Wonderland – The Arrival of Gaia

Gaia's Spell‘Gaia’s Spell’
The Arrival of Gaia‘The Arrival Of Gaia’

Gaia's Promise“Gaia’s Promise’

‘This should have been such a glorious happy diary entry for me to write, as I have been waiting for the release of these pictures for over 20 months. They mark a point in the series I have yearned to reach and finally share for so long, that it has felt like a mountain peak forever in the distance, constantly out of reach with some days it just being impossibly far away. Back in April 2011 I completely underestimated how much work I had ahead of me in order to finish the Wonderland series, and at the time I decided to shoot these pictures out of my planned sequence, so I wouldn’t have to wait a further 12 months for the yellow rape seed to flower.

It would be fair to say I have never been so wrong in my life about how long it would take me to reach this point. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be almost two years until I finally made them public, and I cannot express enough how grateful I am to my wonderful model Marianna for being so incredibly patient and understanding. It was a ridiculous amount of time to wait, but equally I was in an impossible situation, as all the pictures have a specific order, and these simply had to wait their turn. So for months as I have inched towards this goal, ticking off my completion of each new picture. I have romanticised about all the things I was going to do when I reached this point. How I was going to stop working all weekend, learn to cook, and generally be kinder to myself and not work so hard …. all because I will finally be on the home stretch to finishing the series. ……… BUT
But to be truthful today is not glorious, and to be honest I’ve been crying for hours. It sounds so stupid and I wonder if I should even admit it, but I’ve always been brutally honest in this diary so why stop now. The truth is two days ago I lost someone so precious to me it hurts to even type these words. I say ‘someone’ because I refuse to call him a pet, and I can already imagine a few of you are rolling your eyes right now, but It’s how I feel and so it’s what I write.

You see after I lost my mother I adopted a truly magical little boy called Georgie, who was a stray from the cat shelter. He saved me from completely falling apart, and became my lucky little talisman throughout all the years I have worked on Wonderland. Many of you will recognise him from the behind the scenes photos, as he was constantly lying on the costumes and props, and has been my constant throughout everything. He lay next to me at night while I edited and kept me company while I painted my props in the garden during the summers that have passed. He was only 6, and on Saturday he became critically ill, and after hours of fighting for him at the vets I lost him. I guess I wanted to write this because this diary entry wont be the usual huge explanation of my working process, and reasoning behind the pictures. I’m just too sad. Typically He is in a quite a few of my behind the scenes photos and sitting here right now looking at them I just feel numb

So please forgive me as I go into a slightly robotic account of how these pictures came to be. I’m tired and my eyes hurt, and I just want to finally get these pictures out and into the open for you to enjoy, and for me to feel I’ve reached my little mountain top. I love the pictures and I am so proud of them. Second to The Queen’s Armada these are the biggest undertaking I have ever attempted, and the first time I have had so many assistants and such a huge responsibility to get what I needed in a short space of time. I also want to add that I will share finished costume pictures of the dress and headdress in my next diary entry, as you will be seeing this character again in further scenes after these.

Ok …… this is how it all came to be….

Part 1 ‘The making’
The other really sad part about this diary entry is that after spending two days searching all my hard drives and back-ups I cannot find all the photos I took of us making the giant yellow boat, or all the stages of me making the enormous headdress. I think my brain is just frazzled right now and I may stumble on them in the future. So I have some behind the scenes pictures, but nothing that truly shows the enormous amount of work and mess we made creating the boat in particular.

 Mark Dawkins, chief ship builder extraordinaire !!

 I am however relieved I have this one photo of my friend Mark, who saved me when it came to making the boat. Without him, everything would have been a disaster, and I am so grateful to him for all his help. We’d known each other for a good few years but Mark had never helped me with Wonderland before, and I think we both had so much fun creating this piece it will remain a happy time for both of us. Sometimes stepping out of real life to make something ridiculous can be the best medicine, and I think Mark felt exactly the same as me about this prop. Escaping to your childhood and building a giant yellow ship in your back garden can be a tonic like no other, and even now writing this, despite how sad I am, there is a smile creeping across my lips because I have such fondness for the week we spent preparing for the shoot.

 The boat started life as a rotting old fibreglass rowing boat that had been abandoned in a fishing lake near my house. So after getting permission to take it away from the fishing club, we brought it home and cleaned it out in my garden. It absolutely stank and was in terrible condition.  The first stage was for my husband Matt and Mark to build a wooden frame inside the boat to stabilize it and allow us to construct the masts. The entire outside of the boat – all the plank details, and front bow are actually made from painted cardboard! I had a wonderful assistant Hannah Coates who came and basically lived with me for the week before the shoot, and the pair of us spent the week painting endless cardboard planks, while Mark bolted them onto the boat. The effect was so convincing we were all ecstatic with the results! At the end of the week two more assistants joined us and Adam Richardson made the crows nest (which he was very proud of) and Rosie Hardwick helped me and Hannah frantically make the sails. Finally Steven Read and Phoebe Cheong joined us on the day of the shoot as well.

The second biggest undertaking for the shoot was THE DRESS. I had always wanted to bring back The Lavender Princess’s dress into the series as a familiar signature of my work, but this time I wanted to make it even bigger. When I designed the original lavender dress it had been partly made by myself and a factory who are very special friends of mine in China called Affirm Heart. I had worked with Affirm Heart for a decade as a fashion designer, and they are like family to me. They have always been so excited and supportive of Wonderland over the years, that when I asked them if they would help me re-create the original dress in bright yellow and make it in super-size proportions they agreed immediately. So here is the how it all came together. The dress is made from silk georgette, took almost a month to make, and involved 20 workers. It was an epic undertaking, and was so big the model had to stand on a table for the shoot, with an enormous hooped under cage to hold out the shape.


The dress panels being cut from the silk

The dress involved hundreds of curved silk frills , that had to be individually cut, sewn, turned inside out, pressed and then mounted onto the dress base.

As you can see the dress was so huge the makers had to stand on the factory tables to steam it !

 spot cleaning the cloth

The amazing pattern cutters and chief makers of the dress standing next to their finished master piece :) At this point it is still hard to tell just how huge the skirt is without the undercage.

This rubbish phone picture helps give an idea of the scale. I took this picture when the dress arrived the day before the shoot. It was so big, I could only get the skirt part on the dummy before it touched the ground.

 The night before the shoot we had a manic few hours where we realised the under skirt still wasn’t big enough for the dress. So I had to pull together every single last bit of net and tutu underskirts I had in the house to build more padding. Elbie took this photo of me just after midnight standing on a table trying to see if we had made the shape big enough!

Finally the other huge costume piece I made was the amazing headdress. The headdress took me 2 months to make and was so much work I can’t even begin to explain it. This is where I am sad I’m missing so many of the construction photos, because it really was an epic piece of work. What I will say, is that you will see it photographed properly in my next blog entry, and that there is another Wonderland picture coming later with it, so you will see more detail eventually. I made the entire design myself apart from the crocheted flowers and hearts. The wonderful lady who made them is called Nora Taylor, and I found her randomly through eBay of all places. She lives in a tiny little village on the Scottish borders looking after her husband and has been crocheting for over 54 years !!  I asked her if she wanted to make me A LOT of crocheted pieces and she did an amazing job. She also crocheted a scull cap, which I wove yellow painted plaits of hair through to create the base of the headdress.


Nora crocheting the flowers

So here’s the picture I was dreading looking at. My precious little boy Georgie, being naughty as always lying on my base for the headdress. God I miss him :(

Headdress finished stage 1 (basically all the crocheted pieces, plaster base, and woven metal shape covered in knit pieces)

The headdress was an epic undertaking. I basically made it up as I went along, although I knew I wanted to create a kind of ‘Inca Sun Goddess’ look. It is created from the most utterly bizarre elements. The base is plaster with a metal scull cap set inside it for strength. The main fan shape is woven metal mesh covered in pieces of jumpers I bought from ebay, hand dyed yellow and stitched together. The front construction is from a giant wooden Chinese fan with the fabric ripped away, and then of course topped off with Nora’s amazing flowers and hearts.

After I had reached the first stage, I spent weeks hand beading and painting vintage pieces of decoration to add detail to the design. I cut hundreds of hand dyed petals from silk flowers and added them to the crocheted flowers. I customised old Victorian cape fastening details, tassels, wax flower centers …… honestly it was just a bit mad how much time I spent on it, but the results were utterly bonkers and really worth it.

Finished Headdress.  – as I explained earlier there will be better pictures of this coming soon !

Finally, just to add to all the sillyness, I needed to make a model boat. I actually made it in 2010 when I first began planning this shoot. I bought a kit from the internet for a child aged 7-9 …. it came with no instructions and took me two solid days to make, to my complete embarrassment and frustration ! I then painted it, and decorated it with old Indian jewellery that I enameled yellow to match. (Mike Cluffe if you are reading this… this is THE BOAT I told you about about over 2 years ago!)

I can barely look at the damn thing it was so frustrating to make !

So that was my quick tour of ‘The Making’ ……. Now here is Part II -The behind the scenes of the shoot

The location was just incredible, and one I really had to fight for. It is one of the biggest rape seed fields in the south of England, which has won awards for its crop. The farmer understandably took some persuading, and wouldn’t let me shoot the boat on the actual crop which had been my original plan. But actually all things happen for a reason, and because of this I discovered an amazing old tree in a corner of one of the fields.  The curve of the crop and the framing of the trees branches made a far more romantic English setting in the end, and the distant rise of the fields and the little lollipop trees just don’t look like a real place. Thats why I love this shot of Adam standing in the location before everything was set up… it was magical before we even arrived :)

Like I have always said …. sometimes you just need to remember nature is extraordinary, and that is why all my locations are real, and worth waiting a year for the field to bloom.  Looking at this now I just wish I could be back there and feel the sun on my face,  and know that Georgie was alive and well, waiting for me at home.

So this is us setting up the scene. The boat suddenly looked so small once it was in the huge field and out of my back garden! We had to hire a truck to get it to the location and there were 9 of us on the shoot – the most people I have ever used.

I’m so proud of the boat, I cant believe how good it looked on the day. On the way to the shoot we passed a load of wild yellow flowers hanging from the trees by the side of the road, so we stopped and cut some to decorate the side of the boat. Here’s Phoebe and Hannah helping to get them in to position.

The weather became quite windy in the end which was perfect to add some drama to the sails.

As I often show in this blog, I think one of my most vital pieces of kit is a step ladder ! I rarely take a photo from human height, I think its to do with seeing the scenes as paintings – experiencing them as I imagine them, like huge dramatic dreams. Not from a small point of view if that makes any sense at all. You will also see from these pictures that I added the clouds to the final finished image. I am always clear about how I produce my pictures and this is one of the few shots in Wonderland where I had to composite an element in. I wanted more drama for the picture as it was all about Gaia casting a spell and I needed the heavens to look like they were somehow involved. So The day after the shoot the skies had big dramatic clouds, and I went back to the location on my own to get the perfect sky from the right perspective.

Love this picture of Adam and Marianna, the scale between them is so funny :) this was Adam trying to light the smoke bomb attached to the ship

After we had completed the biggest shot involving the boat, Marianna and I walked deep into the flowers for her picture ‘The Promise’

Another feature I often try to create with my work is make solid back grounds of pure colour . For the headdress scene I was getting too much sky behind the model, so we hung the yellow flowers we had decorated the boat with from a pole behind the model to fill in the gaps. It worked beautifully…. but was pretty boring for the people holding the pole. This picture of Eblie falling asleep says it all really ! After we shot this scene I shot ‘The Arrival of Gaia’ which was such a beautiful set up. I think Marianna was pretty exhausted by then, so the pose of her resting back against the tree in the low afternoon sun was so peaceful, it was a really natural and a lovely picture to take after all the chaos. The huge rushes of fabric are completely real and not manipulated in any way, it happened by chance just as we were about to pack up. One of my assistants lifted the cloth trail to pull it away from the tree and the motion with the wind transformed the entire mood. So we re-shot with everyone pulling the fabric in the air and the results were wonderful.

Finally after the tree scene,  I took this photo of Marianna just as the sun was getting lower in the sky at around 5pm before we left the location. The colour was so intense it looks utterly magical.

So that was the behind the scenes, all there is left now is to tell you a little bit about how these pictures came to be part of the story, and what they stand for. I feel sad I can’t throw myself into my usual mode of telling the story from the heart. but I’ll do my best, so as not to leave people with a whole load of questions, I hope you can understand x

With the arrival of Gaia, we are now entering the penultimate stages of Wonderland.  The name Gaia is taken from the ancient Greek goddess who was seen as the personification of Earth, – basically our modern day ‘Mother Nature’. For so long Wonderland has been in heavy emotional darkness, as we have moved through the swamps of The White Queen, the dark woods of King Gammelyn, the twisted tree roots of The Ghost Swift and The Queen’s Centurion, to pass under the Autumn trees at the start of Katie’s journey towards home. Underneath it  all there has been a turmoil, until Katie’s final awakening in ‘Let your heart be the map’.  The reason for the powerful light on Katie’s face, and the breeze in her hair was to link it to the moment she witnesses Gaia for the first time.  Gaia is her salvation, and the one who has come to take Katie (and us) home. She arrives in a blast of sunlight to lead Katie and the key onto the right path. As I always said the colour yellow was significant, because for me is has always meant home, both in the story of the Wizard Of OZ, but also in my real childhood growing up in the fields of Kent, where rape seed was always a part of the landscape. In these new scenes we are viewing Gaia through Katie’s eyes, as we move from her arrival to ‘The Promise’ and finally ‘The spell’.

You will notice that looking back over Wonderland from  the point of ‘An Ocean of Tales Until the Shores of Home’ most new characters can be seen clutching a galleon ship … in some cases it is tiny and hidden, and in others they appear larger and larger until they reach the size of ships belonging to the White Queen. These have all led to this point, and have been a precursor for “Gaia’s Promise”. Here we are brought deep into the flowers, where Gaia speaks of her promise to Katie, how she will help her to go home. The tiny boat in her hands grows under her spell, and in the last frame we are faced with the realisation of the life-size ship, ready to lead Katie on her final path to closing scenes

But for now this is all I can write ……  your imagination should be guided in the right direction, until the next scenes are ready to continue the story, and lead us all to the end of the series ………………….   And maybe if you have a moment, for the first time since I started the series I now feel I can look back over the entire project so far with a genuine satisfaction I have covered the goals I set out with. All the colours, all the seasons,  the good, the evil, the light and shade.


Finally (back to reality) I have a couple of things to mention. Firstly I have some amazing and unexpected news to announce. I have been nominated for 3 of the 2012 [Framed] Artists awards for Best Conceptual Photographer, Most Influential Photographer of the Year, and most importantly the ‘Big F Award’ for the Wonderland Series. All the nominees where voted for by the public and the photography industry, and to my complete shock I am in the final selections, along with some very special fellow photographer friends from around the world.  This means Wonderland could actually stand a chance of winning an award, which feels pretty extraordinary for me. So many of you have already voted on my facebook page, but if you are reading this now and would like to show your support by voting for me the link is here. I’m so grateful for everyones support, I never imagined to be one of the finalists, it honestly means the world to me xx

And……… finally I just had to post this little picture, its one of the first pictures I ever took of Georgie and will always be the one that I cherish the most. I had grown up with pets all my life, but had never experienced the connection I had with this magical little bear. It’s because of him I gave up meat and felt a far deeper understanding and connection with animals. We need to respect all forms of life and care for them to the best of our ability. This picture always felt so direct and real to me, like a there was true soul looking back at the lens. Through my time with him I learnt so much, and as a person I have changed. So these new pictures are dedicated to you my sweet little furball, thank you for saving me when I felt I couldn’t go on…. rest in peace dear friend x