Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Marvels and Tales

HERE'S A MARVEL & A TALE... This autumn, in the rather marvellous Journal of Fairy Tale Studies published by Wayne State University Press, Marvels & Tales, are three drawings of mine, and a few words too.

Illustrations aren't usually published in the journal, I was told, apart from the occasional turn of the century fairy tale painting. So in a new departure for the journal, they've included my drawings in a Texts & Translations section, for fairy tale responses and interpretations.

Here published below are the three drawings of a favourite fairy tale archetype of mine - The Old Woman In The Woods - and my accompanying article. The drawings were made over a year ago in charcoal and pencil.

But I do urge you to investigate the paper version, which arrived in the post this week. It is published biannually, and is full this autumn with academic musings on giants trampling the earth, stepmothers and narrative disobedience in Pan's Labyrinth, amongst a great deal else...
Also, do tell me if you would buy prints of these drawings, and I'll rustle some up!
{EDIT : Prints for sale in the shop now! Large and small, roll up, roll up! }



That old woman. She is sometimes frightening, sometimes kind, always ancient, always cunning, and she always dwells deep in the woods where children become lost.
She who lives in a little house in the forest is a tale-character you'll have met often. Her stories are rich and dark, and hopefully quite terrifying.

This old crone has been a long fascination of mine. My years of loving folktales have repeatedly brought me back to her. I imagine myself as her one day, if not now (though I am young still).
These three drawings are three hag-grandmothers, three ancient crones of fairytale, three faces of the same old woman. Here I have drawn her as Baba Yaga, Red Riding Hood's Grandmother, and Hansel and Gretel's Witch. These are three well recognised guises of the old lady, and my drawings are portraits of each crone with her forest dwelling, because as I see it the place where this old woman lives is a vital key to understanding what she represents.

She appears as an incarnation of the crone or winter aspect of the female deities of old. She is the carrier of wisdom, the guardian of the life and death gates, the overseer of the cold months, and the stewardess of story.
We talk nowadays of long, old, particularly northern, tales as Sagas. But in some quarters it is believed that this word saga was once the feminine of the word sage and that the written sagas of Scandinavia were originally sacred histories kept by female sagas or ‘sayers'. Thus storytelling and wisdom-keeping were entwined in one person: 'She who Speaks' ~ the Oracular Priestess. Her appearance in orally passed down fairy tales seems to stress the importance of story for gaining and nurturing wisdom.

This old lady has many many incarnations in every culture and tradition, but I would like to focus particularly upon the northern snowy countries whose folklores have always drawn me.
The wild forest is a vital aspect of the tale. The tangled thicket is to me a direct representation of wilderness, of the wild nature in us all. It is the feared unknown, the darkness, the habitation of creatures strange and terrifying and of 'otherness'. It is where we must go as lost children to face adversity and death and there find wisdom and rebirth. I wonder whether folktales that feature an old woman in a little hut in the woods are more prevalent in Nordic, Slavonic and Teutonic myth. These are the places where vast particularly conifer and birch forests grow. And on these forest floors grows something else, something powerful and sacred that will show us the way into the gingerbread house...

The Fly Agaric Mushroom (Amanita Muscaria), that little white-spotted red-cap growing deep in the forest that appears so very often in fairy tale illustrations is a mushroom long revered by northern Shamans as a gateway to the Other World. Its hallucinogenic properties could take you to realms of deep knowing, beyond the everyday. I would like to here make the connection between this striking red and white fungus and the 'little hut' in the forest that belongs to that old woman. Both are found deep on the dark woodland floor, both are alike in shape, both take you to the other world. In some tales (such as Hansel and Gretel) children are tempted to directly eat of the house. In others, the journey to find the old lady's dwelling, losing oneself in the forest along the way and facing the terrors within the 'hut' could all be symbolic of the shamanic initiation process one would go through as a result of ingesting the Fly Agaric mushroom. To enter iron-toothed Baba Yaga's skull-lined chicken-legged house, or to approach the devouring wolf inside the hut of Red Riding Hood's grandmother are perhaps to face, whilst in Fly Agaric reverie, the fact of one's own death and other dark truths of nature.

In these tales, children often become lost and unable to return home. This could symbolise the initiatory process of leaving the secure nest and stepping out into the wilderness. And once inside the hut, the tales' protagonists must face adversity of one kind or another. Either they overcome the 'witch' through cunning, or are swallowed and reborn from the belly of the wolf, or they prove themselves bold and true enough to look into the eyes of the skull-lantern.

There are many folkloric 'wood-wife' characters within northern traditions. They are usually wild, hairy or mossy forest-dwelling creatures who are glimpsed on occasion by wanderers into the woods. In Scandinavia, the Huldra is an aged woman, lovely in front but hideous and hollow like a tree behind. Her name comes from a Norwegian root word meaning 'covered' or 'secret', suggesting that she holds keys to hidden gateways. Bavaria's wood-wife, the Dirne-Weible walks about dressed in a red frock carrying a basket of red apples and asking people to accompany her. I wonder whether references to red apples, or indeed red caps and riding hoods in fairy tales, could be a direct hint at the red-hatted mushrooms. Little huts too, it seems to me, have something of the mushroom about them. And therefore tales of journeying to them might hint at the wild wisdom that can be found deep in the forest if you are brave enough to wander away from the path, brave enough to accompany the mossy wood-wife, brave enough to enter the old women's houses where teeth and decay and incinerating ovens are to be found, but also keys to stories and rebirth, in the ancient tradition of the wild.

I hope that in my drawings I have managed to convey the look in the eye of the old ladies of folktale as they pass on to you the story-reins and in so doing invite you into their forest houses of wild knowing.

Marvels & Tales is a peer-reviewed journal that is international and multidisciplinary in orientation. The journal publishes scholarly work dealing with the fairy tale in any of its diverse manifestations and contexts. Marvels & Tales provides a central forum for fairy-tale studies by scholars of psychology, gender studies, children's literature, social and cultural history, anthropology, film studies, ethnic studies, art and music history, and others.

This is a pre-copyedited version of an article accepted for publication in Marvels & Tales, volume 24, issue 2, 2010 following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available from Wayne State University Press.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Ventriloquism : n. art of throwing one's voice so that it seems to come from some source other than the speaker. 1797, formed as a descriptive noun to ventriloquist, with substitution of the suffix -ism. The word has generally replaced the older ventriloquy. ventriloquist n. an expert in ventriloquism. 1656, in Blount's Glossographia; formed from English ventriloquy + -ist. ventriloquy n. ventriloquism. 1584, formed from Late Latin ventriloquus ventriloquist + English -y. Late Latin ventriloquus (Latin venter, genitive ventris, belly + loqui, speak) was patterned on Greek engastrimythos, literally, speaking in the belly.

~ from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

AND SUCH WAS THE TREASURE OF INSPIRATION I found in my beloved Etymological Dictionary, when I searched for Ventriloquism, upon learning that I was to paint the front cover for Catherynne M. Valente's wonderful forthcoming collection of short stories. Catherynne's world and mine intersect in some melancholic snow-bound medieval Slavic outpost, where freaks and outcasts, oddities and dreams wander the streets with sorcery in their pockets and an eye on another horizon. Truly her writing is exquisitely painted, and I was honoured indeed when she asked me to create the cover for this marvellous book.

She told me that it had the flavour of her other work - baroque and colorful and more than a little sad. It's full of duelling geographers, she said, dream-eating tapirs, winemakers in space, selkies, aeronauts, Venus and Mars, secret video games, a host of fairy tales, rusalka medical's six years of my work, in one book. I kind of think of the whole thing like the witch's candy house in Hansel and Gretel.

Well! How could I not be inspired and delighted by all that?! And so in I delved...
I took the idea of belly-speaking from the original meaning of ventriloquism, and decided that the front of the book should show a kind of marionette figure (operating her own strings) whose body was the gingerbread house itself. From the belly of this character, from the stove of the gingerbread house/body, rises a smoke of characters from the world of these stories: Narwhals, bears, parrot-men, pickpocket pamphleteers, monks, dream-tapirs, witches, monopods, rusalki, selkies, blemmyae .... and a mystery of others.

In the sky above hang many strange planets, even a fob watch, and down below on a railway line from some eastern onion-domed city, travels a train whose track becomes a ladder to the moon. Underneath this, for the keen-eyed, is written in Cyrillic a Russian lullaby which goes like this:

Не ложися на краю.
Придёт серенький волчок,
Он ухватит за бочок
И утащит во лесок
Под ракитовый кусток.

which means something like this:

Baby, baby, rock-a-bye
On the edge you mustn't lie
Or the little grey wolf will come
And will nip you on the tum,
Tug you off into the wood
Underneath the willow-root.

and sounds something like this:

This track is Yuri's Lullaby from Ludovico Einaudi's soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago, but you might have also heard the lullaby in the masterly 1979 animation by Yuri Norstein Skaza Skazok (Tale of Tales) ...

Russian animation delights and astounds me endlessly. I collect favourites on my youtube channel here for afternoons with rain on the windowpane and cup of tea in hand, and I sit and marvel at the patience and soul that goes into these masterpieces.

Anyhow, although I learnt Russian at school, and can just about order a cup of coffee and read road signs to Vladivostok, I seem to have made one tiny mistake in the lettering... exchanging a к for a ж! This was spotted by an eagle eyed reader of Catherynne's blog and is going to bother me forever now, as it was whisked to print before I could correct it! But perhaps it'll remain a little oddity, in excellent company amongst oddities of the highest order who inhabit the wonder-filled world of Ms. Valente.
I was chuffed indeed to read her kind praise of my work too, and to hear that she feels my painting describes her world so closely.

The painting took me absolutely weeks and weeks... I got more and more involved in it and happily lost in the world of gingerbread marionettes, medieval monstrosities, sugar-spun ships, sea-dwellers, forests in the snow... Here amongst my burblings are pictures of it in its birthing, pencil and then watercolour, and the title lettering too.

You absolutely must order a copy. It is available for pre-order now, ready for its December publication. Ventriloquism is being published here in the UK by PS Publishing, based in Yorkshire, with an introduction written by Lev Grossman, who writes of the book:

"When this book arrives it will destroy you. It is going to change things. As its herald I will be spared. But you? There is no safe harbor for you."

This is the final work - do click to enlarge


AND as a last post script, I'd like to say a basketful of thanks to all of you who read my recent post and wrote such kind, encouraging and thoughtful comments and emails. I am uplifted and cheered and more than a little astounded! Thank you!
Our late autumn days are rolling along happily, the Slavic aroma has drifted into other things, as it is wont to in this house: there's accordion and clarinet duetting, Baba Yaga drawing, and daily hound stomps out into the frost where the hills are crackling blue and Winter watches us all from over the hill, and throws her voice into this November, like the artful ventriloquist she is.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Rootpond Clock & Considerations on Artistic Conversation

THIS BURNT ORANGE TREE grows on my most recent Once Upon O'Clock, completed a couple of months ago. The Rootpond Clock I called it... there at the roots of this autumnal tree is a circular clock-pond, and by it stands a woman. She is animal-tender, earth-mother, and she replenishes the time-pool from her jug. Gathered at the water's edge and in-between the hours are four animals who have come to drink: badger, owl, cat and fox.
It is painted in the umbers of this leaf-browning time of year and on a thick slice of oak.

Now, I have not shown you this work straight away, for by it lies a tale, and a sorry one at that.
But it has thrown up interesting questions and made me think of things I'd like to discuss, and so that is what I shall do. But first, I'll tell you how it happened:

A lady commissioned this clock some time ago, and as with all of you who have asked for a Once Upon O'Clock, I added her name, details and imagery requests to my ever-growing Clock List. She asked for an earth mother, but as a young woman, with long flowing hair. This young earth mother was to be a sort of female Francis of Assisi figure with animals about her - tabby cat, badger and fox in particular - and it was all to be painted in the muted colours of autumn.

Time went by, as it does, and this clock's turn came. I painted it, as I do all the others you've seen: an interpretation of the ideas given to me by the commissioner. The imagery I paint comes from my internal world. I am given suggestions of visuals and things-to-be-included, but then I sieve it all through my eyes and heart and it comes out looking like a Rima-painting. This, I think, is why those who ask me to paint things for them ask me. This may seem to some of you like a strange and obvious thing to say, but my idea of this fundamental basis of commissioning artwork has been unseated somewhat by this lady's reaction to my work.

You see, she was not happy with it. After some time of not hearing whether or not the clock had arrived with her safely, I received a short email from her informing me that she was disappointed with the clock, that the figure did not look enough like an earth-mother (too much like a maid, she said), that the bark was coming away slightly from the edge of the clock, and could she have a refund.

Being far more an artist with my heart in my belly and belly in my heart than a cool, rational, businesswoman, I felt quite devastated to hear these words. This is the first time someone has been unhappy with a work I've created for them, and I took it utterly to heart. My tentatively held glass-vase of an idea that I was perhaps good at what I do tumbled to the floor and shattered to smithereens. Not being able to see this from a safe distance, I read these few email-words as a judgement not only upon every painting I had ever made, but on the fundamental quality of my own self. Foreseeing an ending of my clockmaking, I retreated and sat with my thoughts for a spell.

These charged emotions and somewhat irrational reactions slithered back to their dark cobwebby corners as they eventually do. And with the encouragement and wise council of those whose opinions I value most, I found that I emerged from my panic a little wobbly-legged, but more clear-sighted. So I wrote a reply.

I decided that it was important to be honest about all the thoughts that this threw up in me, and to stress the importance which I place in all my dealings with people, artistic or otherwise, on good feeling between those involved.

Most important of all the questions here, it seems to me, is that concerning the subjectivity of artistic interpretation. I had assumed (perhaps naively) that everyone who commissions a work of art from an artist is aware that the final piece is an unknown entity to both the artist and the commissioner, until it is finished. The commissioner may give suggestions for imagery, inspiration, feel, colour etc, but ultimately it will be a piece of art in that artist's style, unmistakably their sort of work. The commissioner takes a risk in requesting an original piece of art to be made: they may not like it, they may love it, but it will certainly always be a surprise. I always dread the moment of handing over a piece of artwork, because there's inevitably a pause while the recipient absorbs what's in front of them, and a fragile artistic self esteem can read all sorts of horrors in that silence!

All this said, I feel that I did paint what was asked for. The painting is in keeping with all the other clocks I have made thus far, and so cannot have shocked my customer by being different. I was, and still am, baffled at her quibble. As for the mention of bark coming away from the clock a little.. this I'd have been more than happy to fix if she'd asked, and is something that may crop up from time to time, these being rustic clocks painted on chunks of wood that I find.

What I found most galling, though, was the use of the word refund. It calls to mind department stores and returns counters where people queue with their receipts. I am an individual making work to custom order, by hand. These are utterly different worlds, and I think that the wonderful people who do commission art directly from artists, or buy from etsy sellers appreciate this and indeed prefer it to the effluent of mass-produced, generic and soulless goods that line the shelves of the shops that line our streets.
Now I'm aware that many artists and craftspeople operate sound businesses online. In this sphere there are those who have well organised "refunds/returns policies", but I am not one of them. My clocks take time to make, I paint slowly, and these weeks cannot ever be "refunded". There was no acknowledgement of this in the complaint I received from my commissioner, which is why her short request for a refund was difficult to take.

Now to the question of money: Though I happily make my living from my artwork, I teeter on the poverty line mostly, and this has always been normality for me. So, after spending some weeks in all making The Rootpond Clock alongside other pieces of work and life, I was quite pleased to be paid the £250 clock price - it cushioned the echoing bottom of my bank account.
But you see my dilemma - even if I was willing to offer a "refund", I could not, for the clock money was all my wealth until the next job was done. And so I considered another possible option which would resolve the situation as best as possible and end with us both feeling good. I thought I could offer the clock for sale again to somebody out there, one of you, who might love it more than the person I painted it for. And then I could give the money received in its resale back to the lady in question. But the tale remains unresolved I'm sad to say. I received a confusing and retaliatory reply to my letter, and no answer in respect of my suggestion. So the clock remains with her, and the confusion remains with me.
In fact I am mostly sad to think that a thing I made with care and attention is in the hands of someone who does not like or want it, and that there has been any bad feeling, because that is always the last thing I want. I intend only good dealings with folk and good outcomes. But, I suppose there is a misunderstanding here which leaves us at an impasse where we cannot move forward, or at least this is what I assume by her silence.

This whole turn of events has made me consider what I might need to rethink in the way I do business and art. Where I had assumed it known that the interpretation of an idea will be left in the hands of the artist to make her own, I feel now that I should write a preemptive warning explaining this, and highlighting the element of subjectivity and leaping into the unknown.
Rough sketches could be sent to the customer before I load my paintbrushes with paint, but this is not really how I like to work. Too much control in the hands of the commissioner kills the spark for me - readjustments sent back and forth weigh a project heavier into the ground and leave me wondering who is making the artwork. In general I do not spend a great deal of time making preliminary sketches because I like that explosion of creative fire that happens when a drawing starts to work to occur during the actual piece rather than the rough sketch, because otherwise the final work would just be a copy of something that worked, but without the fire. My sketches are very rough - just notes telling me where things will be placed in the frame.

Something I often ponder and marvel at is the wonder of this online world we inhabit. Blogging has become a brilliant, inspiring and encouraging part of my work. I owe the fact that I can work alone where and when I want, making the work I love, and be financially supported doing so, to the internet, and ultimately to all of you many wonderful people whom I have never met. At times I find this web-world overwhelming and mad, and I do try to keep a certain distance from the ever-present information stream. But all of your many wonderful comments touch me deeply, and I thank you for them. It constantly amazes me that there are people out there reading the things I write and looking at and buying the things I paint. But it seems to continue, and I am immensely grateful for it.

This odd world where we are all connected and aware of a layer of each other is a strange sort of conversation, and I am very interested in the purpose it serves amongst all the other elements of our lives, particularly where this intersects with the making of art, which is itself a sort of conversation. Those of us who make visual art offer our work as a saying, as an expression of something, not in the language of words, but in the language of eye and heart and hand. Mostly this is one half of a conversation, and the people who are touched by the work speak the answer in their own language of eye and heart and hand when the art rings a bell in them. This is a profoundly human experience and vital, I think, to the wellbeing of humanity.
So isn't it wonderful how we have stretched this conversation like a fisherman's net over the whole world, placing between the participants in these artistic conversations great distance, and time in some cases, and incredible pieces of technology. But the humanity remains, and that is what touches me about this conversation that you and I have here. It is real and heart-opening for us all.
I delight in seeing visitors on that counter down there on the sidebar from countries I've never heard of! How did you reach me? What kind of lives do you have? What are your days, your houses, your dreams like? And those of you who place orders in my shop with delightfully outlandish addresses! - Hello! How excellent is this artistic conversation! How perfectly true and inspiring!

I welcome your words here and your thoughts on these matters. What do you think about my clock dilemma? Have you had a similar experience? Or do you have wise advice to share? Here amongst my ramblings are pictures of The Rootpond Clock, which now after a little time of consideration I am proud of again.

Apologies for this screed, but I wanted to show you an honest corner of myself and give you a glimpse of the work derailing, as it does from time to time. And I wanted too to express how valuable this place is, this stopping place in the forest, this Hermitage, to me, because of all of you who come here and throw your own herbs onto the fire. I think it's a subversive magic we can make by creating from our hearts in word and paint and passing along our creations under the school desks of our manufactured and ill-governed societies, to inspire a remembering of ourselves in songs sung in our true language.