Developing New Dolls - and a Whole Host of Questions

Although the Bizarrium already includes a set of paper dolls featuring the characters of the circus itself, I have for some time been contemplating another group - this time focussing on women both famous and infamous.  I am thinking of a basic body for each set, with outfits for six or eight icons within each theme.

The first group is just underway, with this body:

Still work-in-progress (the face is yet to be finished, down-scaled and attached to the neck), and I am wondering whether I should have added underwear? Your thoughts?

This collection will be of historical icons :

  • Joan of Arc
  • Boudicca
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Elizabeth I
  • Empress Theodora

To this end, I have been adding to my inspiration book filled with Heroines collages

A first draft of Boudicca, just to check that the costume fits:

So the next question arises: traditional paper doll with costumes attached via little tabs, or should I experiment with magnetic papers?  If I can make it work, I rather like the notion of a little tin containing a magnetic set.

It may have struck you that these are all very white, western figures - a necessity if I am to use the same basic body.  So my second list is of heroines of colour:

  • Cleopatra
  • Josephine Baker
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Billie Holliday
  • Marie Laveau
  • Amina of Zaria
  • Queen Idia

To my mind, this is just balancing the books - recognising that not all significant women have had pale skin.  But I do fear that it may be perceived as "cultural appropriation".  Again, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thirdly, there are the Bad Girls:

  • Elizabeth Bathory
  • Lucrezia Borgia
  • Alice Kyteler
  • Anne Bonny
  • Mata Hari
  • Bettie Page
  • Lizzie Borden

I do have a couple more groups in my notebook, but it is early days...

Do let me know your thoughts on underwear, whether it is alright to portray non-white icons, whether paper or magnets are the way to go...and of course, who you feel I need to add to the cast.


03.20.2018 | 1 Comment | in: dolls, inspiration, paper doll

More Theatre: Spanish Heat and Russian Revolution.

With no apology, I am returning to the subject of Carmen 1808, the musical version of Bizet's classic opera for which I recently designed costumes.For the first time, my work has been featured in one of those modern "EPK" things - an Electronic Press Kit!  So there is a beautifully-produced clip of the show in motion - and it makes me smile evry time I watch it.  The cast are gorgeous, taking up my challenge to ditch the glamour puss in favour of well-used sex kitten to splendid effect, and you may notice some rather nice reviews, too.

Adding to the general euphoria of a show well done, you may also notice a reference to some award nominations.  Another first, and so pleased that a veritable gang of fellow creatives are recognised.  Well done, chaps!

But no time for resting upon laurels (which I always thinks sounds quite painful anyway) - on with the next show.  And back to Mother Russia we go, to create a world for Chekov's Cherry Orchard.  The design brief is 1917, Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution; beyond that, my notes from a chat with our director run to a single page: 

(A brief aside: my schoolteachers often remarked that my handwriting looked as if a drunken spider had wandered across the page.  Some things never change!)

From that basic information, I have put together a moodboard

Time to run up a couple of elegant frocks for Ranyevskaya and Pischik, whilst re-purposing the Soviet army coats one more time (they are currently masquerading as a Napoleonic firing squad in Carmen).  The actors are under orders to cultivate a range of moustaches and goatees, and I shall be spending this afternoon rummaging through costume storage in search of tweed.  



Inspiration is on the Cards

Like just about everyone else, I had a deck of tarot cards when I was a teenager.  The book fell apart years ago (an aside - why were 70s paperbacks so very badly glued?), but I do still have the cards - an Arthurian deck by Caitlin & John Matthews.  

The imagery may have dated a little, but I feel they will prove very useful as inspiration for my upcoming Morte d'Arthur designs.  Justification, as if I needed it, for not throwing things away!  

In the intervening years, they have been sat on a bookshelf untouched because - like most of us - I never really got to grips with the whole Tarot system.  However, I recently discovered the Little Red Tarot site which stocks a plethora of gorgeous self-published decks (and don't we all prefer to support the independent artist!) and went on to take an e-course with Susannah Conway.  The result was a hit to my bank balance, but a shelf full of stunning imagery.

Allow me to share some of my favourites:

This is the Dreaming Way tarot by Rome Choi, illustrated by Kwon Shina - and having said that I prefer to buy indie pieces, this is a mass-produced deck available via Amazon.  But I do like its quirky attitude (the tea pot on the head!) and muted colour scheme.  And following the lead of Ms Conway, I felt free to cut the white borders off, re-writing the name of each card by hand - something I should be loathe to do to a less easily-replaced set.

This is Dame Darcy's Mermaid Tarot bought direct from her Etsy shop.  Now I'm not one for sugar-sweet mermaids with long pink tresses and Disney-worthy smiles cavorting with snow-white unicorns, I fear.  This deck has none of that, but rather is filled with hand-drawn sea creatures, pirates, camp sailors and - yes - the odd mermaid.  Excellent fodder for my mermaid journal...

Good lord, this one was pricey - but look how utterly beautiful!  Pagan Otherworlds features oil paintings by Linnea Gits and lettering by Peter Dunham.  It is redolent of all my favourite Renaissance masters - Botticelli, Lucas Cranach, Durer, et al -  mixed up with a Celtic mythos that appeals to my English heart. Cue gratuitous close-up..

Now I am saving my pennies for the accompanying book - also available via Little Red Tarot.  (I have no affiliation, by the way - just another happy customer!)

Santa Muerte by Fabio Listrani goes against so many of my preferences - mass-produced, saturated colours, a little bit big for my (admittedly small) hands.  But who can resist an entire deck of Frida-esque flowers, skulls, butterflies; despite all the bones it is full of joyous images (heart-shaped eye sockets, for instance) in true Day of the Dead tradition.  Indeed some of these cards have been tucked into the frame of my noticeboard whilst I work on my current Dos Fridas painting. (Which I'm sure will appear in a future post)

And finally the Vintage Wisdom Oracle, a collage deck by Victoria Moseley.  Whilst I'm not a great fan of oracle decks in general, I am invariably taken by a good photo-collage - especially when a bevy of vintage beauties are involved.  They are just so inspiring for both drawing and doll-making.  Again I have de-bordered the cards in order to focus on the imagery and make them easier to handle. 

So many pictures to look at, so many ideas to expand upon - and all packaged up in handy little boxes.  What's not to love!

02.20.2018 | 1 Comment | in: inspiration, tarot

Carmen 1808 - Costumes for Gypsies and Soldiers

As promised in an earler post, I have photos to share of seductive gypsies and handsome men in uniform.  The sheer scale of this production - seventeen cast members with assorted changes needing to be sourced/made in three weeks - meant that I did not have time to produce drawings as I did for Heartbreak House.  There was, of course, an initial moodboard :

I'm sure I have mentioned before how much I enjoy the hunt for inspiring images and the juggling of them into some kind of coherent reference collage.

As you may have gathered from the research, our story was relocated to a Spain occupied by Napoleon's forces during the Peninsular Wars of the early 19th century.  It was in part narrated by Fransisco Goya, whose observations of the horrors of the campaign led him to abandon society portraits and produce increasingly dark and disturbing images culminating in his print series "The Disasters of War" :

With this in mind, along with the fabulously grungy set by Justin Williams and moody lighting by Ben Jacobs, the costumes needed to look as un-costumey as possible whilst allowing Carmen to be an irresistable seductress.

An added complication was the casting of our leading man - a Spanish soldier rather than bullfighter in our world - who just happened to stand 6'7" tall.  Have you ever tried to hire a uniform for someone that height?  Let me save you the effort and tell you now - they don't exist.  The only answer was to build both Spanish officers' outfits.

So it was that I barely escaped from my workroom - but I think it was worthwhile.  Judge for yourself from these photos by Scott Rylander:

And last of all, our homage to El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid 

So, another project crossed off the list and just one more production in this first theatre season of 2018.  I have promised myself a week off (at least, a week away from my sewing machine) before beginning to grapple with The Cherry Orchard.  The rest of Sunday will be devoted to curling up on my chaise with a good book and a glass of wine - tomorrow I break out the paint brushes...

02.11.2018 | 1 Comment | in: costume design, gypsies, theatre

The Project of a Hundred Faces Continues....

If you recall, I began a project with the New Year - a plan to draw one hundred faces, fifteen minutes each, on artist trading cards.  And whilst I am not managing to create one each day, there is progress to report.

And so here they are, in order of creation, the seven faces which have emerged from my pens in the last two weeks.  All are a combination of Tombow and Elegant Writer watersoluble pens:







I can't remember that I have ever achieved minimalism before - but in this instance, I could learn to love it.

Reading for Persistent Resistors

Before I get into anything else, may I take a moment to congratulate a friend on finding THE best thing for a left-leaning queen to wear on the Womens' March in NYC:

Even though I am not a Cher fan, this makes me smile a lot.  Thank you, Thom.

On the book front, I have been dipping into a few feminist volumes of late.  By far the prettiest must be "Literary Witches".

The illustrations are enchanting - my especial favourites are Agatha Christie with her tea-table set with poison and a noose, Anais Nin writing her diary whilst floating amid mermaid-selves, and Alejandra Pizarnik alone amid dead birds and paper dolls.

Then there is the writing : "When she brushes the carpet, Emily (Bronte) imagines she is smoothing the moors for Heathcliff's perfect feet.  He'll come in, Emily dreams, like the wind she walks against - muscular gusts, clenched hands snarling under her coats".  Isn't that a perfect blend of her torrid imagination and the drabness of Haworth daily life?

Less successful, for me, is "100 Nasty Women of History"

I can cope with the four-letter words and the tone, which is clearly aimed at non-historians - in fact, full marks for reaching out to spread the word of feminist icons old and new.  Even better is the massive range of women included here, ignoring the obvious Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart et al in favour of Ching Shih, Nana Asma'u, Lotfia Elnadi, Irena Sendler and Coccinelle.

What disappoints me is the lack of detail, although one assumes this is necessary if one hundred lives are to fit in one volume. The reduction of the entire ancient Egyptian civilisation, for instance, to "those great lovers of cats and triangles" in Hatshepsut's story which is given less than two pages all told.  Or the one-and-a-half pages in which Khutulun wrestles her admirers on the understanding that "should the suitor win, then YOLO, they'd get married" - who wouldn't want to know more about this Mongol princess.  I suppose the idea is to pique interest, and on those terms it does work.  

In other words, mixed feelings on this one - but overall worth the investment if only to discover new stories to pursue elsewhere.

Since I only began reading last night, I can't give a definitive overview of this one yet:

But, oh boy, it seems like something to sink the teeth into.  If I may quote one of the reviews from the back cover: "Ages before the most qualified presidential candidate in history was called a 'nasty woman', women were long vilified for their power, intelligence and prowess - except they were called witches.  To understand the current misogynistic political climate...look no further" (Alex Berg)  

Discussing not just archetypal goddesses and witch trials, but reproductive rights, pornography, and the image of the witch in various media, I suspect this one will end up with many notes scrawled in the margins.

So there you have it, this month's Bizarrium inspiration : one piece of intellectual eye-candy, one superficial yet worthwhile breeze through history, and one challenging volume of gender studies.

Do you have anything to recommend?  I'm always happy to have an excuse to visit the bookshop....

Faces, faces, faces....the first of 100 Faces

Do you partake of the New Year's resolution? This year I was inspired by  by an article in the latest issue of Uppercase Magazine which rounded up a veritable banquet of 365- and 100-day projects, and which over-rode my usual aversion to the New Year thing.

Now... with my schedule, trying to make one particular piece of anything every single day would be doomed to failure - on theatre tech days I have to leave home in Somerset at 6.30am to arrive in London before lunch, work in the theatre until 10pm (if I'm staying in London), or - if I'm lucky - get away by 8pm to make the three-and-a-half hour drive home. (If you're wondering about the discrepancy in drive times, it's because getting out of London and past Bristol in the evening is much, much quicker!)  Not conducive to making art...although I wouldn't miss working with my luvvies for the world.

I am sure, though, that I can draw 100 faces in a series over the next few months, especially if I limit myself to ATCs (artist trading cards which are only 2 1/2" by 3 1/2" - or 64mm by 89mm) and 15 minutes per piece.  

Here are my efforts to date:

January 1st 2018

I began with a continuous-line exercise, using sepia Tombow marker which I could then modify with a water-brush and the addition of a hint of pink.

Next was an experiment with Graphitint water-soluble graphite pencils.

More Tombow markers, and an attempt to use more colour (not that you'd really notice - my default setting is decidedly monochrome)

Going a little exotic here, with Tombows along with a touch of Inktense in the lips, accentuating the pout.

And a change of medium - for the second week, I dug out my Elegant Writer pens.  Although they have a dreadful name, and with their angled tips are clearly aimed at calligraphers, I just love the way that a touch of water gets the black ink splitting into pink and turquoise.  Utterly delicious.  Inktense pencils again for the mouth.

More Elegant Writers, with Tombow touches to the pupils and lips, as well as adding a sprinkle of freckles.

A change of direction, using the Graphitint pencils to make a much more classical study.  

So there you have the first seven cards - albeit that I have taken two weeks to get there.  In between times, I have opened a show at the Union Theatre, made progress with the studies for new circus characters in the Bizarrium, and delivered two wedding dresses via Days of Grace.  I am SO lucky that I get to be creative every day!  

01.14.2018 | 3 Comments | in: art, portraits, watercolour

Behind the Theatrical Scenes

Having been a costumer designer for more time than I care to admit (very well...this is my third decade), I forget that people are actually interested in what goes on behind the scenes of a production.  However, the actors in my current piece have been sharing snaps on various media precisely because folk are taken by that glimpse behind the curtain....which got me thinking that perhaps I should share my process, such as it is, too.

First comes the textual analysis: reading the script once to enjoy the story, then again with highlighter in hand to mark any references to costume within the writing.  Not just the obvious things like Malvolio's yellow cross-garters in "Twelfth Night", or Natasha's green belt in "Three Sisters", but passing hints in stage directions that someone needs a pocket from which to retrieve a letter, or an overcoat to hand to the butler.  This list is often expanded during the rehearsal period as individual actors develop their character; recently the actor playing Constant, an inveterate dandy in "The Provok'd Wife", for instance, felt that wafting a lace handkerchief around at all times would be in order, whilst Lady Brute needed a fan with which to flirt in true rococo style.

But back to the process... After that initial reading comes a chat with the director to get a feel for their vision.  Some are very specific, with precise thoughts about period, colour etc, etc, whilst others have barely a clue about the visuals.  My preference is for someone in the middle, with a general sense of what they want, but open to ideas.  In the case of "The Provok'd Wife", for example, Briony initially wanted wigs made of paper "or something else unreal" to make a statement about the silliness of the whole set-up.  After a bit of thought, I decided that paper wigs would never last through a two-week theatre run, but pastel-coloured Amadeus-style hair would send the same message...everyone was happy.

That conversation leads to the moodboard - one of my favourite things to do.  An excuse to spend an afternoon trawling through my shelves of costume and art history books, Pinterest and Google Images!  Hurrah!  Then a quick Photoshop collage to send for directorial approval:

Above is "The Provok'd Wife" again, whilst here is "Heartbreak House":

With notes duly taken, it's time to produce thumbnail sketches (rarely do I have time to create full-scale coloured renderings, to be honest - although I should love the luxury!) , then comes a combination of digging through my stock, shopping and sewing to fill the gaps.  To give you an idea of the relation between idea and realisation, and the amount of sourcing that goes on -

James Horne as loveably grumpy Captain Shotover: Hat from stock, neckerchief borrowed from my father, gloves James' own, sweater bought & trousers made especially.

Francesca Burgoyne as the dreadful Lady Utterward: Dress from Days of Grace just needed the lace neckline adding, plus a little fitting (I say "a little", but poor Fran spent simply ages modelling for me whilst I weilded the safety pins).  Mat Betteridge channelling Lord Flashheart as Hector: all from stock bar the jodphurs borrowed from Days of Grace.

JPTurner as the forthright Boss Mangan in a suit from my stock.  Helen Anker as the terribly Bohemian Hesione in an outfit entirely made-to-order and the most splendid pair of boots, found in a charity shop in Wells.  The dress is constructed from a damask wedding dress (Days of Grace again) providing underskirt, sleeves and neckline insert, with an overdress made of William Morris print cotton and vintage lace trim, adapted from a 1970s Vogue sundress pattern.

And to give you an idea of the overall look:

(Production photos of "Heartbreak House" at the Union Theatre, London all courtesy of Scott Rylander. Set by Justin Williams & Jonny Rust) )

Next up is a musical adaptation of "Carmen", set in Goya's Spain - so I am off to bury myself in Napoleonic uniform and seductive gypsies.  They should make for a pretty production - watch this space!





01.08.2018 | Add new comment | in: costume design, theatre

Whilst Important Things Filter Through my Little Brain.....

Whilst the outside world seems still to be a mess, and I am still trying to figure out how best to help in the struggle to repair the damage, work continues.....

In my canvas journal Aphrodite became a Botticelli angel

while Venus is a more modern, feisty character - plus I remembered to take pictures of the work in progress

One thing with which I am pleased is their direct gaze, the hint of defiance, the sense that they too would persist.  

I have also been working on costumes for "Anyone Can Whistle": a rather obscure early Sondheim musical.  It was originally staged on Broadway in 1964 (designed by my grad school teachers Bill & Jean Eckart, in fact) and on the rare occasion that it is revived tends to be styled in a similar vivid Sixties' fashion.  Our fearless leader, Mr Phil Willmott, chose another path however: I was given HBOs late lamented "Carnivale" as the source of costume inspiration

Hence my mood board mixed screenshots from the show with vintage tea-dresses and a sprinkling of Dorothea Lange. (If you aren't familiar with Lange's work documenting the Dustbowl, do look her up - has a good selection to start with)

The end result is one of my favourite designs to date: a subtle mix of grey, denim blue and stone shades with the only hit of colour being the Mayoress's scarlet ensemble.

(Photo credit Scott Rylander)

One final thought, quoted from poet Chris Santiago:

"All of us who write and teach and make art will need to be braver, for at least the next four years."

Let's be brave together.  It's more fun that way

02.18.2017 | Add new comment

Resistance is Far from Futile

Have you ever woken up with an unexpected sense of things falling into place?  That happened to me yesterday, as I watched the stream of images appearing on my Facebook page.  So many friends able to take part in marches in their cities - Bristol, London, Los Angeles, New York - they made me proud and slightly envious of their urban life for once!  No great focus of forward-looking energy, or rallying of people standing up for what is right out here in the Somerset hills.  But that does not stop us from caring, or desperately wanting to do our bit to hang on to the goodness and freedom and unity that we were dangerously close to taking for granted.

I was at a loss, though; what can one little artist/dollmaker do in the face of such hugely divisive powers?  

Then the penny dropped:  what I can do is use my artistic efforts to remind people of what we need to hold on to.  You may recall that last year I made a series of dolls based on iconic women - Boudicca, Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Bathory (OK, so perhaps she is not such a great example!), Frida Kahlo & Marie Antoinette.


 In the past few months my paintings have followed the same course: Elizabeth I, Boudicca & Marie Antoinette again, Cleopatra, Diana the Huntress....

And there are still collages lurking in my inspiration journal, pages of Mata Hari, Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great and more.


It suddenly seems appropriate that I should have made my way to this place of strong female archetypes just at the time that we need to fight for our rights and freedoms.  NOT that I will stand for violence or any kind of backlash.  To quote Kim Werker's latest post, "We feminists & humanitarians & civil rights activists are being accused by some of being divisive.  But here's the thing...All we want is for all people to enjoy the same rights & freedoms.  We do not want to take away rights & freedoms from those who already enjoy them.  But we do recognize that not everyone does enjoy them - and that is why we stand up, speak up, shout out."

So expect the Itinerant Bizarrium to become a source of imagery to support the resistance, of strong women and their supporters.  It's not much, but it is what I feel I do best.  And as my grandmother (a very feisty lady herself) used to say "Every little helps, as the old woman said when she pee'ed in the ocean"

(Headline image credit goes, I think, to Sho Murase.  Please do correct me if I'm wrong!)

01.22.2017 | Add new comment
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