Thursday 8 August 2013

Hag-Light and Tale-Shadow

IN A WOODEN TRUNK in our living room there lives a witch. She has been there, folded up amongst candle stubs and bits of string since last summer when I made her to walk the forested edges of the Uncivilisation Festival. But a whole year has passed; we are now preparing for this year's festival and I realise I've not yet recounted the tale of her beginning. And not only that, but she belongs to a precious seam of a particular kind of firelit-storied-liminal-uncomfortable-half-remembered-old-magic that I'd like to explore here.

Fireside storytelling audience, Uncivilisation Festival 2012, photo by Andy Letcher
The stories Tom and I tell seem to delve into a particular stratum of the mythic diaspora. We favour the dark and Slavic, the old, peasanty, and somewhat nonsensical, the oxblooded, iron-toothed stories that twang in us an ancient note on some bone-harp of the soul, strung with the silver hairs from the tail of an ice-being from the north.

Storytelling on Dartmoor - photo by Amy Behrens-Clarke
Tom as the storyteller holds the whole tale together, weaving the thread of words and silence and joy and sorrow and wonder from beginning to end, summoning the spirits of the story to dwell there with us for a time, and keeping the listeners present and participating. My role is as a kind of illustrator: I embellish the narrative with music – on accordion and other instruments – conjuring the right mood, painting the soundscape underneath the words. And I illustrate with imagery too, whether it is a painted silhouette-backdrop or lantern projection, my inclination is to want to make a visual element for the performance too, and since we so often tell our tales outdoors beside a fire underneath the stars (the best venue in my opinion), playing with light and shadow seems to be the way of things.

You'll remember the year before last I made a rudimentary projection of Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut to accompany our Russian folktale – Ivashko Medvedko - Little Ivan, Bear-Child – from an old magic lantern lens, a shoe box, some gaffer tape and a torch.

Siberian storytelling at Uncivilisation 2012 - photo by Andy Sansom
At last year's Uncivilisation Festival we ventured much farther east than usual and told a story from the Chukchi peninsular – right at the far end of Siberia – Tai Pat and Left Side Morning Dawn. This one was strange and frightening, a kind of incantation. There were images in the story which were dark and uncomfortable and which we were worried might frighten or offend. There was a man made of shit, there was an enormous woman-shaman's tongue which chased the protagonists through many worlds, there was a pit of grubs fed on human teeth into which the hero was thrown. Altogether, as the evening of the performance approached, we became quite apprehensive as to what on earth it would be like! 

Tom's slate weirdness-warning signs - photos by Andy Letcher
We even felt the need to put up a weirdness warning for those with young children.  
For this story I played a strange array of percussive instruments which I'd hung from a wooden frame of sticks lashed together – bells of metal and ceramic and wood, ocarinas, drums, shakers, a jew's harp and a re-tuned zither. And for the light-and-shadow, I made a kind of shamanic map of the story, based on the Saami Shamans' painted drums. This was fixed to the skin of a drum which held a torch inside it.

photo by Andy Broomfield
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
The story went well in the end, nobody was offended or terrified. It was an odd but necessary thing to do I think. Tom told the whole thing in a mask he'd made with bits of sheep's wool and a squirrel tail as attachments, which was intense.

trunk of magic

The Sun Princess & The Fortieth Door - poster for our Dartmoor telling 
This year we will be telling a Lithuanian story – The Sun Princess & The Fortieth Door – returning to the more familiar folktale structure, though drawing on a culture that boasts the oldest surviving Indo-European language. This one we told last Saturday under a large oak tree on a beautiful piece of common land in a local Dartmoor town. There was fire and an audience, and a beautiful wind-swept sunset, though the lack of darkness meant that the lamplit imagery wasn't seen to its full effect. 

For this one I have made lanterns from two metal frames and some old perspex I found in our local recycling centre. The four sides of each lantern hold images from the story, illustrated in glass paint so that light will shine through them. I had never used glass paint before, and making images that don't look like a five-year-old has painted them with nail varnish is nigh on impossible, so the shapes had to be kept simple and bold, and the colours far brighter than I am used to. The final effect is quite pleasing though, and for our late-night telling at this year's Uncivilisation Festival, they will glow to their full potential.

11pm – midnight
The Sun Princess and the Fortieth Door
This year, Tom Hirons and Rima Staines bring you a Lithuanian folktale from beyond the nine mountains and the nine forests. This is a feast of a tale. Twenty-eight old men are kept in a dungeon with a heart-shaped window. Thrice-nine iron doors bar their escape. Who keeps them trapped? Who can rescue them? Featuring cosmic princesses, giants, witches, a three-eyed goat and more, this really is a humdinger. Don’t miss it. At the smaller firepit, by the pizza oven.
~ from the Uncivilisation programme 2013

The afore-mentioned witch was made to be one of the boundary-walking characters of Mearcstapa – a troupe of folk involved in the festival last year, of which we were members – who had been given a fool's license to creep around the edges of proceedings, unsettling and enchanting by turns. We all chose our own character, with a loose collective idea to portray spirits of the land, characters of myth and folklore who had perhaps just stepped out from under the hill.

photo by Bridget McKenzie
Mearcstapa - photo by Bridget McKenzie
I guess readers of this blog won't be particularly surprised that the character I made was a hag. I have had long-held interest in puppetry, with a head-full of ideas for puppets I want to make and yet so far not many actual creations to my name. This project allowed me to endulge my interest and make the character who crops up in so many of my paintings come to life and wander about in the woods unsettling people.

I also got the chance to sculpt, which despite being the daughter of two sculptors, I do very rarely.

I began by building up a mound of modelling plastiline or “American clay” on a board.

And shaping it gradually into the familiar long-chinned, hook-nosed witch of our folktales and nightmares.

It was pretty solid material and hard to work with, but the solidity was necessary for the next papier mâché stage.

Once her face was there, I slathered her all over in vaseline and began to build up layers of papier mâché with small torn pieces of blank newsprint and watered down PVA glue.

This took a long time, as each layer needed to dry before the next was applied.

Eventually I decided the papier mache was probably thick enough, and so I removed the whole head, clay and all from the board. Slowly the hard plastilene had to be dug out from the back of the mask, without damaging it. And there she was, a white witch ready for paint.

She was painted with watercolour, just giving her skin a tint rather than covering the interesting patchwork torn paper effect, which I liked.

And then the eyes!

I have had a handful of eyeballs in a drawer for some years. They were given to me by a friend of my parents who used to work at Madame Tussauds as head of portraiture, after she retired. So I think these are pretty high quality glass eyeballs – half-size for children or puppets!

It's amazing how they immediately bring the witch frighteningly to life!

She was completed by the addition of an enormous piece of cloth, large enough to cover me, stitched to the edge of her face, and two crossed sticks were fixed inside the back of her head for operating. Not to mention a necklace of chickens' feet (Real! Tom brought them home from a pet supplies shop – they are commonly sold as dog treats!), and some old disintegrated white leather gloves which had been accidentally put through the wash by a friend and passed on to me – excellent witch-hands!

Whilst making this hag, I reflected on the kind of hag-face I'd created: a wide-cheekboned, hook-nosed, long-chinned witch. A typical hag of the woods, whom we'd all recognise as the child-devouring “baddie” in a tale. Somehow the shape of her face conjures a deep and real nightmareish fear in us which we can't really explain. Indeed showing her to friends did cause several terrified upsets in their children! I began to wonder about our different archetypal dream-maps and pondered on whether this particular kind of face would conjure a similar fear in people from all cultures or whether I was depicting a specifically European shadow-archetype. Do the devils and terrors of other parts of the world have different fear-inducing facial structures and roles to play in the tales, or was there something deeper even than cultural differences in the hag I'd made which was causing the children to scream?

photograph by Cat Lupton

At the festival by day she sat in the crook of a tree, hung all about with bones from a horse skeleton, and candles in jars. By night, she took up wandering the festival's edges and surprising and unnerving people who came across her where they least expected it. I walked about holding her face in front of me, operating its movement by means of the sticks in the back of the mask. The large piece of cloth covered me entirely, and so the shape of my hidden head became like a kind of hag-hump. In my pocket, I had a small speaker which played a recording of an old woman from (I think) Latvia, telling stories from her life, occasionally breaking into wobbly song, or even tears as she recalled terrible and sad events that she'd lived through. I bought the recording in a second-hand shop years ago and have since lost all the information about it, possessing only the digital files, so until my hag bumps into a native speaker of her mutterings, I'll never know.

photo by Bridget McKenzie
What I found fascinating was how it was to be inside the hag. I could see very badly through the weave of the cloth, which made walking without stumbling pretty difficult, unless there was some light. But on occasion I was able to observe people's reactions to meeting the hag. Sometimes they were uncomfortable, sometimes they laughed, sometimes they just watched her, on many occasions I heard them say “respects to the hag”, which in a strange way, I found very moving.
Once, the hag fell over a log in a most ungainly fashion, landing heavily in the laps of some concerned people sitting around the fire!

photo by Bridget McKenzie

On the saturday night, all the Mearcstapa edge-walkers converged on the fire circle where Wod were playing up a mesmeric Brythonic storm with their wonderful and truly en-trance-ing music, and I sat there, inside the hag, on a log, watching the circle dancing, faces firelit and lost to the dance, the occasional silhouetted pair of antlers passing by in the throng, simultaneously glad and baffled at the kinds of things I end up doing, but mostly very awed by the real magic that can be made with the tools of masquerade and certain kinds of un-selfconscious folk-ritual.

Feral Theatre's Funeral For Lost Species at Uncivilisation 2012 - photo by Bridget McKenzie

The Dark Mountain Project and its Uncivilisation Festivals were created as a space for the stories we tell about our lives to be re-shaped, picked apart and passed on; a space to bring our despair at the Earth's destruction and all kinds of responses to it – creative, emotional, rational, irrational, beautiful, ugly, honest; a space to meet others of like minds or wildly disparate views who nevertheless share a desire to find common byways branching off the roads of the Endtimes, beside which might be found composting skeletons of civilisation, medicinal weeds, rabbit-holes to the otherworld, or weather-beaten travellers with craneskin bags of the real stories we need now.

photo by Bridget McKenzie

This year's is to be the last Uncivilisation Festival, with the project taking its energy now into new and fresh ventures around the country like The Telling and Carrying The Fire. The wonderful books will continue to be published. 

The festival programme is spilling over with wonderful weird and wild happenings. (Some choice picks from Paul Kingsnorth here). 
It is worth a glance, even if you cannot make the festival:

photo by Bridget McKenzie
For me, I think the treasures I've found at these gatherings have been the most unusual and interesting fireside conversations I've ever been part of, and true friends made. Also, there's a great joy for me in finding others who also delight in the brambled, harlequin margins of things without also shying from the necessary darkness there is to be found there.

I still get very nervous when performing, and am reflecting at the moment on whether this challenge is one that needs to be faced head-on or side-stepped. Life in general is very intense for me, and so experiences like these where I am centre-stage are almost unbearable in their intensity. I am wondering whether the way round it is to hide inside a hag or behind a shadow-puppet screen, my art only being seen once it has left me, and therefore being the thing which draws folks' eyes rather than me.

In the same way that certain fungi can thrive on petrochemical-saturated land and subsequently decontaminate it, it feels like the descent into the mushroomy hag-realm where our deepest darkest kidney-fear of moulds and munching grubs and the things we don't want to think about dwell is a necessary one.
I'm sure that from this cauldron of hag-stones and folktales and half-remembered nightmares and performance nerves and ecocide-grief and firelight and painted magic, we'll manage to pull a thread of mycellial wonder which will make good light-filled compost for the next new seeds.


Ronnie (RR) said...

Sounds like an amazing festival. And so,pleased to get to act out the roles in the forest, such creative people. Your hag mask is so real, and yet beautiful.well done. I hope it goes as well as last year

Lois said...

That was incredible to read, from the building of the hag, moving through the festival and your own fears tied in with performance. I found myself wondering, how is she going to remove the paper mache from the clay with all the deep grooves and angles, and then you explained it so carefully. Enriched by my visit here as usual, Lois from Canada.

Aoife.Troxel said...

Beautiful post Rima

Jess said...

Your hag puppet sounds breathtaking! The eyes really make it life-like! When I was at college years ago I made anthropomorphic creatures out of papier mache but discovered the glass eyes cost several arms and legs to buy so I had to compromise and cut eyes from magazines and stuck them inside the eye cavity. Still quite unnervingly real though! I wish I could have been there at your Dartmoor strorytelling, sadly we had to change our plans, it sounds fantastic! Thanks for sharing a flavour if it here!
Jess xx

Heather said...

Sculpting is obviously in your blood - the hag is amazing. A forest is the perfect venue for your storytelling events which must be similar to the entertainment of ancient times and weirdness is obligatory. Your painted lanterns are exquisite - that's the trouble with summer, it doesn't get dark early enough!

Hola Weg said...

Whenever I'm facing a fear or a dark time, I think the crone or dark goddess helps me through somehow and I usually come through a hard period in my life carrying some valuable learning with me. Having read this, I couldn't help thinking how wonderfully apt it is that the puppet helping you think through and feel around your fears of performance takes the form of a hag.

Unknown said...

Wow, Rima, that was so beautifully hauntingly told. Your words ring so true, root & mycelial deep. Your hag is indeed the perfectly terrifying hag. Sometimes I feel like I try to soften the hag a little in my imagination because she scares the crap out of me otherwise, & I thank you in this post for NOT doing so, for lifting up the stones and reminding us all that the true dark fear-fecundity of the world is very important to NOT soften. That it is indeed vital to our truly embodied presence in this torn-apart world.

I can also really relate to that stage-fear. It's terrifying, & it seems suitable that you have the hag there with you in that fear. & also even though I've never been there in person to see your tale-weaving with Tom, I have no doubt that it is so very vital and powerful that no matter your fear, it is a great gift to all who watch, and you must never stop! :)

Els said...

Thank you so much Rima, for the interesting story (and pics) of the "making of the hag" ánd all your honest words about your feelings when being in the spotlight in person (instead of only your work) I recognise quite a bit of these feelings .... ;-)....

Have a wonderful festival and lots of spectaters/listeners to see and hear your stories !

Wyld Oak said...

FASCINATING, Rima. Love love love all of it...the darkness, crones, hags, candlelight, firelight. Unexpected encounters around the dark edges. Music and root-worming stories. Gatherings of hope and magic and healing, which do not travel by straight paths. Strangeness, beauty, shamanism, archetypes, aging, dancing and creating out of the deep collective unconscious. Thank you for taking us by the hand....

henrietta said...

We loved The Sun Princess and the searingly beautiful Dartmoor sunset, so glad baby Finch didn't disturb proceedings too much. Captivatingly told and embellished. Wish we were going to the festival....
Beautiful post too, there is something deeply fascinating about the darkness and ugliness of the mould ridden hag.... Henrietta xx

Tiffany D. Davidson said...

This was so enjoyable to read, Rima.
And this I empathize greatly with--" Life in general is very intense for me, and so experiences like these where I am centre-stage are almost unbearable in their intensity."

You might enjoy the book "Quiet" by Susan Cain.

x Tiff

LittleInsect said...

quote: 'I am wondering whether the way round it is to hide inside a hag or behind a shadow-puppet screen, my art only being seen once it has left me, and therefore being the thing which draws folks' eyes rather than me.'

Maybe, Dear Spirit, you should ask yourself - will my art and my performance be improved if I hide, or will that act of disguise restrict a connection with those who come to see?

Artsnark said...

wonderful post! It has been ages since I've peeked into your world & it is always such a pleasure to return. You really submerge your readers into your experiences - well done

Lunar Hine said...

You two are hilarious. I'm so glad I get ensnared in your web of weirdness from time to time. I laughed a lot this post, then cried for the hag in the last couple of photos. It is a lot to be un-young and un-beautiful and un-good. It is heavy and dark and true. I may or may not have to carry some of this myself soon, but either way I am grateful to these creatures of the edge who stagger on, hunched and alone and feared. And to the woman who can birth and animate and stand right inside such a hag. Respects.

Maggie said...

This is one of the best posts ever! I so wish I could be there to experience this. Wonder if I can get something like this together in the U.S.?

It makes me a bit sad about the hag, though. Or rather, sad for all the women who look like that and terrify people even if they are sweet, lovely aunties and grandmas.

Maggie said...

This is one of the best posts ever! I so wish I could be there to experience this. Wonder if I can get something like this together in the U.S.?

It makes me a bit sad about the hag, though. Or rather, sad for all the women who look like that and terrify people even if they are sweet, lovely aunties and grandmas.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

So Rima, you have built yourself a puppet to inhabit, and mighty fine she looks.

Wonderful, to read of this this complete arc of creativity. Puppets and masks have such a capacity to channel energy and carry us to unexpected places. Recently I've been making puppets for The Mare's Tale, and not one of them has turned out as expected. They really do go their own ways!

You conjure these story-telling events so beautifully in your posts, that they become the next best thing to being at them. I often have little fantasies that one day Peter and I will just drop everything and motor off to one, to sit by a roaring fire hypnotised by the flickering shadows of chicken-legged huts while giving ourselves up to the music and the words.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...


Being inside or behind a puppet isn't assuming a disguise. It's an act of collaboration, giving, and high creativity.

Sarah said...

So enriched to read about the creation of this creature who took me by surprise on the stairs. So look forward to your next telling, and all the stories we make for ourselves xx

Lunaea said...

Brilliant, as always, and a door to the Otherworld that was just what I wanted this early autumn morning. Does your hag have a name, Rima?

MelBee said...

I just love all this wonderful hag rich seam of thought and wonder....brought back a memory of making puppets at school for winter term...all other girls making angels and fairies...and me with my hag on a broom! My mother was not best pleased and thought there was something wrong with me! Ho hum...I think now that perhaps I just saw more clearly.xx

Jane Le Galloudec said...

I have especially enjoyed this post. Thank you. And now that I am a lady of a 'certain age' have started to give great thought to what it means to 'be the hag'. The face on the outside is old and can be perceived as ugly but inside is the young girl I always was and always will be. How interesting you have had an opportunity to experience this when you are still quite young.