Most people might come back from a spell in Buenos Aires with some trinkets, a little conversational Spanish and maybe some fledgling Tango moves. But Jemma Foster returned with something a bit different: a suitcase full of handpainted book covers.
"I had been in the city for a year when I was wandering around in the La Boca neighbourhood and stuck my head in to talk to a project called Eloisa Cartonera, which is a publishing group that makes handmade books from the material collected by the cartoneros (cardboard pickers) who make a living collecting from the city's streets," she said.
"I got to know them and eventually talked to them about publishing some of my own writing. They've published South American writers before and were keen to print the works of foreign writers, so they were more than happy to do it. Once I knew I could publish it myself, that really gave me the kickstart I needed to get writing."
Foster commissioned Eloisa Cartonera to make the covers for her books, a series of 12 short stories based on the human senses and drawing on her travels from Argentina to Colombia. Each one of the covers was painted by hand. "I would go into the offices and there would be all these people hanging out drinking mate (traditional South American tea) and doing this beautiful painting," says Foster.
Now back in London, Foster describes Buenos Aires as "addictive" and is in no doubt about the role the city played in her being able to realise her publishing ambitions. "It's a very inspiring place to be because all the expats are entrepreneurs so they are really supportive of new ideas," she says. "If you have an idea they are all about 'How can we make this happen?', whereas in London people are much more likely to come at you with the negatives."
Her next undertaking? The Cigarette Box Project, a collaboration with established and emerging artists which will fill 100 whitewashed cigarette boxes with stories, poems and snippets written by Foster. The plan is to hold an exhibition in spring next year, where a cigarette machine will be filled with the boxes and they will be sold.
And it sounds like there might be other ideas on the horizon. "I'd always wanted to go to Argentina," says Foster. "It was somewhere I imagined living rather than just visiting. I feel the same way about Japan..."
Watch this space.
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