The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book
An eight-year-long collaborative project mapping friendship, imagination and courage.
We couldn’t have known, with all it’s fragments, how it would hold us together. But it has.
My sister, a friend and I began our altered sketchbook project in 2013. We all had our own sketchbooks, but we wanted a chance to create inside the same book together. At the time, we lived in different cities so the only way to collaborate was to post the book to each other. Unlike our own sketchbooks where we were used to creating on blank pages, in this book, the same story running through the pages was our common ground.
The three of us were artists of some kind in a professional capacity but this little book gave us a space to create with our hands; to cut, to paint, scribble, tear, collage, scrawl, blob and stick. It was a chance for us to play, to fail and to find joy in simple places, between pages.
The rules? There weren’t any. Create on as many pages as you want. Create on a new page or create on someone else’s page. No topic is off limits. Use any medium or technique you like. Keep the book for as long as you need.
The final outcome? We still don’t know.
Eight years ago, we couldn’t have plotted how life would unfold, with all of its twists and turns.
Can anyone read pages that they have yet to turn?
Yet, surely, slowly, carefully, we are still here; still connecting patterns, still piecing fragments together, page by page, inside the cover of the same book.
I don’t remember a lot about that year we started the project in 2013, but I do remember that I had two significant and personally poignant experiences as a photographer. The first was covering the 2013 Kenyan elections. I wanted to find out what it meant for a young voter to cast a vote for the first time and explore the hope (and scepticism) that their vote held. The second assignment was spending time with a goat farmer who lived on a remote island in Southwest Ireland. The goat farmer, Ed, had been blind since childhood. Both assignments gave me a chance to think about visibility; in Kenya, the invisibility of the poor and the viewable displays of power, and in Ireland, the invisibility of the land to a man who makes a living from it every day. I wanted to share the stories of the people I met in an honouring way. But I was aware I was using a visible medium to represent many invisible subtleties. It was tiring but I was determined.
Katie’s opening page of our altered sketchbook project was painted in such a way that it picked out words from the text underneath reading, “We wrestle with artistic weariness, but we have determination.” The words were a perfect introduction for the project.
Our creations have been parcelled up and posted between us between twenty to thirty times over the years – in fact I’ve lost count. It’s like a ‘sisterhood of the travelling pants’ but better because no one has to try and fit inside a pair of jeans.
The book is still bound inside it’s original cover. The spine has weakened over time, and we have talked about rebinding the book but haven’t; I feel a knot in my stomach every time I wrap it up and drop it into the mouth of the post box.
Each of us work into the pages using our own skills; we have diversity. My sister, Hannah Hunter-Kelm, is a printmaker and illustrator, Katie McCurrach is an illustrator and curator, then there’s me: a humanitarian photographer and occasional poet. Each of us allows the other to work over or into what we have created; we have freedom. Each of us creates alone but we are also creating together; we are collaborating.
Two months ago, the book landed in my post-box in Western Australia 9,000 miles from where it was from posted in Leeds, in the UK. I moved to Australia in early 2018 - five years into our book project. Before the Covid-19 travel lockdown I had managed to work on pages during my visits back to the UK. But this year we risked posting the book here. It arrived. In the middle of a pandemic and travel ban. It actually arrived!
I was surprised at how lightweight the book felt. It was fragile and yet so full of creations; so full of the three of us.
As I opened the parcel, tears tinged my eyes. The colours and shapes and collages on the pages were like old familiar friends. I was touching something made by the hands of people I love but they were people I could not see or hold.
The pages were flimsy, but the spine had survived.
This book project continues to surprise me. We didn’t ever really intend for anyone to see her pages, except ourselves. I’m not sure we expected it to even last this long.
Our families have grown. Our priorities have shifted. The risk of posting this precious thing on a transcontinental journey grows greater as time passes.
Her pages have become a map of sorts.
The pages have followed our lives, as we have moved from our 20s into our 30s. They have mapped world events: peace talks in Syria, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the death of Nelson Mandela, the refugee crisis, the shooting of Mike Brown, the Covid-19 pandemic and more. They have recorded my travels to Kenya, India, Eastern Europe and Chad. They charter changing styles, trying new materials, and simply playing or testing contrasting textures.
I have been surprised at how an invisible, touchable medium has been able to express such invisible bonds across time, place, and personal or global crises.
I was surprised that cut paper and folded pages made my eyes sparkle with tears.
So, here’s to finding surprise between the pages of a different kind of book; a book where diversity, freedom and collaboration are all possible.
In the words of the original author, Kenneth Grahame, on the last page of this book, our book, Dream Days,
“The whole thing was natural and right and self-explanatory, and needed no justifying or interpreting to our audience of stars and flowers.”
*This article was originally posted on Vocal.Media
Such an inspiring project, Ella! ❤️👏
I'm in love!!! 🌷 ❤️