“We read to know we are not alone.” I came across this quote when climbing the stairs to the second floor of Edinburgh’s Central Library, where I often go to write. A piece of artwork is on permanent display there, sitting deep into the window ledge at the side of the stairs. Each time I pass it, I stop and notice something different about it. It is one of a small number of ‘Edinburgh’s Mystery Paper Sculptures’. They are worth seeking out, taking time to stand in awe of their beauty and marvel at the hours of painstaking work dedicated to creating them.
Now numbering around a dozen, the mystery sculptures started to appear throughout the city from 2011 at venues related to the written and spoken word. Other sculptures have been discovered at the National Museum, the Filmhouse (an independent cinema), the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum. The first of them was discovered in the Scottish Poetry Library: a little tree growing out of a book. A calling card, next to it, read: “We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books…a book is so much more than pages full of words…This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…”
The identity of the artist has never been revealed. A gentle version of Banksy, I think to myself. Like Banksy, Edinburgh’s mystery artist has gifted his/her work to the city in order to inspire. In this case, a clarion call to appreciate and maintain those institutions that feed our imagination, that support us to read and listen, to watch and learn. Imagine doing all that work, then depositing it quietly when all backs are turned, and slipping back off into the shadows! Mission accomplished: public imagination kindled and magic achieved, and without any fanfare. The embodiment of the Harry S. Truman’s declaration: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Each sculpture is a fusion of Papier-mâché, collage, and sculpture, culminating in a creation of stunningly intricate fragility. The one I pass in Central Library is large, maybe five feet tall: a wellington-booted girl reads a book under a tree; a tree with butterfly leaves, some of them fluttering at her feet. The bark of the tree – like all of the sculpture – is fashioned from tiny strips of torn up paper of printed words. It is extraordinary. Mostly in black and white, like the paper from which it is made, there are just a few pops of colour: her green boots; a few of the butterflies (red, orange and blue); and, picked out in coloured lettering on her coat, it says ‘Reading matters’. On first inspection, it looks as though the bark of the tree is just a messy mass of torn letters and words with no pattern or meaning. Look closely, however, and you will find hidden messages. I nearly missed it, but peering at the bark is when came across the words attributed to C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone”.
In the last week I received two books in the post – one from M. and one from J. Gifts that I deeply appreciated and that linked me back to the friends who sent them, but also linked me to the words on the page and made me feel more connected, less alone. Books can reinforce a feeling of other people going through the same life experiences as you, and so take the sting out of yours. As you go about your Saturday, you might pass by your own equivalent of an Edinburgh Mystery Paper Sculpture, you might find your own hidden message. As the writer Henry James said: “try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost”