Talking Back to Books

December 17 2016
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Marginalia is how we talk back to books.


As a student at art college, I first remember coming across books that had little notes, highlighted paragraphs and even small drawings in them. Other people had made their mark by recording the connections to their own thoughts and ideas in the margins, and between the lines of the authors printed words. 

It was shocking to me that a book could be treated in this way, but it made me realise that these pages were adding extra layers of meaning, connected to the original book. These individual books had there own stories to tell beyond the original intention of the author.
Marginalia | Cobina Gillitt, Ph.D

Reading Between the Lines

Tucked into the white space between and beside lines of text, Marginalia embellishes the pages of books with annotations, corrections, connections, additions, interactions, decorations, illustrations and often questions. 

“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” 

Medieval scribes added them to illuminated manuscripts with intricate and symbolic pictures and patterns. Often, the scribes had fun by adding humorous and rude illustrations which were surprising given the subject of the books.

The Parchment is hairy, the ink is thin, thank God it will soon be dark!

Notes in Manuscripts and colophons made by medieval scribes and copyists
At different points throughout the history of paper, the medium has been so costly that publication was a great accomplishment and therefore other authors would sometimes write whole stories in the margins of a colleague's book just to be published in some way. The physical book tells us another story about its existence and the people that read, or used it - it has a life of its own. 
Humument by Tom Phillips.

Tom Phillips - Marginalia as an Artwork.

Artist, Tom Phillips set himself a challenge  to alter every page of a second hand book which he bought for threepence in 1966. This developed into his life's work, and he has created fascinating artworks from each page that he has made using collage, painting and cut-up techniques. The book has a second life and a new story to tell.

A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, was originally published in 1892 and was transformed into what Phillips calls, The Humument.  As with marginalia, the work embellishes both the original printed words and often the margins of each page. The old book remains ever present whilst the artists story and ideas are woven in, over and around Mallock's words.

Illustrating Music - People Too.

The Russian artist duo known as 'People Too' are well known for their paper craft online. In one of their projects they use old sheet music to draw illustrations on, creating a different kind of marginalia. These delightful illustrations show a variety of everyday activities including dinner and dancing, work and play which are full of life and energy.

Marginalia on Musical Notes by People Too

Make your Mark, Have your Say. Be Heard.

Marginalia has been a very physical activity in that marks are made directly on an object -  a book. But on the internet, people nearly always have the opportunity to make remarks, post images or share ideas within a post, article or blog. We can all contribute to the life of anything which is published on line. 

The only difference is that we don't write or draw directly over a page, between lines or, in the margins. Also, this kind of 'marginalia' is not as aesthetic or visually expressive. But, it is about making those connections between author and reader, asking questions and solving problems.
A page from a Bible Journal By Valerie Sjodin

Drawings help people to work out intricate relationships between parts. 

(Christopher Alexander)
Drawing and using a pen or pencil to make a mark seems to have a very direct connection to the way we can express ourselves as humans. Handling a brush with wet ink, applying pressure when shading with a pencil, crossing things out energetically, or the sound of a pen on paper. These have a profound connection to our body, senses and feelings.  That is why notebooks, journals and a good pen are still really desirable tools to use today.

Whilst researching this blog post I came across Bible Journals. In these books you are given the opportunity to draw, write and make art in the margins and on the words of a specially designed Bible. 

So, we go from medieval monks making humorous drawings in illuminated manuscripts to being encouraged today to using the act of making art to connect and reflect on the word of God.  Sounds like fun!

More Interesting articles and information about marginalia:


BBC Radio programme about marginalia, here.

Article from the NewYorker, here.

20 Bizarre examples of Medieval marginalia here 

7 Pieces Of Fascinating Marginalia From a forgery of William Shakespeare’s signature to a queen’s love note asking not to be beheaded. here

The Force of Words!

November 15 2016
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The Artist Aleta Michaletos, used words from newspapers to create positive feelings of hope in very uncertain times. (Below)

Lovers - Loving - Loving By Aleta  Michaletos

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.”   
 Confucius


Words, powerful words that strike deep into the subconscious can effect our lives our behaviour and ultimately the direction our lives take. The news we hear every day in the media, newspapers and from each other,  determines the mood and feeling of large numbers of people. .

We only get newspapers once a week in our house,  but if you read certain publications and think for a moment about which headlines are positive and which are negative, it can be a bit shocking. We all hear about how the government, politician's and the media use fear to manipulate feelings and events.

Because I use words in my art all the time, I often contemplate this subject and recently came across an artist that went out to find the light amongst the darkness of the news headlines in her time. Aleta Michaletos' project, 'Precious Circle' changed her life.



“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” ― George Orwell, 1984

In South Africa during the 1980's the country was in flames and a state of emergency had been declared. There was very little good news in the newspapers and fear and horrors were a daily occurrence. In 1989 Michaletos decided to respond to this 'vicious circle'  of hatred and negativity by creating collages which she called 'Precious Circle'.

After days of deep introspection and  thought Aleta decided that she would make her 'enemy' her 'friend', by not letting the press influence her thoughts. Instead of criticising the press, she took responsibility for what she focussed on.

Aleta, decided to collect clippings only from positive stories and headlines from the South African newspapers. She sorted these into themed categories such as  happiness, winning, beauty, success, dreams, religion, moral values, peace and hope, before creating aesthetic collages.





Increased Blessings

Even though the future was very uncertain in South Africa and Nelson Madela was still in jail, Michaletos had absolute faith that her project could transform and attract a change. Eventually, she became aware of increased 'blessings' in her life and was then invited to, Schloss Ettlingen, in Germany, 1991 to exhibit her work. She was developed a conviction that by performing her daily ritual, she was ‘magnetizing’ herself in a positive way.

Everyday she worked with passion and energy concentrating intently on the positive and optimistic. She would  even cut out words such as 'unhappy' or 'unlucky' and cut off the 'un', in order to transform them into 'happy' or 'lucky'. Each day became a prayer or meditation in positive thinking.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President. This was ‘the sign’ she was waiting for, the newspapers of May 10 and 11, contained all the positive words she had been looking for! Her 'Precious Circle' was completed, and she had made 50 collages that spanned over 22 metres!

Here are some more innovative artists who use collected and found materials that include words, to create artworks that might also tell a story. (below) 



Words that Linger in the Heart

In the same way that a book or article can tell a story, a painting can also evoke emotions and feelings that tell a story of their own too. Aleta Michaletos has combined these in her artwork and all 50 of the collages tell of the struggle her country and she personally went through.

Using gratitude and a positive approach to situations and everyday life makes a huge difference in peoples lives. The simple act of noticing or even writing down the things we are grateful for can affect the outcome of our day or in the long term our whole life.

"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination" Nelson Mandela



Tom's Story - My painting made from the words of Tom's Life Story
A Challenge for You!

My challenge to you this month is to look for the positive stories and words in this weeks newspapers and create your own collage that shines a positive light on the world today! You could collect the words from one newspaper on one day, or many newspapers over a week or month!

If possible focus on a theme as Aleta Michaletos did in her collages. Send in your artwork to and I will display your entry. The winner will receive a print of my latest text painting Winter Evening, which was inspired by the poetry of John Clare. (Below)
Winter Evening, painting inspired by John Clare's poem by Jamie Poole

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