Last week I visited Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex.  The garden is still unfurling from winter.   The relative starkness allowed me to see the structure of things – abrupt protrusions of solitary flowers, endless variations of upward thrust followed by rapid or creeping submission to gravity.  Last year’s gunnera was an abject crepey mass with scrunches of new green leaf.  There were many varieties of hellebore and narcissi, fragile bells of the fritillaries and lovely grapey muscari.  I realised (re-realised) what great delight I get in just looking at form and structure in the natural world and the endless variations and mutations in each species.  My makings have so much of the leaf, petal, branch and pod in their appearance and yet I feel uncomfortable and a bit ashamed about their obvious organic-ess. It is something to do with associations with femininity, with immanence, with an absence of intellectual transformation, of distance. A friend likened a little hanging felt piece to a fushia and I felt myself recoiling.  Why?  They were my dad’s favourite flower, mine too as a little girl when they seemed utterly to belong to the world of fairies. Somehow shame has crept in.

The blog title is inspired by Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own.  I first encountered this nearly 20 years ago when I numbly walked into a library – wretched and bewildered as a long relationship went into meltdown.  A book was never really going to help but this title leapt out at me like a lifeline (the hope I took from the words echoed by the promise in its green Virago spine).  Milner wrote it under the pseudonym of Joanna Field in the 1930s.  Her project was to note in her journal at the end of each day what it was that had made her happy. It’s an amazing book – close attention revealing totally unexpected things.  My journey of learning to knowing what I like started at that period.

Over the years since leaving art college I have banished many of the old “shoulds” – I love textiles (craft – aaagh, even in spite of Grayson Perry), I trained as an art therapist, I read loads of books and words stimulate me as much as any visual art forms. But I find there are still some things that I feel awkward acknowledging.

So I want to take this year and pay close attention (without judgement), to all the things that inspire and make my making self.  It is a year of having a studio – I may not be able to afford it next year and the Hackney Wick redevelopers are poised to replace the messy creative encampments and studio spaces with dreary blandness.   I am not quite sure where this project will lead – when you write a book you get to do the introduction at the end and I don’t know what the end will be.   I like the idea that my project starts with a season in garden – from the nascence of early spring through seasons of abundance and decay.  Words never seem quite adequate but this is my diary blog for a year, of cultural things and the natural world and my own makings and perhaps other things.


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I have just re-red three early Margaret Atwood novels, triggered by a chance discovery in a charity shop of a green spine Virago Lady Oracle.  They fit my theme of transforming/multiple women.  In this novel Joan/Lady Orace/Louise K Delacourt was a fat adolescent – invisible. In adulthood she creates, under different identities – formulaic historical romances and acclaimed enigmatic poetry. She struggles to conceal her multiplicity and creativity from her absurdly rigid husband and fakes her own death – reborn as yet another, severed self.  In the ending of Louise Delacourt’s final romantic novel it is the anti-heroine (the already wife/sexually used and rapacious) whose subjectivity is central – she recognises that Rochester is Bluebeard. The trope of romantic fiction demands that she is killed off to make way for redeeming virgin but at least she recognises what is happening.  Jane Eyre will never seem the same again.

In The Edible Woman – Marion is trapped in a society which offers only unfulfilling roles.  There is a lovely scene early in the book when she slips down into the gap between side of the bed and the wall, wriggling down into the slut’s wool under the bed, hidden from the people around her.  The joy of being hidden!  After Marion gets engaged her body makes the protest her conscious mind cannot.  Gradually she finds that she can’t eat certain foods – and as the prohibitions proliferate she is threatened with starvation. Eventually she makes a great female cake doll, an effigy of herself, and serves it up to her stuffy fiancé.  He gets the message.  She eats the woman cake.  Interesting that the middle section – where she is engaged and slowly starving – is written in the third person.  The beginning and end are written in the first person – Marion as her own subject.

In Surfacing – the unnamed heroine returns to the wilderness home of her childhood after her recluse father is reported missing.  She brings trails of city civilization and a cultural femininity she doesn’t fit into – these are embodied in her current boyfriend and another couple.  The man denigrates and sexualises, the woman’s soul is trapped in her compact mirror (Atwood’s metaphor). Her boyfriend is less compromised, he is hulking and hairy, a man of silence and big hands (reliable but not sensitive) that rip holes in the ceramic pots he creates.  Useless vessels, ugly objects – cultural artefact severed from use and survival. It has that recurrent theme in Atwood – the girl brought up outside of society and bullied by her female peers. (Cat’s Eye territory).  Knowing how to survive in a practical sense but unable to play to win the game of femininity.

As in The Edible Woman there is a separation between mind and body and a dramatic re-connecting ritual.  “She” is numb, an unreliable narrator, head severed from body (images of amputation abound) who can’t come to terms with a traumatic past. After an encounter with the body of her drowned father and she becomes hyperaware of the old gods of the place.  She sleeps with Joe and believes she is pregnant.  She withdraws, hides (hiding again) in the woods where the others leave her.  Her parental boon is the knowledge of how to survive there. There is an instinctive sense of what is permitted – tools and cultivated foods are rejected. She defaces books, shreds clothes and sleeps in a fragile burrow.  She is abject, naked, unhoused but reborn.  As in The Edible Woman this is ritual, a temporary state before she returns to a compromise with society.

This relates back to the Joan Barfoot novel but much more extreme – the heroine of Surfacing rejects any sort of making (except for a most rudimentary shelter).  Her isolation is a portal not a way of life – she re-surfaces, transformed.

There is much about the conflict between being an artist and being a woman in all these books.  I have started reading about fairy tale motifs in Atwood.  Bluebeard abounds (Fitcher’s Bird, Robber Bridegroom) – and images of amputation (Maiden without Hands).

For years one of my sets of recurring word beads has been from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – “the light which showing the way forbade it”.  The idea of simultaneously perceiving a truth and rejecting it resonates.  Think of Freud’s hysterical women – converting forbidden desires into bodily symptoms.  I am reminded of another timely charity shop find – Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure “about” language and spontaneity; mapping the way that adolescent girls often lose authenticity as a speaking subject.  Gilligan’s idea of a barrier coming down and severing language from an inner knowledge about how one feels and what one sees seems to fit with the character’s experiences I have been reading in  Atwood – her girls are baffled and bullied in adolescence.  Their authentic self is out of kilter with constructed femininity, the secret the other girls share.

Gilligan refers to Antonio Damasio’s book The Feeling of What Happens and the potential for conflict between core self (awareness of changing emotional responses) and autobiographical self (a more rigid story about who we are). Atwood’s heroines are in flux, able to be multiple, in contrast to their male partners who are inflexible self narratives. It is interesting that in Lady Oracle and The Edible Woman both heroines have fleeting affairs with effeminate unreliable men which allow them to shed the dull husks of partners who drain and prohibit their core selves.

Relating this to the visual arts I think of Ana Mendieta’s women concealed in nature or revealed in absence.  Or – those strange photographs of Francesca Woodman.  Self portraits of partial presence.


“In the destructive element immerse” – that is one of the quotations heading a chapter of “A Life of One’s Own”.  It comes from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim which I haven’t read.  It resonates.  Milner also quotes often from Robinson Crusoe which links with the self sufficiency experiment in Joan Barfoot’s novel.  I read Robinson Crusoe last year – I really loved the early chapters where he is alone and learning from experience to build (and re-build) his home, cultivate his food and create necessary tools and utensils.

It is odd to see my work feature in Rodney’s blog, to see how his writing picks up on the collisions between my interests and his. I have been part of an artist/art therapist peer group for the last six months and last time it was my turn to present some work.  I took along some small dolls that I have been making without really knowing yet why. It is good to feel that I can go along and be uncertain and vulnerable.

My dolls are hand sewn and often heavy with sand.  I have been thinking about aggression and destruction.  Sand is so heavy it limits the size I can work to without bursting the fabric skin.

I mostly work in fabric and it ends up very clean.  When I hand sew I often prick my finger and suddenly I notice drips of blood on the fabric that I feverishly mop away.  I feel I need to find a place for mess and error and for it all to come right in spite of this or because of it. If I don’t allow it into the work it seems to attack from outside when I discard stuff before it has been finished orseen by anyone else.   There was something I read by Hanna Segal about having to believe that when you “spoil” a sheet of paper with the first mark, you have to have enough trust that you can make it all right (make reparation) with the subsequent marks.  The image is the remains of a doll that I put in the fire – she is char cloth.  I have a few more in process.

I have also been thinking about alchemy.  I attended a Jungian fairy tale reading group for a couple of years so have been aware of the metaphors of alchemy to represent stages in Individuation.  I find the archetypal figures of hermaphrodite, king, and queen, divine child and all the vessels and processes weird and tantalizing.  But I don’t want to illustrate them.  I am just holding them in mind as potential doll figures.

I have started to make a little booklet which collects quotes and images of dolls and transitional objects that I have saved over the years.  Some are my dolls and some are dolls in literature or made by other artists.  It is a work in progress.  The transitional object (half alive, half dead, half me, half not me) also relates to aggression/destruction. It has to survive attacks of love and hate.


I am very reluctant to do this now – seems almost impossible to funnel all the ideas and proto-thoughts into coherent sentences.  I doubt my ability to make sense.  I can blithely churn out morning pages but with the idea that somebody might read this a a malevolent genie of self consciousness is censoring every thought.

I am reading a novel about a woman who abandons her family and home for a life of solitude and self sufficiency in the country.

Abra lives in a home without clocks or mirrors which she decorates in a happily bodged way and gradually moves into an instinctual life, in tune with the seasons and without words.  She cultivates enough land to feed herself but doesn’t strive for mastery above and beyond survival.


Joan Barfoot, (1978) Gaining Ground