“Alice in Covidland”
How my artwork helps me through lockdown.
“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality” Cheshire Cat
The silver lining of the first lockdown was potentially the gift of time, which I was determined to make use of creatively. There were two projects I wanted to work on, a set design for a play at Printers Playhouse, “Wake up Alice” by Richard Vincent and secondly making enlargements from a new sketchbook where I had collated many “doodles” made over past 10 years. In a lightbulb moment I decided to blend the two projects into one and create a deck of cards.
Life became unexpectedly difficult with family illness and I slid down the rabbit hole into a world where “normal” was anything but. Potentially the care role I found myself in, spending most of my time away from home would scupper my creative plans.
At first I despaired, too distracted by the desperate situation my mum and brother were in, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. Working on my lap and at a small coffee table I started turning my doodles into designs. I worked on cheap paper, that I could just experiment on, so I could be bold.
She generally gave herself very good advice (though she seldom followed it)
Until recently I had dismissed my doodles as lightweight exercises that I did to help me concentrate in meetings etc. I’d kept the more elaborate ones as they intrigued me. When I collated them into a concertina sketch book and saw them together, I realised here was my own language, like hieroglyphs, to be explored and used consciously as reference.
Also in art speak jargon, I learned recently, these were not “just” doodles, (doodles you get told off for making a mess, not concentrating, etc.) but were “automatic drawings”. It is interesting how words can change the value of something, give weight and gravitas or trivialise. Also putting the doodles into a sketchbook gave them a different worth. It’s so important to recognise and appreciate who you are and the skills you have here and now.
“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there” Cheshire Cat
Would it work melding Alice and my doodles, yes and I became excited and energised. I had no concrete plan, apart from avoiding using red and black as the suit colours The process developed involved layering up paint and ink drawings, printing and stencilling, giving me freedom to explore, be bold. To make mistakes, which I glaze over with thin paint and redraw, embedded in the final piece, not necessarily seen but adding patina.
It’s important to keep the spontaneous and unconscious aspect of doodling, not be rigid in determining what the outcome would be before I started. The challenge was to emulate the looseness and quality of line from a small A6 biro drawing while enlarging to A2 size. Making sure I can use my whole arm when drawing, standing up, using a paint brush to draw all helped with the flow. Then the tighter pattern making and more accurate detailed drawings could be finessed into the images.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” Alice
Another challenge was to be original with the images, to pay homage to the original illustrator John Tenniel without copying and to avoid Disney references at all costs.
Circumstance took over and showed me the way. Due to both my brother and my mum having serious illnesses I spent a large proportion of lockdown with them in my childhood home. I found that “different person” in the quote was worth exploring and going back to yesterday informed today.
A key moment was after I had drawn an anime face, technically ok but felt flat and meaningless. I looked up and on the walls of mum’s home are family photos, including a beautiful photo of mum, in the exact pose I had just drawn. Why am I drawing made up faces when I have such a great resource in front of me? Family became the cast, from then on I knew this project had gone from being a set design concept to a personal journey.
Every day I took a rambling walk along the streets, where old school friends had lived and through alleys and the edgeland spaces by the Hogsmill river, where as children we spent all day playing. Many of these places not visited for over 40 years, taking photographs of architectural features, interesting plants etc. especially anything relating to the four suits in a pack of cards.
An intriguing by product of these walks was that I re-found the original places that for years I have been seeing in my recurring dream landscapes. I had many moments of “Ah, so that’s where that dream relates to.” Déjà vu in dreamland, a phenomenon that amused me a lot.
.“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle” Alice
Lockdown, family illness, isolation, being a carer, anxiety, all these led to the strange feeling of “losing sight of myself”. My usual reference points; activities, work, social life had all changed. This project gives me an outlet to express all this “down the rabbit hole experience” where things are sort of the same but so very not.
I am drawing together many strands of work I have done in the past, creating a visual diary, an auto biography in images, giving me an opportunity to look at myself and explore the puzzle of who I am then, now and will be?.
Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible
Where is the project up to? I have focussed my attentions on creating 13 A2 designs, they are drawn up to a preliminary stage, to start painting into. Reference material has been collated each, taking time for the notion of each card to meaningfully evolve, not wanting to rattle out empty symbolism and cliched references. This will not be a standard pack of cards, there’s the “ten shillings and sixpence” of clubs for starters, the Alice references will be there but not always blatant. Alice herself is not one person, she is my daughter aged 3, my mum aged 19, me at 10.
This project has resonated with family and friends. One has knitted me a dodo which led me to researching the Ashmolean Museum, they have a stuffed dodo that Lewis Carroll would have seen. I’ve added knitting into a design as this part of her lockdown and she was at the end of the phone so often giving me support.
Another fascinating friend talked about the power of cards, their potential like Tarot cards. Certainly there are depths of meaning in my designs, some intentions will be obvious as shared experience or knowledge, but also personal references only I will know. Hopefully the cards will speak to viewers in ways only they will know. That’s the wonder of art.
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