I have lost count of the times I have started writing this entry, in the past few weeks, my broken paragraphs have stumbled between sadness, joy, relief and loss all at once, and I know I have worried far too much over the sound of my own voice. Today is October 19th 2014, 5 years and 3 months to the day since I first stood in that lavender field clutching my brand new camera, out of my depth and terrified, preparing to shoot the first picture of the Wonderland series. There are times when I wish I could go back and put my arms around my younger self, to soften some of the anxiety I had felt and whisper words of encouragement when there were none left inside of me. To watch the ghosts of Elbie and I working together for the first time, oblivious to how our friendship would blossom and laugh at the sheer shock and excitement on my face when the wind filled the skirts of our ‘Lavender princess’ and I managed to capture that first big shot.
Back then I was 33 and completely unaware of where the next few years of my life would take me, the people I would meet, the highs and lows of a changing path that would push me in ways I could have never imagined possible, or would have experienced if my mother hadn’t left us that bleak November Sunday. For 7 months I had fallen apart, my body had raged against me to the point I shook on my way to work and I cried in public everywhere I went. It is true to say I had never felt so utterly out of control, hopeless and lost.
Nothing can prepare you for grief; it hits you like a runaway train that you are left clinging to with bleeding fingernails, having no idea how long its journey will be, or where it will end. All you can do is hold on and try your best not to give up or let go. It will take you through dark places, valleys where you can’t remember who you were and nights that seem to never end… and on the better days, the sun will come out, and you can breathe a little, watch the world pass you by and remember that there is still beauty out there…..somewhere.
This may all sound a little dramatic, but it is what happened to me, and without beginning this series I shudder to think at how much worse it all could have been. Wonderland became my sanctuary, my alternate existence, where I could block out what had happened and run away to a place where it didn’t matter what I looked like, or who I was. I could lose myself behind the camera and disappear deep into the arms of the woodlands that slowly began to heal me in the most unexpected of ways. Like a kite cut from its string I had lost my family home, the last shred of childhood we all hold on to as adults and yearn to return to when life gets too hard. So I drifted and as the project began to grow I noticed the subconscious parallels between my own journey and Katie’s seeping through the pixels and really that was how the narrative was born.
Close up cropped detail sections
Now, years later as these last summer months have approached and passed in the wake of the final pictures, I had felt excited and prepared for the end. I expected some sadness, but on the day I opened the last two files to begin editing, I fell apart in a way I never could have predicted and that is the simple truth of why this has taken so long.
I sat in the silence of the studio, staring at my monitor with tears rolling down my cheek, as all I could see was myself in Katie’s shoes walking through that blank snow scape, towards a home I could never reach again in my own world. It was indescribable and after days of trying to make some kind of progress, I switched off the computer and went to the hills and the woods and I walked and walked until I could make some sense of it all. For 5 years I had woken up with a never ending ‘to do’ list of editing, shoots and writing for the project, giving me a constant purpose, distraction and yet at the same time an unbreakable fine thread back to my mother. In all this time my life had been echoed through Katie and so an ending for her would also be an ending for me and I needed to believe it felt right and real for the both of us.
20 months earlier, back in the winter of 2012 I had struggled a great deal with how the closing scene would look and what its message would be. The storyteller in me was full of grand ideas and ‘happily ever after’s’ but to suddenly tear my real life link from Katie in that final moment felt wrong. I can only describe the past few years as swimming towards the surface of the water from the depths of an experience you can’t quite explain. Three years into the project I had turned a corner at the point of ‘The Distant Pull of Remembrance’ and decided it was time to begin the journey back to reality, from beneath the fantasy I had buried myself under. Ultimately I always knew this meant Katie would eventually return home, but she would also be changed from her experiences and somehow I wanted her apprehension and emotion at that last moment to be kept private, her back turned.
For myself left on the other side of the screen, home could only ever be a metaphor for finally finding some peace within myself and breaking through that surface; something I felt had to be my true state of mind before I released this final image. Consequently, the weeks stretched on as I spent my days in the landscapes of my adult home, trying to find that point in my heart. During this time I made some big decisions and cried a hell of a lot, but now as the first leaves of autumn are finally here, I can safely say it is time, and at long last I’m ok with letting go…….
Shooting The Picture (20th January 2013)
As I write these words it is hard to believe I shot the closing scene for Wonderland a whole year and 9 months ago in January 2013. I remember on the day feeling so excited and almost shocked that I had finally ‘done it’ and taken the last picture of the series that it just didn’t feel real at all. Of course I was well aware I still had an entire summer of more images to create ahead of me, but this meant the story was now locked and there was indeed an end to it all. The reason the scene was shot out of sequence was in order to get the snow. The final moments of Katie passing through the magic door in the woods meant that it would have to be winter on the other side, and so the last 8 pictures of the story were shot in reverse to meet the correct conditions. The biggest panic was lack of time, in the UK snow can come and go within a handful of days, this time it arrived early and unannounced, before I had even finished making the floral coat. So after barely any sleep, and a lot of glue gun burns, I had no choice but to frantically pack the unfinished costume in the car and head out into the white world that had fallen during the night.
When it comes to location scouting I often hunt for weeks to find the perfect spot, but in this case it was impossible to predict what a place would look like until it had snowed. So without a plan I pressed my face to the glass of the car window, as we silently crawled along the country lanes, scanning the horizon for the perfect house that would soon become Katie’s home.
After an hour of circling villages and farms, the hills fell away to reveal a vast blanket of untouched snow, edged with a distant frame of frozen trees rising up into the grey February sky. There were no signs of life apart from a single house nestled at the foot of the fields and that was when my gut twisted and my heart leapt. It was exactly how I had imagined in my dreams, we stopped the car, I bit my lip, this was where it would all end…..
By the time we had parked and carried everything to the field it was snowing really hard. Elbie and I dressed Katie in the coat and much to our amusement had to wrap her with garment bags and the reflector cover to protect her costume and hair from being ruined. Once Katie was in position, Elbie set to work on creating the yellow trail, carefully striding into the distance filling each of her footsteps with the coloured powder as she went. It was such a surreal sight, the low visibility had reduced the landscape to nothing more than a faded suggestion and all that was left was Katie cloaked in shivering flowers, with the dissolving sweep of yellow left at her feet. It was already after midday and the winter sun was low and faint as the wind blew snow into our eyes, mouths and constantly at the lens of the camera. Finally Katie’s protective layers of plastic were removed and instead held over my head to create some shelter, where upon suddenly from nowhere, a visitor arrived … our robin.
If you are a regular reader of my diary and have been following the series, you may know that in the past we have had some strange things happen on the shoots, it can come in the form of light, or sudden dramatic shifts in the weather. These moments often cause us to second glance each at other and for me to utter my mother’s name under my breath. This day was no exception and as we stood together the original four friends who began the series all those years ago, we just had to laugh and gasp at what happened next.
The robin appeared in the middle of the empty field and flew straight up to Katie’s feet, we all noticed and pointed as it hopped around and luckily my husband Matt quickly pulled out his phone and started filming. After a quick circle of our group it disappeared, but then returned immediately and that was when a shiver ran down my spine. Our robin was completely unafraid and after sitting on my boots it decided to perch beside me like an old friend whilst I took the first shots. Next it flew on to Katie and simply stayed, I watched with my jaw open as this little bird fluttered along her arms, shoulders, her head and hands! I have never seen a wild bird behave in such a way, especially not a robin. There were points when it almost mirrored Katie’s pose, bowing its head, or moving in closely to her face as if there was an unsaid dialogue between them. It even paused to shelter from the snow in the hollow of her sleeve, and all the while my heart heaved in my chest. I continued to take pictures until our new friend flew directly towards me landing on the reflector above my head, and then with a puff of his chest for the camera, he turned and disappeared into the gloom, leaving us stunned and laughing.
Later that night I read that robins are regarded by some as spiritual messengers and the bringers of change. I cannot explain our little encounter, but transformed the entire emotion of the picture for me and I am so thrilled I have it on film to share with you all.
As the weeks have passed I found myself agonising a great deal over which shot to choose for the finished picture, trying to decide which position of the robin would feel right for the relationship between Katie and her new companion. In the end I chose the fragility of it sheltering from the snow on her hand, held close to her body. I guess I love that it is not noticeable at first, it is less obvious and acts as a beautiful surprise, like a little hidden treasure waiting to be found.
After our moment with the robin, my focus returned to the picture and we decided to add more yellow to Katie’s trail and skirts. By now it may be clear to some of you that this scene was a deliberate nod to ‘Spirited Away’ taken in the first year of the series, as well as a reconnection and continuation of Katie’s golden path from ‘The Journey Home’. I always intended this picture to be ‘quiet’ and personal, it could never compete with the grand scenes that came before the door, as this was Katie’s real world now, having left Wonderland far behind. I chose a diptych because I have always imagined this moment like the final two pages of a storybook, as if we are watching her melt away from view into the white of the paper, no more than an illustration and a figment of our memories. It leaves me holding my breath, expecting the book to close and wondering if the door of the house will ever open and who will run out to hold her.
So here I am, 5 years and 3 months later, my fingertips hovering over the keys of my laptop trying to find someway to say goodbye to a series that has changed my entire life. I am now 38 and it will be 6 years since mum passed away on November 9th. There are days when I almost have no idea how any of this happened, I fell into something I simply could not stop that became my obsession, my escape, my sanity and my madness all at once. I have never worked so hard in all my life and now I have reached the end I felt I had to do something to represent what this journey has been. I wanted to bring together the fantasy and the reality in one moment, as a memento for myself so I would never forget who I was at this point. So I began a self portrait that grew far beyond my original plan. For an entire week I scrambled through my attic, my studio and my home to pull together as many physical fragments of the ‘real’ Wonderland I could use, years of test prints, costumes and props and somehow set myself inside it all. I climbed trees, stole ivy, nailed prints to walls and cut flowers all in the same way I approach my shoots. What started as a small idea escalated into chaos like everything I touch and now I sit back and laugh as I remember the insects crawling up my legs, the peeling prints off the damp brick wall and my own nervous stare back at the camera. It is a little landmark I guess, and something I wanted to share with you all. I am well aware the Limited Editions from the series are expensive for most people so I wanted to offer this print as an open edition for anyone who would like to own one, at a fraction of the cost. All the details can be found HERE .
Now it is late and I just realised it’s dark outside. I have sat here for hours looking back through every picture, each one engrained with the most extraordinary memories and shining with the love I have for my friends. I ache with happiness. My dearest Elbie, Katie my extraordinary muse, the endless love and support of my husband Matt. My wonderful models who have suffered hours of discomfort throughout all weathers, and Richard for capturing the last shoots on film in such a beautiful way. I am so indebted to you all.
Me and Elbie, Jan 2011, on ‘The Briar Rose’ shoot
I now know that in losing my mother I gained a completely different perspective on life, It broke me, but it also rebuilt me with a greater empathy for so many things, something which I am relieved to have discovered earlier rather than later in life. I suppose it was her last gift to me and for that I must find a way to be grateful. I want to thank everyone who is reading this, who has supported the series and helped motivate and push me along when I have (often) felt overwhelmed, exhausted and like I couldn’t keep going. It is a strange thing I have bared so much in this diary, to tell the truth I still have no explanation for it, nor can I even really comprehend how far it has reached. But please know you have helped me immensely dear friends, even though we have never met.
My mother Maureen, 1945 – 2008
Finally to mum, you once wrote me a letter when you were starting your new life in France, and I missed you so much I was struggling with the distance between us. I have kept it close throughout all these years, and the words seem to resonate now more than ever before. I want you to know I’m doing so much better and that I can talk about you now without crying. That I can sleep again and above all I know you are with me.
You were the rain the day we shot The Briar Rose, the unexplained light that made us gasp in the The Fade of Fallen Memories, and the dawn of our Wild Thing. You were the morning dew on my skin as I crouched in the flowers for Euphaeidae, the snow that fell on Elbie and I as we stood alone for Spirited Away and now and forever, you will always be my robin.
I miss you, all these words, all these pictures, still cannot surmount to what I need to say…. other than I love you, and thank you for being in my life and I promise I will try my hardest to make this the most beautiful book I possibly can ………… xx