Scraps of Paper; Snatches in Time – In Conversation with Jack Brown
by Sara Jaspan
She forgot his name! Did they make up the next morning in class or never quite get over the rocky start? It’s easy to picture the scene of fumbled embarrassment unfolding in the playground; an early encounter with rejection and the messy complexities of human relationships. Did the experience shape either of them? Has the boy hated Woody ever since?
What happened on this day? The specificity of the time – 10 minutes past – speaks of hospital visits, dentist appoints and GP slots. (Most hairdressers aren’t open on a Monday.) The note has been written carefully, with precision and clarity. Not absent-mindedly folded in half or tucked in a back pocket, but more likely placed straight between the pages of a diary for safe keeping. Did the date loom?
What secret miseries shaped this young writer’s 9-3 existence? Sent out into the world on a scrap of lined paper torn from the back of an exercise book; was this bold statement a call for help? Does Brett remember writing it? Where is Brett now? Does she/he still look back on the school as a bad one?
A shopping list that speaks of grandparents – the only generation that still eats Brussels and corned beef. A generation of milky, sugary tea drinkers that still sends letters in the post. A post-war generation that came before millennial ideas about ‘clean eating’. A note written by a hand stained by a life-long smoking habit. By a shaky, arthritic hand. A hand looking forward to patting the grandchildren on the head perhaps and serving them a plate of sausage beans in front of the TV. Did the shopper pick up sausages twice? The discarded list is dirty and crumpled, trodden on by countless shoppers and dusty from the supermarket floor where it lay amongst clumps of hair, balls of dust and bits of vegetable matter until artist Jack Brown bent down and rescued it from the flow of time.
Like each of the notes presented in ‘Found Note Silk Hanky’ at PAPER, it has remained part of Brown’s collection ever since. A collection compiled over the course of 20 years – dating back to his early days at art school in London – and which now spans three scrap books, all bursting at the seams.
Brown has always liked to collect things. As a young boy, he’d accompany his mother on trips to Stockport Precinct, diving under clothing rails to gather up the transparent plastic clips that hold garments in place on hangers, coming home with his pockets bulging. In his studio at Paradise Works in Salford, a museum display table is dotted with a lifetime’s assortment of bolts and screws found in the street, odd trinkets, battered toy cars, the employee name badge from his first job; all patiently waiting to form part of another project that he’s currently working on, dedicated to the seaside town of Barrow-in-Furness.
Why does Brown like collecting? The question seems difficult to answer when I first ask. But gradually he talks it out: “I’d probably still have carried on doing it even if I hadn’t gone on to become an artist. I’ve always been a picker-upper; walking with my head down, looking at the smaller things. The items that I select always have something of a story to them. A bit of magic, romance. I’m drawn to the poetry in certain details.” Talking of the notes in particular, he reflects: “Some are almost like portraits of people.”
His series of prints (2018) based on the grease patterns left behind by passengers’ hair on bus windows carry a similar significance: “Particularly in London, I’ve seen workers at 5am who’ve fallen asleep with their head leaning against the pane. The hard-working individual going home.” He continues: “It’s something that people may not notice, but I hope that seeing the marks represented on paper in an exhibition will mean they spot them when they’re next on a bus and prompt thoughts about the person who left them.”
Why did he decide to reproduce the paper notes on silk handkerchiefs? He’d originally experimented with paint; tenderly rendering each in copper, enamel and gloss. “But this turned them into ‘art objects’,” he reflects – a classification Brown deliberately tries to resist within his practice, preferring a ‘less grandiose’ quality, whilst simultaneously playing with the fine line between what can and can’t be consider ‘art’.
The handkerchiefs were made using one of those websites that print personalised t-shirts and mugs. He likes his work to be ‘open source’ – actions that could be performed or replicated by anyone – a principle carried over from more than 20 years spent working in art education and as an advocate for art. (His call for collective creativity most explicitly comes through in his recent series of banners, Instructions for the public (where to put it) (2018), currently on show as part of ‘Represent! Voices 100 Years On’ at People’s History Museum).
But why did he choose hankies from the drop-down menu of everyday items that he could have printed onto? Handkerchiefs are anachronistic and redolent in association; they also get lost and forgotten about, just like loose bits of paper. “For me, and for other people, I think, they talk of aunties and grandmas, of intimate actions and personal history,” Brown explains. (For Brett and Antonia, they might also conjure memories of snotty school runs.) And silk? “It has a personal feel to it. More of a sense of craft – or the appearance of craft, at least, even though I didn’t make it.” The decision seems to convey a kind of love as well. A gesture of respect and care for these overlooked fragments of people’s lives, recorded on the back of pink betting slips and yellow Post-its. Snatches in time over which Brown has become custodian.
I ask him whether paper notes are becoming harder to find now that so many of us make lists on our phone or mark dates in electronic diaries. “Surprisingly not,” Brown replies; “you still find them everywhere. Maybe it’s just an age thing, but a lot of people seem to like having things on paper. I’ve started collecting a lot of Google maps, with routes drawn on either digitally or by hand. One thing I wish I could go back in time and gather up is the scraps of drawings that builders used to leave behind when I worked in a pub in Hackney. Just simple plans and rough schematic diagrams about where to position something along a wall, for example – basic problem solving. But drawings made in discussion or outside of art are really interesting. It makes me wonder: Where is drawing now? It’s not something I find as much of anymore. People no longer scrawl directions on the back of beer mats – they share a post code instead.”
There’s a beautiful simplicity to Brown’s work, or a ‘slightness’ as he describes it. A generosity in the attention he pays to the overlooked; to the stories that aren’t even stories. His decision to pick up and smooth out the discarded pieces of paper that others might treat as rubbish, and to present them delicately within a gallery space on crisp white canvases of silk, is an invitation to slow down. To notice the world around us and the quiet moments that fill it, unremarked. To pay attention.