I first met Jenny at the Sheffield Artist Book Fair last autumn and was immediately smitten by her and her books. Despite their diverse subjects, they share a common aesthetic: many have a concertina as the basic element, lending flexibility and movement to the structure, with abstract collages in a calm colour palette and no text on the pages.
It was end of November when we finally found the time to meet up. I rang the doorbell, and Jenny let me in to a large open living room and kitchen that showed clear signs of children living in the house: drawings on the fridge, craft projects hung from the ceiling, small people’s tables, and toys in display cases.
Put up near the window was a collapsible table and bench with paper pieces and art materials and a small book in progress.
Hilke: (looking around in the room) I am always interested in biographies, how the places we find ourselves in, literally as well as figuratively, shape what we make. And how sometimes just everything seems to slot into place.
Jenny: Yeah, definitely. I sometimes wish I had a studio somewhere, a place to my own. But working in the house currently suits me well and works best with the family situation I find myself in. My children are 3 and 7 years old, and mostly I work while they are away in school or preschool or while they are asleep.
Surprisingly, however, I found that working like this and with the kids, I get more work done than ever before.
Hilke: That’s amazing! Most parents seem to complain about the lack of creative time. Why do you think it’s different for you?
Jenny: Before the kids, I worked as an art technician at a secondary school. My work gave me a sense of achievement and it satisfied my need to be creative. I still made my own work, but very slowly, and usually only when a deadline of a call for art was looming.
After I had the kids, I gave up the job as a technician, and it became so much more important to do something for myself.
It is in the small time slots when I am alone or they are asleep that I get my table and bench out, unpack my materials, and become very focussed on what I want to achieve.
Hilke: I see. How would you describe your books and how you work?
Jenny: I love to work with different layers, textures and combine them all. In my collages I bring together my own material from sketchbooks, mixed media layers and mark-making experiments, and I combine those with carefully selected elements from magazines to form an organic whole.
Hilke: What is it about the book format that appeals to you? Why not make stand-alone collages?
Jenny: Books appeal to me as fairly small and handheld artwork. They are intimate and playful. The viewer holds it in their hands, and is able to experience it at their own pace. And I like how in a book the elements move, bringing the different collages into relation to each other.
Hilke: How do you approach a new work?
Jenny: Let me show you my sketchbook. I use mind-mapping to choose my theme and then gather research: other artists who worked with similar elements, drawings of the subject matter, markmaking in response to the theme and I make notes all the way through.
I also glue in paper samples, a trial collage at a later stage, maybe. – I always think through the concept of a piece. Recording my thoughts and research helps me to think and later to talk about my art. And by the time I start with the first collages, I have a clear idea of what book structure I am going to use, and what kind of feeling I want to portray. I create more collages than I need for a project so I can choose which will work best in the book and which relate well to each other.
Hilke: Moving from one collage to the other, what drives you on? Are you dissatisfied with the collage you just made, and try to make it better?
Jenny: Well, obviously I do always try to improve, but it’s not that I’m dissatisfied with one of them. Making collages with found paper has an exciting element for me. I’m thinking for example: How can I turn that image of a lampshade into a reflective part in a window? or: How can I cut out this bowl of soup, change the context and change how the viewer sees it. And then one collage might be finished before I am.
So rather than being dissatisfied with what I already have, I’m still curious to see whether I can catch the same emotional content, picture the same atmosphere, once again now that the snippets I used in the last collage aren’t available anymore. – Once I’ve used a piece, it’s gone, and I can’t use it again.
Hilke: So scarcity of material is important for you work?
Jenny: In a way, yes. But I do use photocopiers in all stages of my work. I might photocopy a drawing, sometimes onto acetate and then cut from there. I also sometimes photocopy a finished collage and then keep working with it.
Hilke: Do you have an overarching topic in your work?
Jenny: I like to discover the story in a place, maybe its history, the feeling of visiting it or how people live. Windows are a recurring theme – they offer a glimpse into someone else’s world. I’m also inspired by all the texture, detail and angular lines in buildings. I find that the imagery I work to, and the way I interpret a topic has a clear personal style and I often use the same materials and colour theme in my work
Hilke: Mhm, yes, I can see how many of your books have a strong architectural element to it. Some remind me of technical drawings. Architecture often is bold and big. – What is the biggest book you made?
Jenny: I’ve always loved working small – I must take after my Dad, he’s a modelmaker. I experimented with larger work at Uni but I always bounced right back to something handheld.
Hilke: Where would an interested reader be able to see your work?
Jenny: I’m going to be at the Turn The Page book arts fair in Norwich in May 2020, and my book ‘Cut Across’ will be included in the exhibition 2020 Vision: Magellans Voyage in Liverpool Central Library.
Hilke: Thank you for taking the time to work on this interview with me!
All images in this article are used with kind permission of Jenny Stevenson.