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Inspired by Books, inspired by Art

Last week we received this beautiful piece of writing by Sally Fitts, one of our Biblio Art Prize finalists, who had what could be perceived as a difficult book to represent visually, and who was at the same time undergoing a writing course with author Ellena Savage. This is her creative piece - reproduced with her generous permission.


LAYLA by Sally Fitts


Samsara (Greenwich mean time+11 hours) 9am

Nirvana one time

I step into my studio pants and slip on my studio sandals, and scan Spotify for something to fire me up and bolster my grim determination to stay till the job is done. I choose Bob Dylan, old friend, Thunder on the Mountain. There is no housework; there are no friends in my life today. No shops, no café meet-ups, no garden, no pets. No writing. What there is, is an idea. She is about 15 inches tall, slim with small breasts, an adolescent girl-creature on the cusp of sexual discovery, and her name is Layla.

I recently met up with my friend Dave, also an artist. He sensed that I was in the creative wastelands, the cold winds of doubt whistling around me. ‘You should enter the Biblio Art Prize’ he said. ‘You are allocated a book and you make an artwork to respond to that book’. I expressed reluctance; I’m not a fan of making art to a theme dictated from elsewhere.

‘Trust me, you’ll really enjoy it’, Dave said.

I do trust him, so here I am.

‘The Girl She Was’ by Rebecca Freeborn explores power and its abuse, in the context of a ‘me too’ story, introducing us to Layla the girl, Layla the woman, and to the damage done.

I don’t know too much about my Layla yet. I think her face will be obscured somehow and she will hold a mask.

My gaze drifts over the worktable piled with mounds of assorted materials, and lands on the raffia. A long thick plait.

Hand-dyed indigo fabric that has been loitering in the studio for a couple of years waiting for its purpose. It is thick, dark, and deliciously tactile. Perhaps, there will be a dress or some kind of garment from this.

I try to free myself from too much solidity just yet; I try to let go of preconceptions and fixed ideas. This, letting go, has been a theme of my last 10 days, spent Zooming into a Buddhist retreat.

Let go of anger

Let go of attachment

Let go of the idea of PastPresentFuture


Samsara 10.25am

Nirvana No time

She is made first from malleable wire, like chicken wire, around which I am winding strips of PVC-soaked fabric. Bob is singing Highlands now; Spotify is choosing for me. He could be in the café where Layla works after school, ‘she’s got a pretty face and long white shiny legs’. This wire is not as harsh as chicken wire but I still have a number of pinpricks on my fingers. I suck the blood so it won’t get on Layla.

PVC-soaked fabric sounds benign, but it has a wicked sticky desire to flap and adhere to all the extraneous bits and pieces on my worktable. Stopping, I regroup, get band-aids and tidy up.

I think how it might have been a good idea to be more exact about her measurements before I started, but I like to work organically, get into trouble, and then solve the problem I have created for myself. It strikes me that this sounds like life, that samsara circle going round and round. My choice, again and again.

She is bandaged from head to toe, which is relevant because the story on which she is based is about sexual exploitation of a teenage girl by an older man. Not that much older, but married with a family, and her boss at her part-time job. Familiar anyone? I remember being eighteen and pinned to a wall by a heavy, drunk older man. I was the babysitter, he was the dad. So, being bandaged, bound, seems appropriate. I am still deciding whether I will leave some of this layer exposed, her tender young skin holding her together.

I have a heightened awareness of time courtesy of the Zoom retreat; time is an illusion, time is an ocean, time is a construct of the mind. But also, time waits for no man, the tyranny of time, and I think of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say ‘hello, goodbye,’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”.

I have only a couple of days left to bring Layla to ‘life’, partly because I have been retreating for 10 days, and partly because I am a bit of a tail-dragger. She could have been started weeks ago. Tic Toc. But, let it go, let it go.

I am moving around in time with her, between then, when Layla was a child-woman and now, when she is married with children and carrying a backpack of guilt, self-doubt and secrets. There is something to be revealed, keeping the reader on board to the end of the book.

Layla is flattered and excited by his attention, her abuser/boss. She is at the age where she is ready for the experience of sex but tenderly, expectantly vulnerable. No street smarts and an all-too-obvious choice for someone with exploitation in mind. She thinks she is the one making a conquest; in reality, she is the conquest.


Samsara Midday

Nirvana Before time

She is coming along. She needs another layer over this ‘skin’.

My eyes light on the Japanese paper, delicate sheer earthy colours, indigo, stone, terracotta, perfect.

A cup of tea slides onto the corner of the table, with a Tim Tam garnish.

I knew there was a reason we’re still together.

On my studio wall, some pictures. I am inspired by the amazing sculptures of Linde Ivimey, which feature a wonderful collection of bones, clay, cloth and wire. If I had more time, there would definitely be bones, but they need preparation. Sorry Layla.

A disturbing soft fabric sculpture by Louise Borgeois, female form splayed and suspended, mouth an ‘o’ of surprise/anguish/ecstasy?

Edgar Degas’ ‘The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. Marie van Goethem, a ‘little rat’ (girls in training for the corps de ballet) at the Paris Opera, working a second job as an artists’ model. The pittance provided for being part of the corps de ballet did not provide enough. I hope Edgar was generous and kind, but who knows? Perhaps Marie suffered exploitation too. She looks stoic, resigned (bored?) but plucky, like a girl that knows her own mind, unlike Layla, at least in the beginning. Towards the end of her story, we see the young Layla develop some gumption, and I am trying to get that later feeling into her posture. Her feet are planted firmly with legs apart, and her spine straight and chin lifted.

Cutting the rice paper into strips, my scissors slide smoothly. Gradually I bind her in different tones, indigo legs, terracotta feet, stone and grey for her arms. The paper wrinkles and twists often, but this only adds to the textural qualities. Or, as the bringer of tea and biscuits’ stock answer, if asked to comment on any artwork, ‘the “texturality” is excellent’.


Samsara Early afternoon

Nirvana Beyond time

I have been pushing away one problem, a smallish roundish problem; Layla needs a head. Trawling through the house and garden, I consider and reject many contenders. I am excited to discover a clutch of boab nuts collected some time ago. Surely one of these will be perfect, but alas, unlike Goldilocks finding one that was ‘just right’, they are all either too big or too small. I scrunch and mould wire, play dough and cloth; no go. Finally I dig up a soft round ball from the toy box, drill a hole for a length of dowel and cover it with a layer of wire that I can manipulate into a semblance of a face. Once covered in its layer of rice paper, it looks just how I wanted. Smudged out, devoid of features, hidden.

As I weave raffia into a thick long plait, I remember plaiting my children’s hair, and before that, my mother plaiting mine.


Samsara Dusk

Nirvana Time out of mind

Outside my studio, I can hear the birds beginning to settle into the trees. My mind is calm, empty of thoughts, peaceful. I am in the flow; that treasured time when time is gone. Slowly Layla turns before me, a pirouette from the little dancer. She is incomplete in the here and now, but in another time she is perfectly ready to face the world, her long raffia plait hanging down her back, a painted mask held before her face, and a match in her hand, ready to light the fire which sets her free in the dying chapters of the book.

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