The clocks have just gone back (forward?) so although it isn’t, I’m going to say Happy New Year, as my first post of 2017. Hello followers, new and old.
Probably just after I had completed my Wildcat piece last year, certainly my most popular piece going by Instagram, I was already full of an idea for this year’s project. Partly because of my introduction to ONCA gallery in Brighton, their work and interest in my Ritual Burial’s pieces, spurred me on to make more conservationist themed work. You may have read my blog post for them, for Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2016, and in writing that piece, certainly it made me look at the meaning of last year’s work in a slightly different way. I researched the ‘status’ of each native British species featured in that project, to discover all but two were either extinct in this country, or threatened.
Aesthetically, and technically, I was also ready for something new. The materials I use have often inspired my work, and I was really keen to use more embellishment rather than focus so much on Stumpwork, which was thoroughly explored last year. Gold and metal thread work, beads, sequins, and a general mixture of all these was something I really wanted to play with.
The idea for my 2017 project came to me as it usually does fully formed in my mind, at least visually. The photographs by Paul Koudounaris of martyrs and saints in Catholic churches, adorned and decorated with gold and jewels were a big inspiration, and I have always liked a skull or two in my work. But the idea of this: of martyrs, persecuted in their lifetime for their beliefs or actions, now revered and regaled in death, with more symbolic value than literal (even if it’s just a toe bone that’s left) made me think how we treat animals, specifically extinct ones.
When you google ‘extinct species’ you get loads of ‘top ten’ style lists, with mini-paragraph length eulogies and sad face emojis. There are thousands and thousands of species mankind have eliminated from the face of the planet, but the same ‘heroes’ come up again and again: Thylacine, Barbary Lion, and maybe the most famous of all, the Dodo. These are the poster children of the extinct hall of fame. Species that evolved over millennia, wiped out in the briefest expression of humanity’s ignorance.
So, like those martyrs, persecuted in their lifetimes, I am interested in completing that cycle, and illuminating them as saints. These ‘Extinct Icons’ are the figureheads of the epidemic of mass extinction in our modern age.
The first in this series: Saint Sultan.
The Barbary lion was considered one of the biggest lion subspecies. They had dark, long-haired manes that extended over the shoulder and down to the belly. It is said that they developed the colours and size of their manes due to ambient temperatures, their nutrition, and their level of testosterone.
The last known wild Barbary lion was shot in the Moroccan part of the Atlas Mountains in 1942. These lions used to be offered to royal families of Morocco and Ethiopia and were known as the “royal” lions. It is said that some of these “royal” lions survived until the late 1960’s, until a respiratory disease just about wiped them all out.
Sultan was the name of a Barbary lion kept at London zoo, in 1896.
I left this one last because I couldn’t for the life of me find a good image of a skeletal owl face on. In the end I made a sort of collage out of different pics and traced it. Otherwise I was really excited to make the plants in this one. Turns out there was some nice synchronicity with leaving it until then end which I hadn’t really thought about.
First I made these.
Can you tell what it is yet?
And then there were two.
Those are MOONSTONE berries by the way. So nice. I’ve been hanging on to them all year for this.
Also I am obsessed with Mistletoe. Probably my favourite plant.
I needed just the right kind of beads for this. Another big botanical hero of mine.
I ummed and ahhed about the best way to make this but in the end simple was best.
Ahh. So. Satisfying.
C R O N E / / C I R C L E
Owl has long been associated with the Crone, that aspect of the goddess in pagan culture that represents wisdom and death, before rebirth. In Welsh tradition, Owl is one of the Oldest Animals, the original guides of Earth. Like the Hermit in the tarot, Owl watches and waits, favouring the night. She symbolises esoteric wisdom and secrecy.
In Gaelic the name for the barn owl translates to “white old woman of the night” and its call was a call for the soul, an omen someone would die. Although originally the bird of wisdom, as the Church grew to power, so Owl became known as only ill-omened. It became a common saying that the owl was a transformation of one of the servants of the ten kings of Hell.
Owl stands on the threshold of the Otherworld, her true message is that death is the great initiator, and that we may recognise that our death marks the beginning and not the end.Mistletoe is the plant most sacred to the Druids. Strongly associated with fertility, and a reminder of benevolence, even today. However mistletoe has a darker aspect; all parts of the plant are toxic and can cause epileptic seizures in overdose.
Almost exclusively used around the winter solstice, it is shown here with moonstone berries, representative of the dark ‘night’ of the year and the eternal regeneration of the moon, like the triple goddess.
The yew is a natural emblem of everlasting life. Its capacity for great age spanning thousands of years, and it’s apparent ability to regenerate, living from dead trunks, enriched its symbolic value. The early Irish regarded it as one of the most ancient beings on earth and In Irish mythology, the yew is one of the five sacred trees brought from the Otherworld. Like mistletoe which heals by poisoning, so too are all parts of yew toxic.
Finally the Norse rune Gebo represents the exchange between human and divine, and the silver pentacle, long associated with witchcraft, symbolising the 5 elements and 5 human senses.
Despite being a worldwide character in folklore, there’s not that much plant lore associated with Fox, except the obvious Foxglove. I have avoided making a foxglove for a long time.
With a bit of diligent research, Holly seemed an appropriate partner. I will explain.
Thanks you, my nails are fabulous.
Bought some new bits for this one. Didn’t want to do two velvets for the leaves so tried out 21st Century Yarn’s space dyed cotton for the holly leaves and this lovely chartreuse velvet for the foxglove leaves.
FYI Holly leaves were supremely tricky to make convincing shapes out of wire.
It’s another game of spot the fake berries (hint: they all are).
Isn’t that just festive.
Next for something completely different.
Now to my nemesis.
Honestly this was probably the trickiest thing I’ve ever done and it isn’t even stitched down yet. Trying to figure what shape made the little cones sounds easy (sort of semi circle right?) but I was trimming these bastards for ages.
As you can see there’s some french knots going on and other little flourishes to make them more foxglovey. I still felt a bit meh about them. I still do about the piece generally to be honest.
\ \ K N O W I N G / /
In all traditional or pagan cultures, there exists Fox mythology. Although it varies over the world, the prevailing character of the fox is adaptability and duality: a survivor. In Japan there are two kinds of foxes depicted in folklore. The cunning, shape-shifting witch-animal trickster, and the intelligent long lived bringer of good fortune with magical abilities.
Fox is graceful and wise, knowing when to be silent and when to reveal herself. The word cunning, meaning sly and crafty, and the word kenning meaning to know or to see, come from the same Old English root. So although Fox appears sly, in fact she is knowing and in possession of clear vision. Our ancestors recognised the fox’s quality as positive rather than negative, and prized him as sacred. Many Neolithic and iron age ritual burial sites contained Fox remains, along with Deer and Bear.
Fox is wildness and wilderness. Fox is nocturnal.
Like Wolf, Fox is also associated with transformation. Scavengers, they have the ability to turn what they have into what they need. It’s transformative properties also brings the symbolic fire. The Fox-fire, or ghost-fire is said to come from the magical pearl carried in its head. The rune Nauthiz represents this here, the ‘cosmic need-fire’, and the shadow self.
Foxglove has the power to heal or harm. Legend has it foxes wore the flowers on their paws to stay silent when raiding the chicken coop. Representing the duality of Fox, an old saying is “it can raise the dead or kill the living”.
Also associated with fire and protection (in this context, concealment) is holly. In Celtic mythology the Holly king rules winter, and in this composition you can see the bright foxglove thriving in spring and summer, and the dark holly winter – the Fox adapts and survives throughout.
It’s funny writing these blog posts after I’ve finished the series as I’m thinking back to how I felt starting each one and there was a certain amount of trepidation for each I think.
I had big plans for this one. I knew what plants I wanted to do and how to do them but could see it being a big-ish project.
First do the bones.
Longwinded but necessary foundations. Foundations is all.
I filled these with just pretty free flowing stitch.
Now on to something I’ve wanted to try for ages.
It’s not an octopus.
People went NUTS for this on Instagram. Most liked pic ever.
I lie, this was the most liked. I figured out how to do this just by looking at pictures of similar designs, and pictures of real thistles. Make a tassle, couch over the base of it, then embroider decorations over (I used a sort of crewel stitch here), then trim the ends and separate the strands.
Then I added the leaves and a few flourishes and there we have it. Scottish thistle.
I made a deal with myself that if I fill leaves with embroidery I can ‘cheat’ using velvet as the base of my detached slips on the next lot. I love this velvet so much.
Next, more fun.
These were quite tricky and I definitely didn’t make them perfectly. There are holes. But I still wished I had some real blackberries so I could play spot the glass ones and show off.
Back to this, add some thorns. You can see where this is going.
\ \ B O U N D A R I E S / /
All Cats are sacred to the goddess in druid tradition, but the most powerful connection is in the Scottish Wildcat, now only found in the highland wilderness.
Cat teaches us respect and caution. She will accept our affection only on her terms. Cat is proud, independent and capable of observing both this world and the next. As an animal clearly in contact with the spirit world, and an ideal ally for witches, fear of their powers have made them victims of persecution throughout history.
In this Ritual Burial we see Cat surrounded by brambles, and the prickly Scottish thistle representing strong boundaries. Blackberries gathered under the right moon were believed to give protection against evil runes. Like the Cat, these plants, both ancient, require respect and caution for safe handling. Finally, the rune Thurisaz is shown, itself depicting a thorny vine that provides defence against invaders, and symbolises protection and defence.
A couple of years ago there was a bit of a trend for Stag/Deer type stuff. Do you remember? I absolutely adore stag and deer and think they are truly magical. But whenever things get popular it does put me off a bit. Silly really. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this piece.
Have I told you that the outlines of these ghosts are glow in the dark? I haven’t figured out how to photograph them but it’ll be a nice treat for whoever ends up buying them.
Lot of instant gratification with this one. As soon as I cut the trees out of felt and tacked them down you could see the scene.
I was kind of amazed how much attention this pic got when I posted it on Instagram. Just that nice smooth satin stitch. I almost felt bad not leaving them like that.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Birch trees are the tree spirit’s gift to embroiderers. It’s just so easy to make them look great.
If you plough through my archives, or just go to my home page actually and scroll down a little bit you’ll see a miniature of this scene I made back in 2013, and I saw every reason to replicate the techniques I used then, albeit in cotton this time.
Imagine how hard and annoying it would be to attempt to embroider all the leaves another way. Also French knots are so fun. Also didn’t even have to change colours as my fave variegated perle cotton from 21st Century Yarns does the trick for me.
Canopy made, it was back to my metal thread work for a new moon.
And an imperfect silver chalice.
At this point I was going to add Hawthorn leaves and flowers stumpwork at the foot of the trees, but I was quite afraid I’d be gilding the lily, so left things well alone. It loses none of the symbolism, and makes for a short post. You’re welcome.
D I V I N E / M E S S E N G E R
According to Welsh tradition, the Stag is one of the 5 oldest animals in the world. A guide from the beginning of time that takes us deeper into the underworld. The Lord of the Animals, Stag is a divine messenger and can go between our world and others. Journeys with Stag are also about purification, represented by the gateway of birch trees, used for millennia to drive out impurities and provide guardianship. New beginnings are also represented by the new moon. Finally this ritual burial also contains a silver chalice, a magical cup representing offered and received knowledge. Both these silver motifs are also symbolic of the Goddess, to which the Stag is also wedded as the Horned God.