My mother Maureen 1945 - 2008
(always with her head in a book)
The Story Behind Wonderland
'Wonderland' began in the summer of 2009 and has now been running for 5 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 who 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.
As the series developed I found It became an elaborate melting pot of my backgrounds in fashion design and costume making, as well as my passion for art history 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 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. 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. But as the summer drew to a close, I realised it was impossible to achieve all I had planned and so I 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.
I quickly found that that the 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. It made my daily existence a better and richer place, and slowly helped me deal with my grief. At first people presumed everything was created 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 professional support teams and nothing was commissioned. It was simply a few passionate friends working for free, with what I could afford out of my wages every month, whilst I begged and borrowed the rest.
As the pictures evolved I pushed the concepts further with some of the new characters taking up to 5 months to create. It became impossible to cope with working as a fashion designer and developing the series in my spare time and annual leave. So eventually in December 2011 I left my 10-year career behind, to dedicate my future to finishing the series and producing the book and exhibition.
It has been a roller coaster of emotion, and an enormous amount of effort, but now (finally) at the point of writing this in March 2014, Wonderland is almost complete. There are currently 72 pieces in the collection, with a final 5 on the way. In the last few years our little world has grown wings and finally broken through to the major international press being recognised by Harper's Bazaar, Italian Vogue, The Daily Mail, the BBC News, MSN, the Huffington Post and countless magazines and blogs around the world. The response and support 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, that it feels like the project has become a fairytale in its own right.
It is true to say that in losing my mother I lost so much, but equally this new unexpected path has changed my life forever. So, no matter how sad the origins are, I am so very grateful for what has happened, and the precious friends I have gained. At present I still don’t know what the future holds, but 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. I miss her so much ……………… This is for you mum.... x