Edinburgh’s mysterious paper sculptures revealed

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An anonymous artist has covertly delivered ten paper sculptures to Scottish cultural institutions since March 2011. Now a touring exhibition of this work is returning to where it all unfolded – Edinburgh. Two people at the heart of this mystery, Robyn Marsack and Abby Cunnane, recall the amazing story.

In March last year, an unannounced gift arrived at the Scottish Poetry Library — a tiny paper tree complete with nesting birds, which seemed to be growing from a book. 
Beside it sat an eggshell lined with gold-leaf, and a string of paper bunting made from the words of Edwin Morgan’s poem, A Trace of Wings. It appeared as if from nowhere, and like all the best gifts, was accompanied by a gift tag which did not explain, but added to the mystery of its coming:

Abby Cunnane with the 'lost in a good book' sculpture

Abby Cunnane with the 'lost in a good book' sculpture

It started with your name @ByLeavesWeLive and became a tree… We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books…a book is so much more than pages full of words…This is for you, in support of Libraries, books, words and ideas…

The Poetree was the first of ten anonymously gifted sculptures, all intricately crafted from books, and covertly left throughout 2011 at arts and cultural institutions around Edinburgh. An online community of book lovers was immediately captivated, and remained so throughout the gradual revelation of the story.

Each work came with a gift tag message addressed to the institution. The theme of “libraries, books, words and ideas” remained consistent, but grew to encompass also a celebration of festivals, magic, stories, tea and cake…all the things readers love most.

The first and last of the ten in the series were given to the Scottish Poetry Library, and they make inspired references to poems by Edwin Morgan and by Norman MacCaig. A host of other literary references appear in each work. The Edinburgh Writers Museum received a sculpture based on a specific scene from R L Stevenson’s novel The Mysterious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while the National Museum of Scotland’s sculpture is a transformed edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, complete with rampaging paper T-Rex bursting from its pages.

The paper sculptures appeared at various Edinburgh locations. Picture: Neil Hanna

The paper sculptures appeared at various Edinburgh locations. Picture: Neil Hanna

The message is always deftly layered, and the artist clearly not only knows her local literature intimately, but enjoys playing with visual and text puns. The works have something serious to say too. The sculpture for the National Library of Scotland, based on Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, calls attention to the threat to libraries — are they on their way out? “In support of libraries, books, words and ideas… (and against their exit),” the note read.

The Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature Trust received James Hogg’s gothic classic Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; that book came with this caption invoking the importance of a nurturing environment for a young child – and reader :

To @EdinCityofLit - a gift LOST (albeit in a good book) This is for you in support of 
libraries, books, words, ideas. ‘No infant has the power of deciding by what circumstances (they) shall be surrounded’ - Robert Owen

Every sculpture reflects each institution’s ongoing act of ‘magic’: providing free public access to public treasures. A note accompanying the final work in the series revealed the identity of the artist as a woman, and a subsequent statement from the artist unassumingly explained her intentions for the project: a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums. A woman who, now all grown, still wants access to these places and yes, wants them for her children…

The sculptures are part of a touring exhibition

The sculptures are part of a touring exhibition

Almost every day since they started appearing, the Scottish Poetry Library has fielded questions from visitors on the paper sculptures’ trail: “Do you know who the sculptor is?” and “When can we see them all together?” The idea of taking all ten works on tour became the obvious next chapter, and this year Creative Scotland and an appropriately anonymous donor have enabled the library to do so, in partnership with Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature Trust.

A book was published by Polygon to accompany the tour, and tell the story in more detail. By this time a line of communication had been established with the artist – an 
e-mail address which retained her anonymity. Logistics for the exhibition tour and publication required some contact, but it has always been important to everyone involved that the mystery remains intact: this is far too fine a story to spoil.

The anonymity of the works has been a vital ingredient of its attraction as a story, something the live encounter with the works makes all the more pressing – who can it be that has the time, the spatial genius, the skill, the fingers to pull off such intricately crafted gestures? Between August and November the Gifted exhibition has visited five venues across Scotland, involving 12 installations and pack-downs, any number of events and workshops, and miles and miles of winding Scottish roads. It was opened to the public at Aberdeen Central Library, after which it travelled to Dundee Central Library in September, the Wigtown Book Festival later that month, and then Glasgow’s Mitchell Library in October. Dunfermline’s Carnegie Library has hosted the exhibition this month, bringing the visitor total to over 40,000 at last count.

The sculptures on tour were accompanied by their ten hefty display plinths, by exhibition banners, books and print material, and other boxes containing various tool kits, paint for plinth touch-ups, handling gloves, spirit levels, and all the hundreds of other minuscule things you need to take an exhibition on the road. A conservator came too, checking the light levels and conditions at each venue were the best possible for their preservation. An entourage: it was hard not to see the quiet, anonymously gifted sculptures as tiny paper rock-stars on tour.

The works have been the central characters in a story involving countless others, each visitor supporting what libraries and publicly accessible cultural institutions do. They’ve been followed by thousands on Twitter, established their own community on Facebook, while some visitors have returned to the exhibition multiple times. They have won librarians’ hearts up and down the country, and further afield through a number of blogs and endlessly circulating images online. They’ve shown us again and again the power of a good story (and good looks!), and the impact of a small-scale gesture of huge generosity.

This chapter of the sculptures’ story is about to come to a close, with a homecoming exhibition back at the Scottish Poetry Library, opening at 1pm tomorrow, to coincide with the eve of Book Week Scotland. With the season of gifts nearly here, it seems a good time to celebrate one of last year’s best. The two-week exhibition will be a final opportunity for Edinburgh to see these works together before they are returned to their home institutions.

Everyone at the Scottish Poetry Library will be thrilled and relieved in equal measure to have their own sculptures back for good – the Poetree which started the whole story back in spring 2011 and the Cap and Gloves, the final in the series. Books are for lending, sharing, taking on the road certainly, and the story will go on, but these books have their real home in the library down Crichton’s Close.

• Robyn Marsack is director of the Scottish Poetry Library and Abby Cunnane is project manager of the Gifted tour.

• Gifted: The Edinburgh Book Tour 2012 is on display at The Scottish Poetry Library from tomorrow until 8 December. Gifted: The Tale of 10 Mysterious Book Sculptures Gifted to the City of Words and Ideas is available now to coincide with a national tour of the sculptures. Published by Polygon £9.99.