Catherine Wynne-Paton: The Lost Library


Axis interviews Catherine Wynne-Paton about The Lost Library

September 2020

In September, Lucy Wright and Kelly Culver interviewed Axis member, Catherine Wynne-Paton about her 'Lost Library' project, for the Social Art Library, Axis's new initiative to gather and make accessible the learnings from socially-engaged art. Social Art Library is committed to helping artists to share their stories more widely. If you would like to get involved, you can find out more by visiting the Social Art Library website or you can submit your own project here.

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Figure. 1 © Portrait of Catherine Wynne-Paton courtesy of Finlay Mitchell

Catherine Wynne-Paton is a conceptual media artist concerned with interpreting knowledge held deep within.  She uses gesture and movement to begin to answer philosophical questions.   Her work is informed by an interest in text resonant with particular places and the people connected with it.  

She is creator of The Lost Library which has appeared at The National Eisteddfod of Wales, Fringe Arts Bath, Deptford X Fringe, The Wrexham Open and MainSpring Arts.    

Wynne-Paton studied Fine Art at Hereford College of Arts, received the Meadow Arts graduate prize, was the first Print Shed artist in residence, where she later had her first solo show in 2015 and has received PEAK micro commission for new work.   

She is a founding director of Framework Herefordshire, set up in 2014 to support emerging artists through exhibitions, talks and opportunities for skill development.  She has curated graduate exhibitions in London and Hay-on-Wye, PaperFields.  She sat on the Jury for the Hidden Gems grant scheme, delivered by Herefordshire’s a Great Place that brings together the arts, heritage, rural communities and the creative use of digital technology.   

She has an enduring interest in supporting the work of other contemporary artists working in rural and remote areas, which led to creating an archive of conversations with artists. 

From April - August 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic,  she created weekly art activity sheets for people stuck at home, gave Italian art talks on Skype, made her front window into an exhibition venue showing 60 paintings April - July and turned planned live performances of The Lost Library into a series of 15 videos. 


Hi Catherine! It seems really rather appropriate—as the librarian of Social Art Library—to be interviewing an artist who is also interested in libraries and finding ways to connect to others through them.. So my first question is perhaps rather predictable, but could you begin by telling us why ‘The Lost Library’? What was the spur / motivation behind this project?


Yes, our interview is so apt!  This project began initially as a response to the huge losses of libraries the UK was seeing.  From 2002 to 2009 138 libraries closed, accelerating until 2015 with a further 337 libraries closing.  

When I looked more closely I noticed that Wales, where I live, had fared particularly badly...even worse than England.

I had been thinking about libraries and what their loss meant in terms of our social infrastructure and support for a long while, having been a Saturday assistant at both a local library and mobile library years ago. As an avid reader, libraries are the best way to keep up with my appetite for books.  

That said, for me, libraries evoke so much more than simply books... I’m caught up in the poetics of it all, the sense of enquiry,  curiosity and knowledge, as well as being a free-to-use ‘third place’ (Oldenburg, 1989).   

So, I’d wanted to create work around the concept of the library for a few years, but didn’t quite find the right conditions.   When I found out that the National Eisteddfod of Wales was coming to Abergavenny, where I live, I felt; this is my chance!  I set out to link the Abergavenny Library with the festival site, called the ‘maes’ (festival field).   I wanted to explore the idea of the library, to make physical aspects of what is found in the experience of a library visit, what librarians do and facilitate for others and then finding the right conditions to take a leap. 

What did you do?

I had so many ideas, including to have dancers respond to the text within the pages of library books, and to have a mobile library link the Eisteddfod and the library sites by travelling between them. Unfortunately my application for funding was unsuccessful and so I had the choice between dropping out or changing the project in order to go ahead and appear at The Eisteddfod.

So I adapted, involved many people and it became really messy!  

As I didn’t speak Welsh at that point, I needed to link what I was doing to their featured novel, ‘Border Country’ by Raymond Williams, set in Pandy near Abergavenny. I got in touch with the Extended Diploma Art & Design course leader Darren Williams at Hereford College of Arts to open up the discussion with students, asking them to respond to the idea of developing a mobile library performance that drew inspiration from Williams’ book.   

I met up with the tutor and a group of interested students,  who highlighted that many passages in the book—set in the 1950’s—featured gardens and gardening. This resonated with something I’d been thinking about in relation to libraries as places of growth—something I visualised using seedlings—so Darren  sourced an old wheelbarrow and student, Jasper Cousins, adapted it to hold a roll of paper, printed with  the first few chapters of the text (see Fig. 2).

28.  argus pic og me at eisteddfod - Copy

Figure 2. Photo Credit: SW Argus

Then music student Mary Tolhurst composed a three-part score inspired by the book, using traditional Welsh songs and sounds evocative of locomotion (the main character in Border Country is a railway signalman).  Her composition is the background music in the documentary video:

As I was keen to keep the connection of the book with the project (it’s more live-art than performance, this project doesn’t fit neatly into any category!) I decided to collate all mentions of plants in Border Country—there are 51 varieties mentioned—and then came up with a list of plants that had a good chance of growing to sizable seedlings by July. These were Sweet Williams, Snap Dragons, Lettuce and Chrysanthemums, and I invited a local gardening group, ‘Greenfingers’, to try growing them.  Happily they grew and in the end, Little Gem lettuces were the most profuse seedlings to be given away!

From the beginning I’d also involved the Friends of Abergavenny Library Group, who kindly donated funds towards my appearance at the Eisteddfod.  I also gained permission from the publisher of Border Country, Parthiam Books to use their text in my artwork and they went on to donate a number of the  books to Abergavenny Library.

As well as a Food Festival, Abergavenny also boasts a Writing Festival, and in the previous spring I had attended a speech writing workshop, a skill I put this to use in my appearance with The Lost Library at The Eisteddfod. The speech was also performed by a Welsh speaker, Marianne, who I had met at the Welsh language  group at the library. 

What was the Eisteddfod like?

The Eisteddfod takes place over 9 days at the end of July and beginning of August and I chose to appear on all the days the library was usually open. On the first day I gave the speech outside the library in English and Marianne gave it in Welsh.   We then trundled the heavy wheelbarrow—accompanied by music—onto the festival site, where we gave the speech in Welsh as per festival rules.

Each day we walked to and around the site for a few hours, stopping to give away seedlings and text and for Marianne to give the speech.   I realised quite soon that our translation must have been confusing due to the glazed looks on a few peoples faces, and as many who attend the Eisteddfod are fluent Welsh speakers I gathered much was lost in translation! So, one evening  I painted a translation into English on a roll.  When we give the speech on a small stage, we’d manually scroll the translation.

Although the project started by thinking of the physical loss of libraries, what you found was a way to translate the text from Border Country into actions so you could connect with different people in a much more reactionary space. Now you’ve gone through that process, do you see libraries potentially operating in a similar way, to rethink how they can connect community and knowledge? 

As with the arts, where the aim is often to reach people not usually engaged with the arts, one of the really important things we need to address with our library service is not what the users think, but why those who rarely venture in aren’t entering.  What isn’t there?  

Surveys asking what is missing are unlikely to yield fully useful results.  Understanding what a library would ideally do, what the expanded purpose of a library is, now that involves lots of risk, piloting really brave ideas and to make that really interesting it needs to venture away from familiar places and spaces and create provocations to deepen understanding of what we need libraries for now.  

What is the effect on individuals, society and our planet in increasing access to ideas, knowledge, dreams and information?  

How did the performance develop from that point on?

I performed the piece again at Fringe Arts Bath in spring of 2017 across 3 weekends, this time thinking about the value of libraries through statistics. I created a mini library installation, with a chalkboard display showing library use figures over the past few years in the Fringe venue on the corner of Milsom street. I experimented with role-playing as an investment banker and had many conversations with people about the value of public libraries. The performance evolved over the course of the weekends, including taking to the streets with Lost Library registration forms and membership cards. New members received a word from my collection, distilling the information you might ordinarily expect to take from a library visit into a single word, in reference to the dwindling number of public libraries.


In the autumn of 2017 I appeared for six hours at the Deptford X Fringe, where—in contrast to my experience at Bath— I chose to remain silent throughout my appearances: two hours each at New Cross Learning (an ex-library, now run by volunteers), in the foyer of Goldsmiths Library and at Lewisham Arthouse (an art space in an old Carnegie Library). I carried cardboard signs encouraging people to join The Lost Library and an FAQ document to explain the project. People were really intrigued and in trying to communicate I found myself increasingly using gesture and body language.


In 2018 I was one of five artists selected for The Wrexham Open—in the first year they had included a ‘Socially Engaged’ category. Previously my word collection had been self-selected, but this time I wanted the words in The Lost Library to come from people in the area. One weekend, I held a word and seed collecting workshop at Tŷ Pawb, believing that while undertaking a simple, even mundane task, the words that are important to you might surface in your mind. We used honesty plants to de-seed as I felt the notion particularly relevant and while collecting seeds and talking participants wrote down words they liked or found particularly exciting. These words were then used when I appeared a few weeks later at the gallery UnDegUn in December for a two hour performance.  For the first time I asked for a question on the registration form and moved around the space in contemplation of the question, before giving the visitor a membership card and sifting a word from the collection. 

In summer 2019 I performed at SpringBoard (run by MainSpring Arts, London) for 10 minutes in an intimate space for neurodivergent artists.  This time I projected instructions to join The Lost Library onto the wall behind me, put registration forms on the audience seats on arrival and received many questions. I then responded through movement and sifted a word and gave membership cards out one at a time: the fastest pace I’ve performed!

This is super-interesting, thanks! I know you’ve also been making new work for The Lost Library during lockdown, using your own performance and questions (I think?) gathered via social media. Could you talk a little bit about that - how your work on the library has had to adapt in these complicated times?

Yes, I was due to perform The Lost Library at an ‘Art in the archives’ seminar at  Aberystwyth Arts Centre and at Abergavenny Writing Festival this spring, these were postponed and so I used video format instead to create a series of videos from early April:

In my most recent performances before Covid, I would respond to as many questions I could in the set duration, but now the focus would be on a single question for each edition.

In preparation for performing during lockdown I gathered words from people in the area, created a pile of words myself and then asked my husband and son to select and reject words.  

Next I needed questions, so I asked friends, peers and family directly about their concerns about this moment in time. (I also called for questions through my video descriptions and social media).

The main difference between lockdown performances and those before was that the venue was my own home and later, my garden, rather than a venue some distance away.  This is a very different way of working: usually with The Lost Library I’d been building up to a concrete deadline, but filming from home is completely up to me.  I settled on weekly performances during lockdown: with all the worry and unsettled nature of the rest of life during this spring it was great to  have something of my own rhythm still going.

Since July I’ve been venturing further, to the side of a local stream, to an ancient farmhouse in Cwmyoy (where a peacock videobombed me!), a public park in Malvern and Glanusk Estate the site of the postponed Green Man Festival.  

I have found that the medium of video is ideal now because the project is multi-layered and quite obscure, slowing it down with video has been quite a revelation.  

Without this experience of creating digital performances I wouldn’t have begun to work with only one question at a time, which has given me more focus on individual questions and an extended period of movement and dance while holding it in mind.

The medium of video also allows me to have a permanent record of my movements in response to each question, this I didn’t have with previous appearances.   At Wrexham I recorded the performance myself with my camera on a tripod, but now, since lockdown began I have  been training  my son to record each performance.

I’m finding my work around and with The Lost Library is a way to consider questions without rushing for easy answers.  It’s a way to admit I don’t know everything but the research and consideration of each question is invigorating. 


I am also intrigued  by the questions people ask when they can ask about anything at all.  When I request questions during live performances people usually write the questions then and there and so they have less time to consider what they’ll ask.  Being digital since April, I can accept questions at any time and so people can take as long as they like to think up something that really matters to them.

For example, a recent question, from Malvern is:

How do you think this current global crisis will affect arts education in the months and years to come? (Funding, teaching, encouragement, employment, etc?)

I am curious to find out, over time, what I’ll discover through using movement in considering questions and then taking each question on into pieces of writing.  This element (the writing about a question) is currently in its inception.  

I’m interested in how much you are able to plan and choreograph your performance in advance of setting the camera rolling compared with how much you leave open for improvisation and maybe even play? I was also interested in the role of ‘incidental’ elements, such as the sound of birdsong, and unexpected ‘visitors’ such as the peacock in one of your videos.

The improvisation versus choreographed nature of the movement is something I’ve considered over the course of the 15 videos made so far.  

At first I improvised fully, not usually knowing which question I would be working with until we filmed, sometimes I picked the question at random.

A few videos into the series I developed movements with the question in mind in advance of recording, planning a broad choreography, then I reverted to improvising, feeling that pre-conceived movements might not be as revealing.  From then I’ve been improvising longer passages of movement, and yes, play, as I’ve really embraced the flow of visions and feelings invoked by the question and my processing of it through movement. 

In the first videos, the sound of birdsong or improvised piano playing started on opening and stopped on closing the library, signalled by revealing the ‘open’ sign, turning a painting around or opening a sack of library kit. (The piano gave way to birdsong as it was particularly noticeable this spring and with lockdown, especially in my garden studio.)

Another meaning I associate with the birdsong in my videos is in my accessing deeply held knowledge, the more primitive, yet knowing parts of me. Also, coincidentally, or not, over the past year or so I have been collecting feathers, printing and drawing them, with only vague notions why. Eventually it’ll all fit together!

I really enjoy the unexpected elements within a performance, such as my cat who had a starring role in Why when we have all this time is it so hard to be creative? Going with the flow this spring wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but that’s what I wanted to do more of, allowing things to surface through movement.  When moving among birds and animals I’d like to work around them, not moving them if possible.  I’m more interested in animals in their wild state rather than tamed and domestic.

Some of the questions I’m working with now were posed back in April, I’ve been receiving a few more recently and I read the question before performing, so I’m aware of it, but I do hold myself back from researching until after the performance. That way I have the best chance of accessing something authentic and instead of the usual reaching for an immediate answer. I want to see what I already know bodily.  I am curious to know, as I respond to more questions, what is revealed on a number of levels by my physically accessing knowledge through a primeval thing - movement.  

In a sense, what do I know, that I don’t even realise? 

And, I am not expecting to know how to analyse this all straight away, I’m looking for slow answers that are honest and really revealing.

You also talk about ‘deep knowledge’ and it made me think about how the body itself is an archive. I wondered if you might want to talk a bit more about that? 

Yes. The body can be considered an archive of lived and imagined experiences. Like an aroma might whisk you back to a very specific moment in your past, each movement is a mixture of seeing that movement before or having done it, but the movement is in a way, an extension of the thought process, a meandering with the body from one movement/moment to the next, feeling the way, turning the question and the thoughts, associations and shapes of the divergent thinking process, whilst taking in the stimulations of the location, air movement, sounds, the texture of the ground, the heat, the brightness. The body is a living, breathing archive of experiences and thoughts.  The challenge is to be sensitive enough and physically expressive enough to portray this deep knowledge fully.  

My last question is about technology, performance and accessibility. I am curious to know how the videos you made have been received by the public and how you have found sharing them online instead of as a live event in terms of what the audience or participants experience?

When I began making these videos back in April and for a few months, the process felt really new and uncertain and I shared the video only with people who’d asked to see them from my online connections, peers, friends and family.

This allowed me the luxury of an art-school like incubation period to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, this project is not about making me look good or intelligent, it’s about going with the flow of a project and allowing myself to let go in a time of heightened awareness and anxiety.  It has turned out to be about listening to my own voice in response to the concerns of individuals, at a time when the ever changing news threatens to take over every waking thought.  So instead of listening too much to the general (overall impression of newsfeeds), I am tuning in to the specifics of what people who hear of this project and contact me are concerned with.  

My challenge in these digitally overloaded days is to reach people outside my own social circles to include their concerns.  To this end, through lockdown I delivered (through letterboxes of people who requested them and digitally directly and via Black Mountains arts organisation PEAKs teen newsletter) 20 art activity sheets each inspired by a word from my collection, many of them sifted during Lost Library lockdown performances. On one of these sheets, in the Book Arts Newsletter, published by the CFPR at UWE and my instagram feed I invited questions.

When working solely through digital means it is a huge challenge to get responses from people that I don’t already know.  In live performances people are in the room or passing and in the moment they decide to participate or not. However, in August I was nominated on FaceBook to share 10 artworks over 10 days, which I did and on day 10 I shared the Lost Library Trailer which found its way onto a National Women's Register forum where it was met with interested confusion.  

And here’s a reaction from Vivian Barraclough who knows my work and posed the following question, which is also the title of the piece:

How challenging i.e. uncomfortable, can art be in this current context? (Video 2 7 April 2020)

I watched your video with much interest, was this because you selected my question? Was it because this was the second Lost Library performance that I have witnessed? Was it because I thought your physical movements together with your music and editing created a lyrical, flowing yet adventurous and sometimes unsteady performance? Probably all 3. Your physical performance I would sum up as "determined, precarious, somewhat tricky with flourishes". The librarian selected "extol" ... from my research it can mean "praise enthusiastically" ... and from this I infer that the random combination of your performance with the selected word exhorts (to my mind) artists to PLEASE DON'T STOP (no matter how hard it feels to get right) and the artist's INTENTION is what matters. I find this personal conclusion more than satisfactory ... and thus this is also my conclusion (with a flourish!) on this your latest performance. 

Becky Sumpters is also familiar with my work, here’s her reaction from a later video:

Why when we have all this time is it so hard to be creative?  (Video 12 20 June 2020)

I must say Catherine, this is probably my fave video of yours so far. I love all the elements coming together and the transition of your videos to being outside I think works so well. There’s a childish curiosity in the way it is shot, as if we are a child crawling across the grass and looking up at the world. Your cat’s confused face as he watches you is enjoyable to watch too! I see your movements correlating to the difficulty of sustaining creativity at a high level, you are trying to get up and move your legs but it takes a lot of energy, which is true / was true for this lock down period. But you continue to try and get up and I think that is what’s important. 

Using video allows both the audience and me as the maker, longer to consider the meaning of each question and each response.  With video the audience can choose when, where and how they experience it, while this means in these digitally focused times the videos may not reach a huge audience, that is not my aim. 

My aim is to make the most meaningful response to a question through bodily movement and in creating the videos this process can be studied far into the future, depending on my keeping the archive of videos secure long-term.

Thank you. This has been a really fascinating insight into your work and process. It’s great to be able to include this work in Social Art Library! Are there any web links where people can find out more?  

Thank you too, it’s been a pleasure talking to you!  

My website

Vimeo Lost Library 2020 playlist:  Lost Library 2020  

Instagram & twitter: @wynnepaton

This project is part of the Social Art Library. Submit your own project to the library here.