Graphic artist Daniel Weatheritt loves walking his dog along the wild and windswept Northumbrian coastline where he dreams up new projects and collects flotsam washed in by the tide.
“Beaches are something of an obsession,” he says. “Much of my personal work is inspired by the coastal zone. I’m also fascinated by books as physical artefacts and the traditional methods of construction employed in their creation.”
Daniel’s studio is an orderly treasure-trove of mechanical oddments and found objects just waiting to be repurposed. Many of his creative projects are inspired by or involve the construction of 3D models and other artefacts, and he has an unusual toolkit of skills to call on, from vintage car restoration to bookbinding and woodcarving.
When organisers from the Alnmouth Arts Festival approached him last year to create a portable artwork with local schoolchildren, Daniel seized the opportunity to bring these elements together and Coastal Totems was born - a project which led to the creation of the stunning hand-crafted book featured on this page.
Working with every child aged 4-11 at Hipsburn Primary School and inspired by Alnmouth’s location on one of the most spectacular coastlines in the UK, the project focused on the creatures, objects, flora, topography and geography of the Northumbrian Coast, taking tribal totems as its visual cue. Children created unique ‘coastal totem’ designs which were hand-bound using traditional methods into a large artist’s book with a carved wooden cover and handmade clasp. This wonderful object was subsequently exhibited as part of the Festival, which draws thousands of visitors to the small coastal village every year.
"A tactile, mixed-media artefact capturing the energy of children's ideas and the beauty of the coast" Daniel Weatheritt
As Daniel readily admits, Coastal Totems was an ambitious concept, but “a book was the perfect vehicle to channel our ideas and the end result really works. It’s an artefact full of imagination and mystery and I just love that a full school was involved in its planning and execution.”
Daniel’s own planning for the project was extensive. Right from the outset he imagined the final book as an outsized volume with unique portrait-oriented pages, and his first task was ensuring design consistency by creating simple page templates for the children to use. Two full days of in-school workshops were scheduled, leaving a couple of weeks between each session for reflection and development. For the workshops, Daniel created a Randomizer resource – sets of word and shape cards linked specifically to the coastal theme that were explored by children to help develop their ideas. You can read more about this below.
Daniel also took a large selection of found coastal objects to each session, allowing plenty of time for children to explore, discuss, organise and respond. This also helped to stimulate ideas.
Many tools and procedures were involved in making this wonderful book, as Daniel explains.
“The wooden covers and book block were created in my studio. The process incorporated many complex and intricate production stages. The book block was hand trimmed with a knife and steel rule and bound on a custom-made binding press. The covers were crafted with a range of handsaws, files, chisels, sandpaper and screwdrivers and include salvaged wood panels, a custom rusted hinge, rope, a reclaimed metal closing clasp (very popular with the children!) and balsa-wood carvings."
"Finishing techniques included wood surface burning, gesso primer plus acrylic paint, tissue/PVA glue collage, watercolours, pencil, drawing ink, contact adhesive and matt varnish.”
Interestingly, only one electric tool was used on the project: a hand-held jigsaw to cut out the oval shape on the front cover.
The final outcome is a testament to Daniel’s skill and sensitivity. Coastal Totems is a robust and appealing book of artwork in which each image has been placed to maximum advantage, allowing ideas to flow and develop throughout.
The initial concept for the project came from Daniel but the children were enthusiastic from the outset because they found the totem/book idea easy to grasp, relevant to their interests and creatively appealing. There was a clear and achievable aim, and Daniel provided a project framework that helped them focus their creative energies and produce satisfying outcomes. Page size and orientation were predetermined, for example, and children were encouraged to create vertically zoned images. But individual creativity was also welcome: a range of media was explored, ideas zipped off in all directions and every child’s contribution was included.
“I intentionally mixed the age order, looking for subtle links in artworks for the page turns...”
In creating such a beautiful artefact to display the artwork, Daniel gave the pictures status and respect. “I think children’s artwork should be celebrated for its aesthetic beauty and because of the creative mindset children naturally have,” he says, adding that “many adults could learn an important and often-forgotten lesson just from thumbing through the pages of this book.”
Preserved and showcased in such a setting, the artwork was able to reach a wider, multi-generational audience, and the children were clearly excited by the end result. “I’ve actually worked with some of them this year as part of a different project,” Daniel says, “and it was fascinating to observe their reactions on seeing the book again. They had a genuine love and appreciation of it, carefully cradling the covers and eager to find their unique page.”
“I’m always impressed by the openness and inquisitive nature of young children. Going in, I was slightly worried that the Coastal Totems theme might be too complex, so I was really surprised to find that even the youngest children understood perfectly, asked some really intelligent questions and shared their stories of visiting the nearby beach, which has in turn inspired me in my personal work.”
As well as exhibiting the book at the Alnmouth Arts Festival, Daniel has taken it to other workshops and project meetings. As he says, “it really does blur the lines between graphic design, illustration and participatory workshops, naturally inviting questions from professionals across a whole range of creative disciplines.”
Photographing the book is difficult due to its size and the intricacy of its details and production methods, so Daniel is planning to make a video of it, to better demonstrate its physical properties. Until then, we’ve tried to show as much as possible in the photos in this blog.
Bookmaking is a great way to show children you value their work, as well as encouraging them to browse the shelves – some of the most compelling books for young children are those made with and for them by interested carers, and older children also enjoy making and reading homemade books.
The skills and techniques involved in making a book like Coastal Totems take it into specialist territory, but homemade books don’t have to be as spectacular as this to be effective. Children will enjoy a basic origami fold or zigzag book, and there are plenty of online tutorials showing how to handstitch a simple hardback book.
If you’d like to run a similar project, here are some tips to help you plan and deliver it successfully.• Keep your project simple and have a clear outcome in mind
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