I am currently co-curating and coordinating a project titled B-WING with artist Fiona Campbell. Contemporary art installations, poetry, performance and participatory workshops will take place within the walls of the de-commissioned, 400 hundred years old, Shepton Mallet prison as 6 artists and 2 writers respond to the ominous yet emotive, B-Wing. The idea for the project was motivated by the desire to bring contemporary art out of the traditional gallery space and into unusual, unexpected places.
As the months pass and the project unfolds, my initial response of foreboding when entering B-Wing, has transformed into a sense of endearment for the place. One Sunday afternoon spent alone in the space, void of the visiting public, I found myself entering an almost meditative state. This surprised me, as up to that point I had felt nervous about being alone in a place infamously known for its paranormal happenings. Walking each level in preparation for my ritual performance I did, indeed, feel the sensation of not being alone, but it came with no sense of there being anything to fear. In its decay of peeling paint, rusting metals and mould covered cells, the building was accepting of my presence.
My own artworks for the exhibition will be in the form of an installation titled, Skuggi (Shadow) situated inside three Cells (no.s 6, 7, 8) and a cleansing/healing ritual performance. Cell 8 has the reputation of being the most haunted cell in B-Wing, with many prisoners assigned to the cell reporting ghostly experiences. Inspired by the ancient language of Icelandic rune staves (blood magic), I will be spell casting with embroidery.
“Each spell is a creative attempt to undermine any kind of authority and revolutionise the conventional conceptions of society, in order for the individual to regain power over his own existence. Perhaps it is indeed by casting these spells that a cognoscente removes the shackles of society and finds his true natural place in the universe”
From the Sorcerer’s Screed – The Icelandic Book of Magic Spells
Eating, sleeping and working in the same space, brought fluidity to my days spent at the Mothership. I found myself drifting from one activity to another with ease, something that doesn’t seem to happen in my home studio. The work, I had originally intended to focus on for the seven days, did not take place. Instead, a new dreaming and ideas settled in, encouraging me to experiment in unfamiliar ways with familiar mediums.
Inspired by the wildness of the surrounding forest and a copy of singer/songwriter/performance artist, Kate Bush’s book ‘How to be Invisible’ (a birthday gift from my mother) I played with text, sound and digital filters. Many of Kate Bush’s lyrics reference witches and witchcraft. I focused on two songs, The Hounds of Love and Waking the Witch. Working with selected lyrics and presenting them in contrasting realities of the forest outside my window and the digital world. Instagram was used as a virtual gallery, mapping my journey throughout the residency.
I drove to the beach on a day when it did not stop raining. Setting up camp in my car, I ate takeaway chips while listening to Kate Bush songs on the cd player. Allowing tears to flow freely when they came and singing along when I wanted. Following the lyrics of songs word by word, marvelling at the nonsensical poetry of them.
Hem of Anorak
Stem of Wallflower
Hair of Doormat
Evenings, at the Mothership were spent listening to podcasts about mental health by Fearn Cotton, Russell Brand, Stephen Fry and Dawn French. This is something I rarely have the opportunity to do in my “ordinary” life. It was a reminder of how important self-care is, especially, with the physical, emotional and psychological conflicts that can arise when being an artist and a mother.
Elizabeth Clarke was the first woman in Britain to be persecuted by the Witchfinder General and was hanged in 1645. Janet Horne was the last person to be executed for witchcraft and was burned to death in 1727.
These two paper cuts were inspired by my research concerning the treatment of women accused of witchcraft in the Seventeenth Century Witch Trails and later the treatment of female patients in the Hospital of ‘St Mary of Bethlehem’ in London, which came to be known as ‘Bedlam’.
What is particularly poignant about these pieces is the strange movement of the women’s hair. In the book, ‘Witch – The Wild Ride From Wicked To Wicca’, author Candace Savage writes, “In the iconography of witchcraft, the strange forward movement of the hair had been used as a sign of the Devil’s unnatural powers. In 1811, the same symptom reappeared in a scientific text on hysteria”. The Elizabeth and Janet paper cuts come from illustrations found in a scientific paper at the ‘Bibliotheque Nationale de France’, of a female patient considered to be suffering from Hysteria.
Hysteria, was later disproved by Sigmund Freud who viewed the symptoms as a physical manifestation of the unconscious mind, including repressed desires. No wonder then, that the Seventeenth Century Witch Trails seemed to coincide with the rise of the Puritan faith as hundreds of women started showing signs of “Hysteria” or “Devil Possession” (according to the Puritans). In the Puritan faith, women were treated harshly and were viewed as instruments of Satan.
“All wickedness is but little
to the wickedness of a woman”.
Judge Pierre de Rosteguy, Sieur de Lancre was appointed by King Henry IV of France as Witchfinder General in 1608. He also had a mistrust of women believing them to be in league with Satan. His Lordship was particularly concerned about women’s hair. “The way it flowed across their shoulders and shimmered in the light, as violent as a sunburst in a stormy sky. The way it framed their eyes – such fascinating eyes – as dangerous in love,” he tells us, “as in witchcraft” (from Witch – by Candance Savage)
From being burned as witches to experimented on in Mental Health Institutions, women have surely suffered greatly at the hands of those, who pretty much, sent them insane in the first place!
In a conversation with local witch historian Andrew Pickering, I discovered that the woman named Julian Cox, whose story had inspired my paper cut and ceremonial candle wax piece ‘Hare Woman‘, was actually rumoured to haunt Nunny Castle in Somerset. With this knowledge, it seemed inevitable that my next project would be a ghost hunt!.
On a bitterly cold, but bright November afternoon, I drove to Nunny Castle accompanied by two young women, who had agreed to be my models for the project now called ‘Witch Ghost Hunt‘. On arriving at Nunny car park, we unloaded the ceremonial clothing, candles, sage and other witchcraft ritual items (and very warm coats) which we had packed into the boot of the car at the start of our journey.
On approaching, the Castle was bathed in the beautiful, golden light of the winter sun and was breathtaking. I had decided that rather than trying to contact the ghost of Julian Cox, I would ask the models to perform a “Cleansing” ritual. In witchcraft and shamanic traditions, this ritual releases spirits who are trapped in a particular place.
In addition to performing the Cleansing ritual, I asked the models to dress in clothes that may represent the witch spirits that might be found at Nunny Castle.
The real magic happened, as the glowing sun gave way to the evening darkness, and the last of the visitors left the Castle. There were a couple of unsettling moments as the models performed the ritual. Although, in separate towers of the castle, both young women heard a hiss close to their ear while cleansing the towers with the smoke of burning White Sage. One model remarked, “I think we have pissed off the witch ghost!“. The atmosphere was both eerie and mystical at the same time.
Witnessing, the two young women move around the Castle interior, performing the Cleansing ritual, I wondered about Julian Cox; the women who supposedly had been born in Nunny and was accused of and put to death for witchcraft. I felt a sadness for what she had been made to endure, along with many other innocent women and men, put to death during the European witch hunt hysteria.
My love of history and research led me hunting through the local history section at Frome Library this summer. I discovered a fascinating book by Andrew Pickering titled ‘The Devil’s Cloister’. Andrew Pickering is Programme Manager for Plymouth University BA (Hons) degree in History, Heritage and Archaeology delivered at Strode College in Street, Somerset. He is also the author of a number of books including ‘The Witches of Selwood Forest: Witchcraft and Demonism in the West of England’. I also found out, much to my delight, and bemusement that Andrew and I live in the same town and knew many people in common. So, it was not long before I was handed Andrew’s number and encouraged to call him.
Andrew Pickering is one of those people who makes you feel at ease within less than a minute of speaking with him. Before the end of our first telephone conversation, we had made plans to meet and Andrew suggested I may like to exhibit some of my work alongside the book launch of his new edition of ‘The Devil’s Cloister’ (formerly ‘The Hellish Knot’).
The “Witchy” book launch, as it was referred to by ‘What’s On Somerset‘ magazine, was hosted in early November by Fiona Runacre as part of ‘Made In Bruton’ which is situated in the ‘Ape and Eden’ shop owned by Andrew’s wife, Lisa Pickering. Andrew’s books and my witchcraft inspired paper cut silhouettes, complemented each other to create a beautiful display.
The main papercut was called ‘Hare Woman‘ which I was inspired to create from a number of detailed accounts from eye wittinesses in Andrew’s book (The Devil’s Cloister). ‘Hare Woman‘ is based on a local woman called Julian Cox, accused of being a witch who could shape shift into a hare. Little did I know when creating this piece that a conversation with Andrew would lead me to venture on a ghost hunt and my next project.
This year, I am taking part in the Open Studios as part of Somerset Art Weeks. My Venue (132) is my home studio. It is Day 8 and I have had a steady stream of visitors all offering positive feedback about my work. People particularly respond well to my large paper ‘Puritan Man Trying To Hang His Wife‘ and are enthusiastic about the historical references that inspire my work. It seems nearly everyone has a story to tell about the history of witchcraft connected to the area they live in.
Fellow Open Studio artist, Georgina Towler (Venue 43) gave some excellent advice at the beginning of the event to keep a notebook and write down any interesting information that comes your way. I am very grateful for her suggestion as I have collected many fascinating facts concerning the witch trials and witchcraft in Britain that I am sure will influence future artwork.