Folk Art and Fairy Tales

Folk Art and Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the idea of folk art and fairy tales having a place in contemporary art, craft, and design would have been laughed at. However, there is currently a collective need to have things we can hold on to, things that can reassure us that everything will be all right, and that we will all live happily ever after. Unfortunately life isn’t always like that and sometimes things aren’t quite as cosy as we might like them to be.

Folk Art has a chequered history with peaks and troughs. It suggests little or no formal training, outsider art, by ordinary people. This could not be further from the truth with the work in this exhibition. Folk art seems most popular when the world is experiencing great changes. In the latter half of the 19th Century nostalgia for a pre-industrial society came to the fore. It gradually waned until the 1920s and ‘30s when two strands of folk art appeared. Politically, the Communists and the New Socialists (Nazis) championed folk art: a common art for the people, connecting the state with the wholesome, nationalistic traditional. Meanwhile at the same time, British Modernists were celebrating the art of Alfred Wallis – a self-taught former seafarer painting on bits of wood and cardboard in St Ives. It was fresh, simple and free of the formal aesthetic rules.

Since the 1990s (Harry Potter, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the books of Philip Pullman) people of all ages have wanted to engage with make believe. Homeland Security is under constant threat, our national safety has been compromised and we live in a state of anxiety and trauma. There is a need to escape. Our post-industrial society surrounds us with constantly changing technology and there is nostalgia for the “make do and mend” mentality of our grandparents and their thrifty ways, before everything became disposable.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in acoustic and folk music – real people playing real instruments. In design there is the polka-dotted innocence of interior designers such as Cath Kidston. In art the phenomenon of the hand made (Tracy Emin’s quilts, Turner Prize-winning Grayson Perry). There is a resurgence of interest in drawing (David Shrigley). Artists are celebrating the work of the everyman (Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane; Folk Archive). The tradition of storytelling and narrative has been explored (Matt Collishaw, Mariele Neudecker, Marcelle Hanselaar and Paula Rego). The artists and makers in this exhibition use tactile skills to put ideas into reality. The work is quite definitely and clearly “made”.

“Hello Kitty”, “Miffy” and Tove Jansson’s “The Moomins” have been adopted by people of all ages who are seeking the comfort zone and aspire to a return to the simplicity that modern life has espoused. They recall a time when things were far less complicated. Outside the world is a scary place full of unknown terrors and dangers, inside we want to adopt a slower pace, a place of nurture and safety, a “home sweet home” with fireside stories.

Samantha Bryan’s work takes me back to a place where I felt safe, when the television was black and white and only on at certain times of the day, not 24/7. These quirky pieces speak of a time of innocence; they are escapist, other worldly inventions. They bring to mind the creative impulse behind the magical (though contrived) photographs of fairies taken in Cottingley Dell, Yorkshire in 1920, by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, which captured the popular imagination of the time and for many years later.

Cathy Miles uses wirework to make comments on contemporary society’s obsessions and sexual stereotypes. Birds are regularly used in folk art. She uses the bird as a metaphor for the human condition and draws in wire with wit and humour, imbuing the creatures with character and personality in order to construct a narrative. There is something magical about the collective terms for birds; a charm of finches, a deceipt of lapwings, a murmuration of starlings.

Julie Arkell’s work has, on first viewing, cosiness about it. It is sweet and warm, innocent and playful, but in a unique twist of invention; here is work that recalls the homemade aesthetic of the Punk era in the late 1970s, with its fanzines and collaged record covers. There is also something of the Margaret Tempest illustrations for the Little Grey Rabbit books with this champion of sewing, papier-mâché and knitting. Julie is incredibly imaginative and her work has an eccentric charming that at times is disarming. She enjoys travel and collecting things. Her work often includes personal finds from charity shops, markets, and thrift stores and sometimes includes the rescued arms of cast aside Barbies. She uses a wide variety of mixed media skills in order to convey her complex ideas and narratives.

Lucy Casson often uses food tins to construct her pieces and these have an element of “otherness” about them, they are from “elsewhere”, not from these islands. The found text on the objects becomes integral to the piece reflecting the way we wear clothes with logos and slogans. It also sparks in us the concept of armchair travelling. Like Julie Arkell, she creates a juxtaposition of domestic objects and anthropomorphic creatures to create a sense of storytelling.

Lucy Casson and Julie Arkell both explore the notion of scale in their work. The figures become Borrower-like by integrating cooking implements, knitting needles, clothes brushes, and dressmaker’s sundries in their work. The use of these objects sparks a memory and engages the audience.

Jayne Lennard attempts to “transform discarded objects into meaningful and coherent ideas – to shape and discover new meaning.” It is this memory of former existence that makes her objects so interesting, they are imbued with history, like Lucy Casson’s tin, there is a story already attached. Lennard’s Hansel and Gretel House looks like a cross between a caravan and an allotment shed. You have a sense that this is a place of the imagination, where something could happen. Her Princess and the Pea bed is made up of layers of retro fabrics, whilst her Image Junkie carries an old Kodak Brownie type camera slung over her PVC’d shoulder. There is at play here an element of the half-remembered, the oral tradition of tales passed down through generations and gathering new strands on its’ way.

Rachael Howard celebrates the domestic pleasures of the everyday. Since starting a family she has endeavoured to simplify her techniques so that she can work from home as much as possible; to fit her career around her family life. Her work is graphic; she builds up images from her sketchbooks and notebooks, scribbled messages on the backs of envelopes. These bits of text are innately interesting. In one piece she traces her own personal history relating to the Hackney house that has until recently been home. The House is a journey around her home. Various elements are set out in the style of a Victorian sampler with the image of the home in the centre. Society currently has a fascination with genealogy, of discovering our family history, our own personal story; it is the second most popular thing to search for on the World Wide Web. (the most popular is far more unsavoury).

Lowri Davies makes contemporary Welsh souvenirs, the sort of thing that can be found on the dresser or sideboard of homes around the world, memories of visits to places, and the people who have brought them back. By using blank white moulded forms and industrial processes she touches on the ready-made mass-produced, but by applying her own decoration she attaches to them a homeliness. These days we rarely see a “Welsh Lady” in real life: they represent a time gone by and act as signifiers for the International Eisteddfod, folk singing groups from the 1970s, and shortcake and fudge tins in Craft Centre Cymru. They have a place in national history and beyond that they have become symbolic of tradition. Seen on mass her Welsh Bell(e)s remind me of an army of mini Daleks from Dr Who. They could be plotting to overthrow the stereotype of folk art tradition and Welsh culture specifically. In the same way her dresser installations put a modernist slant on the traditional.

Jennifer Collier uses old envelopes, photographs, sticky tape and stamps to create her reminiscence dresses and memento wellies. By incorporating layers of dried fruit she makes reference to Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s first book (1985), an innovative tale of personal self-discovery and revelation, which in turn referenced Nell Gwynn’s personal motto. The book makes numerous allusions to oranges; when the young protagonist, Jeanette, is taken to hospital oranges are brought as gifts rather than any outward display of affection from her mother, a driven Christian evangelical. The child makes igloos out of the peel, which are cast aside by her nurse. The peel is always a bit of a nuisance, what to do with it? It is an integral part of the fruit and yet it is tough, a rind. Oranges come to be connected with her mother at the beginning of the book they are “the only fruit”. Later, there is a beautiful narrative about a secret walled garden with an orange tree in the centre. The fruit of this tree provides the answers to everyone’s questions, it is nourishing, a nurturing fruit. Tasting the fruit however opens up other questions and so, having discovered what you were, you must leave to find out what you are, never to return by the same route. By the end of the book Jeanette has grown up and realises that everything changes, including ourselves, even her own mother, for whom oranges are no longer the only fruit. It is never possible to go back.  There is a transience in Jennifer Collier’s work, the pieces are ethereal, fairy-like, the organza dress conjures up images of princess tents, the fruit trapped in the translucent layers reminds me of life coming to fruition.

Su Blackwell’s work is handmade. There is something of delicate beauty at work here. It is evocative of dreamtime and puts into visual form some very transient ideas. An empty child’s dress transforms into hundreds of butterflies. The work is fragile, precious. There is a desire to utilise non-art materials; she uses what is to hand. There is an obsessive, repetitive action at work, transforming the everyday into the fantastical. She transforms old books into three-dimensional theatres, and her reconstruction offers up to the viewer many questions. We can no longer physically read the book, so in that way it is made redundant; and yet on another level it has taken on a new life and is telling a different story. There is a rich European tradition of storytelling. In the early 1800s Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published Grimm’s Fairy Tales; a collection of folk stories, and Hans Anderson wrote 135 Fairy Tales between 1835 and his death in 1875. In many of these so-called “Fairy Stories” there is a darker side, far removed from the Wonderful World of Disney.

Carys Anne Hughes explores the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the grizzly gruesomeness of childhood – it is not always spangles and skipping and rainbow drops, this is the where the nursery meets road kill. For all their linen and lace and references to samplers, these are disturbing pieces, imperfect. Whatever has happened to the fluffy little creatures? The narrative is dark, “something strange in the woodshed” territory.

As in all good stories these artists and makers have created a sense of wonder in their work; we are taken on a journey with a beginning a middle and an end, and in each we find an engaging teller who can weave strands together to spin a good yarn. I hope you enjoy their stories, and live happily ever after.

The End

© Steffan Jones-Hughes 2006
published by Oriel Davies, Newtown, Powys

Folk Art and Fairy Tales
210 x 160cm. 64 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 978 1 870797 15 9
Published by Oriel Davies Gallery. Price: £8


4 Responses to “Folk Art and Fairy Tales”

  1. Any chance here of a link directly to where the book may be purchased?

    • 2 steffanjoneshughes

      Oriel Davies toured Folk Art and Fairy Tales to eight venues throughout England and Wales, including Durham, Stroud, East Anglia, Bracknell, Rhyl, Scunthorpe, Nottinghamshire and Birmingham

      direct to purchase copies.

  2. 3 lara

    hello, on briefly reading this I really like what you are saying and relate to it all. Moonins are a safe haven, as are the hobbits in these troubled times…
    however I am wondering how it is I am ‘tagged’ into this article ? I was doing a google search and somehow my name came up in relation to this ??
    do we know an artist in common ? thanks.

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