Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Totem Series: Selkie & St John's Wort

Selkie is the first of two of Scotland's genius locii that I included in my Totem series, two mythical creatures tied to a particular location.  The legend of the Selkie isn't unique to Scotland, it's a Celitic myth so they're known about in Cornwall and Ireland.  Selkies are creatures that can shapeshift from human into seal form by putting on their furry cloaks.  There are similarities to the stories of Greek nymphs and their scrolls.  Selkies are usually female and if a man finds her sealcloak and stashes it where she can't find it she becomes land bound and belongs with him.  Nice.  My first introduction to the myth was as a child long before I came to Scotland in the form of a little book my mum bought me and I remained fascinated by the myth.  It is true, seals are curious beasties that stare back at us just as we stare at them and their curious unafraid gaze makes it seem possible that they are transformed humans.  They are liminal creatures, between land and water in a much more dualistic way than seals, they only really come on shore to pup.  As mythical creatures with their roots in the real world they stand between the border between legend and reality.  A misty day, a seal pup crying, that could be a child crying.  The selkie stands only just on the other side of that borderline.

One of the loveliest depictions of this myth is in Tomm Moore's achingly beautiful film Song of Sea, a boy has to save his selkie sister and bring the magic back to the land.  Irish music, fantastic animation, beautiful artwork, stunning storyline, it has it all.  My girl did a musical criticism piece on it and it stands up to intense analysis.

I liked the idea of my selkie being at rest, the irony is that she is wet but she's the one holding the umbrella.  Her feet are still tucked into her selkie coat which is rucked up at the back of her - yes, she's happily naked - and reading, a favourite retreat of mine.  It might also be that she's using the umbrella to keep the sun off herself.  Even in Scotland it does happen that the sun is strong enough to burn white skin better suited to very low levels of UV radiation.

The St John's Wort Hypericum perforatum is one of the best known herbal remedies for depression, so effective that if you are taking St John's Wort extract you should not take anti depressants.  It is also an excellent antiseptic, and a pretty small yellow flower believed in ancient times to resemble the sun and sunlight.  In folklore the name Hypericum implies that it scares away evil spirits which I suppose depression can be seen as, melancholia could be viewed as possession by a malevolent spirit.  The Greek etymology suggests icum means health so hyper or super health, again makes sense.  perforatum is more simple, just meaning perforated.  Because of the glands on them the leaves they appear perforated when held up against the light.  As for the name St John's Wort, well, apparently in medieval times it was believed that if you put a spring of the plant under your pillow on St John's eve St John himself would appear in your dreams to bless you and keep you safe from harm for the year ahead.  The wort suffix denotes a plant or herb that can be used for healing.  St John symbolised light and St John's eve is midsummer, following the Christian tradition of appropriating pre exisiting festivals.  My husband and I married on the closest Saturday to Midsummer's Eve  so it has special significance for us.  I am currently in remission from depression and GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) and St John's Wort was the first plant I chose when the idea for the Totem series began to form in my mind.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Totem Series: Axolotl and Ginkgo

A white axolotl
I have a favourite animal: the axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum (Mexican) or Ambystoma tigrinum (Tiger) .  Ambystoma comes from the Greek Amblys means 'blunt' and stoma means 'mouth'.  And axolotl comes from the Mexican for water monster.  Like me it's a bit wierd but very well adapted for it's environment.  The axolotl is a cave salamander also known as the Mexican Walking Fish.  Which is a bit wierd because an axolotl is not a fish it's an amphibian, but unlike most mature amphibians it hasn't developed fully and has kept it's gills and fins so unlike most amphibians it rarely comes out of its home in the cave lakes of Mexico.  And if it loses a limb can just regrow it.

I have an affection for salamanders in general, they are mythical
Fire salamander
animals with a lot of legends attached to them, most notably the fire salamander which is a real thing.  Most salamanders, like newts are a kind of muddy greenish brown colour for camoflage. Salamandra salamandra is clearly the archetypal salamander, the name simply means salamander twice.  It is toxic, the bright yellow and black colouring is a warning to predators.  It has rows of poison glands along its body that secrete neurotoxins.  If necessary, it can spray these at an attacker.

Then there's the mythical fire salamander.  Widely believed to have been born from fire it appears in mythology from across the world.  It appears in right through classical and medieval mythology, Pliny the elder and Aristotle both talk about it.  Small but mighty, a little fiery creature of great usefulness in making potions, toxic and magical.

The plant in this print is similarly wierd looking and extraordinary.  The ginkgo or Maidenhair tree (named after the Maidenhair fern) is another living fossil.  Ginkgo biloba is the last remaining survivor of a prehistoric genus of trees.  In terms of its medicinal uses it contains large amounts of flavinoids and terpinoids: antioxidants that protect the cells from damage.  It is resiliant, ancient and beloved of Buddhists.  Ginkgo comes from the Chinese gin means silver and kyo means apricot.  It is believed to clarify thinking by enhancing blood flow to the brain, but I just love its wierd shape and the fact that it is a Mezozoic survivor.  Biloba simply means bilobed, describing the divided leaf that bears no resemblance to any other present day decidious leaf.

My axolotl is a cryptoaxolotl, I exaggerated those beautiful frondy fins and gave it those native american eyes.  It is the print that has gone through the most alterations, it's always difficult to pay tribute to an animal and plant which mean so much to you.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Totem Series: Fox & Beech

Vulpes vulpes
Foxes are nocturnal creatures and I love them.  They are, pardon the pun, the underdog.  Villified by farmers for frenzied chicken killing and by urban dwellers for their noisy dustbin rustling and courtship they are superb survivors.  I think they are utterly beautiful brain and body, our red fox's latin name Vulpes vulpes just means extra foxy, it's as if they cannot be described any other way. This image is from the photograph Ice Fox by Henrik Lund,  Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2009 and encapsulates the bright intelligence of the animal, ears cocked, curious but unafraid.

Vulpes zerda
Teto and Princess Nausicaa
In the UK we live with the red fox and I love all foxes but have a very special place in my heart for the Fennec fox.  Living in the desert it comes out in the cooler night and uses those enormous ears to hunt for bugs and grubs.  Teto, the squirrel-fox like creature in one of my favourite studio Ghibil films: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind reminds me of a Fennec fox.  The name Fennec comes from the Arabic fanak meaning fox.  The latin name is Vulpes zerda, comes from the Greek xeros meaning dry hinting at their desert habitat.  By contrast, Teto is a forest creature.

My Fox & Beech Print
The second element of this print is the shallow rooted Beech Fagus sylvatica, another latin naming that shows that the tree is so iconic it is kind of named after itself.  Sylvatica means of the woods.  The beech is considered a native to the UK although it's thought that it only made it across Doggerland to the UK to Scotland during the Bronze age.  Always used extensively for the wood the beech nuts are used to treat respiratory problems.  I have summer asthma brought on by pollen so this chimed with me.  Also, I was raised in Cambridge and much of the Newmarket area of East Anglia was covered in beech trees that were brought down during the great 1987 storm, they are shallow rooted creatures.  One of my favourite places in the world is the beech wood Robert McFarlane (one of my favourite authors) starts out from in his book The Old Ways.  It is a wood I played in as a kid sitting on the chalk rise behind Cambridge at the start of an ancient road leading to the south Downs and coast.

Details on how to buy my happy curled up fox at

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Totem Series : Vampire Squid & Barnacles

Spellbound, last night, I watched the first of the BBCs Blue Planet II programmes, the BBC at its very very finest.  I never knew that dolphins surfed, that fish could change sex  or leap from the water to take birds out of the air.  Attenborough's child like joy in this most exquisite of habitats almost made me cry.

And this was just about the surface, so much to come, hope they'll be looking deep enough to find my most curious of beasties.  Something about the deep depths and mystery surrounding this creature speaks to something in me.  This close to Hallowe'en you have to have something spooky, and my second print from the Totem series is a living fossil that fits pretty well. 
Vampire Squid moving into defensive mode

Say hello to Vampyrotheusis Infernalis.  The name means literally vampire squid from hell, is an ancient squid deep red in colour that effectively turns itself inside out as a form of defense.  Beaks from similar creatures have been found in the fossilised belly of a Cretaceous plesiosaur.  It has the biggest eyes in relation to body size of any animal and has bioluminescent ends to its tentacles.
Vampire Squid From Hell & Barnacles

Barnacles are definately surface creatures, depending on the tide washing over them to provide the food they sift from seawater.  Their tenaciousness and jaggy nature made an ideal pairing in my mind with the vampire squid to represent that aspect of myself that is hidden from view, the subconscious that we perhaps fear but are also fascinated by.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Totem Series: Magpie & Belladonna

Pica Pica

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

The magpie is a member of the corvidae family and like it's cousins the crow, jackdaw, rook, raven and jay it is a curious highly intelligent bird.  Its latin name is pica pica, pica simply means pied. They have a reputation for stealing especially things that are shiny, and are considered uncanny creatures, associatiated with foretelling, luck and bad luck.

The magpie, in the guise of the Gazza Ladra, appears in one of my favourite Tintin books, The Castafiore Emerald, featuring the great combination of the irascible ex sea Captain Haddock who is so like my dad, and the unstoppable and formidable opera singer Bianca Castafiore.  The magpie is a great cheeky character too.

So, magpies are bright and curious to the point of getting themselves in trouble, pied in colouring and in character.  A lot like myself.  I had always felt an affinity for all corvidae. But the magpie as my totem animal stepped up when I was diagnosed with Aspergers last year.  The lovely lady who was doing my testing was speaking about why many girls with Aspergers are missed.  Boys with Aspergers tend to have fixations, intense interests.  An aspiegirl like me is just as intense but we have 'magpie minds', we move from one thing to another ceaselessly curious, driven to learn more, to absorb, to grow in knowledge.  And that's me.

Atropa Belladonna
Belladonna is one of the most famous of plants that are medicinal but can kill, hence its common British name Deadly Nightshade.  Atropa Belladonna treats pain and infection but its latin name speaks of its dual nature.  Belladonna means 'beautiful lady' and distilled drops were used by women to make themselves appear more attractive by dilating their pupils.  But Atropa is after Atropos, in Greek mythology the third of the Fates who cuts the thread of your life at your death.  The berries are bright and tempting, children usually have to be warned not to eat them, and the flowers are an eye catching combination of yellow centres and purple petals.  A beautiful plant with a deadly side.  Like the dual nature of humans.

Magpie & Belladonna
So, I drew lots of pictures of magpies and belladonna until I felt I had its essence in my head, and set about making it squarer and more like Native American totem.  The beak became turned to the side in thunderbird style and the belladonna flowers and berries fitted around it keeping the image square.  The eye is rendered in the style of Native American art while retaining the brighness of the corvid eye.

Limited edition (run of 25) prints of Magpie & Belladonna are available and you can find information about where they are for sale at the Carnoustie Driftwood Facebook page .

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Totem Series: Introduction

Last year I began to create a set of lino prints inspired by the totem pole I saw many times in the Cambridge  Arch and Anth.  museum.  It made a powerful impression, the pole was placed in the middle of an atrium and up on the balcony you found it still towering overhead.  I loved the stylised powerful animals stacked up like a kids toy, capped with the mighty thunderbird on top. There's a small piece on it here by Allegra Jaffe.

I had always loved the art of printmakers and after a steep learning curve when it came to carving lino I decided to create my own totem pole based on this kind of artwork, made from a series of blocks which would be the same size and could be printed into the pole in any order.  I was looking for animals that I considered to be my totems.  In Native American mythology your totem or spirit animal speaks to you at different times in your life depending on the guidance you need.  For myself I chose animals that spoke to a part of me.

I also included plants.  All had to be plants that kill or heal, that are medicinal in small doses and lethal in larger.  The creative is also the destructive.  Curiously I chose 9 animals along with the thunderbird.  At Legends of America, never read before today, 9 is the number of animals identified as a person's lifetime spirit animal companions. 

Monday, 23 October 2017

Carnoustie Driftwood

Since last year my husband has been creating beautiful objects from driftwood gathered from the strandlines of our stunning coastline and last year he created a site for it at  It has turned into a family venture.  For the past year I have been deepening my love affair with printmaking, resulting in a print series based around personal totems, post to follow.  We are lucky to have had the fabulous Lunan Bay Diner take on our work and next month will be selling our items at Muirfield's Christmas Fayre in Arbroath.  With the dreaded C work coming up I turned to making lino print cards, this is Scott hard at work assembling cards, envelopes, labels and cello bags to his usual high standard