Q&A | Martin Crawley talks about his book ‘Placing Stones’

Martin Crawley Placing Stones
Martin Crawley. Photograph by Roelof Bakker

MARTIN CRAWLEY was born in London in 1955 and has lived in the city all his life. After attending art school at Middlesex Poly, he supported his practice for many years working in animation. His work has been included in group shows at Angela Flowers (London), Manchester Art Gallery and Spacex in Exeter. He was based at Space Studios in Hackney for over thirty years; he now works from his home studio in Bow.

Roelof Bakker talks to him about his art and writing in relation to Placing Stones, an artist book that mixes sparse evocative texts with gentle pencil drawing of stones. The book is his first publication.

Placing Stones marks your return to being a practicing artist. How does it feel to be back?
I had a severe brain injury in 2003 after which it took me some time to get started again. I initially concentrated on small commissions, until I was ready to focus on new bodies of work, of which Placing Stones is the first one to see the light of day.

The stones in the book are reproduced at their actual size. You collected them during walks in the Great Britain, Spain and France. When did you start collecting stones and why and when did you begin to draw them?
I’ve been collecting stones ever since I was a child. I’ve always been drawn to their unique individuality, the difference in texture and shape and the surprising dissimilarity between stones when they are in a dry or wet state.

Between Charmouth and Golden Cap, Dorset
Between Charmouth and Golden Cap, Dorset

One of the stones (‘Between Charmouth and Golden Cap, Dorset’) was found during a family holiday in Dorset when I was eleven years old. It’s the one I treasure most. It’s actually a fossilised starfish rather than a stone.

Some years ago I was moving house and I put all the stones I collected in a shoebox. When I looked at them again a couple of years later, it dawned on me that there are many stories attached to some of these stones, like the circumstances in which I found them or the people they were connected to. The process of writing and drawing happened simultaneously, it was a new experience.

Why did you use a pencil?
I wanted a single line to define the shape of each stone, I did not feel the need to add shading or delineation. By just using a pencil line the drawings become mysterious and can be interpreted in a number of ways. I’ve been told some look like maps or brains or other body parts.

Was drawing and writing a way of accepting loss you have experienced?
Loss is an experience everyone has. It’s a part of life. To move forward in life, acceptance is important. Just because people are not here anymore, doesn’t mean you don’t think about them. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of some of the people from my past, to make sense of the lives they led. They became alive again inside my head; thinking about their circumstances on hindsight allowed me to be more understanding and perhaps less judgemental, it helped me reflect on how they impacted on my life.

I wanted to have a deeper understanding of some of the people from my past, to make sense of the lives they led.

Placing Stones Martin CrawleyWhich text means most to you?
The most sparse of the texts in the book, ‘Alistair’, one of the later texts I wrote; its approach is helping shape my current writing.

Thinking of lost plants,
imagined gardens,
then, the night,
when he finally died.
— excerpt from ‘Alistair’

It took me a while to convince you to embarks on the book project with Negative Press. The aim of the press is to make each book we publish a different proposition, a unique project. Like all thoughtful artists, you explored a number of alternative ways of presenting your work. In the end we worked closely putting the book together. Are  you contemplating presenting the art work in exhibition format at some point in the future?
I think the project works especially well in printed form, it’s a simple design that offers space for reflection. As the book derives from an original set of drawings, I wouldn’t rule out exhibiting the work; there are a number of creative options that I would consider.

Are you continuing mixing up writing and drawing as part of your practice?
I’m presently making a series of ink-based drawings. I’m writing text to go with these, but I may well end up not using the words, it may be too much.

If you could pick one person, who has most influenced your work as an artist?
Joseph Beuys: he’s inspired me since I was a young man. I’ve always embraced his unique view of the world, mixing humour, storytelling and politics with a great profundity. I respect his political commitment and his unwillingness to go for easy options, either in art or politics. Apart from being an artist, he was one of the founders of the Green Party in Germany (1980), as well as co-founding the Free International University. >Wikipedia He was a performer too and made an anti-Reagan pop video in 1982, Sonne statt Reagan. >Youtube

What is your favourite book of poems?
William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems. Williams manages to say everything about life in a very pure style, with a sense of humour too, he’s greatly influenced my writing. I love his poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, inspired by the Greek tragedy of Icarus and a 1558 painting by Pieter Brueghel, which hangs in the National Gallery, London.

Placing Stones by Martin Crawley, available in an edition of 200, £14 from the Negative Press Shop, in-store at the Tate Modern Bookshop and Bookartbookshop, 17 Pitfield Street, London N1 6HB.

Placing Stones Martin Crawley
Placing Stones