I’ve known Melbourne artist Nicholas Jones since the early days of The Design Files, when I first discovered his incredible book sculptures. Though (unfortunately) often copied, Nick has been using books as his primary art making material since around 2000 (or, as he likes to say, ‘since the turn of the century’!). Drawing on their titles or subject matter as a reference point, Nick transforms the pages and faded cloth covers of antique books with mathematic precision. The resulting sculptures are captivating, and endlessly varied.
Nick works from a studio on the 6th floor of Melbourne’s iconic Nicholas Building. ‘People often say how poetic it is that I am based in the building which shares my name. I think it is pretty great’ Nick says. In fact, it’s perfect. With his passion for history and endearingly old fashioned sensibilities, Nick and his books are perfectly at home in this grand, dilapidated 1920s building, steeped in Melbourne history.
I’ve always felt that Nick was kind of born into the wrong era. He’s a lover of old fashioned things – the Domed Reading Room at the State Library, for instance, and the Melbourne Athenaeum Library on Collins St, Established in 1839. He’s also brilliantly articulate – I implore you to read his responses below in detail, because this interview alone has taught me at least 3 wonderful new words (‘carouse’ = to drink plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoy oneself with others in a noisy, lively way!)
Nick’s latest exhibition ‘Author and Finisher’ is a survey of his book sculptures created over the past four years. The show’s title is taken from a section of Abraham Lincoln’s seminal Lyceum address in 1838, which famously began with the line…’From whence shall we expect the approach of danger’!
Author and Finisher by Nicholas Jones
Kozminsky Gallery until July 8th
421 Bourke St, Melbourne (Cnr. McKillop St.)
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?
I studied a Bachelor of Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, where I majored in Sculpture. I then continued at RMIT University where I completed my Master of Fine Art. Finally, I studied a post graduate Diploma of Education. Teaching is a crucial element of my practice.
How did you first get involved with paper art and sculptures, and how would you describe your work?
I see my work, ultimately, as a love letter to the history and future of the book. The time I began working in this manner, primarily with books, was just before the turn of the century and people were discussing the death of the book and the rise of the internet. This time proved the perfect backdrop to make work which discussed the value of information and the manner in which it is disseminated.
I had two particularly influential lecturers at VCA, Fiona Orr and Elizabeth Presa, who impressed upon me the value of experimentation and play in the arena of studio practice. Elizabeth Presa was making sculptures with discarded books and this gave me the idea to try book alteration for myself.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? How do you go about making your sculptures, from selecting the right book, to the carving and folding process?
Sometimes the size, shape, title, subject or binding of the book presents me with a suggestion of what should be done with it. When I hold a book it is like communing with its past, and calling into focus its potential future. Old books have an almost animistic quality to them. The hands through which they have passed always gives me pause to consider whether I am doing the right thing.
The time it takes to complete each work is a curious one, as I work in a very slow fashion. I liken my art making to slow cooking. It is slow art. The Arte Povera artists, Pistoletto, Kounellis and Penone were always a great inspiration as they used readily accessible material to make beautifully poetic work.
Tell us a little bit about your upcoming exhibition. What inspired this body of work, and how long has it been in the works for?
The exhibition combines a great number of works which I have created over the past four or so years. Working with the brilliant folk from Kozminsky has given me free rein to include a number of new and older works. It is really a survey show.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
There is no typical day. Apart from my studio practice I am also a teacher, bringing my book sculpture workshops to many schools in and around Melbourne. I have also worked as an artist in residence in schools, and I find engaging with children one of life’s great joys. There are many things I could be doing, consulting, teaching, taking a tour group around Melbourne, or enjoying a coffee and a crossword puzzle.
Walking is a constant for me, and no day is complete without a good constitutional stroll.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
My great friend and collaborator, Tai Snaith who works in a unique and interdisciplinary fashion, producing everything from engaging children’s books to painting and ceramics.
I have been involved with an immersive Theatre project called the Boon Companions, who play with historical contexts and social mores, producing unforgettable results.
Alexis Winter is young Melbourne creative, who makes endearing and witty illustrative works, which make sharp comments on contemporary existence.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
I love visiting the marvellous State Library of Victoria, which is like a cabinet of curiosities for me.
There are many great instagram accounts from libraries around the world, but my favourite is from the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto.
Kay Craddock Antiquarian Booksellers on Collins St is a place to get lost in thought and a moment of reverie.
Visiting the Salon Room at the National Gallery of Victoria (International) is always such a visual feast and the style of hanging provides me with aesthetic prompts.
I have always been a great collector of LPs and the ceremonial act putting a record onto the turntable can often spark an idea to life.
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
I was a Creative Fellow at the State Library of Victoria a few years ago, which was a rare and wonderful opportunity to be surrounded by information in all its guises. The Fellowship ended with the exhibition, ‘A Conspiracy of Cartographers’, held in the central display cabinets of the Domed Reading Room. As a young man, I would study in this space, and 20 years later, exhibiting my artwork there was a true honour and privilege.
Also, Julia Ciccarone painted me for the Archibald Prize by in 2013 which was a wonderful and slightly surreal experience to wander around The Art Gallery of New South Wales and find an image of myself on the wall.
What would be your dream creative project?
Collaborating with a major institution such as a museum, library or gallery to produce a large scale work, bringing into question the manner in which people live and why society has become so expedient.
What are you looking forward to?
October sees the 5 year anniversary of my kidney transplant. After a life altering experience like that, each day must be viewed as a gift.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I have been living around Fitzroy and surrounding suburbs for the past twenty years and always find it incredibly inspiring. As the first suburb built in Melbourne, Fitzroy is brimming with life and history, and although changing rapidly, always has a story to tell.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
I love eating at Pinotta A wonderfully warm and intimate setting to eat and carouse. A contemporary spin on classic Italian fare. They do great slow cooked dishes and the wine list is fantastic.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
I love breakfast at either Alimentari or Marios on Brunswick St. Quite often you will find me taking groups of people on walking tours of the lanes, arcades and alleys of the CBD in Melbourne. I work for Hidden Secrets Tours and love the opportunity to share my love and knowledge of the history and culture of Melbourne.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
There are so many quiet and lovely spots in Melbourne that it is difficult to pick one, but if push comes to shove, I’d choose the Melbourne Athenaeum Library on Collins St. Established in 1839, The ‘Ath’ provides a welcome environment to sit and ponder the goings on in the world, and to plan my next move…