Meet the artisan . . . she’s got mail
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Tessa Allingham steps inside the unsual world of artist Rebecca Moss-Guyver
A letter! For most of us, receiving a letter, a proper one with a hand-written address and stuck-on stamp is fast becoming a hazy, soft-focus memory, something to treasure amidst the sea of official brown correspondence or relentless marketing guff. Not so for (mail) artist Rebecca Moss Guyver.
“This came in the post this morning,” she says, handing me an exquisite, hand-made envelope, a tactile, intriguing, playful, feast of an envelope. Never mind what’s inside, outside there’s collage, stitching, paint, pen and ink sketching, plenty to interest, feel, excite. “It’s from Carina in Helsinki. She sends me art quite regularly. Beautiful, isn’t it.” Rebecca has never met Carina – or Simon who sends her art from Tring, or Marie in Japan who sends meticulously crafted books, embellished with fragments of poetry, delicate typographic art, collaged scraps and inked stamps, or Poul from Denmark who painted a forest scene on one side of a piece of wood and wrote Rebecca’s address on the other before popping it in the post. But that doesn’t matter.
“I feel familiar with them all. You get a sense of who they are through the work they send, and you find yourself wanting to challenge and surprise them with what you send back, show them your own interests and skills. In that way, mail art is a very collaborative process. I love how it gives me licence and space to experiment, how it inspires me to try new ideas. Everything I send or receive is unique.”
I’m in Rebecca’s studio, a wonderfully high-ceilinged, light-filled space largely made out of straw bales next to her thatched cottage home in Ringshall near Stowmarket. A long worktable is all but invisible under artist paraphernalia – pots of pens, pencils and brushes, old biscuit tins bursting with mail art missives filed by sender, books, sketches, magazine cuttings, coffee cups, books and more books, including her own handmade sketchbooks created using the leather bindings of old volumes. There are some of her own doodle notebooks in the making too, the diminutive, colourful ‘journals’ that combine pictures, patterns and words and that are sent around the world in response to pieces she receives from fellow mail artists.
When she’s not distracted by what the postman brings, Rebecca works more conventionally in pastels, exploring light and colour in garden, interior and still life compositions. Framed works cover the walls with more pieces propped up around the room. She tends to work small, packing a lot of detail into sometimes tiny canvasses.
“I’m trying to work big,” she says. “I feel my work somehow ought to translate onto a bigger canvas but whenever I do that, it feels empty to me. I reckon it’s because I’m a mother! I’m used to fitting things in!”
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In the midst of the busy-ness of her work space, Rebecca manages to remain a calm presence. She’s thoughtful, reflective, appears to practice mindfulness without giving it the weight of the word. She has explored this concept deeply in recent months in preparation for Did You Notice?, the exhibition currently hanging in Stowmarket’s community health centre, Stowhealth, which explores the power that visual art has to improve wellbeing.
The art – all of it for sale – is that of eight members of Suffolk Open Studios (SOS). Pieces bring colour, life and interest to the otherwise functional corridor walls of the health centre: there are Lucy Perry’s strikingly bold, colourful irises; Emma Buckmaster’s brooding etchings of Suffolk coastal scenes; intricate works by silk screen artist Annabel Ridley. Rebecca has hung a collection of her trademark pastels: eight gentle, appealing, Suffolk countryside scenes. “Art really does have the potential to enhance wellbeing,” she says, reflecting on the words of popular philosopher Alain de Botton excerpts from whose book, Art as Therapy, are part of the exhibition. “He argues that we can use art to make up what’s missing in our lives, and that if art is presented well it can provide an environment in which we will feel better.”
Rebecca brings a similarly thoughtful approach to her work with primary school children. She often describes herself as an ‘artist-educator’, and clearly thrives on passing on her skills and passions and encouraging others to engage with their own creativity through teaching, workshops and SOS open studio days. Not surprisingly, books feature in the work she has done with children who have created journals crammed with collage, words, poems, drawings, paintings, each one unique though all thematically linked.
“It’s amazing what children come up with when their imaginations are allowed to take over,” she ponders, showing me some examples of the work. (She would love to work with the elderly, she adds, exploring how journal-making can help preserve memory.)
Rebecca brings new ‘experiments’ into schools, opening children’s eyes to the possibilities of unexpected materials. Take fused plastic, which they love working with, she says. The plastic is simply rubbish that Rebecca picks up on walks or saves from the recycling bin at home and there are scraps of it by the tub-load under her worktable, broadly filed by colour. If not used to create book covers for the children’s journals, the ‘trash’ will be given a proud new lease of life, colourful pieces cleaned, fused (she has a mini ironing board and iron to hand) and stitched together to create vividly-bright patchwork art, mounted, framed and titled. “It’s all trash!” she laughs. “I’m always pocketing scraps of plastic, I rarely throw stuff out. You never know when it might be of use.” Discarded trash it may have once been, but in Rebecca’s careful, clever hands the humblest of materials becomes something very beautiful indeed.
See Rebecca’s work at www.virtualdrawinggroup.blogspot.co.uk and at the Stowhealth clinic, Stowmarket www.stowhealth.com until January 11, 2016. You can see her plastic and pastels at The Sentinel Gallery,Wivenhoe, until January 10, 2016. Rebecca blogs at www.thepostalledger.com. She welcomes commissions.