A Creative Mind

Pierre Portelli (photo courtesy of The Malta Independent & by Elisa Von Brockdorff)
For book lovers there are few experiences as thrilling as walking into a book shop; the feeling of being surrounded by so many different reading possibilities can be intoxicating.  Eventually, however, reality sets in and choices have to be made over which ones will be coming home with you.  In that moment the decision is often swayed by one crucial factor: looks.

It is in that moment of truth that Pierre Portelli wants to prevail.  

As a book designer he has to handle various aspects of a book’s production.  “Together with the publishing team at Merlin, I am involved in most of the book production process,” he tells me “which includes the fonts used, paragraph spacing and overall layout.”  All of which is important but nowhere close to the value of getting the book cover right.  “Research shows that you don’t have minutes to convince a book buyer; people make their mind up within seconds of picking up a book.  So we have to make something that stands out and convinces people.”

Portelli is one of Malta’s veterans at his job having been at it for almost forty years.  “My family had to move to England towards the end of the seventies and whilst there I studied graphic design.  I decided to return to Malta after finishing college. Initially I worked in advertising but then quickly moved into book publishing.”

As we talk about all this in Portelli’s office that is dominated by books and two large computer monitors, it is fair to say that the work involved in his early years was quite different than what it is today.  A lot of the work he had to do back then is now redundant with the bulk of the heavy lifting being done by computers.   

One aspect, however, has not changed: the spark of thought that leads the creator down one path rather than another.  

“The initial concept development process to design the book cover has remained the same,” Portelli explains.  “What I do is read through the text and underline text which attracts my attention or key phrases.  I also discuss with the authors to get their input as well as gain a better understanding of what was going through their mind whilst they were writing.  This sets off the creative process, and I start getting different ideas.”  

“The more this happens the more I start engaging with different images as well as drafting my own ideas.  I pin the different images and drafts on an ideas board so that I can process it.”

“Once that happens I start producing some basic designs.  To see how they will look, I generate mock cover designs and put them on books which will roughly be the same size as the book to be printed.  That way I can get a more tangible feel of how the book would eventually look. The concepts that stand out the most are then shared with the publishing team for further discussions.”

“It takes a number of iterations and often the end result is very different from the starting idea.”

Often that process involves looking at projects from a different and non-literal perspective.  “I’m always thinking about the complete book and how it will look.”

This includes, among other things, the actual physical size of a book with thicker books offering different possibilities than thinner ones.  Crucially, for Portelli there aren’t conventions that he is not willing to break.

“There have been instances where I designed a cover that didn’t feature the book’s name.  Guze’ Stagno’s ‘What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels’ only featured the name on the spine whilst the author’s name on the front cover is printed in UV varnish and so visible only when you look at it from a certain angle.”  

The result is one of Portelli’s more iconic book cover designs which plays with the colours of the national flag as well as that iconic Brussels landmark, the Manneken Pis.  In among all that imagery is an allusion to the author’s trademark piss-taking of Maltese society so that the cover itself is not only beautiful, it is also intelligent.

Portelli himself is too modest to say so but some of his covers stand out not only among books published locally but those in the international marketplace.  Books like Vandalism (by Lizzie Eldridge) and Grasshopper (by Aleks Farrugia) are, quite simply, wonderful and tempt you to pick them up.

He outdid himself, however, with the cover design of ‘Awguri, Giovanni Bonello!’ a collection of short stories based on characters uncovered by research carried out by the historian and former judge to whom this book is dedicated.

“This book was meant as a sort of gift so I started thinking along those lines.  A common gift is a box of chocolates so I started to break down that idea.  It got me thinking about the materials and colours of those boxes which is why I opted for gold coloured paper.  The end result very much mimics a gift box.”  

“It was quite a task to find locally the right partner to carry out the precise  laser cutting for this job but eventually we managed to find the right partner in the form of Fablab in Valletta.  They were very professional and their passion matched ours.  The end result very much mimics the feeling of a box.”

Indeed for a limited edition of the book the cover is actually a box.  Yet even the general print run features a glorious cover which plays with different shades of gold and a die-cut title.

As he talks about the process it is easy to appreciate just how much passion Portelli pours into his projects.  “There’s a lot of professional pride involved,” he admits.  “It isn’t always about doing the covers of books that may be more creatively satisfying. We are also very proud of the school books that we design.”

“It all means that whatever the job, you have to invest the time for the research and creative process, though some jobs are obviously more satisfying”

Perhaps it is because of Portelli’s early work experience or because of his intrinsic curiosity but he doesn’t shy from doing more in a project than simply designing it.  Indeed, he seems to relish the opportunity to really connect with the end result.

When I was designing Clare Azzopardi's Il-Linja Hadra, I had come up with the idea of a green ribbon running through the book such that in allowed you to tie the two ends up and close the book,” he says.

"Well, quite a laborious task, but the final result was extremely rewarding for all of us who had to thread the ribbon through each book by hand."

“It was the same with Giovanni Bonello’s book where we folded the boxes ourselves and put them in.”  There is an unmistakable feeling of satisfaction in his voice as he recounts those experiences.  

Perhaps the strongest emotion that I got from talking to Portelli, however, was that of gratitude.  “I’m a creative individual so that my work allows me to be so creative is quite fortunate.”

Portelli is more than just a book designer, however.  In the early eighties he formed part of Malta’s small but vibrant punk scene in what was for him an early attempt at self-expression.  Eventually that desire to interact at an intellectual level with his audience matured as he began to move into art and, in particular, art installations.  Indeed, he was one of the founding members of START (a Maltese contemporary art group) and ISTRA (a contemporary art and research foundation).

“I’m from a generation of artists who had to work really hard in order to get our work out there,” he explains.  “It wasn’t easy to exhibit modern contemporary art so we had to be creative in the way we did so.”

“One time we exhibited in a rundown old building in Valletta and created works in each room. It was quite an experience for the visitor to find this rundown apartment transformed into a creative hub with all the artists working on site." 

“In my art installations I enjoy involving the viewer, getting them to become part of the whole experience making them complicit to the whole work.”
In an era where art and what it means is often intrinsically elitist – where only those with an understanding and appreciation of the way modern art works seem to get it – such installations are invaluable because they can get to those who wouldn’t normally take an interest to interact with a work of art.

One of Portelli’s most recent pieces of work is an excellent example of that.  Back in 2014, as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Malta as a republic and part in a project titled rePUBBLIKA, he was commissioned to prepare an installation that was to spend three months in Pjazza Teatru Rjal near the entrance of Valletta.  

Portelli’s contribution to this programme was Vox Populi, a large steel megaphone that people could go up to and hear their voices amplified as they spoke into it.  It was a brilliant example of populist art that attracted crowds of people among whom there were certainly those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves to be art enthusiasts.

“The idea for that was very simple,” he details.  “The event was to celebrate Malta becoming a republic which also meant that the Maltese people got a stronger say in the country, so the megaphone was meant to symbolise that achievement.”

That much was, frankly, obvious, but there was also a deeper meaning.  “The installation was to be placed in front of the parliament, where the people’s representatives meet.  Normally it is the politicians who talk to the people so it’s placing provided an ideal opportunity for the people to turn the tables; it provided them with an opportunity to shout their thoughts at their representatives and have those thoughts magnified.”

VOX POPULI art installation (courtesy of pierreportelli.com)
Regardless of whether or not people got this latter inflection, they certainly enjoyed the opportunity which perhaps shows that in order to make art more accessible to the wider public it should be taken to them rather than be kept in galleries.

For Portelli, that project was also another opportunity to move between the world of the artist who dreams up ideas and the craftsmen who execute the projects.

The more that I talk with Pierre, the more I begin to appreciate just how proficient he is.  “I’ve been lucky,” he admits.  “I’ve done a lot of different work; I did a lot of television set design for a while and I even got to design the lay-out of a trade fair. So there aren’t many projects that I can say I never got the opportunity to do.”

Among those projects are a number of theatre set designs, the third of Portelli’s creative passions.  “I love theatre and I’ve been expressing that love through set design.”

There is something of a collaborative effort in the whole process.  “I will give it a lot of thought and then come up with an idea of what to do which I’ll discuss with the director to see how it fits with his overall vision.  I’ll sketch out my ideas to give him an indication of what I have in mind and we move on from there.”

As with everything else such plans have to keep in mind the actual construction of the set both because of budget constraints but also because Portelli’s role isn’t confined to simply designing the set.  “No,” he says with a laugh, “I have to help put it all together.”

Again, these projects also involve him having to look at different materials that can be used to fulfil his creative visions, as one recent example proved.  “I was working on the set design of the opera Orpheus in the Underworld and after doing my research I thought about doing a wreath made up of hair which was something of a tradition back in Victorian times.”

“I thought about it and ultimately we built it out of broom bristles.  I went to a factory that produces brooms and told them that I needed the bristles.  Again, that initial conversation was quite interesting as there is always something of a perplexed expression when you start explaining what you need.  Still we got what we needed and built a large wreath that became the central feature of the whole stage.”   

“We built it in a way that the wreath had a mechanical aspect to it and it could open up so that in itself it could also change to serve different functions within the same production.”

It was indeed quite a feat, not only because of the size and creativity that went into its conception but also for the artistry of its execution.

Seeing that it pervades through everything that he does, it was not surprising to hear Pierre admit that going to the roots of a projects is essentially in his creative philosophy. 

“The role of the artist isn’t simply that of drawing but also to research,” he says before turning to his latest contemporary art project to explain what he means.  

“I have a real interest in tattoos.  When I was at the School of Art in England, way back in 1977, my thesis was on the art of tattooing.  In particular I have an interest in tattoos that were made in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.”

“I am working on a project called Rel•Ink to work on the narratives of the stories told by these tattoos on old people.  When we talk about the indelibility of tattoos we forget that there are stories that are being lost with these people when the pass away.”

So, together with my wife we are researching early Twentieth century tattooing in Malta. We are conducting interviews and archiving vintage designs. We are collaborating with  Heritage Malta at the Maritime Museum in Birgu and the Department of Library Information and Archive science at the University of Malta in order to create an open source database.

We are at the moment presenting Rel•Ink's initial research findings in an exhibition at the Malta Maritime Museum. The exhibition runs until the end of December. I have also invited Sarah Micallef (an embroidery artist and the owner of the delightful thesecretrose.com), Andrew Rizzo (photographer) and Sailor Roman (a French tattoo artist who specialises in maritime themed work) to participate alongside me.  The contemporary works are also in dialogue with the artefacts at the Maritime Museum such as, for instance, a statue of a sailor who has a tattoo related to the Crimean War on his arm.”

The more that Pierre talks about this project the more I come to understand its attraction.  In a sense it was somewhat inevitable given his obvious passion for it.  The thing is, however, that he doesn’t seem to be passionate only about this particular project; such passion is apparent in every aspect of his work.

And when such passion is allied to a creative mind and a capacity for hard work, great work inevitably follows.

Pierre Portelli's current projet Rel•Ink is on show at the Malta Maritime Museum in Birgu till the 29th of December.  More information can be found on pierreportelli.com or on the event's Facebook page.

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