November, November

I’ve never really liked November in the Lakes. The autumn colours have mainly gone, the weather has turned cold and all is a flat, dull grey. There are compensations, of course. If you get up early enough, the lakes themselves are beautiful in early morning mist, and on the occasional sunny day, the hills still look enticing. What they lack, even though the air has become so much colder, is snow. Snow makes everything look prettier, even when it is just a dusting on the tops. It could justifiably be argued that it is best left as just a dusting on the tops, given the disruption caused when it descends lower, but even then it does look breathtakingly beautiful on a winter’s day. The idea of the Snow Queen, icy and magnificent but at the same time cruel and malevolent, is very easy to understand living here.

Snow queen

Tempting as it is to think of making a snow mask, or something frosted or icy, that would mean working with clear glass – and that isn’t me, however hard I try! Since the Snow Queen is also at heart a story about love and about staying true, I’m going to return to something I love to do and concentrate on the puzzle Kay needed to solve. I will confess that when it came to A level choice, I went for maths, special maths, further maths and (to make the teachers happy) physics. This was solely because I loved maths and in particular solving maths puzzles and, being a lazy teenager, chose the (at the time!) easy option. I have moved on a bit since those possibly rather geeky days, but retain a love of puzzle-solving and hope to produce something that will reflect this.

And at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a good puzzle to while away those long, cold, grey November evenings.

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Drink with me

I have always loved the Baba Yaga stories, and truth be told, I have always rather liked the old witch herself. She isn’t always bad – like Ruebezahl, she is fickle – and in any case, I’ve always had a soft spot for wicked women. I also love the stories for all their rich imagination – the combs that turn into forests, the need for the witch to go and get her metal teeth, that hut made of bones standing on chicken legs.

Imagine…that hut on chicken legs… what it must have been like to come through the forest and see it… Baba Yaga would have needed to entice you in… I see a little rickety table on a balcony, set with two wine glasses (handles made of bones, of course) and some choice nibbles, fresh from her cauldron… bats legs, frogs eyes,venom jelly… delicacies… a little skull toothpick with a dragon’s claw, to pick out those stringy bits…..

Baba Yaga's table

Baba Yaga's table

and you wouldn’t have any choice but to accept the invitation, you know. To turn your back on any witch would be bad manners enough. To turn down Baba Yaga’s invitation to dine would be impossible. She didn’t build her house on the shores of a vast lake in the midst of impenetrable forest for nothing. Easy enough to find yourself at the hut… something magnetic, maybe, to draw you on…but once there, everything changes. Only the foolhardy would attempt escape without at least a mirror and a comb, a magic doll and a healthy belief in their own luck.

Better to sit. And drink the wine. And then what? Well, I guess you just have to hope that you don’t end up somewhere like this:

Bone wine glass

Enmeshed

because then, you really would be in trouble.

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Baba Yaga

When we cobbled together our list of fairy tales for the rest of the year, we thought that a bit of Russian/Slavonic influence might be interesting – and who can resist a hut on chicken legs? And so, Baba Yaga was made ‘Miss October’. But in our discussions, we realised that we both feel that Baba Yaga is fairly close to Ruebezahl – both live in forests, have magic, are used to threaten people, and offer punishment or reward based on a whim that seems to know little rhyme nor reason….and yet. Who can resist a hut on chicken legs?

As a child, I had the fairy tale of ‘Vassilissa the Brave’ on tape, a girl whose mother dies, but who remains protected by her mother’s love, even when her evil step-mother and step-sisters send her to fetch fire from Baba Yaga, the evil witch in the dark forest.

Baba Yaga

No matter what task Baba Yaga throws at her, Vassilissa manages them all with the help of her mother’s love, in form of a doll (who is a whizz at cleaning and cooking – I need one of those!) But there are marginal characters which are also interesting – in folklore, Baba Yaga is in charge of the three horsemen – the red, the white, and the black, who represent dawn, day and nightfall. And she has pairs of disembodied hands who serve her. Nowhere (that I could see) does it say where these hands come from, or how they were created, but I have a thing for hands, of course!

Then, of course, let’s not forget Modest Mussorgsky’s interpretation of Baba Yaga, or rather ‘The Hut on Bird’s Legs’, as the penultimate movement of Pictures at an Exhibition is called.

Modest Mussorgsky

So, here’s a You Tube soundbite:

Baba Yaga

I’m not sure in which direction I’ll take Baba Yaga, to be honest, it may have to be a quickie – October is already upon us, and it’s a busy month!!

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Opening the jar

I’m going to pretend that I’ve crept over into October with good reason. It isn’t quite true, but the theme of my piece does fit with a theme of October.

To be pedantic, the better translation for Pandora’s box is apparently Pandora’s jar. Pandora could have had no idea what her jar contained. The contents must have been a complete surpise – and something of a shock. I wonder what really made her do it, what finally made her give in to her curiosity. Did she hear noises from inside? Did the jar feel heavy, or rattle when it was shaken? Was it just a nagging desire to know for certain, some need to finally discover? Did someone else ask about it, or tease her for leaving it closed?

October is breast cancer awareness month, and in many ways discovering that you have cancer is a bit like giving in to that curiosity. A niggling doubt, a strange feeling, a lump or a heaviness….  (ok, maybe not the rattle!). We can’t know what lies within until we investigate, until in effect we open our own Pandora’s vessel. It is scary, the thought of what opening that vessel might lead to. But thanks to research, just like the gods with Pandora, there is also hope. A little spirit of luck that might just mean that those wicked spirits are overcome and sent on their way. Not always, but much more than ever before.

So, I have chosen to make a series of vessels in the shape of bodies. Each is open, but each is still intact, with hope as a small winged spirit hovering close. To me, they represent a hope for the future, when Pandora’s jar can be opened without worry, when the world can’t be harmed by any spirits found.

 

Pandora's vessels

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A Bucketful of Hope

Whatever happened to Hope? I was tempted to call the piece ‘Elpis’ (the name of the spirit ‘Hope’), but I know I’m prone to overcomplicating names. So, Hope remained behind. The rest of the content of Pandora’s jar flew about, spreading hunger and strife (or whatever they were spreading), and the ‘glimmer of hope’ remained behind. Locked up. In the dark. Good job it glimmers, eh?

But do we know what happened next? No, no fairytale (or myth) ever bothers with this, only ever getting as far as ‘and they lived happily ever after’ – if they bother at all. So, whatever happened to Hope? Let me tell you. That little glimmer of Hope that remained in Pandora’s jar, it bred. It grew, and grew, and multiplied, until there was so much Hope that it couldn’t, wouldn’t be contained. Since then, when Hope itself forced the lid open and escaped, all on its own, there are glimmers of Hope to be found anywhere and everywhere. And no person ever had to be without Hope, ever again.

A Bucketful of Hope(Photo by Simon Bruntnell)

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Pandora’s Box

It’s September! And I can’t quite believe that this is the 6th month we’ve been going!

This month’s tale is well-known in principle, but in practice, I wonder how many people have actually read it beginning to end, and for how many it’s simply a phrase – ‘opening Pandora’s box’. I have to admit, until my son recently developed a fascination with Greek myths, I hadn’t read it start to finish, either, and the phrase isn’t nearly as common in my native German.

Pandora's Box

What actually surprised me about the tale was Pandora herself, ‘made’ to be curious by the Gods. She couldn’t help it. I was struck by the inevitability of fate, if one accepts that whatever is, is because it was ‘designed’ that way. In the version of the tale I read, there was no need for apologies (‘Oops, sorry, I appear to have accidentally unleashed all sorts of evil unto the world’), no need for explanations (‘I just couldn’t help myself, guv’), and no need at all to take responsibility for one’s own actions (‘The Gods made me this way’). Thankfully, my three-year-old seems to have missed this particular loop-hole, or at least I’ve not heard it from him so far!

The other thing that interests me is that Pandora unleashed all sorts of nastiness, and ‘Hope’ was the only thing left in the jar when she shut it again. What was hope doing with all the nasties in the first place? Did the story just focus on the bad, and in fact, Pandora let loose everything? Love, compassion, trust, as well as crime and poverty? And why did the tale I read my son finish with ‘as long as hope is still there in the jar, people know that things can always get better again’ – surely, for Hope to work, it needs to be out of the jar? Or do crime and poverty need to be let loose to influence us, yet hope needs to be kept under lock and key? That’s illogical, and annoying. So, in doing some more research, I found out that there are two versions of the story, as outlined here. It appears that they were conflated to non-sensical gibberish in my son’s storybook – which makes me grumpy – could they not be bothered to check the facts? Anyway, whichever way you look at it I think the fact that ‘Hope’ features in Pandora’s Box is often forgotten.

So, I thought I might do something ‘hopeful’…in whatever interpretation is easiest to tie in with what I need to do anyway, lol!

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Ups and downs

Well, I did it. I made something that made me smile. Actually, I made several things, and they all made me smile. I hope they will make you smile too. They are quite different to my usually quite restrained and organic colour palette, but I am finding the change refreshing. If the mission of the Happy Prince was to bring a small amount of happiness to the world, then he has certainly done it for me.

I imagined a city built around a hill, with the statue of the prince at the very tip and the poorest and worst off at the base. I saw the city in colours, the dull, dark base giving way gradually to brighter and brighter shades with gold at the top. In this city, would it be better to be at the base, poor but able to dream and see the beauty above, or at the top, comfortable but able to see all the misery below?

In any city, the top and the bottom are not unconnected. Streets wind up and down, people move, trade, win and lose. A statue at the top gives its gold to help the poor, and those it helps move up in life. The mayor and his councillors remove the grey statue and the dead bird, but spend so long arguing over a replacement that they can’t do their jobs and become unemployed. The unimaginative maths teacher sits where he is, his dreaming students become tomorrow’s Nobel prizewinners and mad inventors. Snakes and ladders, rising and falling, the circle of life.

 

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On a Pedestal

I have an exhibition coming up, at the Cetra Gallery on the Wirrall, and I’m happy to say that this month’s sculpture will be making its way up there as part of my body of work going there.

So…….here’s my sculpture, “On a Pedestal”:

On a Pedestal

What was I thinking?

As outlined in a previous post, I was intrigued by the concept of being ‘on a pedestal’. Who do we put there? What do we really know about them? What are we willing to do to get to an elevated position ourselves, what acrobatics do we perform? Why do we want to be up there? To be seen? Or to get a better view? Although the columns here are in a group, they are all solitary, nobody is helping the other, everybody is pre-occupied with themselves, their own fate, climb, life.

On a Pedestal

On a Pedestal

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Enter the statue

Hmmm…..ever since we sat in our little rented kitchen in Germany and tried to map out fairytales for the rest of the year (yes, we’re *that* organised), I have been pondering The Happy Prince. The idea that statues are alive, surveying us, and have some sort of power – in the sense of the Happy Prince deciding who receives his gems and gold leaf, but maybe less tangible, simply by their history and life casting a shadow – both real and imagined – over the people below. Who do we put on pedestals? Whose deeds do we allow to overshadow our own? Whose light do we consider to be so bright that we want to be reminded of it at all times? Here I go with light and shadow again. I’m working hard on this one, however, I already have to warn that the photo won’t be ready until September…….because this one will get photographed by a professional :)

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Imagine this..

Well, for August I have chosen Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. I wanted to do a fairy tale by Wilde because when I first read these, my own children were young and I loved the stories. Having re-read them now, I find them a little sentimental and occasionally too moral but still worth reading. Stephen Fry wrote in his blog back in 2008 that the tales were triumphs of the imagination, and I’d agree. They also include, as you would expect, sharp social asides and quick quips. Some of the tales can be found here: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/oscar-wilde/HappyPrince&othertales6x9.pdf

There are so many lovely visual images in the Happy Prince, from the waving reed to the Tomb of the Great King, the prince’s cloistered palace where all was perfect to the tired seamstress embroidering passion flowers. However, the one that catches my attention is that of the mathematics master tutting because children should not be allowed to dream. Quite apart from dreams and imagination being completely necessary for children to grow, maths is a subject that requires a lot of imagination both to understand properly and to research.

On the subject of imagination, I have just had to write an artists statement for submission to a magazine. I usually feel that I need to provide a theme for my work, that somehow it isn’t good enough to have skill and make something that you are proud of unless it has some kind of ‘meaning’. In the past, I have struggled with this. There are all sorts of reasons for making pieces of work, all sorts of ideas to explore. By insisting on a linked theme for everything that I do, I am restricting my ideas or at best making them fit in a tenuous fashion. I don’t find this either liberating or inspiring. I have come to realise that the best I can offer is to make work that I enjoy making in the hope that it gives as much pleasure to others.

And here we are, back to the Happy Prince. He just wanted to make his subjects as happy as he could, with whatever he had to offer. So my plan for this month – call it my own cop out if you want, but I intend to view it as a blueprint for the future – is to enjoy making something that I hope will make other people smile too.

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