Penelope Stewart: Botanical Readings

February 4, 2019

 Penelope Stewart, Botanique, artist's book, cyanotype, 2018, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

Last summer while attending a master photography workshop in Léran, France, art + reading co-editor Penelope Stewart stumbled across a nineteenth century schoolbook entitled Nouvelle Botanique. Published in 1846, the small letter-press printed book included delicate botanical illustrations intended to educate school children about the native plant species in the local French countryside. The book was in a bad state of disrepair, but though the pages were disintegrating in her hands, Penelope was enchanted. As it happened, her photography workshop included instruction in cyanotype, and the artist saw an opportunity to remake the tiny volume by carefully reproducing each delicate page using the contact photographic process. In this, Penelope drew inspiration from the ground-breaking work of nineteenth century English botanist, Anna Atkins, who used the cyanotype process for her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), considered the first published book illustrated with photographic images. 

 

Penelope Stewart, Botanique, artist's book, cyanotype, 2018, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

The earliest “blueprinting” process, cyanotype copies are produced by placing an object or image on paper treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide and then exposing it to a UV light source (such as the sun). When washed in water, the uncovered areas of paper turn an intensely dark blue. In deconstructing and remaking her tiny botanical book, Penelope meticulously cyanotyped every plate illustration and page of text onto tissue thin washi paper, playing with both the positive and negative image, so that the volume alternates between white text and images on blue paper and vice versa. The blueprinted pages were then carefully hand-sewn by a master book-binder into the volume’s original boards and binding, preserving the hand-written name of its first student-owner carefully inscribed in pencil on the inside cover. Consciously employing a historical process originally adopted by botanists, and later by architects and engineers, Penelope’s reborn book here becomes both a covetable specimen and an act of conservation in its own right; an homage to the local knowledge contained within its pages, as well as to a technological process, now largely obsolete. 

 

Penelope Stewart, Botanique, artist's book, cyanotype, 2018, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

You can view this beautiful cyanotype book in Penelope’s current exhibition at Open Studio, Toronto. Entitled Botanique, the show takes its title from the remade botanical tome, and represents work produced by the artist under the auspices of the 2018 Nick Novak Fellowship. The residency-based fellowship provided Penelope with the dedicated time and space to produce print-based work for a year.

 

Penelope Stewart, Botanique exhibition, Open Studio, 2019 photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

Penelope Stewart, Botanique exhibition, diazo prints of El Palacio Cristal in Madrid, Open Studio, 2019, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

Penelope Stewart, Botanique exhibition, diazo prints of El Palacio Cristal in Madrid, Open Studio, 2019, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

Ever a prodigious maker, Penelope also produced several wall-hung large diazo printed works as well as 2 other artist’s books during her fellowship: Echo Utopias, a hand-printed photo-lithographic study of three botanical glass houses (Kew Gardens Palm House in London, England; Kibble Palace in Glasgow; and Allan Gardens in Toronto); and cloud atlas, a diazo-printed book of fold-out cloud-maps, a cartological sampling selected from over a decade’s worth of photographs by the artist documenting the ever-changing skies. Taken as a whole, the interactive exhibition offers a close reading of Penelope’s dedicated material research and long-standing interest in utopian architecture, early photographic processes, and historical archiving and collection practices. 

 

Penelope Stewart, Echo Utopias, artist's book, lithographs, 2018

photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

Penelope Stewart, Echo Utopias, artist's book, lithographs, 2018

photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

Penelope Stewart, cloud atlas, artist's book, diazo prints, 2018, photo credit: Thomas Blanchard

 

Botanique is on at Open Studio until Saturday, February 9, 2019 (Suite 104, 401 Richmond Street West, Toronto, Ontario, open Monday-Saturday, 11 am – 5 pm, www.openstudio.ca), and is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue with an essay by Jennifer Rudder. The catalogue is available for sale ($10) at Open Studio, or by emailing us at admin@artsandletterspress.com

 

Botanique is also a featured exhibition for February on Artsy with CMS Art Projects, https://www.artsy.net/cms-art-projects/shows

 

 

 

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