In April I began working on some pieces for Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Byker, Newcastle. I’d been involved with them before when they had their Fairy Tales exhibition, and had used illustrations from my Grimm’s Fairy Tales book, cover published by Puffin Books, on the walls of the show.
Earlier this year Alison Gwynne at Seven Stories explained that they were about to undergo a massive overhaul of the 18th century building they were housed in, part of a previous paper mill on the River Ouse with big windows, loads of light and, as she explained, lots of bits ready for an upgrade! Nestling in the Ouseburn Valley, ‘birthplace of the industrial revolution in Newcastle’, Seven Stories is a big 7 storey (of course) wendy house of books, stories, shows and collections dedicated to celebrating British children’s books, and based at Lime Street. (Right now, you can see an exhibition about Michael Foreman, who I met while working there - now there’s a body of work to admire!)
Seven Stories is on the left behind the trees, helpfully:
Oh and yes, these you can pass as you stroll to 30 Lime Street, courtesy of the City Farm right in the belly of the valley:
The first task, completed in the studio, was first to develop a repeat type-based pattern for the big wide reception desk, and the desk inside the fulsome book shop. I wrote out the words for the seven basic types of story from which ALL stories are evolved - tragedy, comedy, rags to riches, voyage and return, monster, quest, and redemption - which were then set into a repeat pattern and printed at a huge scale on the specially-built desks - here’s the desk before and after:
Thereafter the job was to have these words applied to a set of seven bespoke lightbooks, which were to flap and hover over the heads of the visitors as they entered. Though I produced the design for them in April, we didn’t get to see these until the last couple of days of actually being on site, but here’s how they looked, lit up and wafting through all the LED colours of the rainbow:
See them glowing here!
The big task however was the one which took us up to the Ouseburn Valley itself, saw us installing ourselves in the cosy Cumberland Arms (vegan full English brought to your bed every morning, ales and a fine view over the valley) for eight days, slapping on our Inkymole overalls and walking down the valley to work every morning: The Big Mural.
We printed up some workmanlike Proper Overalls (do workmen wear gold embroidery?) and some Inkymole On Location threads - we thought it was about time - and packed them with our fresh brushes and new paint collection, and embarked on the mega-drive to Newcastle.
The Café had had three empty walls since it opened ten years ago, but was a bit flat and tired looking. Alison’s idea was to create a food-inspired mural to fill these walls and give the little munchers and their families something their eyeballs could feast on as well as their tummies. Taking inspiration from the hundreds of children’s books whose central theme is food - or which are famous for a single foody reference! - and using Dulux Trade colour sample pots, we decided on a tryptich of images with a large, busy central illustration hiding the word ‘I’m Hungry’ in its negative space. Would it work? It did on paper, but whether it did on the wall we wouldn’t know till we started painting!
[If you would like to see the massive selection of books which contributed to the illustration, you can see it here. This is only about half of what I could have included!)
Fuelled by morning sausages, packed lunches and exquisite midday fresh-roast coffees from Ouseburn Coffee Company, just over the way, we embarked on The Big Mural.
The Café before:
Watch some of the frantic action here:
My plan was for either side of this central motif to explore the darker side of ‘food in children’s books’ - the stuff I remember from childhood; ancient classics such as Three Billy Goats Gruff, Red Riding Hood, the three tragic little piggies, terrifyingly large beanstalks and the horrific Wolf and the Seven Little Kids on the left, with the right hand side dedicated to possibly the most famous book about food, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, which has its own murky morals and lessons.
To be executed in a less playful Mole-style silhouette with brooding atmospheric skies, we wanted spray paints to achieve an almost Photoshoppy gradiented sky, and after consulting assistant Graham to look at some slighjtly left-of-centre sky gradients - this had to look a little unusual - we enlisted the help of local spraypaint expert Dan.
Dan owns the nearby spray paint emporium, Colours, and was delighted if a little surprised to be asked to come and paint our backgrounds for us. With a sandwich and *the appropriate health and safety gear*, Dan arrived on the Sunday and got those skies and aurora borealis down in a fraction of the time it would have taken us, to breathtaking effect:
After which it was down to us to add the foreground, stars and my giant cheese moon, stencilled and dabbed with more spray paint:
And the last job was - in response to demand from a few of the people we’d called out to for requests - Agatha Trunchbull's stolen chocolate cake, eaten in secret by Bruce Bogtrotter who’s then forced to scoff the lot till he…well...
Along the way we had plumbing dramas, floods and access issues - all part of the process of major works being done around us as we painted - but we also had some delicious Lebanese food, great coffee, massive breakfasts and a proper Byker welcome, and despite feeling like I could have painted for another two weeks, the mural was duly completed and the team were delighted. We are returning in early October to paint the reception wall - welcoming guests with the line ‘There are sevens stories in the world, but a thousand ways to tell them’, and I can’t wait to go back!
Seven Stories is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with tickets costing from Free to £7.70.