To peek into my home would be to peek into a magical place filled with stories. Essentially, we are all stories. We edit, change and rewrite them as we travel. All of the books in my home have given me gifts that have become part of my adult identity. I take joy in the idea that I steeped my heart in the words of Ransom Riggs, Neil Gaiman and Roald Dahl. My Grandma used to tell us growing up, be careful of the company you keep because you become what they are… I have. I am essentially bits and piece of all the magical stories that I’ve read. Stitched together messily into a girl, who believes in the magical more than she believes in the mundane.
This year, my collection for Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween is themed around oddity. The things that are viewed by some as odd, macabre or possibly even monstrous. At the heart of any good story you will find someone who is a bit of a monster, but who just wants to be loved up.
Swamp boy, who’s name is Forrest Benjamin Murkwater, woke in the dark of my studio one warm Summers night. He opened one eye slowly and then the other. My face was the first face his eyes saw. So, he calls me Mama. As he came to life, I could see that this one was full of rascality. He giggled at me as I tried to sew clothing for a boy with webbed hands. I can’t tell you how many times he hid his socks in the studio before I could snug them on his feets and slip on his time-worn shoes. I told him the story of Paddington Bear, Coraline and the Tales of the Peculiar Children as I worked on his heart. His heart was the last thing to finish. I wanted to make my little monster boy both startling and loveable. He hates pickles but loves Swedish fish, he loves sailboats and kites but hates football. His heart is good, but it’s lonely. On an enchanted piece of old parchment, I penned this sentiment by Caitlyn Seihl. It read “When is a monster not a monster? When you love it.” I folded the paper up into a tiny bit and placed it in the open chamber of his heart. I kissed my pinky finger and pressed the chamber closed and put his heart into his chest.
Forrest, my little Swamp boy, stood up on my work table and frowned because all at once, he felt everything. All of the things I had filled his heart with were at the surface. I had given him a heart transfusion consisting of my fears, my hurt, my sadness as well as my love, my dreams and my magic. He was in pain and alive at the same time.
Forrest sat on the edge of my work table and I offered him my hand. He took it. He climbed quietly into my lap and just sat with me for a long time. Anytime an artist creates something that was not there before they are giving part of themselves to do so. Forrest listened to me as I made him. His pieces and parts scattered on my table. He is my tears and my laughs, he is stories of childhood mischief. He is a story of eating breakfast and then going to Grandmas, only to spin a tall tale of hunger and having a second breakfast. He is monster, enveloped in a person who is magic.
The cathartic process of making is one that many artists take. I am not special. I am, however able to offer it up as a story, a little morsel of how I make. Just maybe my stories will become part of your story, my dear.
"Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them." Annette Messager
Creating is my life, so it's only natural that I include you in the very bitter sip of life that I am drinking. My Mom died. Quite unexpectedly she had a stroke. Everyone dies, I know that. I can't believe she's in a better place because here was pretty wonderful and we all loved her hard. She was the very first collector of my work, when it was not very good at all. Going to her home is an odd feeling for me because she has my art dolls going back to my first ones in 2009 and creeping forward. She displayed them proudly even if they weren't my best and she always insisted on buying them instead of letting me just giving them to her. She was a very good Mom. My grief is deep and profound.
My Mom is interwoven into the tapestry that is me. She was my first home and my first love. She inspired magic. The fairies loved her. She encouraged my children to leave bits of cake in the garden for the them. I imagine they wept for her passing because the world has a lot less Pixie Dust now. Or maybe they welcomed her to their land? It is my hope that in the days ahead I am able to hold tight to the threads of magic my Mom inspired and make sure my children have her woven into their tapestry.
The last piece I shared with my Mom was my bearded girl child, I call her Phillamane. This piece is one of my favorites as it celebrates the divine magical individuality in each of us.
My bearded girl child is a compilation of many elements and curiosities. I hand mixed the palette for her, concocting hues from a Victorian dream, where clouds are lavender and cotton candy tastes like violet water. Her garments are all antique and vintage textiles, which is a passion of mine. The simple juxtaposition of burlap and ancient lace feels perfectly fitting. She will be offered at Bewitching Peddler's of Halloween in the Fall.
I've always been fascinated with sideshows and oddity. When I was a little one, my mother took us to the fair. I so badly wanted to see the world’s smallest woman whose attraction was inside a trailer. As we paid our 3.00 and stepped right up, I saw her. She was perched in a large chair, probably to make her look even more tiny. We paid an extra 1.00 and she removed her lap blanket and showed her legs, which were tiny as well. There were write-ups for us to read about her as we left the other side of the trailer. When I looked back, there was a man next to her with a roll of gold jewelry, she had a wad of dollars and he the gold and they were transacting.
There were other sideshows to see, but I think most involved nudity and mom wasn't down with that. The odd provoked my imagination.
Circus performers of old really hold a mysterious magic for me. It's possibly the illusion or the antiquity and grandeur of the performance that gets me every time. When you are taking it all in at a circus there just isn't time for your rational mind to take over and muss things up. It's magic and you don't question.
One of the well-known and fascinating personalities of the sideshow culture is Jo Jo the dog faced boy and then later, Jo Jo the dog faced man. Russian performer, Fedor Jeftichew came to America in 1884 where his path crossed with P.T. Barnum. Before that, he and his father, who also had the same condition called hypertrichosis, travelled through the sideshow circuit in Europe until his father’s death. It was said that Fedor resembled a Skye terrier and his father, a poodle. Fedor signed a contract with Barnum when he was just 16 years old. Together they spun a tale and inspired audiences who came to the Greatest Show on Earth. Barnum advertised him as "the most prodigious paragon of all prodigies secured by P. T. Barnum in fifty years. The Human Skye Terrier, the crowning mystery of nature's contradictions."
I am in love with the idea of embracing uniqueness. It somehow became a romantic notion instead of a birthright. Don't hide it, because somewhere out there it will be celebrated, maybe even applauded for the simple wonder of it. Never try to fit in, it's a horrid waste of energy. We knew these truths as a little child and then we spend the rest of our lives seeking to recapture the magic of embracing our oddity.
Then along came Millie Tinker. Inspired by Jo Jo, Millie is a delicate beauty, Child of the Dog Faced Man. She is dressed in hand sewn antique garments and is completely hand sculpted. I took great care in finding just the perfect fabrics for her. She has the earthen look that is consistent with the body of my work, yet she has enveloped a certain elegance in her personality. Millie holds a broken doll, this symbolizes the brokenness in all of us. I am working on her sister as I write this.
Many artisans struggle with acceptance of their person and works. When we are crafting the broken parts of our being into new work it's easy to fall into self-doubt talk that tells us the broken parts are not worthy. That our odd nature will not be welcomed. In the art world, I have quietly learned that everyone is odd. Everyone one is fractured, even if it's a slight crack or crazing. When we find ourselves in the firefly light of a success we all feel like we don't quite belong there.
I think much of creating is about the fractures and what you allow in, to damn them up. I am more than content allowing the whispers of a sideshow just getting into town, the smell of an antique book shop, the mysterious pull of cryptozoology, and the wonder of the witching hour to wisp into the fissures of brokenness and infuse my blood with the magic that is Prim Pumpkin.
The post arrived last week with a bit of supplies for me to work up. I will mix my latest paint palette for Fall 2018 and perfect the hard edges before I apply it to a doll. More and more I find that when I receive something from the post it is an extravagant opening party. The kids gather around to see if it's toys or candy, but when they see it's not they still watch me open the parcel. Now granted, they both love to watch the videos on YouTube where adults open little eggs to reveal candy and gumball machine toys! It's all such a surprise!
A few weeks ago I received a package from France. I have a friend there who looks for bits and bobs for me to use in my work. So, she packed it up and send it on to America. She had found some old black lace and wrapped it in individual pieces of tissue paper. As we sat and opened each piece, my daughter and I dreamed a dream of what had been. What was the lady like who had this piece of lace stitched in her garment? What tales could it tell? It joys me to show the kids things from the past, our home is a virtual reliquarium. I feel like by using aged pieces in my work, I am saving the memory that is housed in the fabric. Almost like, the fabric holds a history and I honor it by making something anew. There are some pieces that I've had for 20 years or more and I've done nothing with it but keep it. Keep it's memory or possibly it's story intact. I can almost feel it's history in my hands. Some of my collection will never be used. It will just be kept.
I've been moving ahead with my owl boy. He has a name now. I've been calling him Opal, Opie for short. He is now winged and by the end of the week I hope to have him clothed. Baby steps!
I hope your week is lovely,
When I was small, l I would go golf ball hunting with my stepfather. We would park the car and get our bags, heading into the wooded woods next to the golf course. Golf ball hunting was such a gloriously fun task. It was like hunting for Easter eggs but more rouge. Many times, I would find golf balls that were hit into the woods and place them gingerly into my little grocery sack and later realize that I snagged the bag on a stick and put a hole in it, losing the bounty of my foraging along the way! Not many words were spoken on these little quests, the woods spoke in windy whispers and the ground chimed back in decay.
On this particular occasion it was the beginning of Fall and I was seven and a half years old. We were in the woods early as it is illegal to golf ball hunt in the woods next to the golf course. I was like a baby crow, enamored by fungus and shiny things, while every once in awhile spotting a golf ball and collecting it in my bag. All of sudden my stepfather spoke in a quiet and low tone, “don’t move” he said, I was immediately frightened. He was looking up into the low branches of a tree and now, so was I. We both set our gaze on this huge thing. It could have been a bird or a person, I was not sure. The only thing I was sure of was that I was looking at it’s back and then it’s head turned and I saw the owly face. My stepfather told me to walk slowly back to the car and under no circumstances was I to run. I took another few looks at the giant owl in the tree and walked steadily back to the car. My stepfather following closely behind.
When we were both safely in the car, I asked him what it was. He said it was the largest owl he’d ever seen in his life and I told him that I thought it was the size of a man or a boy. We agreed that it was more the size of a boy and rode toward home in quiet. In my seven-year-old mind I concocted an anthropomorphic owl child that flew though the woods frightening golf ball hunters…. From that day on there was Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch ness monster, the water rat (which I later discovered was my aunt in a brown blanket) and Owl boy.
In the weeks that followed we didn’t talk about it, but it was in the recesses of my mind. My stepfather had his friends over to play poker one evening and my mother tucked me into bed but I always listed to their banter before I drifted off. On this night the conversation centered upon the owl. He told them about seeing the monster bird in the wood and his fear that it could, if it wanted, swoop down and steal me away. They all had indulged a bit and were a little tipsy but one of the men said, "Bill, how big do you think the owl was?” “Oh, an easy 4ft tall” he replied. My smile widened a little more because I too was 4 ft. tall. The owl boy was my same height which made me feel akin to him in some way.
Now, it could be said that my stepfather only took me with him because if we were caught hunting golf balls illegally, he would probably be let go if he had a child along with him. Possibly the owl was not 4ft. tall, but he was huge and lastly, he could have been all owl and not part boy, but he will live in my imagination till the day I die as owl boy.
Now, fast forward to 2017. I was looking at the work of American painter Lori Nelson. She has a cryptotween series that touched my heart and as I became drawn in, there he was... Owl boy on the subway. I immediately was transported back to my seven-year-old self and the magic I felt to have conjured my own Owl Boy. My own mysterious bridge between the mythical and the woods.
I began sculpting with a feverish impetus. I had him in my mind again and now and as doll maker, I would create him. I had a need to deliver him from my imagination into my magical world. As I sculpted, I took liberties with him. The original Owl Boy from my memory had gained an anthropomorphism about him. He didn’t wear clothing last time I saw him and he wasn’t foraging for mushrooms, but he was real and he was my bridge to magic.
** My owl boy is 19 inches tall. He has been sewn using vintage and found fabrics. I used my sewing machine and hand stitching to accomplish his look. He is hand sculpted using papier mache and hand mixed clay. I've mixed my paint by hand, like I always do, concocting magical recipes for each doll. I call him Opal, Opie for short and he will make his debut at Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween fine art show in Marshall, Michigan this Fall.
Since way before Christmastime I've been working on a new collection of unearthed little beings. They are more real than they are clay. More alive than anything I've ever created. I've taken a journey deep into myself and taken stock of what's important to me and I have decided to stay here. Here is good.
The whole month of January has been a exercise in patience, mostly with my own process. I feel like with each new piece I relearn my process, but really after reflection I see that I am evolving, not relearning.
The art of making magic is a serious one.
love to you
This is "Barbie Boy" it is a very special work of art created by artist Mab Graves for a special Mattel show at Gallery1988: in LA in 2017. Mab painted this piece in hopes of breaking down social boundaries and gender roles in our society. It's hard for a little boy in our society to truly love what they love and not face ridicule. To me the entire idea of boy toys and girl toys is archaic. Ask my mom, I played with transformers, Mutant ninja turtles and I still have a healthy collection of Muscle Men. Toys are toys.
But, other kids......
My son is 9 and right on the edge, holding softly to his youth and beginning to care what the other kids say. This is the age when it all goes down. The peer judgement, the pressure to be toxic masculine, the judgement when he cries his heart out because his feelings are hurt ... He's feeling it all. I am the type of mom that truly lets him decide on a toy based on what resonates with him. I have taught him for 9 years that a toy choice is simply what you are drawn to at that moment. It doesn't matter though, because at his age, what his peers say holds more weight that mom words.
Mab decided to host a "Mab's Barbie boys" contest on Instagram for a chance at winning one of her prints. Her contest touched my little family in a big way. We deiced to participate and my son gathered his toys and I observed as he did so. He would touch the Barbies and Blythe and he actually verbalized how much he like the colors, but quietly sat them down and told me they were girl toys. We had a very heart felt conversation about when I was little and what I played with. I asked him if it was ok for me to play with those toys and he said yes....I asked him why it's not ok for him to play with dolls. He replied, other boys aren't like us mom. They pick on me if I like dolls. Oh my god! My eyes welled up with serious tears. I've tried so hard to raise a boy who is comfortable in his sensitivity but he's right on the prickly edges.
So, we sat together and looked at all of the entries. All of the boys and grown guys with the things that bring them joy, and in that moment he understood why Mab painted this painting. He said with a big simile, Mab does the hard work with her art. I said she sure does... So as he moves from boyhood to the next stage, he will do it with the knowledge of artists like Mab who push back against social boundaries.
If you go to Instagram and type #MabsBarbieBoy you will see some heartfelt love.
The days are so busy with my hands in the paint and knee deep, doing the work for Prim Pumpkin. This is a sweet Pumpkin called Wilder. Wilder is a special pumpkin, created slowly in my signature Prim Pumpkin blue. My entire process, these days, is slow. From the hand mixing and stirring of my paints (I finally started labeling them, so remixing won't be as painful) to the hand working of my clay and papier mache, it's a process that I am proud of. A process that I've worked on for nine years now.
Wilder is whimsy; complete and utter love. She sparkles without an ounce of glitter. She is dressed in a fragment of a lovely and vibrant silk dress that I found at an estate sale. The dress had a story, as most dresses do that have been saved for over 60 years. It was a strapped, empire waist piece that I gravitated to instantly. It was almost as if the energy of the dress pulled me over. I do believe that a garment can hold residual energy... magic sparkles of what once was. This dress was hanging with a few others, all exotic and bright. I asked about them and the daughter of the home owner told me that they had belonged to her Auntie. She told me that in the 40's her mother had fallen ill and her Auntie who was an art assistant, rode a train from California to Michigan to help take care of her sister's children. Her Auntie was wilder than any woman she had known. She smoked and indulged in a drink from time to time. She also danced while in California to pay her part of rent as she lived with three other girls. The woman smiled as she pulled memories of her Auntie to the surface of her mind. She saw me standing there in front of her asking about her Aunties wild dresses and she gave a chuckle. I told her that I am a doll maker and I took out my phone pulled up photos of my work. She had never seen anything like my dolls and they resonated with her. I lovingly bought her Aunties dresses and promised to tell about her as her memory was now a part of my story.
In love and art... Jennie
I've been busy in the studio.. see what came to life? All of these pieces will be available at Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween. www.BewitchingPeddlersofHalloween.com