Natural History. Archival Collages by John Digby « Kondase Keskus

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Natural History. Archival Collages by John Digby



Natural Histories: Archival Collages by John Digby

7th of June – 30th of august 2014

One of the most important exhibitions to take place at Kondas Centre in 2014 introduces the work of the English-American collage artist John Digby (born in 1938 in London). Besides being a professional collage artist, Digby has been active as a teacher, publisher and poet. His collages have been widely exhibited in the United States, in the United Kingdom and France. Ten years ago he and his wife Joan started an independent publishing company The Feral Press which publishes unique stories, essays and poetry accompanied by black and white illustrations by various artists. Besides working as an artist John Digby is an eminent teacher, he is also the author of The Collage Handbook which was published in 1987 by the world-known art publisher Thames & Hudson.

The exhibition Natural Histories: Archival Collages by John Digby to take place at Kondas Centre will give an insight to the artist’s original technique and an overview of ouevre from the past two decades.


John Digby’s passion for natural history began with a fascination for the birds that lived around him in the London of his childhood. From 1952 to 1957 he worked as a keeper at the London Zoological Garden. His great passion was birds—especially pheasants—and the work he most enjoyed was doing the backs and fronts of what was then the Small Bird House. Much later, when he came to poetry, the movement and grace of the birds and animals he remembered exerted a strong influence on his style.  “In my head,” he wrote in one poem, “I carry my own zoo.”  His visionary zoo later emerged as delicate collages of birds, butterflies, animals and fish carved from line engravings with the fine edge of surgeon’s scalpel. Digby is a self-taught artist who has developed his techniques and aesthetics from personal experience and experimentation with papers, adhesives, and inks. Over the last twenty-eight years he has lived and worked in the United States, exhibiting widely there as well as in England, France and Korea. During this period his collages have gone through their own natural evolution of styles. Although his recent work tends toward abstraction, his latest exhibition is related to a unique land formation in Western Australia, called The Pinnacles. Even in abstraction, nature plays a predominant role in his work.


In his vignettes of natural history, John Digby imagines nature as an inner reality rather than an external place. He makes us see through the animate forms as if they were transparent windows into the consciousness of nature. His work seems to say, “the forest lives in the hawk’s keen eye,” or “the bear senses the cave of his dark winter.” In one piece, a butterfly beats the shaman’s message on fragile wings. In another, a robin fills his throat with the sound of the river.. Each image draws the reader into its charmed circle. The more we look, the deeper we are led into a microcosm in which we sometimes find ourselves.  These isolated images, frozen in time, become icons for our own thoughts.


By entering into the miniature details of these collages, we also enter the reverence that Digby feels for the materials he uses.  All of his ultimate sources are the black and white wood engravings of illustrators whose art was eclipsed by the advent to photography. The originals belong to a picturesque world that has been overrun by modernity.  Digby’s work both preserves and modernizes that world. His method of composition includes electro-carbon transfer of the old images onto archival, acid-free papers. Using co-polymer adhesives, permanent inks and bookbinders’ tools, he transforms the originals into materials that are entirely his own. Using the precision of a scalpel tip, he excises and recombines minute fragments to construct a new unity that speaks to our own age.  In seeking to retrieve images from loss and give them contemporary meaning and permanence, he approaches collage itself as a medium of restoration. “In all of my work I am engaged in an archival process of rescuing images from the past,” he writes.  “Thus, I see collage – the pasted picture – as a medium of continuation, a process by which the past becomes the future, which is my own vision of the natural cycle.”


John and Joan Digby, Gregor Taul




This exhibition was made possible by the generous help from both the Estonian Cultural Endowment and the Embassy of the United States in Estonia.