“I have something to do and I’m still doing it.”
“The sketchbook is an idea space.”
Iain Machell’s view of a sketchbook is broad and his personal application of it is wide. Having been introduced at a young age to a diary by his parents, he drew connections to his school notebooks and the notebooks of the well-known in the collection at the British Museum. “I remember the British Museum. We went up there and saw lots of things like the journals of Charles Dickens and the notebooks of John Lennon. You sort of think this is how those people think. It validates the whole concept of keeping a notebook.” Tools for thinking. A habit and a means of tracking and sorting. A space to play and to plot out. “You look at any artists work and soon you’re going to see sketches.” These early observations gave him permission to apply the same definitions to his sketchbook. “It wasn’t a difficult journey to include the visual.”
Iain has moved his collection of sketchbooks from country to country, state to state, and city to city. Filing them in date order allows him to easily see his thinking as far back as high school, his earliest collection of ideas. This is not just a theoretical possibility. He actually undertakes a historical review of his books every few years. Looking back, he’s able to see recurring forms, marks, and ideas, the visual equivalent of a regional accent. Just because you’ve relocated doesn’t mean you’ve rid yourself of your local sound. You haven’t. You have access to it when you revisit your place of origin.
These visual reminiscences offer Iain the opportunity to connect his past and present selves, to see what he keeps bringing forward, even if years separate the initial concepts from the present day. Each experience of revisiting the sketchbooks is different: he’s in a different place in his work when he makes the call back to the past. As you’d expect, some ideas recede and others advance.
As he begins a new sketchbook, he often summarizes on the first few pages the ideas he deems worthy of continued pursuit. Having gathered them in a thoughtful manner from earlier sketchbooks, he gives them the honor of formal relocation to the new book.
During our conversation, he shared many deeply considered ideas. One I have referred to often since our talk comes from the time he was the Head of the Sculpture at Monserrat College in Beverly, MA. He lived in a small apartment in Boston and the university had no space to offer him as a studio. “I had no studio. I had to rethink how I work. So, I decided the sketchbook was the studio. I would regularly sit in coffee shops and try to make that be my little walk to the studio by opening the book.” The two-dimensional pages became the walls, the floor, and the ceiling for the short-term installations he had been creating in the non-sketchbook world. The sketchbook-as-studio offered the opportunity to almost fully work out each piece. He realized various perspectives of the art throughout the pages, and included his notes about the idea, the measurements of the piece, material lists, cut lists, and possible venues. “Everything in there was something I could have been working on if I had a studio.” By the time he had a studio again, the projects were further along in their visualization because they had landed on paper first. These deep dives in his “studio sketchbook” enabled successful creations and installations in exhibition spaces.
Another specific sketchbook experience was his involvement in the International Drawing Circle, now defunct. The director of the program selected a small pod of artists. Each artist in the group received a blank sketchbook. In an exquisite corpse manner, but without rules that could inhibit the project. Each artist worked on several pages before sending the sketchbook to the next artist, who then had the opportunity to respond to the previous artist’s visual notes. The reactions could take any form -- manifesting a response directly “on top of” an artist’s marks, next to it, pages away from it, scabbing in a foldout page adjacent to it, or even totally ignoring what the previous artist(s) had done. The book traveled full circle through the group and, if you were lucky, came back to its originator, who would be able see exactly what had happened at each step. Participation in this platform touches on one important value artists place on sketchbooks: privacy. Saying yes to a drawing circle shifts the identity of a sketchbook from a safe space of private exploration to performative, finished work of art.
Iain often travels with a sketchbook and a small kit of materials. Sometimes his mode of transportation, often a train, is a conscious choice related to his work. “Sometimes the travel is inspirational. You’ve got the time to get lost in it.” The blurred motion of movement releases him from the day-to-day, giving him space to think about his work, to let his mind move freely from idea to idea.
Mostly Iain’s sketchbooks are a repository that keeps his thinking from being lost. “They’re an aid to thinking. A way to see where you’ve been and where you’re going.” Captured with expert skill and experience, his thinking is safe, stored between hardbound covers of varying sizes, spanning decades. Each book is like a terabyte of memory.
The physicality of drawing in the book doesn’t mean he’s a purist. He isn’t. He’s also an avid taker of photos. “The phone camera is particularly useful as a sketchbook. You see something you want to capture and save. It’s the principle of a sketchbook.” As for most of us, his iPhone serves as an easy go-to, but I’m confident one difference between Iain and the majority of us is that he regularly downloads his images, sorting them into a more accessible means for his consumption.
Iain has cultivated his use of sketchbooks over decades. He is constantly moving through time within their pages. “You’re on the road to find out. It’s a journey. You’re playing just to see what happens next.” The sketchbooks are unending conversations with multiple threads tying his past to the present, the present to the past, and the present to the unknown. His insatiable curiosity keeps all aspects of his creative life and his life captivating. “I don’t know if I’ve cultivated or learned it along the way or it’s just my nature but I can’t shut up with ideas.”
Would you like to know more about Iain and his work? Visit him at iainmachell.com
@spacesforthinking is made possible by Shout Out Saugerties' Susana Meyer Creative Arts Award. Thank you!!