The un-Disneyfication of Rapunzel

I recently watched Tangled, the latest offering from Disney based on the fairytale Rapunzel. It unexpectedly proved to be a very thought-provoking experience, not only inspiring reflections on the evolving relationship between modern mainstream culture, fairytales and folk culture, but also inspiring a new creative project.

I’ll start with the aspect of the film that I had the biggest issues with – the Rapunzel character (see image below). With her exaggerated Barbie figure and sassy, sexualised posturing, she encapsulated everything that is wrong with the sparkly pink princess that so many young girls seem to want to be these days. I have no doubt that the endless rails of plasticky girls’ princess dresses for sale in Tescos recently were directly inspired by this very film’s protagonist. Her long tresses were also a huge disappointment to me, contrasting with the mental image I had built up through the pen and ink illustrations in my childhood fairytale books – Rapunzel’s hair seemed so synthetic, uniform and lifeless in its golden, but so very un-magical hue. And her face…those enlarged, faun-like eyes, that endless expanse of flawless facial skin moving so deftly from one expression into the next, but seeming more like a rubber mask caked in matte emulsion paint than the fresh, peachy skin of a young woman. Rapunzel’s face, alas, featured the aesthetic perfection but unsettling human deadness that features in so many current animations, described in the digital arts world as the uncanny valley (I’ve written more about this in another post here).

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Onto the prince. I was instantly surprised by how the representation of the prince characters in Disney films has changed since I was a child – this  guy was pretty approachable, laid back, not that intelligent and a bit of a clumsy idiot really – which constrasts starkly with my memory of the silent, enigmatic, deadly hansome and incredibly intimidating princes in classic Disney films like Snow White. It seems that today’s Disney prince has become a slightly foolish, low status joker whilst the princess has been elevated to the status of an impossibly perfect, multi-talented golden Barbie girl. I wonder why that is, and what Joseph Campbell would have made of it?

What I did like was the modern day relationship that developed between Rapunzel and the prince. In the Disney films of my childhood, I seem to remember hardly any words being exchanged between the prince and princess – they experienced earth-shattering true love in one glance, sealed their union with an equally earth-shattering kiss, got married and lived happily ever after, without ever really getting to know each other. In this version, Rapunzel and the prince developed a low key friendship, hung out together and got on each others’ nerves a bit before eventually becoming romantically entangled, which is surely a healthier representation of love for our modern day youth?

But early on in the film, something separate from the narrative began to grab my attention, and refuse to let go.
What I really want to talk about is Rapunzel’s tower.

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In total contrast to the high-gloss, hyper-real but rather dead characters playing out their story in the foreground was Rapunzel’s tower – an unexpected vision of sheer beauty, whispering influences of European folk arts traditions and eccentric venacular architecture. And the exterior view of this enchanted, wonky creation was just the beginning.

The interior of Rapunzel’s tower I can only describe as a folkloric haven. How had Disney done it? It seemed to me a truly magical, otherworldly and ancient space, bringing to life so many aspects of folk arts, folk crafts and folk architecture which inspire me.

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In contrast to the smooth, flat and unconvincingly characters of the film, this tower seemed ancient, and real. My senses stirred, and willed my imagination to enter this fantastical space. The cracks on the huge timber beams, the shadows falling onto the tiles and picking out the ridges and details of wooden doorframes, pillars and cubby holes – this place felt alive, like a place I had been to before.

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Disney was baffling me right now. How could it have produced a visual setting so deeply ingrained in tradition, and place, and so rich in the subtle elements of texture, light and shadow which were so lacking in the actual characters of the film? And the unexpected references to folk culture continued to appear – during a fairly dull musical number, there was a brief shot of Rapunzel wearing a sort of fabric mask which surely referenced Slavic pagan carnival traditions…

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Yet another nod to non-mainstream folk culture came in the form of Rapunzel’s favourite past time. In the film, Rapunzel was shown to spend her free time avidly and obsessively painting the interior walls of her tower with heavily folk art- inspired imagery including birds, stars and trees, looking very similar to Tree of Life motifs found in world folk art traditions. One particular panel, however, hidden behind a heavy velvet curtain, bore striking resemblance to Van Gogh’s Starry Night –  – putting all of these cultural clues together, might one assume that Disney was portraying this Rapunzel to be a reclusive, tortured visionary – one of the first true outsider artists..?

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I came away from Tangled feeling simultaneously inspired and confused. I was excited and totally surprised by the many folk culture references in Rapunzel’s extraordinary tower, but they contrasted so starkly with many other elements in the film. Pondering on the cultural mishmash I had just witnessed, I began to feel the urge to distill what I had found authentic and beautiful in the film by putting it through some sort of creative filtration process

The process of which I speak is one that I carry out regularly, without thought, as I am sure many others do too. I use this process when, for example, I buy an item of clothing second hand, from a charity shop, when it was once available to buy first hand from a high street fashion outlet. When I first buy the item in the charity shop, it has already gone through the first stage of this filtration process: the de-fashioning stage. Removed from the high street shop, it no longer holds power as a fashionable and currently desirable item, one which would look good with other similarly on trend items. When hung in a charity shop amongst other diverse second hand clothes, the fashion context is removed, and the item becomes something that can only be assessed via straightforward means: shape, fit, material, colour, etc. I then buy the item, and quite often amend it at home with my sewing machine, thus bestowing new layers of meaning upon it. In this way, an item which was once a (possibly throwaway) fashion item can become a treasured, personal item – this is a process of extracting old meanings, and adding new ones to something – it is a reinvention. And it gives me great satisfaction.

So I’ve decided to take on Disney’s Tangled in a similar way: to extract from the film those aspects which I feel contain beauty and meaning, and reinvent them in a new form. My process started by taking still images from the film, some of which are in this blog post. And I’ve begun to work with these still images to create a series of new artworks, taking the imagery away from the world of digital animation and back towards the domain of pen and ink illustration! The first of my outcomes is the print Rapunzel Paints (below), a collage and watercolour illustration based on a still image of Rapunzel suspended in mid-air by her hair, rather like a trapeze silk artist, in order to paint the walls of her tower.

Rapunzel Paints - 804kb with signatureRapunzel Paints, illustration print, for sale at:
https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/ManyManyMoons

Oh – for your interest, here is the film still that the print is based on…

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I’m going to continue with this extremely fun process of translating Disney’s digital ‘neo-archaic’ imagery back into more archaic formats – paper, watercolour, ink etc – but what I’m most looking forward to is the final, ultimate act of Un-Disneyfication. I hope for this mini-project to culminate in the creation of a moving panorama box – which will use imagery of Tangled’s beautiful Rapunzel tower tocreate a hand-illustrated, animated sequence using early cinema techniques which Disney has long since strayed from – rods, handles and a scroll of illustrated paper in a box.

Stay tuned.

♠ ♠ ♠ Many Many Moons, April 2014 ♠ ♠ ♠

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The Chapel of Dreams, and the Prince who built it

Nearly a decade ago I spent a year living in Guildford, Surrey.  I lived in a drafty bedsit, warmed by a wood burning stove that my boyfriend at the time had illegally installed in the living room, its chimney pipe coming out of an MDF panel replacing a window pane, with firesmoke diverted from the gutter via an upturned frying pan. Most days, a stubbly-headed old lady would sit on the wall outside, screaming at passers by – she sounded frightening, but up close, her words could be deciphered as being wistful, and sometimes kind. The city of Guildford itself turned out to be a picturesque cobbled hill lined with high end chain stores selling everything a yummy mummy would want to wear, or put in her kitchen. Fortunately I left this cultural vacuum daily to go and study for an Art Foundation Diploma at a nearby college – but this, too, had its setbacks. My tutor was a conceptual artist and treated my passion for traditional crafts with mild hostility (his star student was a guy who filled a folder with plastic pockets of jam and Tippex.) Going back into education at the age of 25 to finally pursue a creative career path, my confidence was taking a battering – perhaps there really was no place for me and my embarrassingly earnest folk craft projects in the professional arts world after all. But this difficult creative year in a rather culturally-barren city was overshadowed by the discovery of an utterly astonishing place…

Outside of Guildford was a small village called Compton, home of the Watts Gallery. To be honest, I found the rooms of Victorian paintings slightly stuffy and dull – I was more excited by the and adjoining tea shop, with its fine collection of chipped teapots and crocheted tea cosies. One day I went for a walk in the nearby cemetary and, absent-mindedly, wandered into the little bricked chapel in the centre, because the door was unlocked. It was small and dark inside, but I saw a switch on the wall, so I pressed it. Theatrical lights came on from above and below, suddenly illuminating this domed room.

I was knocked sideways. I stood in a grotto of exotic colour, shape and detail. It was exquisite and staggering. I could have been in a temple in Rajhasthan or Tibet, or a gold-encrusted cave. There were symbols, patterns and words all around me, from the floor to the domed ceiling – all hand-carved, flowing and swirling in rich, deep colours. I could see images and phrases which certainly looked Christian, but this place was celebrating so much more than that. Woven into incredible Celtic designs and patterns were endless symbols of nature – trees, vines, leaves – and the glowing colours and perfect symmetry of this place brought to mind the shrines and religious art of Hinduism and Buddhism, not Christianity. This incredible place seemed to transcend religion, to use religion as an excuse to celebrate other things – beauty, pattern, the natural world, the hand-crafted.

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6178474126_400f13c3b8_ocompton-maze-1-aEntering that space was a life-shaping experience, and one which gave me the inspiration and strength to carry on revering folk arts, crafts and the handmade during the rest of my Art Foundation Diploma, despite my tutor’s raised eyebrows and lack of enthusiasm. Maybe my fears had been correct – there was no place for me in the Fine Art world – but there did turn out to be a place for me on the UK’s only BA Puppetry degree, so the next year I took a huge step closer to the world of traditional craft practices which has now become my creative home.

*  *  *

Fast forward seven years, a photography book catches my eye. It is a collection of black and white, 19th Century portraits of the most bizarre and eccentric men. Men sporting every type of hat imaginable, wearing a variety of period costumes. Ruffled collars, turbans, velvety jackets with huge lapels, frilled shirts. And beards. Every type of beard and moustache conceivable. I loved the dreamy sincerity in their gazes – their devout belief in this archaic world of fancy dress make-believe. These were various creative types of the time, mostly painters, photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield in the late 1800’s, and subsequently referred to as The Princes of Victorian Bohemia.

Princes of Victorian BohemiaBack in the world of Many Many Moons I decided to celebrate these eccentrically-dressed, dreamy-eyed historical characters by turning them into toy theatre style puppet characters, hoping they would have approved of this format, as a gloriously decorative Victorian crafts tradition…

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It is only in researching the lives of these mysterious bohemian princes that I make a lovely discovery. One of my favourites of these portraits is of great big, hulking character with long nose, shadowy face and something of Pavarotti about him – George Frederick Watts. His outfit is wonderful – a kind of heavy apron, over a decorative, embroidered shirt which is itself a work of art. He looks like a menacing, but finely dressed blacksmith or butcher – and with amazing hands.

IMG_7818A delve into his history confirms that, indeed, Watts Gallery on the outskirts of Guildford was named after this very man, a painter and sculptor – and it was he, along with his wife Mary Watts, who designed and created the stunning Watts Chapel which I absent-mindedly walked into seven years ago. What a fine reason to immortalise this man in one of my own handmade creations – many many years ago it was he who inspired me to stay true to my creative impulses, in the way that he and his contemporaries did. George Frederick Watts, thank you – you are a true bohemian prince.

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♠ ♠ ♠ Many Many Moons, April 2014 ♠ ♠ ♠

 

 

Musings on the Handmade

It’s been a lovely week in the realm of Many Many Moons. I’ve been able to spend some quality hours in the studio at last, leading to the creation of an item whose making gave me great pleasure. It feels like a long time since I engrossed myself in the making process, totally able to follow my own creative whims and interests. Although I really enjoy working with others as a facilitator, and I’ve come to see it as a healthy practice for one with reclusive hermit tendencies like me, there is no greater pleasure than the lone absorbtion in the act of creativity.

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Theatre of Symbols, paper theatre:
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/181713343/theatre-of-symbols-paper-theatre-toy?ref=shop_home_active_1

I suppose it’s exactly what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was referring to when he coined the term Flow: a state of optimum happiness, concentration, awareness, challenge and fulfillment – and one that we as a society should strive to create in our professional work, schooling and other everyday settings.

Anyway, productive time in the studio leads to ongoing reflection on the issue of pricing. How do you measure this work in financial terms? The £160 price label I gave my newly-completed Theatre of Symbols is one which I initially struggled with – who will afford that? Why do I keep putting so much work into things and making them so damn expensive! In a clinical sense, you can calculate the hours’ work that you put into an item – in this case, including sculpting, papier macheing, drawing, painting with watercolours, varnishing, photographing and writing the Etsy shop entry that would easily equal two days’ work. But how many of those hours was I really in Csikszentmihalyi‘s flow state? Some of those hours felt stagnant, frustrated, indecisive…and I am not sure that they should count. But it’s the hours spent in the flow state, when time flew by happily and I was completely immersed in what I was doing, and the radio 4 documentary I happened to be listening to, which produced something meaningful. Coming out of those periods I would suddenly look at what I had created with fresh eyes, and feel overwhelmed with a glowing sense of pleasure and pride. Yes – it’s that feeling, translated into physical form, which I think gives an item its true value.

It’s all put into perspective when I think about the things I would spend money on myself. When my finances give me permission to do so, for example, I know that I will relish spending £210 on the Conker cowboy boots that I’ve been in love with for over a year. £210 seems a reasonable price to pay for a pair of shoes which I find so aesthetically pleasing, and which I know have been made, by hand, by local people (in the handmade haven that is the town of Totnes) with high values to craftsmanship and quality materials.

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Cowboy fringed boots by Conker Shoes in Totnes, Devon

I end this post with a beautiful little three minute film by Deep Green Sea: The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca, which for me encapsulates these thoughts,  and celebrates the act of transferring hours of time, craft and love into a handmade object.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/43005056″>The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/deepgreensea”>Deep Green Sea</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

♠ ♠ ♠ Many Many Moons, March 2014 ♠ ♠ ♠

The Many Many Moons Guide to…Moving Panoramas

The Unicorn Returns

The Unicorn Returns, moving panorama box

As I write, my first moving panorama is for sale in my Etsy shop. But with more of them to be added to the shop as the year progresses, it’s time I introduce you to the story behind this unusual folk art form which has so enamoured and entranced me in the four years or so since I first discovered it.

To start with, some clarification on the name. Although I call them moving panoramas, as is the preferred historical term, the devices are generally referred to as crankies in the USA, where they are currently undergoing a cultural revival (more on this US revival later).

Quite simply, a moving panorama is moving picture – rather like television, except that the picture is a good old fashioned painting, drawing, collage, tapestry…an actual image or artwork on paper, fabric or another material. The picture’s two ‘ends’ are fixed to rods, which are mounted within some kind of casing with handles at the top, so that turning a handle causes the image to be ‘spooled’ from one rod back to the other, creating a picture which quite literally moves before your eyes. It is the most basic form of animation there is, and it points to the earliest origins of cinema.

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Moving panoramas started out as a form of entertainment in Europe and the USA, with audiences enjoying panorama spectacles often based on geographical explorations, such as John Banvard’s epic, panorama-based journey along the Mississippi River. Delving back into history reveals that moving images had just as much power to seduct and influence in those days as they do in today’s advertising-driven age, with panoramas often spreading propaganda-tinged messages encouraging, for example, early American settlers to be fearless in taking residency on land inhabited by Native American indians. The panoramas were often enormous in scale, with the painting measuring several kilometres in length and matching the height of today’s average cinema screen. Above is an illustration of the sophisticated Trans-siberian Railroad panorama (1900), which simultaneously combined four different moving painted panels. By the mid 1800’s, moving panoramas were one of the most popular forms of touring visual entertainment, whilst also permeating the realm of children’s toys (see images below) and that of theatre, where huge moving backdrops became the standard accompaniment to stage performances.

Moving Panorama, 1866

The Myriopticon

The moving panorama is one of many arcane, folk art picture animation techniques which have been swept under the carpet in the advent of our ever-advancing digital technology age, but thanks to a small but growing number of creatives and performance makers, it is re-entering visual arts culture. In the USA, there is now a wonderfully buzzing alternative theatre scene based around crankies (the commonly-used US term for moving panoramas within this new revival), toy theatre (or paper theatre) and other lo-fi visual storytelling forms. This revival is largely due to the creative force that is Peter Schumann, director of the  Bread and Puppet Theatre, an exuberant German who has spent over fifty years reinventing folk theatre forms such as puppetry, pageantry and cantastoria (the tradition of oral storytelling with pictures) and introducing them to countless others through his anti-establishment theatre company in Vermont, where I was fortunate enough to spend a month in 2009. It was through the Bread and Puppet Theatre that I became acquainted with the wonderful Great Small Works, a Brooklyn-based political theatre company specialising in provocative toy theatre and  crankie performances. For the second summer in a row I crossed the Atlantic to intern at their wonderful International Toy Theatre Festival, meeting other inspiring lo-fi picture animation artists, and recording my experience here.

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Trudi Cohen and John Bell of Great Small Works

Since my inspiring experiences across the Atlantic, I remain enchanted by the simple magic of the moving panorama and it features oft in my work. I used a moving panorama to illustrate the journey of a boy from his forest home to a distant kingdom in my toy theatre performance, The Weeping Tree (see image below).

The Weeping Tree scrolling panorama box

My farewell gift from Great Small Works was one which had a momentous creative influence on me – a moving panorama within a recycled cassette box! I have gone on to make several of them – below is my first, made as a gift to Martin Shaw of the School of Myth in Devon, to thank him for a year long initiation into myth and storytelling through his residential, woodsmoke-filled Dartmoor weekends.

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And a cassette box moving panorama came with me to a dear friend’s wedding in Italy, featuring archaic Finnish poetry and woodland animals to celebrate the fact that the married couple first met in the forests of Finland! (see below)

Finnish Wedding Crankie

I often use moving panoramas in my work as a facilitator, as they provide a creative tool accessible to all ages and abilities, and one which can be crafted cheaply from everyday reclaimed materials. Below is an image from an adult workshop which took place in a cosy cafe in Belsize, North London, in 2010.

Moving Panorama workshop

If you wish to delve further into the fascinating world of moving panoramas you may be interested in Illustrations in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles, a new book by Erkki Huhtamo. Also, Sue Truman’s website, The Crankie Factory, provides a brilliant guide to historical and contemporary moving panorama creations. I leave you with a crankie performance by Anna and Elizabethtwo Appalacian folk musicians from Virginia, USA, who integrate stunning, hand-crafted moving panoramas into their performances. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading, I would love to know any thoughts you have about what you have read. Check for newly-crafted moving panorama boxes settling themselves onto the shelves of the Many Many Moons shop in the coming months of spring.

♠ ♠ ♠  Many Many Moons, January 2014.  ♠ ♠ ♠

The Cottingley Girls and their Music

Cottingley Fairy photograph

The legendary Victorian photographs of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ are filled with mystery. If the photographs were a hoax, what can explain the genuine look of serene contentment on the girl’s face? Why is her hand so out of proportion with the rest of her? The photographs certainly caught the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who was inspired to write an impassioned article about the significance of the photos, pleading that: The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life.” (More details here)

Cottingley Girls Glove Puppets

Whether the fairies and elfish creatures captured in these photographs existed or not, the Cottingley Fairies photographs will always hold a certain mystique and leave many questions unanswered. It is this mystique that inspired my Cottingley Girl glove puppets – puppets being capapable of sharing the same, strange inner serenity that I see in the faces of the girls in the Cottingley photographs. When puppets are brought to life, they communicate from the most mysterious and little known aspects of their human manipulator, the sides of that person which might normally be obscured – they inhabit a world of dreams and magical potency.

Amongst the other inspirations for these puppets, music plays a major part. So I would like to introduce you to the Cottingley Girls Cloudcast on Mixcloud – a lovingly-made mixtape bringing together various sparkly, velvety and shadowy songs, spanning 60’s folk to psychedelia to electronica, which help to tell the story of the Cottingley Girl puppets.

Cottingley Girls tracklisting:

1. At the Top of Bear Hill – Quinta
2. Love in Ice Crystals – The Sallyangie
3. Ferris – Rio en Medio
4. Frosti – Bjork
5. K-Hole – Cocorosie
6. Beatrix – Cocteau Twins
7. Tahiti – Bat for Lashes
8. Hilli – Amiina
9. Here Before – Vashti Bunyan
10. Flowery Noontide – Espers
11. Parallelograms – Lynda Perhacs
12. Rachel’s Song – Vangelis
13. Annabelle Lee – Marissa Nadler

Let me know which stories these songs conjure up for you…