Freebound and Spiralling
She calls herself a skilled maker; one-time weaver to Henry Moore, Helen Gibbs tells of her passion for creating beautiful books and how she discovered her origins in the outback.
To be specific, she is a bookbinder, but the title's a bit bland for someone who creates books out of the natural environment that are astounding works of art in their own right. They are books to be seen, felt, sniffed and occasionally they can be read.
Her workshop in The Drive, Hove has a big bay window with views of trees. Buckets, smocks, blocks and a printer's lead cabinet suggest her books are slowly birthed and not stuck together in five minutes. Indeed, the making process is very much in evidence in the completed book, it still has that raw, organic quality - it is still half part of nature.
Bookbinding, however, is the second string to her bow. She initially trained as a tapestry weaver at West Dean, a specialist college outside Chichester. The last owner of the West Dean house was the eccentric Edward James, "a society bloke" who was a patron to Salvador Dali. The artist's sofa in the shape of Mae West's lips used to reside there before it went to Brighton Museum. "Whenever Edward James needed a bit of cash, he would sell a Dali." There still exists in the house the unspoken of "middle room" which does much to sustain the legends of its exotic history.
Helen took a degree in tapestry weaving at Edinburgh College of Art. In 1984, she got the job at West Dean Tapestry Studio, joining a small team of weavers producing woven tapestries from selected drawings by Henry Moore (surely better known for his sculptures of missile-shaped women?). The studio is renowned for the interpretations of nearly thirty of his drawings. "Henry was intrigued by the work but didn't climb on board the loom!" She has also been to his converted barn in the wilds of Hertfordshire where many of the tapestries now hang. "With all those cosy sheep everywhere, it's like walking round one of his portfolios." she said.
When Helen left Chichester a year later, she went to the real wildback, Australia. " It was my childhood dream from the age of six... because it's the farthest you can go. In fact, the whole of Australia is like a riotous real-life tapestry, ragged and colourful. It's a great place... bit weird... I learnt that this (Britain) was my home. I ended up longing for this land - it gave me a sense of my origins."
"There's an apathy in this country which I felt didn't exist in Australia"
" There was the mood there that if you had an idea you could do it. Over here, you've got to get the right piece of paper or licence. there's an apathy in this country which I felt didn't exist there." Why? "Perhaps it's because their sky's bigger. They don't have the same history or class attitudes - they embrace their art culture."
It was around this time that Helen was getting restless about the slow pace of tapestry, with the kind of work she was getting and not being able to express her own ideas. She saw some examples of marbled papers on the cover of Craft magazine - vibrant turquoise and orange tangled in exquisite rhythms. "I did a paper-decorating course and had piles of marbled paper. Somebody suggested I did bookbinding so I used some papers to make up books. It had never occurred to me that you could make a book before. I got excited, wounded up with the mystery of it all."
By chance, she saw a job ad for a book renovation project - "It changed my life". It inspired her to take the (now defunct) Certificate in Bookbinding course at Brighton Polytechnic.
She is presently settled in Brighton, a place where she feels she has been able to grow and which has got the appreciative audience for her work needs. Currently, she is engaged in seeding more books and working on ideas for the Book Art competition at Brighton University in May. "I work for myself, developing my own ideas towards exhibitions. The work I do for money includes work with Archers' Photographers in St James's Street, Kemptown. We make wedding albums. You can usually see the work we do in the window." She also runs specialist workshops in bookbinding.
There has been in recent years the rise of the "artist book", or art in a book form. In this area, she works as a book-creator, evolving the book that best suits the artist's intention and artwork within. She has collaborated on an artist book with Marion Charles of the Fiveways Artists Group, a muralist whose outsize drawings are cleverly conveyed by Helen's folding book. But the biggest local showcase for handmade books is clearly Brighton Bound, a collective of book-artists, binders and papermakers who have exhibited their practical books, artistic sketchbooks, limited edition artists' books and binds at the Royal Pavilion.
Helen's own books are rather book objects, like her calendar waterwheel, scroll-makers and codices. They are not books to pick up and read but to enjoy materially, sensually. She likes to expose the structure of her books, to have the inside on the outside.
"All potential books that are lying under our feet!"
"The book form is so vast," she enthuses, "I go for a walk and collect leaves, bits of sticks - all potential books that are lying under our feet!" Pink leaves decay by the window, twig-books grow up from a work desk. "I am intrigued by the form of a book," she says, "it can be so delicate," Looking at her books, one can make the link between her background as a weaver and her new-found vocation as a bookbinder, in the fibrous textures and strong patterns.
"The book is such a powerful thing - it is a treasure - it can hold inspiration. yet we shouldn't take it for granted. We should afford it a much higher honour, it is a never-ending thing. In the expanding universe of things, there are lots of books out there floating and waiting to be made... and I'm looking for them."
It suddenly occurs to me you cannot shut most of her books and that is quite a beautiful thing - they are permanently open and mysteriously alive.
If you wish to contact Helen you can send e-mail
This article is copyright © Ross Clifford 1996. Page created 15 June 1996,
Last updated 22 December 1996
This article is copyright © Ross Clifford 1996.
Page created 15 June 1996,
Last updated 22 December 1996