Some years ago I found a heap of old wooden alphabet cubes dumped under a broken armchair in the attic of my (then) family home in France. The set was now incomplete and damaged, yet still colourful with lovely images. Once it would have been precious to small children eager to access books by themselves. I could not abandon these objects charged with unmitigated desire to wood worms and oblivion. I brought them back to my studio in London.
There it was stored until the exhibition's title 'Coming Up for Air' prompted a childhood memory of near-drowning. This frightening event happened at about the same time I was learning to read. And so, a free association was made and the box of alphabet cubes was brought down from a high shelf to my workbench.
These are some pages from sketchbooks where I worked ideas and researched over a couple of weeks: by how much could I scale-up the vintage alphabet cubes? What wood or other material would I use? Which paint, size, primer and varnish? Which would be the best suppliers? What words and would they be French or English? How to present the cubes - horizontally, vertically, on the ground or suspended?..
Four of the original cubes (left in the image) make the maquette for an 800% scaled-up version.
The studio shot shows the four new cubes once constructed in wood and sized, and on the wall behind, the drawings that will be painted on the cubes.
The alphabet is swapped from French to English and some images are invented to match the English version, for example 'P' for 'parapluie' becomes 'P' for 'pea'.
The new cubes will be painted with four positive four-letters' words HOPE, HERE, LEAP, LIFE that will be read from top to bottom to echo the vertical theme of the exhibition. The final work will hang from a tree at adults' eye level.
The cubes are now primed and the background of each sixteen sides is painted. This image show painting the letters and images in progress.
In relation to the pandemic crisis Alphabet Cubes reminds us that we can apply ourselves to scrutinise chaos, which, once better understood and reorganised, yields hope and life. More generally the mantra is to never give up: we can re-learn and evade threats and danger so we do come up for air.