Reading material in Crawley’s brand new library building is not restricted to the pages of the books on its shelves, thanks to a series of typographic tree sculptures created by artist Gordon Young and a team of collaborators that includes design studio Why Not Associates…
The striking, cracked trees, 14 in all, are situated throughout the library building and are installed vertically, flush to the floor and ceiling to resemble supporting, structural pillars. Each tree is, in fact, a real oak trunk and displays carved passages of text from literature within the library, the typeface of each passage chosen carefully to suit the nature of the text – which is where Why Not Associates comes in.
“We worked with the selected passages of text, choosing typefaces and designing the layout,” says Why Not’s Andy Altmann of the studio’s role in the making of the Crawley Trees. “Because there were 14 trees to do, all of us in the studio got to do one.”
Young and Why Not have been collaborating on art projects since 1998, following a chance meeting five years earlier in 1993 between Young and Altmann at an arts event in Hull. “I had been working on a job that was a fish pavement installation in Hull – an A–Z of fish varieties embedded in the pavement throughout the town,” recalls Young. “Andy had got the job to create all the promotional material for the arts festival that we were creating the Fish Pavement for, so he’d been doing the posters and the marketing materials for the theatre and concert performances. And it was at the launch of a Shakespeare play in northern dialect that we actually met. I’d seen the graphics he’d done for the festival and he had seen the fish pavement work and Andy said, ‘next time you’re in London, come in’.”
The pair have been friends ever since and worked on over a dozen art installations, several of which have been featured in the pages of CR. “To collaborate interests me a lot,” says Young. “To collaborate with Andy and Why Not is dead easy because of the shared points of reference, the shared culture. There is, I think, a respect for each other’s skills and abilities – there’s an empathy.” Altmann sums up their relationship slightly more tellingly: “He’s a Leeds fan and I’m a massive Manchester United fan so we hated each other as soon as we met.”
“We get on,” Young concedes, “even when we’re talking about things that have nothing to do with art. We’re both interested in football and culture – he can tell me off or put me to rights on stuff. For example, I think The Smiths are shit, but Andy will justify his opinion that they’re not bad. The point is we have shared cultural reference points. So if I mention Kurt Schwitters I would bet that both of us have books on Schwitters at home. We can have a conversation about loads of stuff and we’ll know what each other is talking about.”
The text to adorn the trees was chosen by the users of Crawley library, thanks to research done by Anna Sandberg. “She was another key collaborator and did all the workshops with the people [of Crawley] to point us in the right direction in terms of sourcing textual content,” says Young. “She also put hundreds of questionnaire postcards in books all over the library and we got hundreds of replies naming favourite books and passages and thoughts about what was good literature”
Thinking back to that job in Hull, Young stresses its importance to his development as an artist. Young found himself working with a team of artists with the collective skills to get the fish pavement done. Previously he tended to work alone on large scale carving projects. “We started introducing lettering into the pieces we were creating in Hull because one of the lads in our team, Russell Coleman, had been taught as a letter cutter by his dad who was a stonemason. And actually he got involved with the project because he saw us working in the street in Hull, came up to me and said, ‘I could do that’.”
Coleman still works with Young, and alongside Why Not, he was a crucial collaborator on the Crawley Trees project. It was Coleman, Young reveals, who sorted out the “technical problems”.
One of said problems occurred when it came to sandblasting the tree trunks (the type on the trees isn’t carved but sandblasted out of the wood). “You put a kind of vinyl onto the wood and peel the cut lettering out of it,” explains Altmann of the process. The idea is that the particles of grit eat into the wood but bounce off the vinyl, resulting in the ‘carved’ lettering. It sounds straightforward in theory but, when Coleman and Young first attempted to sandblast the wood, the grit just bounced off it. “So we turned the air pressure up,” adds Young, “but what happened is the grit then ate into the vinyl that provides the stencil through which we were sandblasting.” Disaster? No, Coleman was able to source a specific grit and a heavier duty vinyl and then fine tune the air pressure to get the job done.
“While it might look simple, we couldn’t believe the technical complications in the job,” says Young. “Still, when you work with natural materials like stone and metal and wood, you learn this kind of stuff all the time. In every job we do there’s an element of research and development. There’s a learning curve and we carry our knowledge through from one job to the next.”