‘Wonderland’ began in the summer of 2009 as a small summer project born of grief for my mother Maureen, who died 7 months before in November 2008. Back then as I sat in my kitchen sewing the first rough costume, nothing could have prepared me for the 5-year journey that lay ahead. What started as a desperate distraction from the pain of reality, led to a dramatic turning point in my career, 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. In April 2008 she was diagnosed with 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 fairy tales she read constantly to me as a child. Originally it began as a small idea in the form of a few shoots that would span the summer, but none of us could predict the path that lay ahead and the very special friendships it would produce. 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. Back then I was still working full time as a fashion designer, and could only spend my evenings and weekends creating the costumes and props. There was little budget, so I worked with the most basic of materials, to try and achieve results as convincing as possible, scavenging and customising whatever I could lay my hands on.
As the series developed it became an elaborate melting pot of my training in fashion design, costume making, and art history. 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, my ‘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.
In the beginning the shoots could take up to a month to prepare for, as everything within the frame was created by hand, but 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 of the rainbow…..to keep going, until there was a sense it had reached its completion. The characters were not a recreation of anything that already existed; they were the faded memories of the stories my mother read to me as a child, mainly their original book illustrations, mixed up with dreams and the underlying sadness of my adult grief. I wanted to create pictures that people would project their own ideas on to, and lose themselves in, each being a visual fable within their own right.
As the productions escalated I quickly found that their 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 mother’s loss. At first people presumed everything was created in the computer, 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 shot behind the scenes footage so the viewer could understand the amount of work involved. There were no stylists, designers or professional support teams involved, and nothing was commissioned. It was simply a few passionate friends helping out for free, funded by what I could afford from of my wages every month, whilst I begged and borrowed the rest.
As the months passed a story evolved, and I pushed the concepts further, with some of the new characters taking up to 5 months to create, and over a year to plan. Two years into the project I found myself in the midst of creating the equivalent of an independent film through a series of still photographs, and it became impossible to cope with its demands. Consequently in December 2011 I left my 11-year fashion career behind, to dedicate my future to finishing the project and producing the book and exhibition. It was the hardest decision of my adult life, but thankfully also one of the best. Ever since that day, life has been a roller coaster of emotion, and an enormous amount of hard work, but now (finally) at the point of writing this on November 9th 2014, (the 6 year anniversary of mum passing) ‘Wonderland’ is at long last complete. In recent years our little world has grown wings and broken through to the major international press, being recognised by Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue Italia,The Royal Photographic Society, The BBC News, The Guardian, The Telegraph to name just a few, with over 360,000 followers on social media. 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 real life fairytale all on it’s own.
It has been a long road, and it is true to say that in losing my mother I have lost so much, but equally discovered a new unexpected direction in my life, for which I will always be deeply grateful. There are times when I still don’t know how I have dragged myself through all this chaos, 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, to celebrate her memory once and for all.
Nothing I write can express how losing her has felt, or how she touched the lives of everyone who loved her. I miss her more than words can ever say. This series is all I physically have inside of me, and is the best I can offer to commemorate the extraordinary person she was and will always remain as in my heart.
This is for you mum…….. xx