Art

Into the Woods: the Symposium

Last Wednesday, I hopped on the train and made my way to Melbourne Uni for the ‘Into the Woods’ symposium run by History of Emotions. You can find their program here.

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It was a full and wonderful day, focusing on the forest in literature, fairy tales, poetry, contemporary culture and ecology. Unsurprisingly, I’ll focus on the fairy tale presentations I saw. If you’d like an abbreviated version, I tweeted my notes over here. I didn’t make it in time for the keynote speaker, but caught morning tea, and met the lovely Caitlyn, who, coincidentally came down on the same train, from the same town! We live less than 5 minutes away from each other. A lovely way to start the day.

And so, onto proceedings. You may want to read each speaker’s abstracts in the program for a clearer idea of what they spoke about. I’m working solely from my scribbled notes here.

Victoria Tedeschi spoke about the idea that, while we think of the forest as a dangerous place, “Fairy Tales’ most arduous trials take place inside (in the human realm), not in the forest itself.” The forest is actually a place for fostering identity: a place for growth and change. It is in the human domain that danger lies. In the beginning of the industrial age, cities became dirty and full of squalor, and so the first public parks were created… while the ‘wild’ forests were thought to be unruly, even ugly. They were seen to be in the way of agricultural progress. The ‘wild’ fairy tale forest was a place to lose oneself, and find a new identity. It is a means of escape.

I got most excited about Victoria’s reading of Hansel and Gretel. In the beginning of the story, Gretel is completely reliant on her brother. She’s helpless, relying on him to lay (unsuccessful) trails of crumbs and stones. However, after their trek through the woods, and entrapment by the witch in her candy house, she find the power to defeat the witch (by kicking her into the oven) and is the one to lead them home. Hansel, after being caged by the witch, is now lamenting the helplessness of their situation. Gretel, through her time in the forest, has formed a connection to the environment, and even enlists the help of a duck. She finds their way home, pockets full of sweets and jewels, in this way also ensuring her own financial independence. Totally blew my mind. Thanks Victoria!

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By Leutemann or Offterdinger, photo by Harke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Next up we had Rebecca-Anne C. do Rozario with Agony! Misery! Woe!: An Excess of Love in the Forest.  She spoke of the forest as a place of exile and refuge, and also, apparently, full of princes! She discussed the women writers from the court of Louis XIV. They often wrote of exile to the forest while they themselves risked the danger of exile to their country estates if they displeased the King. Not the worst danger they could have faced, but it certainly met social death. Rebecca-Anne discussed Catherine Bernard and Madame D’Aulnoy, particularly D’Aulnoy’s celebration of the male body. D’Aulnoy’s The White Hind explored the idea of a beautiful old woman, much different to the old hag we usually read about in fairy tales, and also the disturbance of the usual heterosexual pairing, with a strong female friendship at the heart of the tale.

D’Aulnoy’s story Le Mouton, features a metamorphosed sheep dripping with splendid jewels, and speaks of him in sensual terms, which leads me to my favourite quote from the day, (from Patricia Hannon): “The indolent sheep is the creation of the female libido.” Don’t you love it? I want it on a coffee mug. Anyway, female writers of the time often led sexually adventurous lives themselves, and didn’t shy away from writing about female desire in their writing.

Back in the forest, Rebecca-Anne discussed Marina Warner’s view of the wolf: he is symbolic of desire itself, and a counterpoint to the old crone, or witch in the woods. The prince too, is an artifice of desire. He is chasing, not the princess in particular, but desire itself.

Athena Bellas spoke next, on An Escape to the Forest in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.  She discussed the film and its representation of gender, resistance and space; and also the relationship between the film and the Red Riding Hood stories by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. There is a strong focus on what comes of straying from the path, physically and socially. Interestingly, Athena also discussed the idea of horror being in the home rather than in the wild forest (I’d really like to cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post): In the film, Ringing Hood is escaping her abusive father, and the forest is a marginal space. Through lighting and framing, it is represented as a freeing space for her. Athena has a particular interest in the voice over, where Riding Hood is in control of her own narrative.

She also discussed the differing German and French ideas of the forest in Grimms’ and Perrault’s stories. The German forests are dark and foreboding, while the french are manicured and relatively tame. A place of looming fear vs. a place of wonder.

Amazingly, all the above (and more) was covered in an hour. In the next session we started with Sarah Bartels discussing the the symbolism of the devil in 19th Century English Woodland. She pointed out some of the many plants that were named after the devil, for the simple reason that they were poisonous, spiky, or even just unpleasant to the taste. Sarah looked at the relationship between the natural world (plants and animals) and the supernatural one, and how the balance between the two was negotiated in the beliefs and superstitions of the time.

I then snuck into the other seminar room (multiple presentations make for some very difficult decision making!) to catch Jessica Hancock‘s paper on The Question of Experience and Fiction in Regards to Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.  She discussed the postmodern idea of whether the artist can be divorced from the work they make – is the connection important? There is an expectation that when an author writes about a place (even in historical fiction) they should have been there, and the belief that with the physical experience of a place it becomes part of the story, not just background. Stef Penney wrote about the Canadian wilderness as if she had lived there all her life, and people believed she had… until it was revealed that she lived in London, was intensely agoraphobic, and did all her research at the library. Should that make us read her story differently? Many people believe so, and it is hard to keep it out of mind while reading the book, even unintentionally.

David Haworth spoke next on Silence, Speech and the Unruly Forest: From Fairy Tales to Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, where:

 ‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’- Christopher Manes.

In fairy tales, the forest is loud with (non human) voices, where in The Bluebird Café, the forest is forced into silence. Speech is an expressive of an internal self, a gift bestowed on the forest in fairy tales. In Red Riding Hood we are unsurprised to hear the wolf speak: he is the seductive danger of the forest: His voice is seductive, as is his ability to spin words. David spoke of semiotics as the ‘other’ of language: Not language itself, but entwined with it. In The Bluebird Café the forest has encroached on the town, taken over it. The town and the missing girl are both ghosts, both silenced. Even in flashbacks the girl is mute. The speaking human has privilege in Western cultures, but Bird’s novel makes space for the non-speaking Tasmanian forest in her narrative.

And… break for lunch. Phew. Our brains were overflowing, but the next hour was a wonderful chance to meet several people I heard speak: Sarah Bartels, Victoria Tedeschi and Rebecca-Anne were all fantastic to chat to, and I’m glad to have made their acquaintance. Working away from my keyboard in a relatively small town means I tend to forget that there are real people out there, talking and thinking about the things I’m interested in. And I can talk to them, in real life. I’m so grateful to the organisers of the symposium, and all the wonderful presenters. I haven’t covered all I sat in on, but these were the most relevant to my work, and this blog.

Many thanks to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Melbourne University, and whoever the caterers were, for the very delicious lunch.

You can follow Victoria, Rebecca-Anne and Athena on Twitter.

Early Women Photographers: Part I (The Pioneers)

I shared a few early women photographers on Twitter a few days ago, and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here, as a follow on from my posts on Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales and Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales. Many early women photographers used the fairy tale in their work: limited by social expectations, they stayed close to home and photographed their own friends and family in fashionably allegorical and fantastical scenes. But as you can see here, the very early women pioneers, those working in the 1800s before photography was a respectable hobby, were doing anything but chasing fairies…

Constance Fox Talbot was the wife of the much heralded inventor of photography William Henry Fox Talbot. She is thought to be the first woman to have made a photograph, but doesn’t get much credit for it. At least she is held up for her enthusiasm. Here’s what Maev Kennedy had to say in the Guardian:

There is also a rather dull image of four hazy lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript, on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, the first photograph by a woman.

“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.


Anna Atkins
and her husband were friends with the Talbots, and she soon began experimenting with photography too. She is also credited by some sources to have made the first photography by a woman. Neither Constance or Anna used a camera for their ‘first’ images, so the title is contentious. Anna is best know for her cyanotypes of botanical samples, which she began creating not long after family friend John Hershal invented the process in 1942. She published a book of her work a year later, the first photographically illustrated publication. Anna dedicated her life to the study of biology and its representation with the cyanotype process, and has left us with a beautiful and scientifically important legacy.

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Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri was an early French photographer. She also began experimenting with photography in 1842 after her marriage to fellow photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. They ran a studio together in Brest, France until he left for Paris in 1852. She ran the studio alone, until moving to Paris and setting up her own atelier there in 1872. She worked as a portrait photographer for many years, but is best know for her architectural views of Brest.

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Thora Hallager brings us back momentarily to Fairy Tales. She was a working portrait photographer, and landlady to Hans Christian Anderson. They wrote often, and she produced a portrait of him in 1869. You can read their letters if your Danish is good, or run them through Google translate, as I have done below. In that letter, he states (as far as I can tell from a clunky translation) how pleased he is with his portrait. It seems that Thora was a professional photographer her whole life, and never married.

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Sofia Carolina Ahlbom  is described on Wikipedia as “a Swedish drawing artist, engraver, lithographer, photographer, map maker, writer, poet and feminist.” I like her already. She supported her family as a professional artist after moving to Stockholm in 1832, and never married. She was also an active writer, and engaged in politics, particularly regarding women’s rights. Ok, now I would very much like to have her to dinner. I couldn’t find any of her photographs, but I couldn’t not include her.

Julia Margaret Cameron was probably one of the most famous of early women photographers. She started working with photographer late in her life, and photographed almost solely her friends and family, often in allegorical and legendary scenes. She also worked her neighbour, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, to produce a photographically illustrated book of his poems. Her works were often derided as being limp and fanciful by her (male) contemporaries, but her legacy is a strong one. Her images may often be soft, but the there is no denying the life and power within them.

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Julia heralded a new wave of women photographers: women who viewed photography as a means for creative expression. Mostly, these early photographers were of the upper classes, and to keep their respectability stuck subjects close to home. They photographed their children and friends, usually in the garden and grounds of their family home. Photography was suddenly a respectable hobby, which meant a flourishing of images that represented allegory, fantasy and fairy tale.

I will explore the creative lives of Victorian Female Photographers in Part II of this series, next time…

“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.

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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.

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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.

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