Put it simply – Draw me a sheet: the manuscript as an artistic research tool

Contributed blog post by Nathalie Sebayashi and Estelle Henriot

The first artistic act : research

Artists, designers, and most professionals working on artistic projects generate a lot of notes, drawings, schematics, and, in a nutshell, documentation in order to create one project.

This documentation is often a mix of handwriting, drawings and pasted printed ephemera (that is “the minor transient documents of everyday life”, Maurice Rickards in Collecting printed ephemera, p.7). Many of those “notes” happen during the process of making a piece of art, and when it is found, this documentation may be shown together with the artwork, even become an artwork (for example the conceptual art movement).

Many art curators and art historians study them as it helps them understand the way “art is done”. However personal notes, even well organized, are first and foremost intimate objects, and often remain obscure to an external reader. Some artists choose to emphasize this practice by exhibiting it and making it the centre of attention. In those cases, this documentation (whether one or several notebooks or a pile of waste-like matter), held closely by a person during the creative process, is offered to the public eye. The artists themselves can take this into consideration, blurring further the frontiers between public and private space, professional and personal matter. Just like diaries, the act of making notes can be more thought of and performative as one might think. These boundaries are particularly blended while artists write about professional or personal thoughts : as notes about the artwork can become the artwork itself, personal can become professional precisely because it has been archived. This particularity is a starting point for us to determine differences and similarities between artistic, scientific, or personal research, but also to seek a definition of the status of these notes and notebooks.

Little is known however of the concrete elements in this everyday research guiding the creation of notebooks. Far from aiming at an exhaustive investigation of the subject in 20 minutes, we propose a short overview of what artistic research is made of materially, focusing on our practices: how we make it, how this matter is used, what is discarded, what is kept, how do we make choices, etc. Moreover, it often happens that we start creating without knowing the final form our project will take, therefore this stage of creation is also a moment of decisions and directions. It can even have an influence on these choices : you won’t create the same way by sourcing your thoughts in a book, a wall, or little pieces of paper. You can lose it, rewrite it, order it differently; then really banal details, anecdotes, everyday life, can make a difference to your creative aim. Through these ways of writing/thinking, the artwork can be concretized as a straight line or as a maze.

The shape of artistic research

As in any other process, artistic research has a lot to do with walls or boards full of pictures, clippings and notes, desks covered with books, papers of all sorts and tools; in other words visual chaos that only its creator can make sense of.

Another way is to keep either one notebook for each project, or an everyday notebook where lists of groceries and dates for medical appointments encounter ongoing artistic thoughts. A lot of people have both, one very personal and deemed unimportant regarding art matters, and another, more professional, dedicated to one project, that can be shown to the public eye without embarrassment. In either way, those books are personal, and the presence of the author is often needed to fully comprehend what’s what.

These notes we are speaking about are fundamentally handwritten. Firstly because they can be taken at any moment, and because the hand impact allows a lot of various subtleties in the archives informations’ nature : drawings, scribbles, temporal order apparent… Also, it may already contain a part of the artwork’s “soul”.
The graphic and readable aspect of the writings is an essential component of their shape. These aspects lead them in their proper creation process to be thought of as potentially public pieces of ideas, or at the opposite as very drafty questions. It can also influence their importance in the whole process of creation.

Those two embodiments of an ongoing research are not to be considered as opposite, in fact, at the end of a creative process, an ensemble of various documents can be pasted or bound together to form a book, therefore becoming archives. The book is one of the best designs to keep sheets of paper and manuscript scrap. It is moreover a historical form for containing and distributing knowledge, which allows its conservation sometimes through the ages. Books can also be a formal way to make visible the artistic process. Notes and diagrams graphically reworked will become visual embodiments of the creation process, and go from ephemeral to perennial in this sanctified shape of the binded book. 

Keeping the research we have made in notebooks, or scrapbooks, is a representation of the way we think, or thought, and the solutions we found when in lack of inspiration. When turning the pages of our past notebooks, we see evolution of style but also of time.

The research often becomes thoughts and matter intricately webbed in the final work. So, what we could call “essence” of art could be found in such processes. Texts become graphics, or images, symbols; and all these pieces of thoughts put together can finally be the flesh of an artwork.

2 artists, 2 approaches

Estelle Henriot is a French artist and bookbinder, who works and lives in France, between Paris and countryside. She splits her work time between several practices and places. For her artworks, she focuses on reciprocation between individuals and their environment, using links with other research fields, as science. She is also making crafts for artists’ books, and classical bookbindings. She has worked in an artistic collective during several years, and often leads artistic workshops with youngs and adults. 

Nathalie Sebayashi is a crafty French who has an illustration degree and is currently a PhD student focused on scrapbooking practices in XIXth century french homes. She works and lives in Paris, France. Her practice gathers stories for illustration fanzines, and multiple works such as engravings for rubber stamps, collage works and reappropriation of ancient art. Her theoretical approach aims at understanding better the way printed images are used in concrete situations, such as in an album, questioning gestures of appropriation such as collecting, cutting, pasting, coloring and well, making a book (layout and narration).

Through two examples chosen among our art works, we would like to present our way of researching regarding 1/ an art piece and a book exhibited in 2020, and 2/ six pages of illustration made for a fanzine published in 2013.

By detailing the material and critical approaches taken through the process, we will try to explain what these images are made of. By those examples, we aim to render our mysterious notes chatty and find a meeting point between makers and viewers.