Swan Woman in the Brambles, the bronze that I exhibited at Raveningham in 2019, was a piece about coercion.
Though it sounds banal, I was moved to tears by a story in The Archers about a coerced woman, and I realised this was because it was partly my story. It was also a universal story that many people can relate to. Swan Woman is escaping. The brambles symbolise the controlling relationship she is escaping from, but also the almost physical sensation in her heart of being torn by thorns that she suffers as she breaks out.
I decided to make an installation for 2020 around Swan Woman – making two pieces that revealed what happened before and what happened after. Why had I chosen the image of a swan to start with? I don’t remember. It was a whooper swan, rather than the more common mute swan.I see them occasionally in the Blyth estuary and love their delicate shapes, but I forget why my coerced woman was turning into one.
Maybe it was just the idea of flight that appealed to me? I like to work with fairy tales and was inspired by the many versions of the story of Sleeping Beauty, which is where the brambles came in.
The “before” piece – Locked In – is the face of a young woman, whose skin bears the impression of bramble leaves. She appears to be asleep or dormant, and she lies trapped under thorny bramble stems. Sleeping Beauty is in her castle surrounded by an impenetrable bramble thicket, waiting till the time is right to wake herself up.
Originally sculpted in clay, I laid leaves on the surface, and made a silicone mould. I cast her in Jesmonite and painted her with acrylics to give the appearance of patinated bronze. The brambles were shaped into curves, dried and varnished. Making this piece was physically painful as the thorns remained sharp…
The “after” piece – Rebirth – is of a little figure flying skywards, left hand first, her other arm made of swan’s feathers. Brambles grow up the post the sculpture stands on, but Swan Woman has made good her escape. I made her in wax, and used real mute swan’s feathers, found in a reed bed. The mould was skillfully made by Jim Racine and cast in bronze by him and Stewart Anderson. Feathers are notoriously hard to cast and I had to do much tidying and restoration work before using a cold patina. The eyes were carnelian beads from jeweler Virginia Storey, set by Tim Hunkin.
As I was designing the piece, doing a series of drawings that started with the head of a swan (as if the woman had turned into a bird), and ending up with the figure of a swan-girl reaching up in the direction of flight, I realised the piece referred to the story my mother told me about my birth. I was born left hand first, as if I were swimming out of her womb. (I am left-handed.) Hence the title Rebirth.
There’s a reference here too to Grimm’s fairy tale ‘The Six Swans‘, in which a girl rescues her enchanted brothers from a spell that turned them into swans, by making them coats out of plants. She doesn’t have time to finish her littlest brother’s coat so it’s missing a sleeve, and for the rest of his life he has a swan’s wing in place of his arm.
I intended to show the original Swan Woman sculpture again, but it didn’t match the new pieces aesthetically and was too big. So what to put in its place? I tried and failed to make a smaller version, but I was retreading old ground and it felt contrived. I kept coming back to one of my favorite children’s books – The Lord of the Rushie River by Cicely Mary Barker – in which a child is taken away from her riverbank home to a city garret by her guardian and escapes back to the river, flying on the back of the swan she has befriended. It somehow avoids being sentimental and I have always liked the idea of flying on a bird’s back.
Coincidentally, I read in two different places (including Time Song by Julia Blackburn) about a Mesolithic burial in Denmark where a woman was buried with the body of her baby son resting on the wingtip of a whooper swan. Another powerfully touching but unwritten story.
Infant/Soul, is of a newborn child lying on a cradle of swan’s wing feathers, placed on an old piece of oak that slightly resembles the altar at Seahenge. The child looks as if he is made from bone or ivory – a ritual or magical object like an Inuit carving, or Netsuke. I wanted to give the impression of protection, comfort, warmth, and being carried away to a safer place. I think the piece is about death as well as birth, and about lost unborn children.
The three pieces are related to each other. They don’t show the progression I had originally planned, but this creative journey had a momentum and a direction of its own that I just had to follow.