Wednesday, 20 August 2014


I read about mandrake years before I met one. It crops up in folklore as a plant possessed of great powers, warranting a desire to gather them despite also, apparently, possessing the ability to kill you with a piercing shriek. To avoid this fate, it was recommended that they be pulled, plant to root, from the earth by a dog. Sadly the dog would swiftly meet his maker but so long as the human properly blocked up their ears, death could be avoided. 

Here we see a 12th century illustration of the dog-harvesting tactic from the Harley Manuscript. The mandrake root is depicted as having human-form. This was common and a look at the root of mandrake plants quickly reveals why - they often have several limb-like sections which have an uncanny humanoid character. 

Unfortunately, lacking a dog (or even an unpopular acquaintance not well versed in folklore), my meeting with a mandrake did not become more intimate than a view of its leaves. I was lucky enough to be given a special introduction last year by a friend who works as a gardener in the Oxford Botanic gardens. I love the mandrake factoid on the name sign...

As I hope you can glimpse from my photos, the plant has extraordinary presence. It looks both lushly delicious and dripping with poison.
Plants of the Gods (Shultes, Hofmann and Ratsch, 1992) informs us that the scopolamine contained within the plant gives it active hallucinogenic properties. The authors link this, rightly or wrongly, to associations with witchcraft, especially so-called 'flying ointment' which was supposedly rubbed into the genitals. As fun as this sounds, I'm fairly confident it is not likely as historical fact (see Hutton and Letcher), but what the heck - I like the idea. 

This connection with witchcraft is evident in the Boscastle Witchcraft museum, where they have a case displaying both roots and artwork dedicated to the plant. 

It was here that my inspiration for a new painting formed, mainly out of a desire to have such an image in my own house.

So here is my mandrake, a female, looking rather gentle in her slumber within the earth, along with some mandrake folklore...

In the dark ages, it was believed that mandrake would grow under a gallows where the semen of a dying man fell, and it came to be known as 'gallows man' in German. 

It was said that the plant would hide during the day, but shine, star-like at night. 
The golden fruiting bodies are also called Apples of Love. In the bible (so Wikipedia tells me, my bible knowledge not being all that it could be), the plant is used to aid fertility. 

I have heard this elsewhere in books on folklore. It made this beautiful plant all the more special to me as, the day after I first met one in the deep green leaf-flesh, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Minka. The plant-meeting felt auspicious, and I hoped it was a good omen for my womb and it's little golden fruit. And so it was. 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Art and motherhood/ the art of motherhood

The other morning I woke up to a cold bedroom for the first time in weeks. Our temperature-sensitive night light was glowing blue instead of red, and as my little girl reached out to delicately grab me by the nose, I noticed her hands were slightly chilly against my skin. All these signs are the first heralds of autumn, which surprised me into realising that soon the season will change again. I listed to myself what I have achieved this year, artistically; a small, well-received prototype puppet, a couple of small drawings made for friends, a scattering of tiny, hurried sketches of my baby, an a4 drawing which, radically, includes painted colour. 
And that's it. 
This momentarily stirred a rush of restless frustration in me - I have a long list (I'm a list person) of simple and complex projects, all of which seem to positively radiate surliness at me when I read them over. 

Before I had a baby I respected, but couldn't really understand, why other mothers would describe how they had no time to do anything.
 'How hard can it be?', I thought, everyday hubris making me overconfident, 'I'm sure I'LL find a way.' 

I have quickly come to realise what nonsense that is, for two main reasons. 

Firstly, the practical. For the first 2 months of my daughters life she slept for hours. Hours. Sometime four or five hours in a day would pass with her blissfully sleeping. However, I spent that time asleep myself, having discovered that newborns, for whatever mysterious reason, have day and night around the wrong way. 
If I wasn't asleep I was staring slack-jawed in wonderment at the impossibility of this entirely new human being (where did you COME from?!). 
Or I was breastfeeding. I felt like I breastfed all day, all the time, all night, every waking moment. 

This all changed as she grew bigger of course. Her sleeping wonderfully improved, became nightmarishly awful, improved once more and now bounces between these two extremes. 

Secondly, there is the factor of her personality. When I now remember the things I imagined about having a baby, I failed to actually account for HER. I couldn't include in the person she is because I had no idea who she would be. For example, she's not the type of person you can ignore. For even ten minutes. She is (very) vocal about not being included in whatever is going on. 

Luckily for us both, I just love to play with her. I love adventuring with her over the moors or to the corner shop. We love spending ages looking at ourselves in the mirror and giggling. I love watching her sit and play contentedly (though she looks around at me periodically to check I am in attendance). 

It was during an especially silly moment, her sat laughing at me as I did a dance for her, that I realised I WAS making art. Right then and there. For my baby, my stupid cavorting was the best thing in the world at that moment. Everything we had done together all day had involved my attention, really listening and really looking, and responding creatively to each challenge my daughter threw my way. 
It's not a grand revelation, nor an original one, but mothering (parenting or being a guardian) IS art. 

That being said, taking care if someone else is tough, really, really tough, and the odd hour here or there spent drawing or making have become even more precious to me. The fact that art no longer feels like the most important thing in my life is also a blessing -rather than trying hard and fretting, I now feel like I am 'just' playing. I think I have my daughter to thank for that.