FRACTURED AIR

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The Story Of An Artist: Iker Spozio

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Interview with Iker Spozio.

In our new regular section – entitled “The Story Of An Artist” (named in tribute to the American singer, songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston) – we will be focusing on the artists who have brought their own distinctive artwork and indelible mark to the independent music scene. First to contribute is the wonderful Italian artist and illustrator Iker Spozio, who currently resides in the northern Spanish coastal town of San Sebastián. Spozio’s name has become synonymous with the independent music scene over the last number of years, with the creation of record sleeves for such independent labels as London-based Second Language and the Brighton-based label Fat Cat Records. Spozio’s work graces the sleeves for such bands and composers as Colleen, Adrian Crowley, Mark Fry, Delia Derbyshire and Hauschka. Over the years, Iker Spozio’s reputation for a master craftsman, engraver, illustrator and painter of immense talent and versatility has been widely evident for all to see.

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Iker Spozio

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“Self Portrait” based on El Greco’s “El caballero de la mano en el pecho”.

Even if the Italian artist Iker Spozio is not a household name to you, his distinctive artwork has bound to have passed your eye on more than one occasion. In fact, the chances are his artwork adorns some of your most prized and precious records in your collection. Spozio’s artistry has adorned albums by some of the most inspiring musicians in the independent music scene. Musicians such as French composer Colleen, Irish songsmith Adrian Crowley, German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) and the legendary English folk songwriter Mark Fry – to name but a few –  have all had their music beautifully adorned by Spozio’s immense artistic gifts.

Most notable in his musical work is his ongoing collaboration with the gifted French composer Cécile Schott (aka Colleen). The pair have been partners for many years and their symbiotic relationship has produced a string of truly memorable and everlasting records over the last ten years or so (with Spozio creating both album and e.p. sleeves as well as concert posters), Spozio applies the visuals to Schott’s music, both as deeply immersive and enchanting as each other. Their most recent collaboration has come in the form of Colleen’s current album, “The Weighing Of The Heart”, an album released last May on London-based independent label Second Language. The album is an extraordinary achievement for both Schott and Spozio, where both artists sought new departures in their ever-expanding artistic visions. The resulting work (both in sight and sound) is a true joy to behold.

Iker Spozio’s work has thus far been as impressive in its versatility and scope as well as in its unwavering and passionate attention to detail. Throughout his varied work (across commissions, personal work and longterm projects) there is a huge emphasis placed on craftsmanship where virtues of both patience and skill are always in evidence. Spozio’s versatility as an artist is nothing short of breathtaking, his portfolio showcasing works across many mediums including watercolour, engravings, monoprints, pencils and india ink. Often, the work is a hybrid of many techniques combined together – where a truly remarkable appreciation for each process’ own intrinsic qualities can be discerned – yet such works never serve to lose any sense of vitality as Spozio’s own distinctive graphic approach can always be appreciated and admired. For any work which bears the name of Iker Spozio can safely be described as something truly precious and singularly unique.

Most recently, Spozio’s work has been published as part of Mark Fry’s “Dreaming With Alice” songbook, a limited, special edition publication which collects together for the first time Fry’s lyrics and sheet music from his seminal 1972 album “Dreaming With Alice”, an album which is today recognized as one of the most defining records of psychedelic folk music. Spozio’s work here encompasses a series of twelve specially commissioned engravings which serve to beautifully illustrate Fry’s dreamlike and mysterious sonic masterpiece. Like any of Iker Spozio’s masterful handmade work, the imagery – like those from an everlasting and recurring dream – will journey straight to your eyes (and heart).

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

Firstly, congratulations on the magnificent achievement of the recently published “Dreaming With Alice”, the lovingly assembled songbook containing Mark Fry’s lyrics and sheet music for his seminal ’72 LP of the same name. The project is obviously very close to your heart as you have expressed a deep admiration for Mark Fry (as both musician and painter) in the past, as well as sharing a close friendship over the years. You also featured Mark Fry heavily in your fabulous “Morning” music magazine when you memorably interviewed him back in 2009 for the issue’s second edition.
So, first off, I would love to ask you can you remember the first time coming across “Dreaming With Alice?” What effect did it have upon you when you first heard it?

I first came across “Dreaming With Alice” about fifteen years ago, when I was still living in Italy, my home country.
I was just starting to work as an illustrator, back then, but also had a “proper” job as a graphic designer for a company which did websites. This job allowed me to pay my bills and also, of course, to cover my badly needed monthly fix of music!
I used to get my pay and then drive straight away to the bigger town in my district, Varese, where there used to be a pretty big and nice record shop, called La Casa del Disco. I soon became friends with one of its clerks, a guy in his fifties who had lived first-hand all the psyche, folk and folk-rock era. He used to suggest me all kinds of amazing records, describing them with contagious enthusiasm and in the most colourful ways. He’s the one who sold me Mark’s album, in its unofficial CD version released by Akarma.
I perfectly remember the particular day I got the album and playing it at home: I really got blown away by it, especially by the eponymous song, that seems to constantly appear and disappear like a ghost all over the record.
I still find it hard to believe that I’m friends with Mark, now. It’s definitely a pleasure and a privilege to me.

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“I Lived In Trees”, LP sleeve for Mark Fry & The A Lords (Second Language, 2012).

You created the wonderful artwork accompanying Mark Fry & The A. Lords LP “I Lived In Trees” which was released in 2011 by Second Language. As this was effectively Fry’s return to music for the first time in over thirty years it was clearly a truly special project for all concerned. I love how deeply evocative your artwork (including the concertina inner sleeve) is to the music within. I also love how – on the one hand – we have strong dominant shapes and forms, yet, we’re also presented with so much texture, imagery, colour and detail. It’s one of my all-time favourite sleeves! Could you talk about the artwork for “I Lived In Trees”, the process and techniques involved and the resulting sleeve?

Well, actually “I Lived In Trees” is the second album after Mark’s “come-back”, following 2009’s “Shooting The Moon”.
I’m delighted to know you like the artwork for “I Lived In Trees” so much, since it’s also a favourite of mine. The idea for a tree being the subject of the sleeve came from Mark, while the format suggestion came from Second Language’s mastermind Glenn Johnson.
I thought it would be a nice concept to depict a tree that would be visible in full only when the concertina would be completely unfolded. This allowed me to insert various elements, sometimes incongruous, in each panel, making each section of the booklet kind of self-sufficient but also part of a whole.
Technically speaking, the background was painted in watercolour, then all the elements were inserted in the typical collage way, using various papers and textures I had prepared beforehand.

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

If we return to the “Dreaming With Alice” songbook and the twelve accompanying illustrations that accompany this special publication. Firstly, just to confirm, these are linocuts?

Yes, they are.

Since there is such an amount of detail and varying focal points across the various compositions, I imagine you must very carefully “sketch” these out beforehand? How does the process between the inception of your idea through to the realization of the completed artwork happen for you?

Yes, indeed, I design, or should I say “plan”, everything in detail beforehand, especially when I’m working on an engraving, a technique that seldom (or never) allows one to have second thoughts.
I must confess that I’m quite a perfectionist, when it comes to my artwork. Maybe too much for my own good, since there is always the risk of getting too rigid and clinical in pursue of a perfection of sorts. That’s why, especially in recent times, I have been kind of forcing myself to “let go” and surprise myself through less thoroughly planned projects.

I love how you have used both reds and blues separately across the work. It seems to create a distinct contrast for the series as a whole, and seems to represent that idea of fantasy and reality for me. What was the significance of the use of colour for you here?

At first I thought of using more colours than those. But, in the end, I found that red and blue were really the most suitable for the project, both technically and aesthetically. The colour choice for each illustration was based on my feelings and the perception I had of each song in Mark’s album. It’s hard to explain: I just found some songs to be “blue” and others to be “red”!

Actually, I seldom use more colours than the primary ones, in association with black and white.
Dealing with colour is not something that came really naturally to me. I used to work in black and white only for several years, until I decided to overcome my lack of confidence and try my luck in the technicolour world!

I love how your work can appear quite abstract and fluid here, yet it always seems so rooted in the world of reality and representation. Recurring imagery such as birds, figures, the moon, floral elements and musical imagery are interspersed throughout. The use of space – both positive and negative – is also so striking and makes for almost multiple versions of the same piece. In terms of the series itself, are the individual artworks done specifically for songs in mind from “Dreaming With Alice” or are they more loosely based on the music?

The illustrations are completely based on the actual songs, and they usually feature elements drawn from the lyrics.
Some of the engravings are more descriptive, others less so. I must confess that I have a marked tendency towards abstraction, which I tried to keep restrained in this particular project. I think that abstraction often got to the surface, anyway, mostly due to the fact that at the time I did these particular illustrations I was extremely interested in African art and its tendency to translate reality into geometric shapes and patterns.
The Odyssey project, which I did not long after completing the Dreaming With Alice songbook, shows my more abstract side, and its illustrations, which are still based on the characters and events described in the book, are so minimal that one may find it difficult to immediately associate them with the text.

If the opportunity arose for you to do a similar project for another classic album (of any time or period), which would it be and why?

Hhhm, tough question, here, since I’m such a music “freak” that it would be a hard choice to make: too many wonderful albums around…
A particular favourite of mine, though, is Burning Spear’s first LP, which I consider a masterpiece. I would love to illustrate it.
Actually, right now I’m working on a series of paintings inspired by Jamaican songs. They are going to be completely abstract, since I believe that music such as dub, which relies so much on sound treatment, could hardly be translated into descriptive images.

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“Run Run se fue pa’l Norte”, inspired by Violeta Parra’s song of the same title.

Just to talk a little about your earlier work and the formative influences on you as an artist. What were the initial sources of inspiration for you to create art? Were there specific art movements in art history or specific painters you were drawn to at the beginning? Since your work encompasses a wide range of various techniques – such as painting, engraving, linocuts – I imagine there must be such a variety of people who have influenced you in your own approach as an artist?

My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were all painters, so art, painting specifically, was part of my life since I was a child. I always drew, but it took me quite some time to make the decision to fully devote myself to painting and illustration. It actually came gradually, and in parallel with my passion for music, since the very first works I got published were for indie labels I followed.
I like almost all art, so it would be difficult for me to choose some specific artists or movements as my favourite ones. I must say, though, that, being an Italian, I surely was influenced from the very beginning by all the Renaissance greats, Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello in particular. The Bauhaus has always been a source of inspiration to me, as well as some “eccentric” painters such as Piero Di Cosimo, Léon Spilliaert and Odilon Redon. In a more “graphic design” context, I’d like to mention Neil Fujita and his work for Columbia Records in the fifties.

For the record, what are the techniques you most commonly use?

I first worked mostly in black and white, using indian ink and various kinds of pens and brushes. Then I really got into engraving techniques, such as linocut. I prefer to mix techniques up, though, so I often combine the aforementioned ones with watercolour, gouache and acrylic paints. I also do monotype a lot, a technique I particularly enjoy, since it gives one an endless array of possibilities.

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“The Weighing Of The Heart”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Second Language, 2013).

Now, to turn to the music of Colleen and the hugely enriching and stunning work that has resulted from that truly special collaboration. Firstly, I’ll point out that Colleen (aka French musician Cécile Schott) is your partner for many years now and you have been creating the artwork for her albums as Colleen for the last decade or so. The resulting “collaboration” has most recently been this year’s magnificent “The Weighing Of The Heart” album. It’s obviously such a personal and special project for the two of you, not least since it’s the first Colleen record in five years. I know it sounds clichéd, but it just so perfectly embodies visually the music within (for example, Coleen’s new focus on rhythm, colour, and movement). There’s also so much else in the sleeve, including the reference to the Ursa Major constellation, the Egyptian book of the dead and also the location of San Sebastián, where yourself and Cécile now live.
I would love if you could talk about “The Weighing Of The Heart”, the artwork and the new elements found in this new work of your’s and what influenced you in the making of the artwork?

The making of the artwork for “The Weighing Of The Heart” took me an extremely long time, since I really wanted to give it my best. It’s a very important album for both myself and for Cécile, who was getting back to recording music after a fairly long hiatus.
I actually did three different versions of the cover artwork, but never was completely satisfied with what I came up with.
I think that the final one, the one Cécile and I were both happy with, reflects well the changes we’ve both experienced in our respective arts: Cécile’s new poly rhythmic compositions and more “colourful” approach to music coincided with a tendency I had developed to get my works busier and brighter in terms of colour. As far as I’m concerned, I believe it’s a consequence of my passion for traditional African art and also an influence of Juan Gris’s cubism.
It’s funny because I hadn’t heard a single note of Cécile’s new music until I had finished the artwork, so it’s the result of a kind of telepathic communication between the two of us if both music and images work along fine.

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“Les Ondes Silencieuses”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Leaf, 2007).

It would also be such a huge pleasure for me to ask you about the sleeves for both “Les Ondes Silencieuses” and “The Golden Morning Breaks” here as well. Both those records hold such a special place in the hearts of music fans and both of the sleeves distill so beautifully the space and time in which both those special Colleen albums were made, and embody the particular mood and atmosphere of both records too.

I’m pleased that you like those particular sleeves, even if I must tell you that I find it kind of hard to look back to that particular era of my work now… I don’t feel really connected to it anymore. Actually, the cover for “Les Ondes Silencieuses” is probably the very last “official” artwork I did in that pen-and-ink, Beardsley-esque style I had been working with. Oh, well, I still have a soft spot for that sleeve though, since it has such a “home-y” feeling to it… Cécile and our cat are on it, and the landscape is a familiar one: it could well be taken from the place where we live now or from my hometown in Italy.

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“Black Magic and Its Expose”, engraving, taken from “Master & Margarita”.

Last year your project – encompassing fifteen engraved panels, all handmade and hand-printed – based on Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” was exhibited in the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow. This must have been such a proud and special occasion for you? And this project stemmed simply from your wish to illustrate each chapter from one of your favourite books?

It was a true honour for me to have my illustrations exhibited in Bulgakov’s Museum. The museum is actually in the house where the writer lived and wrote some of his books, including “Master And Margarita”.
When I got the offer to do that exhibition I was really moved, since I enormously admire Bulgakov, both for his work and for the determination he put into it despite the terrible living conditions and restrictions that were imposed on him by the Communist government.
I just wanted to pay a small tribute to him through my work, but unfortunately got stuck creatively midway through and never managed to complete it.
The original idea was to do 43 linocuts!…

Literature has also played a major role in your work as an artist. Which books and authors have you most admired?

I’m a huge fan of classical Russian literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, Lermontov and, of course, Bulgakov.
I also like early twentieth century russian poetry, Esenin in particular.
Generally speaking, I love the golden era of novel-writing, mid and late nineteenth century.
Other particular favourites of mine are Stendhal, Conrad, Maupassant and Tommaso Landolfi, maybe my most beloved author of all. He’s not well-known outside of Italy (actually he’s kind of considered as an “outsider” also there), but I find he wrote some of the most interesting works in Italian literature, especially when it comes to short stories.

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“Arrival at Pylos”, taken from “The Odyssey”, a series based on illustrating each chapter for Homer’s Odyssey, collage, monotype and sprayed watercolours.

Film has equally been important for you, I know in the past you have talked about such filmmakers as Marcel Carné and Tarkovsky. Which films and filmmakers would you recommend the most?

Tough question again! Hard for me to choose a few ones only!
I would definitely recommend some of the classic French movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Carné is a big favourite of mine: I love “Hôtel du Nord”, “Le jour se lève”, “Quai des brumes” and, especially, “Les enfants du paradis”, definitely my all-time favourite movie (along with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”).
All the French cinema of that era is really interesting though, especially for the particular flavour of the language used.
French is a fabulous language, so rich and inventive!
I also love silent cinema, the German one in particular (Murnau, Lang, Dieterle, …)
Of course I have a soft spot for classic Italian authors, especially Mario Monicelli, and for music documentaries. A particular music doc I’m totally in love with is Margaret Brown’s “Be Here To Love Me”, devoted to the life and the music of the late great Townes Van Zandt. It’s most probably the best (and most moving) music film I’ve ever seen.

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“Mark Fry”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #2.

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“Norman Jopling”, engraving, taken from “Morning” #2.

Lastly, to music, and I have to at this point mention your incredible music publication “Morning” (named after the Peep Show’s song of the same name) which you published, illustrated and designed yourself. What’s so special and unique about “Morning” is that you effectively went on a personal quest to seek out those bands and artists from the past who you felt were unfairly forgotten and neglected by the music press at large. The resulting interviews are so poignant as the reader can really get the impression that these conversations were from the hearts of the respective musicians and they valued the opportunity so much. The art direction is a thing of beauty too (imagery comprises either your own artwork or the use of previously unpublished photographs) and is such a far cry from the mostly fairly generic nature of music media at large these days.
Could you recount your fondest memories you have had from your time creating and publishing “Morning”?

The concept behind “Morning” was to publish a magazine in the spirit of vintage periodicals such as “The Yellow Book” and “La Revue Blanche”, aesthetically speaking, and devote it to the music I really love. It focused mostly on artists I personally felt had not had the recognition they deserved, either in their time or even today, when some “underground” musicians of the sixties, seventies and eighties have been re-discovered and become sort of cult-figures.
My idea was to let the musicians talk as much and as freely as possible about their lives, their creative processes and their careers.
I really enjoyed working on “Morning”, especially since all the artists I approached were extremely enthusiastic and committed to the project. It was a truly rewarding experience on a human level.
I only have fond memories about it, so it would be impossible for me to choose a particular one, but perhaps it feels particularly special that Sybille Baier accepted to be interviewed (“because it’s such a nice little project”, as she said – and indeed it was: I only published 150 copies of the first issue). As far as I know, this interview is the only one she has ever given – isn’t that cool?…

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“Sibylle Baier”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #1.

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“Dreaming With Alice”, the illustrated collectible songbook featuring twelve specially commissioned linocuts by Iker Spozio (together with Mark Fry’s sheet music and lyrics) is available now HERE

For all information on Iker Spozio and to keep updated with new works please visit:

http://www.ikerspozio.net

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To read our interview with Colleen please see here, and for our interview with Mark Fry please see here.

Very special thanks to Iker and Cécile for their time, patience and warmth.

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