Wonderland – The Arrival of Gaia
‘The Arrival Of Gaia’
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, one so impossibly far away it seemed to move with every step I took towards it. Back in April 2011 I completely underestimated how much work I had ahead of me in order to finish the Wonderland series. At the time I decided to shoot these pictures out of sequence, so I wouldn’t have to wait a further 12 months for the yellow rapeseed to flower. It would be fair to say that never in my wildest dreams did I ever 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 unbelievably patient. 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, slowly ticking off the completion of each new picture. I had even 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 thought I would finally be on the home stretch to finishing the series….
However 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 will 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 always lying on the costumes and props and has been my constant throughout everything. He lay next to me at night while I edited the pictures and kept me company in the garden when I painted my props during the summers that have passed. On Saturday he became critically ill with a rare blood disease and after hours of fighting for his life at the vets we lost him, he was only 6. I guess I wanted to write this because this diary entry wont be the usual lyrical description 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 looking at them right now 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.
So this is how it all came to be….
Part 1 ‘The making’
Mark Dawkins, chief ship builder extraordinaire !!
The frustrating 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 have some behind the scenes pictures, but nothing that truly shows the enormous amount of work and mess we went through in my back-garden ‘workshop’. 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 into 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.
Our galleon started life as an old fibre glass rowing boat that had been abandoned in a fishing lake near my house. After getting permission to take it away from the fishing club, we brought it home and cleaned it out in my garden. It was absolutely filthy and in a 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 worked with me for the entire week before the shoot, and the pair of us spent our days painting endless cardboard planks, while Mark bolted them onto the boat. The effect was so convincing we were all ecstatic with the results and in the final days two more assistants joined us and Adam made the crows nest, whilst Rosie helped me and Hannah frantically sew the sails.
The second biggest undertaking for the shoot was the dress. I had always wanted to bring back the silhouette of 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 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 over a decade as a designer, and they are like family to me. They have always been so excited and supportive of Wonderland, that when I asked if they could help me re-create the original dress in super-size proportions they agreed immediately. It was made entirely from silk and took 20 workers almost a month to make. It was an epic undertaking, and was so big that during the shoot the model had to stand on a table wearing 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.
Finally, the other huge costume piece was the headdress. It took me 2 months to make and was so much work I can’t even begin to explain. I made the entire design myself apart from the crocheted flowers and hearts who were made by a kind lady called Nora Taylor who has been crocheting for over 54 years. I commissioned her to make all the flowers as well as the scull cap, which I then wove yellow painted plaits of hair through to create the base. It was an epic undertaking which constantly evolved, becoming more and more elaborate as I went along. I was inspired by statues of Inca Sun Goddesses, and wanted to create an extraordinary piece that would would symbolise the arrival of summer. I even went as far as to make the tiny model boat by hand and then decorated it with old Indian jewelry that I enameled yellow to match the props and costume.
Nora crocheting the flowers
Headdress stage 1
The location was one I really had to fight for as the farmer understandably took a great deal of persuading. I wasn’t allowed to shoot the boat in the actual flowers which had been my original plan, but because of this I ended up discovering an ancient oak tree in the corner of one of the fields which made a far more romantic English setting instead. Looking back at the finished photos it is hard to believe this place was real. I had waited a year for the flowers to bloom and witnessing its colour radiate in the sunlight that day, topped off with its distant lollipop trees, reminded me again why I work the way I do. Nature will always be the greatest gift, and trying to document all these precious moments in our seasons has made me look at the world with fresh eyes. I was reduced to a child again and knew that thanks to my camera I would always remember how it felt to stand there in that sea of yellow under a warm sapphire sky.
Once our boat had arrived on site, it was lowered from the truck with the help of 6 assistants. I will admit it was a little unnerving to see how small it suddenly looked against the huge field. In my garden it had truly felt like a galleon, whereas now it felt more like a giant’s toy. We set about attaching the mast and sails and I laid great wreaths of wild yellow flowers over the sides and around its ropes. I was so proud of how it finally looked, considering it had cost almost nothing to create, it looked utterly magical. Just as we finished the decorations, a breeze picked up from the east filling the limp sails and blew soft cotton clouds over the horizon – for once the weather was on our side and everything looked the best I could have possibly hoped for.
So we began, our model Marianna was dressed and positioned high on her table in her impossible length dress, whilst Adam lit the smoke bomb wired to her tiny model ship. I climbed my step ladder and started taking the first picture ‘Gaia’s Spell’ whilst marveling the whole time at how completely surreal this scene had become. It’s a funny quirk, but I have recently become inseparable from my step ladder and I now rarely shoot from human height. I think it is because I often imagine these scenes like grandiose paintings, so I want to experience them in the same way I dream of them at night, with sweeping camera angles and wide open views – something human height rarely seems to achieve.
Following on from that point I then walked Marianna deep into the flowers to shoot ‘Gaia’s Promise’. It was a relief to be quiet together in an intimate space. I hung further bundles of flowers from a bar held behind her head to block out the sky with as many flowers as possible, creating a wall of gold. We sat together cocooned in colour, as the tall stems gently swayed in the afternoon sun. It was calm and warm exactly as I had intended this moment to be when I imagined Gaia would to whisper her promise to Katie, that a change was coming and she would one day find home again.
The last scene was ‘The Arrival of Gaia’ which was a relief for everyone after all the staged moments of the afternoon. Marianna was positioned resting her back against the tree in the low afternoon sun and it was all was so peaceful. The huge rushes of fabric are completely real and not manipulated in any way, it happened just as we were packing up and one of the cloth trails was caught in the wind. It transformed the entire mood within seconds and so I spent a further 15 minutes shooting whilst everyone threw the fabric up in the air with great whoops and cheers.
So that was our day. I feel so clumsy ending this entry with a blurted out explanation of what the pictures mean, but tonight I just cant find the right words and I hope you can forgive me. As you know for so long Wonderland has been in a 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 finally pass under the Autumn trees of ‘The Journey Home’ to be faced with Katie’s awakening in ‘Let Your Heart be the Map’. The sudden bright light on her face and the breeze in her hair was to link to the moment she witnesses ‘The Arrival of Gaia’ for the first time. Gaia is the name given to the Greek mother earth, and is a character that will bring change to the entire story, she is guidance and comfort to Katie but also a power to be reckoned with. Like the trails of symbolic red in the previous scenes, Gaia arrives wrapped in yellow a colour that for me has always meant home – both in the story of the Wizard of OZ, but also in my real life childhood growing up in the fields of Kent.
It is now that I will end by explaining I will be gone for some time. My updates will continue, but Wonderland is about to enter its last stage and I have some very big plans. To be honest I have no idea how I am going to achieve what is in my head, but I have to try and I’m prepared to push myself to this final goal post one way or another. I need to retreat, make costumes, build sets and I honestly don’t know how long it will all take. So see this a pause, a last breath, and I hope I will be back with the closing scenes before Autumn is over.