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Interview with lettering artist Elizabeth Forrest

(April 06, 2009)
Interview with Elizabeth Forrest

Much to the consternation of gallery owners and managers, once in a while I allow myself to indulge my compulsion to touch. I truly enjoy art that is both visually stimulating and physically tactile.

My tastes tend to gravitate towards three dimensional art. So, when I was introduced to the beautiful and intricate work of Elizabeth Forrest, I could not help but be captivated. Her pieces are striking and, as she works in a medium that is not often employed by artists, her pieces are truly unique. Her use of texture and colour is confident, yet very adept, the richness and depth of her work evident.
Elizabeth Forest - Black Monday Lovesong
Black Monday Lovesong, Elizabeth Forrest
Her pieces are juxtapositions of different textures,  using handmade paper, sometimes with other textiles, and infusing colours, quotations and statements that are important to her - both in terms of the reactions they evoke, and as representations of her feelings on a subject at that particular time. The beautiful lettering she uses in her pieces, is applied either by painting with a fine brush or by using traditional calligraphy techniques (Elizabeth is formally trained, having completed a part-time three year Advanced Training Scheme run by the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, in addition to achieving a Joint Honours degree in Fine Art and English from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth).
She is especially interested in weathered surfaces, which, in contrast to the usual connotations of disfiguration and destruction, actually add a beauty and depth to her work. She sometimes uses unfinished or irregular materials, like skeleton-leaves, which work really well in her pieces.
Elizabeth Forrest - O Lovely Apple
O Lovely Apple!, Elizabeth Forrest
Elizabeth is a member of the Makers Guild in Wales, who exhibit their work at the Craft in the Bay Gallery, Cardiff. Her work has been exhibited widely, and to significant acclaim, most notably in 2006 when she was the runner-up in the prestigious Welsh Artist of the Year awards. Her work has featured in the publication Craft & Design, edition 173 (2005), and has been included in exhibitions at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown and the Washington Gallery, Penarth.

Examples of her work can be found in several written publications: Easel Does It Calligraphy, by Nancy Ouchida-Howells, published by Search Press Ltd 2004, in association with Harper Design International - an imprint of Harper Collins publishers; Paper, Metal and Stitch, by Maggie Grey and Jane Wild, published by B.T. Batsford, 2004; and in Paper and Beyond, a mixed media book on CD Rom edited by Maggie Grey and Jane Wild, November 2004, where she contributed Chapter 4: A way with words.


Elizabeth Forrest - But time did beckon
But time did becken to the flowers, Elizabeth Forrest
CC … Elizabeth, what first interested you in Calligraphy ?

EF … I became interested in calligraphy in the early 1990's when I began Local Authority evening classes at Cardiff High School taught by Meic Morgan Finch. Meic was a fantastic teacher and he inspired me to make contact with the Society of Scribes and Illuminators based in London. From 1994 to 1997 I followed their correspondence modules, gaining a firm foundation in scripts, materials and layouts. In 1998 I was accepted on their three year part-time Advanced Training Scheme. This course was a turning point in my life, and where my work began to really develop.

CC ... How long does your work take to produce – for example a piece such as Oh Call back Yesterday?

EF … A piece such as Oh Call back Yesterday is made entirely from handmade paper. For such pieces, I would basically set aside a morning, an afternoon or maybe a whole day to making paper. The joy of papermaking is that no two pieces will be the same and you cannot absolutely guarantee the results, so I like to make quite a lot of pieces in one session so that I can choose which ones I want to use later. The paper I make is often quite thick and heavily textured, (although I also make thin fragments), so it can take quite a long time to dry out, depending on the time of year. When completely dry it has to be treated with a fungus repellent and then primed. I don't add pigments to colour the paper during the papermaking stage but prefer to paint the prepared pieces with acrylic and gouache paints after drying.

Oh Call Me Back Yesterday
Oh Call back Yesterday, Elizabeth Forrest
EF ... I normally have a good idea of what I want to achieve with the piece worked out in rough drawings and sketches by this stage. And usually the text I'm going to use will have come to my notice first. Although not always! I would then spend time playing round with various layouts of the text - writing or drawing it out on layout paper to decide which version works best. So there is a lot of time spent making and preparing the paper and a lot of time working with the text before I’m ready to start on the final piece. After completing the final pen written or brush painted text I will assemble the whole piece. I may not be able to work continuously on one piece so a piece could take about a month or more to make.
Elizabeth Forrest - Tell me where all past years are
Tell me where all past yeares are, Elizabeth Forrest
CC ... You also undertake commissions, which means giving considerable creative control to the client? How do you feel about that?

EF … I do accept commissions but I don't find them that easy to do. My work is very personal and is based on my own emotional reactions to text. So to be asked to work with a text that I might feel very little or nothing for, can be difficult for me. Also people who want commissions sometimes have very strong views about how they see the piece and these may not be ideas I agree with or think that will work. But usually we can come to some compromise. In fact although I might start off feeling quite apprehensive I usually end up feeling that I have gained quite a lot from the experience.

Elizabeth Forrest - To love someone
To love someone, Elizabeth Forrest

CC ...My absolute favourite design is Dod dy Law. I love the visual imagery of the piece. This was also the piece for which you were nominated for the 2006 Welsh Artist of the Year Awards. Please tell us about your inspiration for the piece.

EF … I had already begun to think of putting my text on surfaces other than paper. I had just read a wonderful book called Country Dance, by Margiad Evans (published in 1932) which is where I found these lines of text taken from the first verse of an old Welsh love song. The book is the love story of a late nineteenth century Welsh woman and these lines express the anguish of a broken heart. I asked a Welsh speaking friend for a translation, as I am not a Welsh speaker, and the words immediately captivated me. I knew I wanted to use them in some way and it occurred to me that a bra would be the perfect vehicle for them. The bra is literally close to a woman's heart and I saw it as metaphorically holding the secrets of a woman’s innermost thoughts, emotions and desires. I wanted my piece of work to be as emotionally charged and as dramatic as the words.
Dod Y Law
Dod dy Law, Elizabeth Forrest

CC ... What did it mean for you to achieve such recognition for your work?

EF … It meant a lot to me to have won the runner up prize in the 2006 Welsh Artist of the Year exhibition with this piece. I thought that this piece had worked well when I had finished it, so to have this reinforced in such a prestigious way was wonderful.


CC ... The combination of colour, texture and language seems very important to you. Please tell us why you chose to combine these three mediums in your work.

EF … I respond to language in a very emotional way and instinctively I combine the words with imagery, colours and textures which I am drawn to and which I think compliment the words. I am attracted to the colours and textures found in nature - mould on a gravestone, or a skeleton leaf, for example, and also the colours and textures found in industrial landscapes - rusty metal and all the wonders to be found in derelict buildings. I use the text as a springboard for making my own personal visual statement. I am constantly looking for new ways to combine colour, texture and image with the written word.
Elizabeth Forrest - The woods decay and fall
The woods decay and fall, Elizabeth Forrest
CC ... Your use of colour is very adept. In particular, your piece entitled Tell me where all past yeares are combines some wonderfully rich colours, which, combined with the statement of the piece, makes it very eye-catching and poignant. Is it important to you that your pieces evoke an emotion or reaction in the viewer, both by your use of colour and language?'

EF … All my pieces, apart from commissions, are made first and foremost for myself. They are visual embodiments of my strong, emotional response to words from a whole variety of sources. But because I respond strongly to these texts then it is natural for me to want to bring these words to the attention of others. I am pleased if viewers can respond to the words through my interpretation of them.
CC ... Time passes is a stunning piece of work, and can be seen in a most unusual exhibition space. Could you tell us about your inspiration for the piece and if the piece is currently on show.'

EF …
Time passes uses words from Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, which I actually saw printed in an advert on the side of a bus going past one day. "Time passes. Listen. Time passes."  I wrote it down in my notebook and later got the play out of the library. I knew I had to use it somehow. At the time I had been experimenting with making paper pulp and string fragments and had already made a piece using three of these fragments. I wanted to push this further to see whether I could make a much bigger piece so the idea of making a large wall hanging came into being. I made 35 fragments, each roughly five inches square, and sewed them together with string, making seven vertical rows by five horizontal rows. I painted the text onto fragments of handmade paper. The whole piece hangs from a length of copper pipe.
I used a palette of colours which, to me, were evocative of time passing, the reds and ochres of rusty metal and the greens and greys of mould and mildew. These colours seem to evoke the very transience of life. In 2005 I was contacted by Starbucks who were refurbishing their coffee shop in Queen Street, Cardiff and they wanted to display some work by a Welsh local artist. The fact that I had used words by Dylan Thomas also appealed to them. So after spending time hanging in my living room at home, this piece now hangs in the Queen Street branch of Starbucks, on the left hand side as you enter the coffee shop. At least it was still there when I last went past!
  Elizabeth Forest - Time Passes
Time passes, Elizabeth Forrest
CC ... Another of my other favourite pieces is entitled, Experience. Is it important to you that your pieces sometimes incorporate humour as well as your considerable technical and artistic ability?

EF … Dorothy Parker, the American socialite is one of my favourite writers. A characteristic of her work is her humour, or some would say cynicism, especially when writing about relationships and men. I try to use text which reflects my views on life in general and I am interested in what happens when things go wrong in relationships or when not all is plain sailing!

CC ... I love the fact that the statement is written on the inside of the bag, only becoming visible when the bag is opened. What gave you this idea?

EF … This is a Dorothy Parker poem called Experience. I had already started to paint text on objects, with Dod dy Law. In that piece it seemed appropriate to use an intimate piece of clothing for the text. It then occurred to me that a woman's handbag is also a precious thing, full of secrets. The inside of a handbag also seemed an appropriate setting for this rather cynical view of men. A handbag can carry many secrets and seems to me to equate with the private, hidden, undisclosed feelings close to a woman's heart.


CC ... You have created another striking piece, entitled, How can I read this now?. Could you tell us about your inspiration for this piece too?

EF … I suppose this is a visual pun. How can I read this book now? - Obviously not easily when the pages are literally sewn together! There were personal reasons why I felt strongly about this particular book. Suffice to say that it had taken on very negative associations for me at this time and I felt that I wouldn't want to read it again because of them. A very emotional reaction! I was tempted to throw it away but ultimately I decided to make a piece of work out of it and literally sewed it up with wire so that I simply could not open it to read it.
Making the holes and sewing with the wire took a long time and became a therapy!

How Can I Read This Now?How can I read this now?, Elizabeth Forrest


CC ... Love and relationships seem to figure heavily in your work. What draws you to this theme?

EF … I'm interested in what people from whatever century have written about relationships. I am attracted to text which describes or hints at some of the powerful emotions which may surface during a relationship - jealousy, mistrust, hurt, loneliness, desire and physical longing. I recognise the tremendous power of love, but I'm not afraid to contemplate and explore what happens when things go wrong - the darker side of things.

CC ... The intricacy of your work is wonderful. Viewers glancing at your work, such as 'Splendid Isolation', could easily miss a subtle inclusion of detail, in this case the statement, "I don't need no-one". Is it important to you that a reappraisal of your pieces allows the viewer to see something different - some extra detail, colour or textural combination?

EF … I am fascinated by the visual impact of layers of texture enclosing or partly obscuring words so I have tried to use this in some of my pieces. I can understand why some viewers may not be aware of all of the detail at their first viewing. But the intricacy isn't simply used for its own sake, its just part of my personal, emotional response to the text.


Splendid Isolation
Splendid Isolation, Elizabeth Forrest

CC ... Your piece entitled 'Spotted Dress' was exhibited at both an exhibition entitled Undercover, at the Oriel Davies Gallery in 2006 and at the Recycled 2 exhibition at the Washington Gallery, Penarth in 2008. Do you have any exhibitions planned for 2009?

EF … I am entering a new piece of work in the 2009 Welsh Artist of the Year exhibition at St David’s Hall, Cardiff (24 May - 25 July).
I am also working on pieces for the exhibition Material Connections at the Craft in the Bay Gallery, Cardiff which opens on 30 May 2009. Five pairs of members of the Makers Guild in Wales are working together, either jointly on one piece or on their own individual pieces, sharing skills and exploring techniques. I am working with textile artist Sue Atkins and we are exploring the general theme of women and women's clothes. Sue plans to incorporate some elements of lettering in her textile pieces whilst I am using stitch and embroidery techniques, as well as using brush painted and pen written lettering. It has been a rewarding experience working closely with Sue and I am excited about the work we are producing.

Spotted Dress
Spotted Dress
, Elizabeth Forrest
CC ... Elizabeth Forrest, thank you.

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