John and Ron's artistic collaborations, and enduring friendship, spans over 40 years. They have worked on numerous projects together to push the boundaries of artists books. Both have always supported, encouraged and challenged the other. So, as John releases his new book, Lapwing and Fox, written in collaboration with the eminent writer John Berger, and introduces his new work to be shown at the North House Gallery in Essex, we have taken the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his artistic journey, his collaborations with Ron and to tell us a bit about more about his new projects...
You started out as film-maker so, how did you and Ron meet?
Ron and I met through Ian Tyson in 1975. I already knew about Circle Press but Ian introduced us. I'd been making a word and image sequence based on short phrases by Erik Satie. This had been done mostly in my spare time as I was working as a cameraman for the BBC at this point, and Ian thought Ron would like to see what I'd done. We met at Ian's Butler's Wharf studio, near to Tower Bridge – Ron's wife Willow was there too – and Ron looked at the drawings and told me he'd like to publish the sequence as a book. From then on things happened very quickly and the next weekend I was in Circle's Guildford studio working on the first photographic positives for the plates. I knew nothing about the process but Ron showed me what to do. He has said in the past that I picked up the skills of printing letterpress and silk screen very quickly and maybe I did but I had a good teacher and we worked in a very collaborative way in the studio. That word and image sequence became my first book 'Listen' (1975) and I went on to make quite a few more books with Circle Press over the next twenty years. I didn't go to art school so those first years making books, printing, organising exhibitions etc with Ron were like an intense foundation course. In 1979 I left the BBC to work full time with Ron.
Listen by John Christie for Circle Press
What made the artistic collaboration work?
My impression of the Circle workshop/studio on that first visit in 1975 was of a place full of possibilities. It was also full of printing machinery too which I wanted to know how to use. After a while I had my own space there, which Ron provided, where I set up my silkscreen bench. We generally worked on our individual projects, often separately in our own rooms, but helped each other when there was printing to do or projects with other artists to discuss or sort out. Ron was very open to different styles of work and this is reflected in the output of Circle Press, he liked working with other artists and guided many established figures through the book-making process. He also helped young and inexperienced people, including me, to produce their first book. For some it would be the only book they ever made but for others it was a step onto the first rung of the book-making ladder. The workshop was a busy place with lots of interesting visitors and of course I was soaking up plenty of practical knowledge at the same time as producing books and prints of my own.
You have been a long time collaborator with Ron and others, as well as pursuing your own projects. What draws you to artistic collaborations?
It can sometimes be a lonely business working on your own in the studio. At the workshop Ron and I did work in our own separate spaces but we were in the same building which meant that we generally had lunch together. We discussed and bounced ideas off each other as well as often printing and planning things together during other times of the day. I was also used to collaborating with different people when filming, not many films are made by just a single person working on their own, and I enjoyed the experience of being in a team. Ron has a long history of working with different writers when producing his own books and pamphlets (his joint projects with Roy Fisher stand out for me) and I followed his example, firstly with the Scottish poet Kenneth White whose long poem 'A Walk Along The Shore' (1977) became the text for my first substantial book and then a long fruitful collaborative friendship, up until he died and with the poet Gael Turnbull which resulted in a number of Circle books including: 'Nine Intersections' (1982), 'Traces' (1983) and 'As From A Fleece' (1990). Along the way I worked with Christopher Logue and Thomas A. Clark amongst others. The most significant recent collaborator is the writer John Berger and this began with a BBC film series 'Another Way of Telling' (1988) followed by the Circle Press book 'Pages of the Wound' (1994). That collaboration continues up till the present day.
A Walk Along the Shore - John Christie and Kenneth White for Circle Press
Traces - John Christie and Gael Turnbull for Circle Press
How has your own work developed? Is there a particular subject or theme that holds your gaze or that you find you return to and explore ?
I've described those first few years working with Ron at the press as akin to a foundation course which opened my eyes to lots of different work and experiences. At first I was very interested in combining words with images, I found the whole area of concrete poetry fascinating, and that first book 'Listen' comes from that. Gradually though I settled into making work based on geometric shapes, sometimes influenced by disruptive patterning as used in World War One 'Dazzle' camouflage - a system of disguising or confusing the shape of ships at sea. For these one-off works I often make painted wooden constructions or use pastel on paper. I love the density of colour you can get with pastel and producing the constructions is often the prelude to developing an image into a series of pastels.
The Book of Deception by John Christie
Tell us a bit about your upcoming show ...
My new exhibition at North House Gallery, Manningtree (8th October - 5th November) is called 'The Accordionist and Other Works' and is made up of two elements; artworks from the last two years and the launch of my new book project with John Berger called 'LAPWING & FOX', the result of a three-year correspondence between the two of us.
The artwork in the show is a combination of pastels on paper and their related painted constructions.
'LAPWING & FOX' is essentially a book of letters, John Berger describes of them as 'conversations', which complements an earlier book we did together about colour called 'I Send You This Cadmium Red' (2000). 'Lapwing' covers a wide range of ideas surrounding art and artists, drawing and painting, nature and place. As well as the close scrutiny of works by Giacometti, Modigliani, Frank Auerbach and others, and recollections of working with fellow artists and writers, the correspondence also explores a whole range of unexpectedly connected subjects, from making drawings of the dead and dying to encounters with barn owls and hares, and discussions of the mythologies surrounding them; from journeys on the Silk Road and observations of the night sky in Tajikistan to memories of the carved stone churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and meditations on angels in literature, art and film... So lots of food for thought!