THE STORY BEHIND WONDERLAND
‘Wonderland’ began in the summer of 2009 and has now been running for almost 3 years. It was started in memory of my mother Maureen who died 7 months before in November 2008, and has since become a turning point in my approach to photography and consequently my entire life.
My mother was an English teacher and spent over thirty years inspiring generations of children with her stories and plays. She was rarely seen without her head in a book, or writing in her own vast diaries, which she had kept since I was young. She was lost to a brain tumour that left her too ill to be brought home to England from the small French village where she and my father had retired. Instead of a funeral full of her ex pupils, we had to make do with a tiny family gathering which left me heart broken, and needing to do something that would never let her be forgotten.
In the months that followed real life became a difficult place to deal with, and I found myself retreating further into an alternative existence through the portal of my camera. This escapism grew into the concept of creating an unexplained storybook without words, dedicated to her, that would echo the fragments of the fairytales she read to me constantly as a child. Originally it began as a small idea in the form of just a few shoots that would span the summer, but nothing prepared me for the emotional journey it became, and the very special friendships it produced. From the moment I met hair and make-up artist Elbie Van Eeden, there was a sense of something deeper. We became very close, and the project blossomed into our own private playground within the woodlands that surrounded my home. Both of us were still in full time jobs and so had to spend our evenings and weekends creating props, wigs, and sets out of the most basic of materials, to try and achieve results as convincing as possible. There was little budget, so we relied on the kindness of strangers donating their unwanted treasures, and anything else we could scavenge or customise.
The series was the first time in my life I had found a vehicle to incorporate all aspects of my creative training into one form. It became a melting pot of my backgrounds in fashion design and costume making, as well as my passion for art history, film, and the English countryside. I chose my local landscape as our setting, and searched for areas of natural wonder, which could convey my feeling that despite its theatrical inhabitants, Wonderland was in fact real…. and all around us. Overtime I had developed a deep bond and respect for the locations in which I worked, and hoped that through my pictures I could remind others of their forgotten magic and beauty. It was during this research that I became fascinated with the pockets of wild flowers that would appear for only a few brief weeks of the year, such as the English bluebells. In some cases I would wait the full cycle of 12 months in order to return prepared with a concept and model, to capture the scene in full bloom. These vivid natural colours in turn dictated those of the costumes, and soon a pattern began to emerge.
At the start some shoots could take up to a month to be ready for, as everything within the frame was created by hand. As the summer drew to a close, it was impossible to achieve all I had planned and so we decided to carry on. My aim was to portray time passing, an unsaid journey through four seasons, incorporating every colour in the rainbow…to just keep going, until there was a sense it had reached its completion. All the characters came to me in my dreams, and were never the result of research, nothing was a direct copy, to me that felt empty and pointless. Often the stories behind the pictures would be the result of many things, book illustrations, poems, memories of paintings mixed with blurred recollections of fairytale queens. These ideas were the easy part, the challenge was to then, somehow…..make them a reality.
As the project progressed it began to change my life, generating an indescribable need to produce tangible pieces of those dreams. This physical creation became my favourite part – the chance to step into the scenes for real was unlike any other experience in my life to date. After all, its not often you get to stand beside an 8ft princess in the rain, or witness the dawn with a dancing circus girl on stilts! It made my everyday existence a better and richer place, and slowly helped me deal with my grief. At first people presumed everything was made up in Photoshop, the scale of the props, the colours, even the entire landscapes the models were in. So I began to write thorough diary accounts about each picture, and took behind the scenes photographs of the shoots and costumes being made, so the viewer could understand the amount of work involved. There were no stylists, designers or large teams of helpers, it was just us and a few friends who would help out on occasion. Everyone worked for free, nothing was commissioned, I paid for what I could out my wages every month and just begged and borrowed the rest.
As the months flew by, the series and my journal grew, and the reality of the project becoming a published book spurred me on to push the concepts further. The costumes became more elaborate, the props bigger, and now a definite story had evolved in my head. Some of the new characters took up to 5 months to create, and it became impossible to cope with working as a fashion designer and developing the series in my spare time and annual leave. Eventually in December 2011 I made the hard decision to leave my 10-year career behind, to dedicate my future to finishing the series and producing the book and exhibition. The response and support for the project across the world has been utterly overwhelming and humbling, and something that still amazes me everyday. I have met so many extraordinary people and been so moved by the reactions of others towards this very personal work, that I believe it has completely changed me as a person.
It has been a roller coaster of emotion, and an enormous amount of effort, but now (finally) Wonderland is in it final stages, with its completion planned for the end of the summer 2012. There is still a great deal to be done, but for the first time in 3 years the end is almost in sight. At the point of writing this I still don’t know what the future holds, I just know that the day I see my mother’s name printed on the inside cover of the Wonderland book, it will feel like I have finally fulfilled my promise to myself…. and her precious memory.
June 4th, 2012
Wonderland hits the world press, gets published, and is showcased as a giant installation on London’s Regent Street for the Queen’s Jubliee ! (what a month!)
….It was a busy Friday just after midnight, and the streets were full of people returning home from dinners or going out to clubs. One drunk man refused to believe The Storyteller was real, and started arguing with his friend about how “it was impossible to make a hat out of real bluebells, and how can you have a chair made of books like that?’. Others took photos on their phones, or ran between the windows shouting back at their friends about which one was their favourite. I sat down on a street bench and watched them, it was the first time I had seen people in real life reacting to Wonderland first hand, if I hadn’t been so tired I probably would have cried with happiness, but my body felt like a dried out shell after days of anticipation, nerves and excitement. So instead I just took it all in, a little bit numb, and little bit in disbelief …. but mostly hoping mum could see it – it finally felt like things were really beginning to change on a far bigger scale than I ever could have wished for, if I’m honest it was one of the proudest moments of my life………