover it could have. Tolkien books are an established market, with a definite look of their own, and I needed to come up with something that fits into that look but still signals that this book is different. Ring imagery was right out, as were trees with faces. And I love manuscript pages as much as the next girl, but making a manuscript design work as a book cover would take days of very careful design work that I didn’t have time for (and if I based it on an extant manuscript I’d have to pay permissions fees to the museum or library that owns it) But trees of some sort are a good idea, and the rich textural feel of a manuscript page… and as it’s a book cover, there needs to be sufficient dead space to have room for the title.
A quick flip through my photo archives yielded the following two images:
This was shot on top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, in 2007. It was a grey day with fog so dense that running it through a desaturation filter just seemed like helping the image along to where it was going anyways. The composition of the image–most of the action at the bottom, lots of empty space at the top–is about what I was looking for.
And this is some ornamental woodwork from Habo Kyrka, just outside of Jönköping (friends of ours used to live in Jönköping, and correctly guessed that a Reformation-era painted church would be the sort of thing I would want to see when we visited back in 2009). I keep shooting close-ups of ornamental bits and bobs, mostly in churches, because I mean to use them as references for drawing at some point in the future; I have yet to get to that point, but I was glad to find this image on file.
A bit of fiddling around with transparent layers yielded this:
Unfortunately, both of those images were taken with my old point-and-shoot, which couldn’t really capture images at a good resolution for print–a fact which didn’t trouble me at the time, as I was more interested in the visual exercise of composing the image, aiding my own memory, and maybe, in the case of the first shot, having something to send to my gran, to show her where I was spending my time. This isn’t a dealbreaker for book covers, which tend to be not large, but I alerted the designer at the press, Soucin Yip-Sou, that although I had originally thought of it as taking up the entire front cover, it would probably work best as an inset image, with the title information above and author attribution below–a bit staid, but hopefully the image would be intriguing enough to garner attention on its own.
I’ve been away for the past few days. Some very generous friends offered us their country house for a short break, and we both needed a bit of quiet time, so we accepted with gratitude. I got through a couple of volumes that have been haunting my ‘to read’ stack for about a year, and cut a wide swathe through the house’s collection of classic British detective fiction; we took some nice walks, caught some nice fish, and cooked some nice suppers. I spent some time reacquainting myself with the world through a lens. And when I got back, there was an e-mail with the cover design waiting for me.
Soucin took the problematic resolution of my image and turned it into a tremendous strength, floating a smaller, clearer print on top of a larger, fuzzier version of the same, keeping the texture and motion working across the whole cover. It’s well, well beyond anything I had imagined, and I’m tremendously grateful.