Taking Off: Phyllida Bluemel in the StudioNovember 19, 2016
It is not well known that Alexander Graham Bell and Ludwig Wittgenstein both dabbled in aeronautics. One man patented the telephone, the other became a philosopher—but both flew kites during the race to achieve human flight. Such unseen intersections, which connect some of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s most famous minds, fascinate Art-in-Education Artist’s Book resident Phyllida Bluemel.
When she studied philosophy in college, Phyllida—or Phylly—grew to appreciate these kinds of small, biographic facts that never fit into her weekly argumentative essays. After graduating, Phylly enrolled in Falmouth University’s illustration program and believed she was beginning a new career path. However, she couldn’t quite shake her love of research, of hunting down and drawing out the strange details.
“Now I research for the sake of research, like going down a rabbit hole just to see where I end up,” she says. In the WSW silkscreen studio, she’s filling an artist’s book with the thoughts, notes, and connections she’s found.
Her artist’s book, The Tang of Height, began when Phylly noticed the recurring appearance of box kites in the biographies of nineteenth-century scholars. The drive to rise above the earth seemed to pervade the era, and Phylly began to seek out more evidence of it in history and literature. The book’s title quotes Scottish Modernist writer and mountaineer Nan Shepherd, writing in the 1940s: “At first, mad to recover the tang of height, I made always for the summits and would not take time to explore the recesses.”
In her research, anything that grabs Phylly’s attention is saved in a computer folder containing thousands of files, ranging from simply appealing images to historical finds buried deep in digital archives. Here, she saved an image from 1903 of Bell and his wife Mabel under a tetrahedral kite. It looked almost as if the kite were a superimposed graphic, not part of the original scene. The deception of that picture stuck with Phylly for years before she pursued it in the book.
“I’m drawn to photographs that look like 2D and 3D elements are clashing,” she explains. “I find that quality related to the book in a vague but metaphorical way, so I take an image like that and try to enhance that feeling.”
To achieve this using silkscreen printing, Phylly sketches the figures and kite from the photograph, digitally alters the sketch, then makes it into two screens. She discards the picture’s background and separates the grainy, hand drawn figures from the kite through color and style. The geometric layers printed over the figural forms visually mimic how Phylly imposes a narrative structure on historical coincidences.
The photograph of Bell and Mabel became another starting point for Phylly’s research, leading her to examine the other forgotten offshoots of Bell’s life. Working in this way, she brings together themes spanning from flight to the Scottish Highlands to Darwin’s theory of evolution, building The Tang of Height as a constellation of charts, maps, excerpts of letters, and other photographs.
Although this research project began with kites, it ultimately circles back to Phylly’s background in philosophy. Twentieth century schools of thought, including Wittgenstein’s work, sought to analyze the nature of reality by defining the structure of language. Conceptually, Phylly connects this attempt to “put language under a microscope” with the aeronautical dream to look down on the earth. Theorists and engineers hoped that if they dismantled, mapped, and flattened the world, they would expose its underlying composition.
The Tang of Height, Phylly’s own map exposing a chain of coincidences and biographical overlaps, will begin with Wittgenstein, move through an entire cast of historical characters, and end again with Wittgenstein. While she intuitively and philosophically crafts this series of relationships, the result will be a playful narrative of intertwined lives, places, and dreams.
“I’d like my book to be encountered as a poem, enjoyable because of how the pieces fit together. The reader knows they’re not there by chance,” Phylly says.
Phyllida Bluemel is a graphic designer, illustrator, and book artist based in and traveling through England. She holds a BA in Philosophy from Cambridge University and her MA in Illustration from Falmouth University. Her recent projects explore themes of language philosophy, interdisciplinary research, and structures of thought. Find more images from her residency here.