By David Michael Newstead.
British artist Keira Rathbone has the unique ability to transform a few key strokes into elaborate portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes. Over the years, she’s amassed a collection of typewriters to help her in her work, which she usually creates in public as on-lookers watch her make blank pages into art. Recently, Keira joined me to discuss her work and her life as a typewriter artist. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: So in preparation for this interview, I at least attempted to make artwork the way you do on a typewriter. It is extremely difficult. And it made we wonder how you learned to do this?
Keira Rathbone: I hadn’t seen any before. So, I was coming at it from not having any words to write. Sort of an accidental approach. Repetitive art. Looking like a pattern made me see at the letters as shapes. It was a very instinctive way of looking at the letters. I noticed myself walking around and seeing things and thinking which characters I would use. So like, how you would wrap a character around a thing to represent it?
I think it’s important to find your own way and style and reason for doing it. Mine was because I like machines and messing about with them. And I like letters. So, translating visual things into characters really spoke to me. That’s why I do it, because it speaks to me.
David Newstead: Typewriters have often been a means of storytelling. And I wanted to ask if you feel like your art tells a story?
Keira Rathbone: I hope my street scenes and the location scenes that I do suggest the moment in time or a collection of moments in that place in that time. That’s what I hope. And by adding more and more traces of moving subjects, I feel like they are more open to interpretation as well as the more permanent structural scenes in a picture.
David Newstead: I have to say, I really liked the album cover you did recently. Click here to see the cover.
Keira Rathbone: Oh, thanks! Yeah, I don’t do that many portraits. I feel like the two people in that image… something about the way they are pictured was quite fragile in a way. I think that sort of thing and the way they were posing, I think offers a bit of a story.
David Newstead: At this point, you own 40 or more typewriters, I believe. Do you have a favorite model or brand? Or is there a distinction in how they create images differently?
Keira Rathbone: To me, it’s more if they work. That’s it. That’s all there is. If it works well, then I’ll use it. I have 40 that don’t work very well that need to go.
David Newstead: Where do you find these things? Like antique shops or how do you find them?
Keira Rathbone: Over 15 years, they were given to me. Garage sales. Charity shops. I would never buy one from an antique shop. No way. They charge so much. People have quite often donated them to me when they’ve read about me in the paper or something.
The one I’m using at the moment is from someone who follows me on Twitter. He gave it to me about a year ago. His grandmother had just died and he really wanted me to have her old typewriter. It was in pristine condition. It’s still a really nice one. eBay. I just had to buy one off eBay, because I have a commission that requires extra width.
David Newstead: Because you often work in public, what are some of the reactions that you get from people, particularly children who probably don’t know what a typewriter is and might not have ever seen one before?
Keira Rathbone: I love children’s reactions, because they’re so uninhibited. They just say out loud, “What’s that?!” You know they shout, “What are you doing?!” Whereas, adults you can sort of see in their eyes they’re wondering what you’re doing, but a lot of them won’t ask. But children… if they don’t know what a typewriter is, I don’t tell them immediately. I make them work out what it could be. And then, I wonder once I’ve gotten them to make that connection between computers and typewriters if this is what they think typewriters are for. Not for writing. If they’re only encounter with them is me making a picture, maybe that’s what they’ll remember.
David Newstead: For a time, you were dressing in period clothing from the year each typewriter was made. I’m curious what you learned from that experience?
Keira Rathbone: I used to do that and it was part of the performance when I went to festivals and parties and things. And it worked really well for a while, but then I realized that I wanted to change that element. People were asking more about that than the art. So, I thought you got to change something if these are not the questions you want to be asked.
It was interesting, because of the way people treat you when you’re dressing vintage like that. So, it was quite fascinating for a while and people treat you a lot differently. People treat you like you’re some delicate flower from the 1950s.
David Newstead: Kind of a sociological experiment I guess.
Keira Rathbone: Yeah, that’s it. That’s kind of what I find fascinating about it. It seemed to be an on-going experiment for me.
David Newstead: Do you feel like your art has changed your view of writing or vice versa that writing has changed your view of art? Or has your work made you think in different ways?
Keira Rathbone: I don’t know about writing, but it’s definitely educated me in quite a few very specific subjects that probably wouldn’t have even come into my radar. As opportunities come, researching a place or a thing or something’s history. So yeah, this definitely has educated me in an unexpected way. Over the years, I’ve been places that I wouldn’t have gone had it not been for my art. I feel like through something that was quite isolating and insular to begin with it has brought much new developments, taught me so many things, introduced me to people and in some ways challenged my conception of people.
David Newstead: You’ve done a lot of landscapes and portraits. What’s the most difficult thing you’ve tried to create through your art?
Keira Rathbone: I find babies difficult, so I don’t do them. Like people have asked me to do baby portraits. The ink is just too harsh. Really, really something I struggle with. It’s more suited to something that’s been around a bit longer. But sometimes if there’s something I’m worried about or don’t feel like I could do, I think that’s a good sign to try to do it. It’s like what could come out of that? Experimenting with something that you’re not comfortable with. It could be really interesting. So, watch out for a series of babies.
David Newstead: A series of very serious looking babies.
David Newstead: Just out of curiosity. Of the keys on a keyboard, what are the most versatile for your work?
Keira Rathbone: Definitely the most used characters are like underscores and brackets and hyphens, because they’re just the most useful shapes.
David Newstead: Of the projects you’ve worked on, what’s your favorite? And what’s the next big project you’re creating?
Keira Rathbone: I think going to Ivrea, Italy last year to do an exhibition there and typing live in the home of Olivetti typewriters, that was one of my favorite experiences. Capturing some of the sights around there. The overall experience was amazing, being there and to exhibit there and how it connected with another non-English speaking people, which I knew it would. It’s just amazing how much of the language barrier disappears. There’s no barrier when you’re with art. Apart from when they want to ask you questions.
Coming up is one of things I’ve been wanting to do for years and years and that’s called the Art Car Boot in Granary Square in King’s Cross this Sunday. It’s an annual art event for artists of every kind, the well-established ones and emerging. But it’s really hard to get in. You have to know somebody and finally I met somebody who can get me in. And I’m doing it this Sunday, so I’m really, really excited about that. I’m going to be typing live there and creating some special new pieces for it. Click here to see how it went.
David Newstead: I hope it goes well!
Keira Rathbone: Thank you.
David Newstead: What’s fascinating to me is that there’s this performance aspect to what you do and then there’s the finished product and both of them are really interesting, but it’s like they’re almost two different things or they can be.
Keira Rathbone: Yeah, I think the live typing brings the work to another level, because of that human connection. When people see how it’s done, they look at it again with a fresh perspective. So, I think the two kind of need each other. And I definitely get a lot of satisfaction from being out there in the streets. It’s amazing the buzz you can get from just talking to strangers.