Professional development is a constant process when you’re an artist. I’m sure most artists work is as much practice as practise – in that constant drive to push your boundaries and strive for the intangible thing that constantly motivates you. On top of that there’s the more mundane but equally pressing struggle to make a living out of this journey.

I’ve been making a living out of my work for over 20 years now – and I know I’m one of the lucky ones who does this without a second income from teaching or running workshops or farm labouring (all equally valid by the way) – but I’m always looking to find ways to broaden my markets and find  way into new territories.

The Fifth-size Book Adventure is a professional development programme for artists in the North East managed by Jane Shaw of People Into Enterprise, working with the Library Service in Newcastle and supported by Arts Council England. The aims of the programme are to look at ways artists can commercialise their work towards long-term sustainability in their practice; to look at ways the Library Service can exploit their assets to broaden their cultural opportunities; and to create a body of new works inspired by the collection of ‘fifth-sized’ books in Newcastle City Library.

As an artist I have a track record of realising projects outside the public arts funding system and I was asked to be part of the team of creative professional practitioners mentoring on this project. Mentoring is great thing to do. It’s a process that I enjoy – getting to know artists from very different practices, understanding where they are up to, where they want to get to, identifying the sticking points and seeing how together we can find ways to overcome them. It’s a very collaborative process and one that on one level I find really interesting. However, the process is often designed to be a very one way transfer of knowledge and support. With this programme I was also interested in how I could use this for my own professional development too, as well as supporting the artists and exploring new ideas with the Library Service. Was there a way this could be mutually beneficial for all of us at the same time?

At the heart of the programme is the collection of ‘Fifth-size’ books held at Newcastle City Library. ‘Fifth-sized’ books are very large format editions – technically books between 54 and 63cm along the longest edge. Most of these books are illustration-heavy – maps, books on architecture, sculpture and print and many on the prints of artists, but also includes Bibles, volumes of newspapers, illustrated poems and theatrical scripts.

Newcastle City Library is a relatively new building – the current library opened in 2009 and replaced a vast, but dark and inaccessible Basil Spence designed building on the same plot. When libraries up and down the country are facing cuts and closures, Newcastle City Library was conceived as a library of the 21st century and built to anticipate change – both technologically and culturally too. Libraries are no longer the sole preserve of books – they are places to find information, learn, talk to people, access services, enjoy film and music… the list continues. In short, they are a place for people.


There are many artists who teach or run workshops as a way to share knowledge and inspire others. There is an unwritten expectation that this is something artist just do. . Every publicly funded art programme seems to have an obligatory workshop element in it. Engagement. Engagement is good. There are many artists who are really good at teaching or running practical workshops with people at all levels. I’m not one of them. There really is no point in doing something badly, so I just don’t do them now. For the Fifth Size Book Adventure I needed to find another way – out of necessity.

The solution is this. A live project inspired by the Fifth Size books and the library that the artist participants can engage with if they want. This will entail creating a body of images of very temporary installations around the library building that look at the scale and function of the building – inspired by the scale and function of the 5th size book collection. The final images, along with preparatory images, sketches and text will form a limited edition 5th sized book. The entire project will be documented, blogged and the logistical process shared with the participants of the programme and the library folk. The aim of the project is to explore the potential of the library’s resources – services, collections, knowledge, architecture etc. and find new ways to engage with them for future development. It’s also allowing me to create work in a slightly different manner where the final work is of a more commercial nature.

So, I shall be blogging the process – logistics and strategies – throughout. It’s much more for an artist audience so I’ll be posting them here.

It’ll be a warts and all documentation about how it all works, with maybe a bit about the creative process too. I’ll also share method statements, outline proposals etc. where I can.

On a more practical level, I’ll be shifting my studio to the library for a week at the end of September which will be open to the public so anyone can pop in and see how the installations are made. Most of the photography will be done after hours that week, so you’ll be able to see how the final images are progressing over the course of the week too.

So, here’s where this adventure starts for me. OK, so I’ve actually been working on it for a few weeks now and we’ve already done a first site visit, discussed initial logistics and I’ve started making contacts for the book production and sales. I’ll write about that in future posts. But right now the next step is to do some initial visual ideas and do a test shoot later this week to iron out some of the practical and technical aspects.

Obviously this is an open blog, so whether you are a participant on the project or stumbling across this blog randomly, please feel free to use the comments below to discuss any part of this idea.

20th August 2017