Sunday, 14 July 2013

Catching the fearful

Dream or nightmare? Seductively soft black leather, 
scarred and twisted, the flayed edge catching your fingertips.

I'm at the craft stall last week when someone comes along, picks up a Knicker Drawer Note Book and drops it with an UGH!

Can't you make them out of something else? they asked, ignoring the whole modus operandi of my knicker drawer suite.

No, I cannot make them out of anything else, no matter how revolted you are, nor how much you shudder. Rather, I can, but I'm not going to. The covers of these delightfully unique keepsake books are made from skin.

Skin it must be. I already went through paper, cloth, card, a rubber hot water bottle, a photo frame and a piece of carpet, so forget it. Nothing has the beautiful touch-me-feel-me I need for this close-to-your-heart art but the skin of an animal. Yes, I know that includes baby cows. Also, goats, pigs, sheep, ostrich and - when I can get it - reindeer. I draw the line at tigers, cheetahs, gorillas and the rest of the endangered, but if it's farmed then it's fair game.

This is an oddity, I admit, being a vegetarian who spends most of her time vegan-by-accident. (We don't have a fridge and I need that for dairy.)

I gave up meat as I don't like the texture or taste of it, nor the idea of it in me, but I left a meat-and-two-veg culture behind me primarily when some of the delightful practices of intensive farming and the destination of mechanically-removed eyeball meat were made known to me, way back in the 1980s. That was that. I turned overnight, much as my stomach had done with the knowledge of what humans would happily do to another sentient creature, then eat the remains. From then on, it has been straightforward: the vegan-hippy chick-pea sub-culture of the ne'er-do-wells, faintly bonkers, and disarmingly barmy have been far better suited to my interests.

Yet I happily admit to fondling that baby cow skin; shaping it, cutting it, puncturing it with needles to stitch around handmade papers. I like to work with the shape of the hide, preserving the frayed, flayed edge as part of my design.

But best of all is the texture and feel. Wrinkles and creases attract my fingertips; skin that is wrung through, holds twists and turns, ages, hollows, tears and stretches is perfect to feel and work. When I choose it, I'm looking to sense that soft responding pressure of squeeze, see the ways the skin bounces and eases back to shapes newly made or remembered from what went before.

I think this might be part of the attraction. Skin has a memory; it reminds me of experience. It does not for me presage mortalities or deaths gruesome, lingering, novelty or animal-procedural. Handling that baby cow hide, I do not think of death, but of life. Under touch, leather warms; you can smell the fragrance rise from it, you can see the folds. It takes on life. Skin is then perfect for a memory book; it is greater than any horrible or joyful experience you can lock away inside, and it makes your experience live on, albeit in another form.

Anyway, this must stand as my explanation to your revulsion. Knicker Drawer memories, fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, dreads, the never-spoken, whatever you will - your need to save, explain, confess, enclose - I cannot offer you the cold, unfeeling wrapping of cloth, paper, or discarded hot water bottle. Accept the contradictions and the bits that make no sense. And know that I have limits. I don't use human.


Irene said...

I must say that I do like to wear real leather shoes and boots and real leather jackets. The fake stuff just doesn't do it for me and I think it looks tacky and cheap. I also eat lunchmeats and cheese, so I am neither a true vegetarian nor a vegan. I tried to be, but it didn't work out. I wasn't getting enough nutrition.

Stuffin' Puffin said...

Just thought you'd like to know that in Exeter Central library hidden away they have a book covered with human skin.

Grit said...

yes irene, i am also a fan of leather shoes, bags, coats, trousers (how i wish they did not have the image they do - they are deeply sensible and hard wearing!), you name it. it is an exceptional material, and i never could wean myself properly off it, even when i was trying hard to be a good vegan, i harboured secret and unclean desires. now i just give in to them and accept the contradictions.

hi, stuffin'puffin! well now you have got me researching the topic of human-bound books. fascinating, horrifying, bewildering; marking cultural changes, showing our shifting boundaries in taboos and acceptabilities... thank you for signposting the way!