My Work

Fairy Tales and the Adolescent Transformation

DancingFINALpostcard

After creating the above image, Metamorphosis, recently, I’ve been thinking about the fairy tale as an allegory for puberty and adolescence. The image itself is about the sense of change as one enters that new stage in life. As a child (on the left) we have a solid idea of who we are in the world, but entering adolescence (the figure on the right), our sense of self can be all but annihilated. For a long time it’s a dance between the two. As we pull away from childhood, we have to rebuild ourselves, trying on all sorts of skins; cobbling together influences and ideas until we remake ourselves as adults. We are bone and feather, leaf and twig; a fragile tangle of scavenged treasures.

Fairy tales perfectly explore this mystifying time: Fingers are pricked and blood is drawn; a drawn-out sleep transforms child into adult (and in some cases mother) before she knows what has happened; a path is travelled and foes battled before the previously young and hapless hero or heroine emerges victorious (and usually married).

Adam and Eve

I’d never really thought about the Adam and Eve story in the context of fairy tales before, and when it came to me in that half sleep state last night, I thought myself a momentary genius. Of course this morning I really wasn’t surprised to find that it has been explored widely as myth and allegory. I still think it would make a great fairy tale: Once upon a time, there was a King who planted a beautiful walled garden. He found two orphans, a boy and a girl, and invited them to live in this lush paradise, under one strict condition… See, it’s perfect. There’s the fantastical garden, a command to be disobeyed, temptation, consequence… And of course, the broken barrier between a childhood innocence and adulthood. Adam and Eve are effectively cosseted children, until the forbidden apple awakens their sexual natures and they head out to find their own way in the world.

Peter Paul Rubens 004.jpg
Peter Paul Rubens 004” by Peter Paul Rubens

Snow White

Speaking of dangerous apples! Snow White is the perfect allegory for puberty and the breaking away from the influence of one’s parent. The mother is jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty, and Snow White must find her way to autonomy. I’m not sure shacking up with seven men is the path I’d recommend, but we all need to find our own way I guess…
Snow White suffers several deaths and rebirths, growing a little wiser each time one would hope, finally emerging as a free adult. Well, sort of. She still marries Prince Charming. And speaking of Prince Charming…

Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 7.jpg
Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 7” by Franz Jüttner

Cinderella

As above: escape from the overbearing (step)mother, guided path to self discovery and freedom from parental rule, handsome prince, blah blah blah. (Cinderella is not one of my favourite stories).

Gustave dore cendrillon4.JPG
Gustave dore cendrillon4“.

The Sleeping Beauty

Bruno Bettelheim says it best in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (P. 230, 1976 edition)

Yep. Sigh. Sleeping Beauty is cursed to prick her finger (blood=menstruation) and fall into the a deep slumber, and despite all her parents best efforts to keep her from this fate, it is inevitable. Bettelheim also talks about the long sleep in relationship to the fog and flurry of adolescence: “During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves… ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is needed.” (P. 225)

Sleeping Beauty enters her adolescent sleep as a child, and emerges as a marriageable women. In Giambattista Basile’s version, Sun, Moon and Talia, poor Beauty, or Talia, wakes up a mother of twins(!) after the prince charmingly impregnates her:

“…she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.”

Well. There’s a lot I have to say about the infuriating passivity of women in fairy tales (and the accepted male entitlement), and Sleeping Beauty, I think, is a fine bloody example. But that’s for another blog post.

Sleeping Beauty painting by Edward Burne-Jones
Sleeping beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

Little Red Riding Hood

In this tale Little Red literally follows a path through her adolescence. She begins in her mother’s home, and leaves to travel through the wild forest, where she encounters the threat of the wolf (ahem, slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, no-gooder) who attempts to lead her from the accepted path. Depending on which version you read, she is eaten by the wolf after getting into her Grandmother’s bed with him (well, really) or escapes the gastronomic fate of her grandmother. Either way, she is rescued by the hunter (swarthy, check-shirt wearing hipster good guy), and I guess learns a lesson and emerges wiser from her wayward teenage ways.

Arthur Rackham Little Red Riding Hood+.jpg
Arthur Rackham Little Red Riding Hood+” by Arthur Rackham

I could recount similar examples all day, and get into more complicated stories and readings of them, but looking at these well known tales has edged me towards a little more respect for them. It still bugs me that our most famous fairy tales are those with passive girls who become passive women married to handsome princes (it really does make me grumpy), but at least there’s something more to find in them than ‘be kind and good and wait your turn, and you’ll find eternal happiness and fulfilment in marriage to someone rich and handsome’. Reading them as an metaphor for change rather than instructions for living gives me much less of a stomach ache.


Fairy tales are rich in allegory, for that is really what they are, and there are millions of words written on their deeper meanings. Here are a few you might enjoy. What are your favourite books about fairy tales?

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim.

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale: Marina Warner 

Off with their heads!: fairy tales and the culture of childhood, Maria Tatar

Advertisements

On Public Speaking: A Fairy Tale (of sorts)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn’t speak. Her words caught in her throat, built up in her mouth like a river choked with rocks. She dreaded meeting new people, speaking to shop keepers, even everyday conversations with friends, but most of all she dreaded speaking in public. Anticipating a class presentation, she lost sleep and felt sick for weeks beforehand. Finally sitting down again, after struggling through words that stuck and swelled behind her tongue, she was filled with both relief and mortification. Her most intense joy at finishing school, was that she need NEVER EVER stand up and speak in public again. Of course that was far from the truth, but it did get easier. At University, people were nicer about it, and after that, for the most part  she stayed happily out of the spotlight. Over these quiet years: a time of motherhood, art-making, and increasing freelance work and part time jobs that demanded interaction with other people, the blockages started to fall away and words began to run from her like water. She became increasingly passionate about sharing her love of art and stories, and found herself more and more able to discuss them with confidence and enthusiasm. She almost forgot she had a stutter, though it still emerged from time to time. She began to find it easier to speak to a crowd when she needed too, and one day when she was invited to run some school holiday workshops, she suddenly realised that she wasn’t nervous at all. They went well: she told stories and held the interest of her young crowd, they had fun, the clouds parted, birds sang, and they all lived happily ever after. 

Right. Well. It goes something like that. Anyone who knows me well, knows that my feelings towards public speaking have long sat alongside my opinions on medieval dentistry and skydiving. Not for me. When placed under pressure, if my words don’t freeze, then my brain does. So, no one was more surprised than me, when I found myself speaking in front of a crowd (admittedly, of mostly 8-12 year olds) and enjoying it. I wasn’t trying to rush to the end; my words didn’t tumble and halt. In fact, I can’t wait to do it again. Being in front of a crowd has become incrementally easier over the years, and certainly doesn’t hold that same classroom terror, but this was the first time that it felt easy. And I think I’ve worked out why.
There were more people there than it looks!

There were more people here than it looks!

A few days after the workshops, I stumbled across an article about public speaking by Adam Grant on Twitter, and there was one quote that felt like a lightning bolt. ‘Don’t try to calm down… Instead of saying “I am calm,” people gave more compelling speeches when they said “I am excited.”’ Grant’s reasoning is that a calm person is a boring one, and anyway it’s near impossible to turn down the adrenaline if it’s already coursing through your veins. So, channel that fear into excitement.
I realised that’s exactly what I had been doing in the workshops. I love and get excited by the mix of art, illustration, storytelling and the representation and interpretation of fairy tales. I love thinking about it and, it turns out, I love talking about it. True enthusiasm imparts far more on-stage confidence than beta blockers and five espressos ever will. Excitement for a subject is the best confidence booster there is. Well, that and knowledge. There’s nothing like that warm feeling of knowing what you’re talking about.
I do have a stutter, and probably always will, but it’s no longer debilitating. In fact I can go days without it ever making an obvious appearance. And I now know that if I’m excited and knowledgable about an idea, I can get it across to other people. I can’t say that I won’t make a numpty out of myself next time, but at least I feel it’s something I can, and want, to do again. And that’s a good feeling.
So if you struggle with speaking, ignore the advice to stay calm or imagine the audience naked (what?) or have a stiff drink beforehand (don’t do that). Do your research, and get excited. And have that stiff drink after.

Do you speak in public? Do you enjoy it? Does it terrify the pants of you? What’s your best advice to those who would rather be getting a root canal?

“Ever After” at The Art Vault

Well, I’ve been somewhat off the radar over the past few months. In that time I’ve finished off a couple of big jobs, made it through Christmas and the 6 week long school holiday (including a glorious week in Tasmania), and got two exhibitions up.

Most recently, I made the five hour drive to Mildura to install an exhibition of my work at The Art Vault, a fabulous gallery who are incredibly dedicated to their artists. I’ve been lucky enough to be on their books for several years, and was thrilled to be invited to exhibit in their main gallery as part of the 2015 Mildura Wentworth Arts Festival.

I left home in the dark early hours of last Tuesday morning, driving until the sun joined me, then driving, and driving, until it was nearly overhead. The welcome at gallery was as warm as that Mildura sun. I unpacked my work and was swept a couple doors down for lunch with Julie, The Art Vault’s passionate and indomitable director. We talked art and politics and returned to find the works all up on the wall! Andrew (seen in the lower left corner below) is some sort of spirit-level-eyed wunderkind.

ArtVault_Panorama1_Cropped

As penance for disappearing during the important work, I helped Andrew hang the exhibition in their middle gallery: beautiful and haunting photographs by Sophia Szilagy. After conferring with Mia, Sonja and Anne at the front desk (all gorgeous women and blindingly talented artists themselves) about price lists, etc, there was nothing for it but to entertain myself until the opening on Wednesday night. I wandered the streets of Mildura, ducking between air conditioned shops, the Mildura Art Gallery and back intermittently to my apartment at The Art Vault. Not surprisingly, a highlight was The Cellar Door, which has free tastings of the regions varied and very reasonably priced wines. I bought two. On for me, and one to take home.

I also got a few documentation shots of the exhibition before the opening on Wednesday:

The opening itself was a delightful blur. It began with a chat with Danielle Hobbs: Artist, Photographer and La Trobe University Visual Arts Lecturer, who later opened the exhibition with insight and grace; and continued with two media interviews (with ABC radio and Sunraysia Daily Newspaper) as people wandered in. I finally managed to hunt down a glass of wine, most of which I spilled while gesticulating in conversation to various very nice people over the evening.

Thanks to Laura Donges from Sunraysia Daily for the photo below. You can read the first part of the article here. See the iron grip on that glass? Didn’t stop me from sloshing it over myself and the floor.

10429833_10152758781592087_6976949663752977422_n

Eventually the crowd thinned out, and again I was whisked away, this time for dinner at The Mildura Brewery. Ten of us sat round the long table, thanks to the very generous invitation of Julie and her husband Kevin. Danielle and I bonded further over motherhood, fairy tales and home brewing tales, which seemed most appropriate under the watchful presence of the huge beer vats at the back of the restaurant, and we parted ways with my promise to make a batch of chilli cider and send some up to her. Stefano De Pieri doesn’t hold back with good food and wine, and we just managed to roll back to our various accommodations.

I made the long straight drive back the next morning, still buzzing with the incredibly warm and generous welcome from all I met, in particularly Julie, Mia, Sojna, Anne, Andrew and Robert at The Art Vault. I arrived home to warm cake and hugs, happy to be back in the arms of family, and the ‘cold’ climate of Castlemaine.

It was 35ºC.

Interview with Kate Forsyth

Hello folks. Just a quick note to point you to the blog of the wonderful Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, The Impossible Quest series, and much more. She interviewed me recently, about my artwork, process and inspiration, and posted that and some of my work a few days ago. Kate is an incredible and prolific writer, working with fairy tales and historical fiction, so it was a great privilege to talk to her about my own small place in the fairy tale genre.

If you scroll right to the bottom of her post, you’ll find my most recent work, which I recently teased here on this blog here.

So, head on over, and say hi to the lovely Kate while you’re there.

IMG_2001-0.PNG

Fairy Tales and Narrative Structure

As you all know, I’m working on a project about the lost strong girls of fairy tales. The project involves searching out old tales with strong female protagonists, and illustrating them with my artwork. Another aspect of the project, and a part I’ve only just begun working on, is the rewriting of some of the tales. I tossed up whether to leave them as they were, or re-write, for a long time. I like the idea of keeping them as they are, in their own culture context. Unfortunately the cultural context is all over the place. Some were recorded in the 1700s, some early last century. All were originally taken from the oral tradition, removed from their true context anyway, as a story told in the moment; to a group of listeners, a child caught wandering to close to the woods, around the dying embers of a fire. The storyteller was the holder of these stories, a role vastly different to the author. A storyteller brings stories into everyday life, an author sweeps you away from it. Many of the stories were rewritten several times over several generations, to fit the fashion and morals of the time. Some stories I’ve found are on webpages that look like they haven’t been updated since 1998; without references, and with no mention of whether the story is taken directly from an old (and out of copyright) collection, or written in 1998 by the owner of the website, and therefore very much in copyright.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 4.54.29 pm

All of this has lead me to a point where I feel, I think, that I’d like to start afresh; to take the framework of the stories and weave my own narrative between the bones. One, because it feels like it will be a more cohesive book; two, because I want children to enjoy reading them (some of the stories are pretty hard to wade through, or written for a vastly different era); and three, because it’s fun! Really fun.

It has also got me thinking about things like narrative structure, all that cultural context (as above), and the difference it writing between eras. When I write fiction, I usually write short stories. That’s the genre I’m most comfortable in, so to me it’s important to frame my ‘new’ fairy tales within the appropriate constructs of short story. Not in all cases, but often, fairy tales go something like “Intro to characters, moral supposition, this happened, then this happened, then this, the bad people die, the good ones get married and/or untold riches, moral conclusion, everyone live happily ever after”. That, you cannot get away with in a contemporary short story. Readers want to know what characters are feeling, and why they are feeling it; they need to be shown and not told, and they don’t want to see everything laid out in black and white. The best short story, to me anyway, is made up of a whole lot of shades of grey. But not, ahem, fifty.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 4.46.57 pm

I feel I’m going to have a whole lot more to say about all of the above, but for now I’m still grasping for ideas, writing, and thinking about writing, and frankly, having a lovely time.

A Tender Beginning: or, why I’m not showing you my new artworks (yet)

After talking and blogging and social media-ing about fairy tales and art for a while, I’m getting back into creating new work. I have a couple exhibitions coming up and a book project waiting for me to get back on board, which means I often begin my day like this:

blankscreen.jpg

Not shown: strong black coffee, slice of vegemite toast, existential angst. It’s rare for a photographer to start with a blank canvas. Though, this isn’t technically the beginning of the process for me. I have already photographed the many separate elements and created the silhouettes I need. But it is the beginning of the final artwork. I’ve spoken before about how I create the silhouettes. They are all sitting in the background waiting to be added. If you look closely, you can see some of the file tabs already open behind that blank page.

I’m not sure if I even feel like a photographer at this point. The creation of the final image is a tentative process of layering, pushing and moulding the work into life. Something like painting, sculpting and kindergarten cut-and-pasting all in one.

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

I usually begin with the silhouettes against a white background, so I can see where they are fitting together, and to make sure I’m not leaving stray bits and pieces when I’m erasing the elements I don’t need. Sometimes, if the background is integral to where the silhouettes are placed, I’ll have it in place, and toggle it on and off when needed. Often, if the background is there simply for atmosphere, I won’t even know what image I’ll use until everything else is in place. Whenever a new layer is pasted in, I alter its blending mode if needed. ‘Multiply’ is wonderful for placing silhouettes with residual tonal detail, as it settles them into the images in a softer way than a direct overlay. They are then scaled and flipped if necessary with the Transform function. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I’m talking about – I’ll be brief I promise). The ‘Liquify’ tool is my friend if slight adjustments are needed to the shape of a silhouette – longer hair, fabric not flowing smoothly, a tree branch not quite reaching the right way. All those layers start to add up, especially when trying alternatives of the same elements and adding multiple adjustment layers. It’s not unusual for the image file to gather 50+ layers and start tipping 3GB in size.

When everything is in place, then begins the long process of standing back, squinting, head tilting and stepping back in to move something three pixels to the left, or dodge and burn parts of the background, or resize a leaf fourteen times, a pixel at a time, before it looks right. The process of tweaking takes at least as long as putting the image together, usually longer. It’s a process of highlighting the important bits, balancing out the composition and making that frankenstein of an image look like a cohesive whole.

B0CF1oJCYAA2e-j.png-large

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The final piece feels raw and still made up of its separate pieces. It is not yet the sum of its parts; a fragile thing, part newborn baby, part freakish conglomeration of arms and legs and liver and lungs, stitched with careful threads. I look at it and see the separate parts that make it; can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point I try to walk away and let it settle for a day, but usually I can’t help peeking in; a nervous new mother checking on a peacefully sleeping baby. I want to show everyone, to see if they see it like I do, but I feel protective of it too. It needs time to grow into itself, to heal from its stitches and become whole. In reality it’s sitting here on the hard drive, a collection of code, but in my mind it’s coming to life. It was a thing that didn’t exist, and now it does. It belongs in the world, but not yet ready to face it.

~~~

I’d love to hear your feelings about the creative process, knowing when something is ‘finished’, and letting go.