Friday, 28 May 2010

Prints and Puddles While the Big Church Looks On

(Just before midnight at the Nuit de l'Estampe Contemporaine)
   It has been a little bit mad over here the past couple of weeks.  I was pulling my prints for Tuesday's show right down to the last possible moment that the studio was open.  And I wasn't alone, there were 12 other people and all of us were locked into our little workshop, sharing a deadline and a press in the most intolerable heat imaginable.  But everyone managed to get out alive, somehow.
   Tuesday evening the weather broke, the anxiety passed, and the hot, dry weeks of May came to an end as we all huddled into our booth to escape cords of rain. 

(Looking out at the rain, which doesn't really show up in the photo)

(Looking in at the stand when the rain let up for a minute and the crowd had thinned out somewhat.)

   But it didn't rain the whole time, and I think all of us had a good time.  When ten people share a stand, there is always plenty of conversation, food, and wine to be had.  And it was an honour to be part of a show which had such a high standard of work on display.  Everywhere I looked, the stands were brimming with printed marvels of all descriptions, and from every discipline of printmaking.  I'm not sure how many times I wound my way through the little city of stands that were gathered around the fountain at the Place St. Sulpice, but every time I found something new and lovely to consider. 

   And I was not alone, this charming fellow dropped in for a visit to a stand a little ways away, and stayed on quite a while, seemingly completely unperturbed by the people that surrounded him:

   And then there is a blurry photo of me, who is camera shy and didn't want to be photographed. But in the end it is fine and good to be in a picture, because you can see beside me two etchings which I have already posted about before, but you can also catch a glimpse of three plates I made to accompany a long poem written by a friend of mine, which is called The Island of Bread... 

... and maybe you can just pick out, in the lower left-hand corner, a new plate which I finished only just in time for the show.  While I was working on it, I wanted the image to have a roughness to it, but then at the last minute I was afraid that I shouldn't show it because people would think it wasn't polished enough.  In the end though, two people liked it enough to buy a print, so I was pleased as punch.


   I've spent a lot of time describing what a changeling is in French since I started working on this plate; I don't think there is any specific translation of it in French.  Even with the movie of that title that came out a while back it, the title in French was 'the exchange', which isn't the same thing at all.  I usually just say that it's an idea found in folklore in a lot of Europe that sometimes children were believed to be taken by the fairies (or trolls, etc. depending on the country), and that the fairies would leave something behind instead of the child.  What they leave behind of course varies -- it could be a log that is enchanted to look like the child, leading the family to believe their child is dead, rather than stolen; or it could be a fairy child; or even an elderly fairy left behind. There are stories of babies that suddenly speak with an old man's voice, asking for a light for their pipe, for example.  But it's not necessarily a child that will be stolen, it could be an adult, usually a beautiful young bride, but sometimes even men are taken.  I try to limit what I say about the topic because there seem to be quite a few variations on this theme and I could go on and on if I'm not careful.
   I find this topic absolutely fascinating.  While I was at university I wrote a paper about Ireland's transition from Gaelic oral culture to literate, English modernity (I was in Celtic Studies).   I was aided immeasurably by Angela Bourke's book The Burning of Bridget Cleary which is about a criminal case involving a woman who was believed to be a changeling in Ireland in the 1890s.  Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and neighbours who all claimed to believe that she was not herself, but a changeling, which they were only taking traditional precautions against (though traditions on this vary greatly -- many people believed that the fairies' treatment of their loved one would reflect the way they themselves treated the changeling), and defended this belief in criminal court.  Normally I hate reading about murders, but this book was fascinating, and was far more about a collision of two world views than a grisly retelling of a crime.
   Rather than quickly dismissing this type of belief as preposterous and backward, Angela Bourke considers belief in changelings as an alternative outlook on issues concerning mental and physical illness, which allowed people to address these sensitive subjects openly and without any sense of shame or blame.  The traditional ways of dealing with changelings tended to fall into two extremes: try to rouse the person back to themselves, or (as seems to be more often the case, at least in stories) to keep the person safe and cared for until the time when they might come back to themselves.  The idea of the changeling not only removes awkwardness from the conversations of those who might have a need to discuss a family member, but ensures that the person who might one day 'come back' will maintain their dignity.  Another writer who has explored the coded, symbolic way oral culture in Ireland deals with critical issues, both in her poetry and her essays, is Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (I would also recommend her extremely highly. She is brilliant!).
   Many scholars who have worked with stories involving changelings have pointed out the signs which identify a changeling coincide with the symptoms of various diseases, which have been identified in more recent times, which would seem to go along with Angela Bourke's theories.  But aside from oral culture, vs. literate culture and the interest that has for me... I think this particular subject resonates with me on another level as well.  It speaks quite loudly to the deep fear that things are not what they seem.  When I was young, without any knowledge of changelings, I used to fear literally just that.  I can remember a few occasions where I was in trouble for something which I felt was unjust, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with the belief that the parent who seemed to be scolding me was not in fact my parent at all.  I can remember crying and pleading with the thing that was not my mother (which was my mother) to give me back my real mom... and I can remember her confusion at my distress and bizarre behaviour.  I used to also have big anxiety about leaving my dog out at night, for fear that it was not her that would return, but only a thing which looked like her.  As childish as these particular worries may be, the idea that someone is not what they seem to be is distressing enough at any age.


  1. Quite an interesting post... and you reminded me that I taught my cat to open doors in case she was kidnapped! I made her try and try again until she could open the door by herself - now that I think of it, I can't even believe she ever even LET me do that, let alone the idea that I might be thinking of kidnapping at all! But she was quite the cat, she actually let me dress her in doll clothes and roll her around in a baby carriage... its quite the family story.

  2. Oh, just thought I should add, in case you were wondering, I was seven!

  3. wow, what an incredibly fascinating post...there is so much to think about, here...i will definitely look for that book, but also it's fascinating to think that such a belief would be so *rooted*, really, that it would show up in a child.
    and i love the print! the swirling motion, and the texture of the sky and clouds, and especially the tree and the snowball stars...
    and why you would ever be shy of cameras is beyond me. you're beautiful!

  4. Congratulations on the show and your sales, I too love all the movement and motion in your print. And how about that feathered one dropping in and watching over you.

    It would make a lot of sense for people to have adopted a changeling cover for any loved one's mental or physical illness, fascinating as you say.

    I can remember my mother muttering something about changeling when I hit puberty ;)

    And yes Zoe's right you are beautiful, the camera loves you ... don't blush*!*

    Great post, I'm going to read through it again

  5. Good thinking, Valerianna... I managed to teach my dog how to play tag back then... but that wouldn't have been nearly as useful in a kidnapping situation! ;)

    Thanks Zoe, you're so sweet! And I just happened over to your flickr account today... looks like you know all about being gorgeous!

    Annie... there's no way I could avoid blushing!
    As for the changeling thing... I noticed too, that over on the wiki article about it, there was mention of people with autism identifying with this concept, because of their feeling of not fitting in. I thought that was pretty interesting... that people would be applying this term to themselves even. I'd like to check out the book that that was referenced in... a new lead!