Forests and Eggs: Facing the Cycle of Life...
I thought I’d go back to basics on my blog – when I started it was a project of authenticity and integrity: noticing what really resonated with me creatively and not worrying too much about the great noun Art. I'm going to set out some of the things I have been working on over the last few years, with musings on ideas that inspired or have emerged during the process of making. Writing this has made me realise how much has been going on but also that there is something about mortality that I hadn't consciously been able to acknowledge.
I’m always interested in symbols – archetypal and personal. The same images niggle away: variations of eggs, birds, forests, labyrinths and houses (which are often mansions or occasionally towers). I’ve had a sense of my artwork wanting to represent a journey or the realms of a journey – moving into and away from a centre or depth, and back again - but not being quite sure what the journey is. I have added new materials. On one of our lockdown “exercise” routes I found a mound of dry brambles. I’ve yearned to make something with brambles for years but never had secateurs to hand when I’ve encountered a good crop. There is a lot of symbolism in thorns. What better signifier of the ambivalence of love/hate or attack/defence. Thorns form the defensive perimeter of Briar Rose's castle. They are the instrument of blinding Rapunzel's prince and the fabric of Christ's mocking crown. Not to mention the lacerating experience of working with the the thorny stems that calls up fairy tale toils like stitching nettle shirts… In lockdown I also accrued a surfeit of cardboard boxes; another abundant, free material with which to experiment without worrying about money or environmental impact. Cardboard has the benefit of a very satisfying structure with a distinct grain and inner crenulations. The properties of the material became part of the work.
Fitcher's Forest, 2020, brambles, card & foil (80 x 80cm)
I have been writing down my dreams: another cache of symbols (although often less elevated!). I’ve learnt about Jungian dream interpretation and regularly join a group of fellow dreamers to brew associations and interpretations: great way to re-route from the blind alleys you get stuck in as a solitary dream analyst. This year I began a daily Tarot card draw - I feel a bit sheepish about it but as I study, I find contemporary readers focus less on divination or even fixed truths in the cards and more on intuition; the pictures as a trigger for journaling or to “thicken”1 one’s experiences1. I’ve been thinking of Rebecca Solnit’s question about how we can know the thing we don’t know2. Tarot can also be used as a map for the Jungian journey of Individuation: embracing the synchronicities and hazards of a random draw helps bypass the blinkered agenda and defences of the ego to liberate the Self.
While I don’t feel compelled to adhere rigidly to the interpretations in the books it is so interesting to probe the fourfold elements of the suites as they link to Jungian typology; to numerology and astrology; the personality court cards and of course the major arcana of the 22 symbols and the soul journey that they represent. I am a beginner to this. I’ve had a Tarot pack for years but didn’t really connect until I came to it again via images of Niki de Saint-Phalle’s amazing garden in Tuscany. I love that you can touch, walk around, and even enter some of the sculptures – there are fountains, windmills and the passing of seasons in the surrounding garden. Some of the sculptures are dwellable spaces: Saint-Phalle lived in the Empress for seven years – making one of the breasts into her bedroom. I’d never been drawn to her work until I saw her sculpture La Mariee in Lisbon – I loved the Havershamish bride made from plastic detritus unified with plastery white paint and mesh. Saint-Phalle’s exuberant work is suddenly fashionable – Katie Hessel has eulogised her in podcast and Instagram. Jennifer Higgie’s new book The Other Side: Women, Art and the Spiritual World also celebrates Saint-Phalle alongside the female artists who created some of the most famous Tarot images but whose names have been squashed by the magus men who named the decks.
Niki De Saint-Phalle: Empress sculpture (centre) with mosaic decoration details.
I’m never quite sure about where my art images relate to my dreams. They gestate from a different unconscious well – that MIlnerish “bead” of insistent personal resonance that hooks into your wounds or haunts the edgelands of consciousness with tenacious beckoning mystery. Why are some figures so important? Do they look backwards or point forwards, can art making embrace both directions? Sometimes art forms appear in very definite form but they are always birthed by contingency and grown in contiguity: the figures of the imagination modified by the effort of making, and amplified by association, formality and skill into the next version.
One of my longstanding hauntings comes from George MacDonald’s fairy tale fiction The Princess and the Goblin. MacDonald’s style is antiquated, and this book is chatty: written as if told to his children. Other novels like Phantastes, Lilith and the short stories like The Golden Key are more adult. MacDonald, a Christian minister whose work influenced the Inkling generation possesses deeply resonant imagery for me – particularly his powerful and mythic older women. There are two images that have stayed with me from this story: the moon goddess grandmother and her bottomless bath that contains the heights and depths of the universe. The great great grandmother exists in an alternate realm (which can only be entered by suspension of disbelief or at a time of utmost need). She inhabits a starry garret and her lamp is the moon. In the story the child Irene is submerged in the bath; cleansed and restored in an oceanic womb after an ordeal with goblins in the forest.
In my version it is the grandmother is submerged to the waist in a watery egg. The egg is a hinged triptych, currently suspended in my bedroom with doll/patchwork centre and cardboard wings still unadorned.
Picture of Submerged Woman – in progress (100x150x40cm)
I love the structure of painted triptych altar screens in Western Christian art. The power of the number 3. I like the way it tells a story pictorially with a central, frontal “main event” and space for backstories or future happenings on each side. Often with more space on the back for further scenes. I have been working with this structure in my cardboard miniatures too.
Fitcher's Forest Triptych 2021 (25x50x4cm)
Fitcher's Forest Triptych Screen 2021 (25x50x4xcm)
I've been musing on the symbolisms in the story - wondering how to finish the work. The partial submergence makes me think of baptism. Or Aphrodite/Venus emerging from the sea - goddess of love and lust. But I feel this is more Artemis/Diana - the crescent shapes call to mind a lunar cycle. The moon goddess is another triple goddess: Selene ruling in the heavens, Hecate in the underworld and on the earth: Artemis. Artemis is virgin, midwife and - huntress. I realised that a huntress figure appears in another of my projects: an animation doodle based on medieval rude vulvic pilgrim badges. I was devising an apotropaic circus performance of female exhibitionists - to ward off death!
Vulva on Horseback - as Circus Performer
The animation above came out of a project about making a personal Memento Mori. Below is the original longer story version I made (at high speed for a presentation so very crude). Facing mortality and cronism with a bawdy display!
Memento Mori animation
Princess Irene meets her great great grandmother when she is lost and is given a “clew” spun from spider thread which will always guide her home. The forest is the ultimate place to get lost in - and it feels like the right image for the midlife cusp muddle out of which I am emerging. Rebecca Solnit is a great advocate of getting lost2 – she says that losing things is about about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. She advocates keeping open a door to the unknown; the potential to become or meet a self that you haven’t conceived of. I think maybe that is what I am looking for in Tarot – a model for transcending and linking these personal images which have felt like dead ends and shift them away from my wounds or my story and into something new. Which is of course what sculptural form does too – the matter modifies the idea. I have digressed all over the place in the last few years - following narrative threads but also relishing materials and playing a lot with pattern and geometry.
There is something interesting in the way the light shines through the cardboard walls, shifting with the viewpoint.
2 more cardboard triptych screen models - positioned against the light
It is rightly in vogue to challenge the exclusivity of the western art history canon. Rebecca Solnit is always so beautifully articulate and I love the language with which she rejects “the tidy stories that leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branchings and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers”.3
She repeats the idea in another quote I found online:
“To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced...”.
It feels more important than ever to celebrate the grandmother figure. My generation now! Especially in these days when there is a new witch-hunting and silencing of female elders. Writing this feels like summoning up a companion presence - a grandmother for myself? I'd forgotten how the blog works as a container - surrounding myself with the ideas from all their disparate sources that have informed my makings. Dirty roots and all. I'm seeing more connections now. Grandmother care can be a different kind of nurture from that of the frazzled real mother struggling to meet basic needs. MacDonald's grandmother opens the doorway to a spiritual realm for Irene as well as offering matrilineal protection (echo of Vasilisa's doll transmitting supernatural protection from her dead mother - while she faces the terrifying hag in the wood. Baba Yaga- a demonic grandmother or strengthening rite of passage? I'm thinking "grandmother" also connects to my interest in goddesses - and again the contemporary resurgence of artists exploring matriarchal imagery (and revival of artists like Penny Slinger, Buffy Johnson and Ana Mendietta to name just three who have been on my radar recently)4.
Maybe grandmotherism is an antidote to the male heroic artist and his single minded pursuit of genius whatever the cost. Although such sense of entitlement doesn't have to be male - I remember reading a biography of Gwen John where she is described as wanting the best cherries because she was the artist! Or the fabulous recent film Tár. We are daughters of patriarchy and extricating ourselves isn't easy. And of course grandmother isn't synonymous with spiritual/irrational/intuitive etc. The razor sharp intellect of Marina Warner springs to mind - recently talking about stepmothers and grandmothers on R4.
However, as a word representative of a different ethos (cleaner as well as maker), "grandmother" works for me. I'm reminded again of Ursula Le Guin's famous Carrier-Bag Theory of Creativity: instead of the bashing/separating hard tool, it is the vessel (pot or net) that she privileges a humanity's first great invention. To store food or carry a child - this primary container becomes blueprint for a kind of plot which is about holding elements together instead of the traditional heroic linear storyline of conflict and triumph. Emma Talbot showed some lovely stop motion animation reworkings of the Labours of Hercules inspired by this in her Whitechapel show last year.
My actual grandmothers gave me a lot of time, especially around teaching textile crafts and mastery of skills in the "feminine" realm. I wrote this in the week when the death of Phyllida Barlow was announced. A grandmother of the art world. She felt very important perhaps because she was so late to the party of success. She also taught at The Slade in the sculpture department while I was floundering, unmothered in "Painting". I remember her physical presence vividly although I never met her. What would it have been to have had the benefit of her eyes and utterances.
Finally a different angle on forest – a centre, or glade; a place of retreat and pause. A gathering of women taking root, communicating, listening, pausing, taking nourishment from the ground. I used voile which is cheap and pleasingly translucent but very nylony (nylon = sustainability guilt). I made the mistake of machine sewing (false economy of time) and the fabric slipped and frayed and hasn’t held together very well. I can't decide whether to abandon it or whether the leakiness isn't just part of the work. Below are several Cad drawings playing with form and geometry to envisage different constellations of this forest glade.
Glade - work in progress, dyed voile 120x120x120 cm
Glade Constellation - Cad Drawings
Shaded Glade Constellation - Cad Drawing
Finally - I've realised how much of what I read in particular is by people who are on the edge or in between groups. Being a maker whose work integrates art therapy, psychoanalysis, Jung, literature, myth, geometry and fine art makes it harder to find a pack - especially as my roots diversify into ever more rarefied depths. It is hard to make a pithy statement about intentions and ideas. In spite of its disparateness though I feel quite excited by the portfolio above. Where to take it?
1One of the books I’ve been reading on Tarot is Jessica Dore’s Tarot For Change. Dore works with ideas from Narrative Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – that word “thicken” comes from her and I love it. It seems deeply imperative in these times when we are lured to judder at breakneck speed down slopes of shallow and blinkered self-righteousness .
2Rebecca Solnit A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
3 Ibid P59
4 In the last week I have been listening to a podcast about the life and death of Ana Mendieta https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/death-of-an-artist, seen Penny Slinger in a group show in Bournemouth https://www.giant.space/body-poetics, and Buffy Johnson in the retrospective of female Abstract Expressionists at the Whitechapel Gallery.