I first came across Paula’s books when I saw in 2021 that Lady Bay Art Festival’s creativity fund was given to Paula McCann and she was commissioned to make a book to show at the Art Trail 2022. Our paths crossed again later that same year at the Notts Book Arts Festival 2022 where we invited her to exhibit one of her books, City Grid, and her artists’ group, Bookness Collective, held a stall.
Paula has a BTEC HND in graphic design and worked as a book designer for different publishers for 18 years, working on page layout and cover design.
She later took a fine art degree at Nottingham University and is currently doing bookbinding and book art from her studio at Fishergate Point in Nottingham.
For this interview she invited me to see her studio. It is part of a larger space shared by a range of different artists and creatives. Upon entering, you stumble across old sofas, abandoned mini pianos, big and and small chests of drawers occupying corners and empty spaces. It feels a bit like working through an ill-arranged antiques shop crossed with student housing, until we enter into a small space behind a column. This is Paula’s workspace, very small, packed and tidy, obviously set up by someone who has a talent in making use space very effectively.
Thank you for inviting me to your studio today! Let’s start this interview with looking at one of your books. Do you have a favourite that you would like to show me?
This book is the one I made for the Lady Bay Festival. It is called 570 Steps. It was to do with my lockdown walk to work. It’s a two sided double concertina that you can open as a book with a spine or you can stand it up and stretch it out to it’s full length. It’s quite long, about 1.5 metres.
It features photos I took on my walk to work during lockdown. Some are cyanotypes, some are inkjet prints.
I regularly walked along a straight section of road where you can see a long way into the distance. Every day, walking and walking it, I got to know it really well. I’d see the same cyclists every day. I would notice all the graffiti. The things on the floor. The way that the seasons changed…
There is a fence that runs all the way along that stretch of road. Day after day I walked past it, and I wondered: What’s behind it? – It turns out to be allotments, which are mostly abandoned. I came to like that fence. It’s a material reminder of the history of this place. There are many lime trees along the stretch of road too.
I then started counting. I was counting steps. I was counting how many fence panels, how many trees, so on and so forth… – The insanity of lockdown.
It’s a very special stretch of land to me now. I researched its history and found pictures of this road when the trees were half the size. I thought those trees have been sitting there, for years, seeing so much. One day they’re going to build on the land behind the fence where the allotments are, and I’m going to be very sad, I suppose. But I’m also very curious about what happens next.
So the book really contains a collection of views, photos of ephemeral things you spotted, and bits of facts and history.
Yes, I am interested in what humans make in a place, how we change it, and what we leave behind.
[H. looking at the shelves in Paula’s studio space] That’s an interesting collection of objects you got there…
I love the sea, and every time I go, I come back with another pebble or brick. I have a special love for bricks, especially when it’s got lettering on it. It’s my interest in typography. See this brick? I found it on the beach. It’s worn by the sea, broken on rocks, shaped by chance and nature…. But they are also terracotta, man-made.
Nature and typography. Like poetry. Together.
I am interested in all sorts of letters that have been altered accidentally. When I am walking along the streets I take photographs of lettering… — and I love grids. Take a look at this photo, for example:
I took this photo because I liked the grid and was delighted that it even got some words in it. — I just absolutely love this factory window, how the sun was shining on it, with lots of different colours. And you’ve got this framework, it’s got its own boundaries.
For many years I did text layout, looking at grids, and arranging them. It’s all grids, and letters… And to see these two things out in the world, not fixed down in a book, being free if you like, that’s fascinating to me.
How do you turn this interest for the interplay of man-made materials, places, and nature into books?
Building things from paper, seeing how they move is another interest of mine. I think it’s a combination of playing with these book models and shapes and thinking about what I could make with them. I make interesting book structures, and then just sit with them for ages, playing with them, observing them, thinking about what kind of book I could use the structure with.
And I quite like the idea of making artist books about a place and something to do with that place. When I go to a place, it’s like: What did they used to make here? What do they make here? What is the industry here?
For example, in Sheffield, they make cutlery. — But I wouldn’t just use a fork for a book about Sheffield, that would be too obvious. Once I start with a book, I do a bit of research and then I’d maybe find that there’s some sort of tool that helps in steel working that I could take home and have sitting on my desk, and I often get slightly obsessed with beautiful things like that.
It’s exploring places and objects and combining them with playing with folds. In one moment, while handling one or the other, I know how they have to come together. It’s very organic. I think it has to be. If I were to try too hard with it, it wouldn’t look right, I think.
Any ideas for new work?
I have friends and family in Bridport, Dorset, which is renowned for making ropes and nets. Nets are grids. There is a net making tool called a braiding needle.
You load them up with string, and they are used to weave the net. I visited my friend and she gave one to me. I’ve still got it, I learnt to load it up string. I’ll use this in a book somehow, but I don’t quite know how, yet.
So, going back to bricks, there used to be a brickworks in Chilwell. So, I’m on the lookout for a Chilwell brick. And I’d quite like to make a very simple Chilwell brickworks book, one that folds out into a broad sheet, maybe. Something like that, with lots of bricks. And of course, with letters on those bricks. These are the kind of ideas that are floating in my mind at the moment.
Anything concrete you are working on at the moment?
I am part of the Bookness Collective. There’s eight of us, all with different backgrounds. We’ve got printmakers, photographers, collage artists, poets, graphic design… It’s a great combination of people.
I am currently working on a matchbox book for our group. Our poet has given us a half written poem, just some words, really. I’ve picked some of the words out and am going to add pebble prints … [shows me the book in the photo above]
This was made in lockdown. It’s a crown binding and closes with magnets. These prints can be taken out individually. They are all little lino prints.
I’m going to print similar pebbles for this new book, but I’m going to try and evolve them.
I am very much looking forward to seeing what will become of all that, sounds really fascinating. Thank you for your time and giving me this insight into your process today!