Last month I had the privilege of interviewing Sarah Faith Gottesdiener, a designer, art director, and artist whose artwork and design is based in the spiritual, feminist, and mystical. Sarah is the creative force behind Modern Women, an intersectional feminist gear company, combining the different elements of designing, art-making, publishing, editing, and collaborating under the unifying umbrella of Feminist and Queer philosophy. We spoke specifically about one of her wonderful offerings, The Many Moons workbook, and how the moon and its magic influences her creative practices.
If you missed it when it initially went live on Haute Macabre, I highly encourage you to give our interview a read now–Sarah is a brilliantly inspiring luminary and no doubt this workbook, which imagines a world where witches, women, femmes, & weirdos make their dreams come true, is relevant to all of your interests! You know, all two of you who read this blog.
Back in 2010, on a complete whim, I got a horoscope package wherein I was told I should get ready for some big changes and be prepared to cut some ties and mourn some losses, but to keep my heart open and willing to look at most of these things as necessary and good. Two days later I was horribly dumped, my car sputtered to a stop forever, and my beloved cat died. Being left by that abusive, toxic person was actually the best thing that could have happened for me though I could not immediately see it; I found a newer, better, and totally affordable car with the help from some friends, and I made plans to leave New Jersey forever and come back to Florida, which is probably the best and most important decision I have ever made. I still mourn the loss of my beautiful Inkers, but I know that she was very sick and the decision I made to end her suffering was, in fact, necessary.
Sveta Dorosheva‘s fantastical art could be to a brilliant dream collaboration among noted artists, for whom the goal is a visionary book of enchanted tales. Imagine an artistic hybrid comprised of the intricately-lined illustrations of Harry Clarke or Aubrey Beardsley, the luxurious art deco magnificence of Romain de Tirtoff (Erté) fashion plates, and the beautiful-on-the-verge-of-grotesque visages drawn by the enigmatic Alastair .
But! In this imaginary scenario, the artists realize there is something… some je ne sais quois… missing from their efforts. They entice illustrator Sveta Dorosheva to join their endeavors: she flits in, and with a mischievous smile and a gleam of amusement in her eye, announces “yes, yes, this is all very beautiful… but let’s make it FUN!” Although comparisons to the above-mentioned artists may be obvious upon first glance, the sense of enchantment, whimsy, and joyful wit present in Dorosheva’s work ensures that one not only appreciates they are gazing upon something technically pleasing or beautifully rendered; one also genuinely delights –and even emotionally invests– in the engaging imagery as well.
Though born in Ukraine, Sveta Dorosheva currently resides in Israel with her husband and two sons. She has worked as as an interpreter, copywriter, designer (be certain to peek at her Incredible Hats or Fashionista portfolios!), art director and creative director in advertising, and is currently pursuing her lifelong dream of academic training in art. Dorosheva recently spoke with us about her lifelong love of fairy tales, and her inspired, imaginative new project, The Nenuphar Book, which will be published in Russia this autumn. See below for her illuminating ruminations and a gallery selection of her extraordinary illustrations.
Your work is clearly heavily influenced by fairy tales, fables, folklore, mythology – what are some of your favorites in this vein? Certainly you have some beloved stories from your childhood and I would love to hear about that… but I imagine in researches for illustrations and so forth you have developed a fondness for some more obscure or interesting new tales along the way?
Sveta Dorosheva: You are right. I AM heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology. Even in adulthood I am most fascinated with things magical, mysterious and fantastic: medieval emblemata and bestiaries, weird and kooky sciences, antique circus, eccentric personalities, odd books and creatures, etc.
When a child I had very weak health and spent a lot of time in bed covered with mustard leaves or cupping-glasses. Dad read me a lot of fairy tales. As an immediate result, I was the best storyteller in the yard and kinder garden. Nannies loved me. They would put me in front of other kids to retell scary fairy tales (I loved them scary, the didactic tales I would just forget – they were ‘nuisance wisdom’) and attend to their own business for a couple of hours.
Those were mostly Russian fairy tales, but later in life I read all there were to read (before the Internet was available where I come from) and even my thesis research was dedicated to world fairy tales and mythology (I studied languages and world literature).
I feel lost when trying to pick specific tales as my favorites (you know, thesis and all that knowledge…), I wish I knew less of and about them, so that the choice wouldn’t be so distressing. But actually fairy tales of all nations have both a magical, wonderful and a scary, uncanny side. Sometimes monstrous – well, before civilized societies started to adapt them for children (which I personally regret). Before television and such, fairy tales were an entertainment for both kids and adults. They are just captivating stories about things eternal, with plots polished to perfection by centuries and centuries or story-telling. Most successful modern Hollywood blockbusters like “fifth element” and such have the structure of a classic fairy tale, only valorous knight is substituted with no less valorous bruce willis, evil dragon – with evil mr. shadow, beautiful princess with beautiful leeloo, etc…
I guess Russian fairy tales are the strongest influence from childhood, but I don’t mean that in the ‘sarafan&kokoshnik’ sense:) I mean they were full of wonderful and scary things, events and creatures, and that influenced my picture of the world for life. I remember that when a kid I took all of it for granted – evil stepmothers that wanted to eat their stepsons’ hearts and brains because he who eats them, would become king and spit golden coins…talking wolves and fire birds, immortal skeletons, frogs and birds throwing their skins and feathers off and turning into beautiful ladies, dead water that puts the pieces of a hero chopped by treacherous brothers together, and live water that then makes this frankenstein body come to life, witches with poison pins that turn people to stones… none of them were ‘terrible’ or ‘wonderful’ – they were just part of a fascinating plot. I guess childish perception is different from adult – it does not divide things into monstrous and beautiful. It just absorbs it all without labels, taking it all for granted.
I remember my three-year-old son seeing a dead bird in the street once in December. He insisted that we go and see its metamorphoses every day. I felt rather ill at ease, but he was INTERESTED, because he did not KNOW it was ‘disgusting’… To him bird-turning-to-a-skeleton or frog-turning-to-a-prince is the same type of natural metamorphosis that makes the world tick and such an interesting place to observe, there’s no good or bad, there’s just infinite variety and wonder. And that’s the thing about fairy tales. They booster imagination through metaphor when one is still open-minded, with no moral or social blinkers on (very useful, very reasonable blinkers, but still limiting).
Your book to be published this fall- ‘The Nenuphar Book’ – is described as “… a book about people and human world, as seen through the eyes of fairy-tale creatures. They don’t generally believe in people, but some have traveled to our world and have collected evidence and observations about people in this book.” Can you tell us more about this upcoming work and the observations contained within?
The Nenuphar book is a compilation of drawings, letters, stories, diaries and other stuff about people, written and drawn by fairies, elves, gnomes and other fairy personalities. Generally, fairy creatures do not believe in people – they just scare their small ones by humans (‘If you don’t eat well, a MAN will come and grab you!”) But some of them have traveled to the human world in various mysterious ways and this book is supposed to 1) prove to other gnomes, fairies, elves, giants, witches etc that people do exist; and 2) collect observations and impressions about human nature and world.
In short, the Nenuphar Book is about people and human world as seen through the eyes of fairy tale creatures. Their observations may be perplexing, funny and sometimes absurd, but they all present a surprised look at the things that we, people, take for granted. Draft excerpts can be seen here – https://www.behance.net/gallery/The-Nenuphar-Book/970281
Imagine looking at our world through the eyes of an alien from outer space – it’s the same thing. How do you explain money? love? language? work? dance? music? cities? people’s everyday behavior? poetry? clothes? anatomy? books? Imagine someone who does not know anything about this world. How do you explain people talking to small boxes at their ears and then seriously stating they have talked to someone they know and informed them of something? They are talking to spirits! How do you explain a box on the wall in every home, that shows little animated copies of people fighting, crying, laughing, singing, throwing cakes and bombs around… and most importantly – how do you explain the people watching those little devils all the time and even making them do what they want by pressing a small rectangular amulet in their hand? Why do people say things like “my heart is singing” when they seriously think their heart is made of flesh and blood and some strange tubes of something? Well, people are strange.
Or, where do people come from? It is quite shocking, but it turns out that big people come from small people. In other words, all people were once 20 time smaller and completely different both in appearance, manner, character and world outlook! People are shape-shifters, that is obvious. That is why they have ‘passports’ – it’s a special little book with pictures of various creatures that a man has turned into, so that he can remember that that smooth elf-like long-haired and wide-eyed creature and this big bold grumpy ogre are the same person… Okay, big people come from small people through a series of metamorphoses. But where do small people come from? Evidently they cannot come from sex, as people themselves state, because this is plain stupid. In the first place, none of the fairy creatures have seen this sex (well, it could be that people are hiding, but then they extol sex as the highest pleasure and crown of love, so why hide something so remarkable? no sense whatsoever, must be a lie.). And in the second, well this is really absurd – let’s say, two people are bumping each other with their stomachs and moaning, shouting and otherwise going crazy because of that, okay… When exactly does a small person appear during this performance? Does he just jump from under the bed or something?
To fairy creatures people are great magicians – they make gnome metals fly in the sky and move on the ground with a magical potion called ‘fuel’. They create personal suns on the ceilings of their homes and make them shine with a tap on the wall in a special place. They call it electricity, but no one can really explain how this ‘electricity’ works without consulting a magic grimoire “Physics, Grade 7”.
But it’s not all funny. Some pieces of the book are poetic and serious, depends on the author (each chapter is written by a different creature). For example, there is a chapter about poets in the ‘Language’ section of the book. Fact is, the world is written in many languages: hidden and obvious messages are everywhere – encoded on flower petals, fish scales and feather patterns, in cloud forms in the sky, on wings of beetles and dragonflies, in the heart of a cut strawberry, everywhere… Fairies communicate in the language of flowers, perfume and dance; gnomes – in the language of stones and gems, etc. People use the language of words and mostly neglect all other languages the world is written in. And this gets them into a lot of trouble, because despite all those myriads words people have invented, they still fail to understand each other very often. But there are exclusions. For example, people have interpreters from other languages, who translate the beauty of the world into words: poets.
Or, say, people in love are another exclusion – they are very bad in the language of words. To them words are bewitched. They talk in awkward silences, incidental touches, turned away glances – they talk with their mouth shut with beckoning secrets.
What an absolutely fascinating concept! How did you dream this idea up and what sort of ideals and philosophies were you hoping to leave the reader with? This certainly seems an engaging and charming way to tackle the complexities of us human creatures, with all of our amazing qualities as well as our not-always-very lovely behaviors and actions.
I was hoping to entertain them in the first place. A different angle is always amusing. If lucky, I want to leave them with the feeling of ‘what a surprising world we are living in, it’s full of wonder’. Isn’t it?
As for how I came up with the idea… Initially I worked on a completely different book – a book of fairies. It was intended as an activity book for kids – one fairy per day all year round. Today ‘the dandelion fairy’, tomorrow ‘fairy of freckles’, etc. And it was turning out quite lovely, but I was beginning to run out of ideas for fairies and activities and the project slowed down. Some time passed and I decided to pick up with it. I leafed back through my scrapbook with quick ideas and drawings and found a year-old line saying “maybe this fairy should keep a journal of her observations about people’s world”. And it suddenly struck me as a completely independent and very promising idea. I couldn’t believe I wrote it down a year ago and never noticed it’s huge… So, to my regret, I upset my publisher and quit that activity fairy book and wrote a new one in a couple weeks.
It went smooth and fast and overflowing with more and more ideas for everyday things, that would look surprising to a ‘newcomer’. Well, writing was smooth. Illustrating it took three years. It’s HEAVILY illustrated. I still can ‘t leave it alone. I hope the book finally gets published this fall and we part as friends:)
Sturdy spines enveloping stories and secrets yet untold, gilt-embellished covers, glimmering and hinting at undiscovered worlds, the rasp of papery promises as one by one the pages turn and the tale unfolds! No one, I think, has a better understanding of how to create the perfect vessel for these mysteries and adventures, than Nate McCall of McCall Company.
It’s that time of year again. “Beach Reads” lists are making the rounds, and no doubt they’ve got all the bestsellers: feel good books with inspirational titles, geopolitical tracts, pop-culture rags, and action hero stories. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. I’m not here to shit on things that other people like! But there’s also nothing wrong with you, if those books just aren’t your bag. If you are anything at all like me, you’ve a melancholic disposition and you prefer your choice of reading material to reflect your morose, sometimes maudlin mindset.
It’s June. It’s inevitable. Some of your normie friends are probably going to invite you on a picnic or to a day at the beach, and hey– having friends is great. It’s difficult to make friends and maintain friendships if you’re a weirdo introvert reader who sometimes prefers pages to people; but you understand the power and importance of human connections, and you actually like spending time with these people even if they abnormally revere the sunlight and sometimes listen to Top 40.
You know they’re going to gently poke fun at your perilously overstuffed black tote bag when you show up for the party, but you also know that no one’s going to give you a hard time when you slink off behind a shadowed sand dune for some peace and quiet to dig into that book stack that’s been calling your name for the past hour while you were catching up and eating vegan hot dogs or whatever your friends are into. You might be an anti-social weirdo, but you don’t pass up free food!
What’s in my bag this year? Well, firstly, I don’t necessarily believe that newer is better, so I may have a few titles that were released more than a few years ago. Hell, maybe the authors are even dead! That’s okay. Nothing wrong with contemplating your own mortality on a sunny, cloudless, midsummer afternoon.
Secondly, while these are all either bleak or dreary, that has nothing to do with how good they are. Each of these titles, in my opinion, are thoroughly engaging, compelling reads–they’re not merely good, they’re pretty fantastic. There’s just not going to be many chuckles of mirth while you’re reading them (okay, except maybe for Megahex). You might find that you have actually forgotten to smile after you’ve finished them (maybe especially with Megahex). That’s fine, you’re fine. Our friends are like, twenty feet away and they’ve just made a pitcher of margaritas and we can drink until we forget.
But for now, let’s wallow.
The Late Works of Margaret Kroftis, a novella by Mark Gluth, is a series of vignettes, a chain of separate lives connected by death. Themes of loss and grief and daydreams and stories within stories within stories. It begins with a personal tragedy in the titular Margaret’s life and chronicles the heartache and sorrows that follow the other characters as the book progresses. Written in spare, atmospheric, dreamy prose that simultaneously breaks your heart and leaves you sighing wistfully the whole time, you will recommend The Late Works of Margaret Kroftis to every bookworm you know but then too late you realize your suggestion should have come with a trigger warning. Steel your sweet hearts–devastatingly beautiful and seeping with insidious sadness, this is a rough one for sensitive readers.
In the reading ofCaleb Curtiss’A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, you will become aware of what it means to be close to someone and to also be very far away from them. Written in the aftermath of Curtiss’ sister’s death, these are poems attempting to make sense of moments and memories, loss, and lost time. Radiant elegies that present as both revelatory and contradictory in the way that grief, when distilled and examined, can both clarify and confuse–especially when stalked at the periphery by ghosts. Hug your beloved sibling after you read this and remember that your life and everything you know in this world can change in the blink of an eye, in a heart beat, and we will never have all the time we need with those we love.
True, The Tenant, a surrealistic, psychological nightmare by French writer, illustrator, and filmmaker Roland Torpor was originally published in 1964, but, with themes of alienation and pervasive loneliness while living in close quarters with other jerks in an urban environment, it seems astonishingly relevant today. The story follows Trelkovsky, a seemingly average guy, who moves into the recently vacated apartment of a female suicide. Hilarity ensues! Not really. With an atmosphere awash in suspicion and paranoia, we watch our protagonist travel an almost pre-determined path from obsession and existential crisis to sociopathic misanthropy and madness. Your shitty neighbors won’t seem nearly so bad after reading The Tenant, I assure you.
Megahexby Simon Hanselmann follows the darkly humored, depressing as hell, and sometimes pretty fucking disgusting stories of ennui-infected, perpetual stoner witch Meg and her cat familiar/lover Mogg, along with their various degenerate friends. This collection of strange beings, despite their otherworldly appearances, spend their time engaging in mostly mundane rather than magical activities, consisting mainly of dopey shit and bad decisions. Intensely relatable, frequently hilarious, and surprisingly poignant–while reading it, I at one point found myself quietly weeping, without even realizing it.
House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse is an “autobiographical topography of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films,” that, despite its title, doesn’t read at all as a dull, dense treatise on horror theory–and it is not exactly criticism so much as it is intensely enthusiastic film appreciation. An examination of neurotic, hysterical, and oftentimes bonkers bat-shit crazy women in genre film, interwoven with fascinating autobiographical elements that parallel her own, often troubled past, Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women is an accessible, powerful, utterly unique creation, and undoubtedly the exact opposite of a fun, light-hearted beach read.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
At Haute Macabre today I explore the magic of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s American Gods fragrance collaboration. There’s also a giveaway for a wondrous assortment of these scents going on right now, so be sure to leave a comment on the blog post!
Within the pages of American Gods is where you will find my all time favorite passage:
“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”
Did the fragrance geniuses bottle the essence of these sad, sweet cookie ghosts, too? Head on over to Haute Macabre to find out!
Described as “a David Lynchian fever dream on Beatrix Potter terrain”, Christiane Cegavske’s exquisitely-crafted stop motion tale Blood Tea and Red String is a macabre delight and a labor of love that was 13 years in the making. The film, a dialogue-free, avant garde “fairy tale for adults” follows two groups of anthropomorphic creatures in fancy costumes -the aristocratic White Mice and the rustic Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak – and the “struggle over the doll of their heart’s desire.” This struggle, notes one critic, is so fascinating because the actions and emotions of these bizarre creatures “so uncannily resemble warts-and-all human behavior”. We find a “disturbing comfort” in these unconventional characters, and we see ourselves in this magic world that Cegavske creates.
This beguiling, nightmarish, deceptively whimsical world extends far beyond the phantasmagoric fable that is Blood Tea and Red String. Cegavske, also responsible for the animation in Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, began dabbling in film making and animation at an early age (5th grade!) with an oddly satisfying-sounding claymation short about trick-or-treaters whose candy is stolen. Not only is she an extraordinary film maker, but a talented artist in several mediums and a self professed “Creator of Many Things” with an Etsy shop full of delightful oddities as well.
See below for a tête-à-tête with Christiane in which we parley on the subjects of muses and myths, future dreamscapes, and fancy edibles.
It took 13 years to make this film – is that typical of this sort of venture? During that time were you working on other creative endeavors or was your sole focus dedicated on this particular project?
Christiane Cegavske: I don’t really know. Most people aren’t crazy enough to attempt such a long project without funding and a crew. The high budget animated films get done a lot quicker, of course.
It was my primary focus, but I’ve always got other projects going. I continued to paint and write and sew. Side projects can invigorate a primary project. By letting your mind wander to less overwhelming work, solutions to previously insurmountable trouble can suddenly appear. The thing that really slowed this project down, was earning a living. It can really be a challenge to produce artwork after you are exhausted from working all week.
I have heard tell that Blood Tea and Red String is part of a trilogy – is there any truth to that, and if so…can you tell me a bit about what we might expect to see in these sequels and when we might expect to be able to view them?
Yes that is true. I am currently working on Seed in the Sand which is part two. I don’t know when this one will be completed. I have a few other projects that were on hold during production of Blood Tea and Red String, that I want to complete first. My main focus right now is a series of 8 paintings that have been plaguing my mind for the last 10 years. A few months ago, I finally started to work on them. It feels so good to see them developing now.
In devoting so much time to a project it must be inevitable that you run across other amazing artists with whom to collaborate -is this how you came to know Mark Growden, for example, who provided the haunting soundtrack for Blood Tea and Red String?
I am very fortunate to know some amazingly talented people.
I first went to see Mark perform with some friends of mine. I really liked his music and he gave me a CD at the show. Later, I was watching my work print of my film and my friend started playing Mark’s CD. There was a scene where the music matched up to the visuals so well, I just knew I wanted him to compose the music for my film. Luckily he was interested and agreed to do it.
Mark gave me a copy of his new CD, “Saint Judas” and asked if I wanted to make an animated video for him. I listened to it and chose “Coyote”. I told him that was the one I wanted to do, and he said to just follow my inspiration and do what I wanted with it. In return for this music video, Mark is going to create the first song for my new film, Seed in the Sand. With this song, I hope to animate a portion of the beginning of the movie. I am almost ready to begin animating. I just have to get the set finished and find a way to purchase the camera. I hope to get the Canon EOS Rebel T2i EF-S, but at this time I don’t have a way to purchase it. If I get everything ready and still can’t get the camera, I can still shoot a short promotional scene with the equipment I have. The quality just won’t be adequate for the final film, so I would have to reshoot that part.
You call yourself “a creator of many things” – off the top of my head, and in addition to being a film maker I know you are also a poet, a painter and a seamstress – what else are you involved in? Where else can we see your work?
I came up with the title Creator of Many Things because I was at a loss to categorize myself since I do make art in so many mediums. You’ve listed my primary pursuits nicely. I guess you might add “creator of fancy edibles” and “doll maker” in there. So far the edibles are just for family and friends, but more than one person has suggested that I make a cookbook to share my inventions. That is pretty far down on my staggering to-do list though. Maybe I will put one together for my little girl when she goes off to college in about 13 years.
There are currently two books of my poetry available, and I am working on illustrating a short story called “The Black Cloak”, no publication date set at this time, and the series of paintings that I intend to release as an art book when finished.
Have you found that your recent move from the city (LA) to the woods of Oregon has helped or hindered your creative process?
It has been severely disorienting. Since I have a child, it helps to have my family around for support, but I am not sure how I feel about staying here long term. I don’t like the isolation from my peers. If I just consider it a temporary hermitage it helps. I am able to work on my paintings out here and I have a nice sized garage studio. I didn’t have a studio for shooting film in LA. So that is a big improvement.
Crows, ravens, ragdolls – these things show up quite frequently in your work, in almost every medium. What draws you to these items, what meaning do they hold for you?
That is a little tricky to answer as putting a definition to them takes away from some of the symbolism that hits the viewer behind the rational mind, but I will comment. Crows and ravens are like my muses, my familiars or my alter ego. They watch and tell and illustrate. They are usually portrayed as helpers, sometimes mischief-makers, sometimes just witnesses. Ragdolls are like the outer mask of a person. That which is seen and judged and must be discarded to reach authenticity. It is a danger to identify with the doll. Dolls don’t grow, dolls don’t love, dolls don’t feel. It can be tempting to hide inside of one or to love one, but is not a good idea to forget that it is only a thing, not a being.
There are, of course the obvious comparisons of your work to surrealist Jan Švankmajer and Jiří Trnka, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Brothers Quay –would you consider these folks among some of your influences ? From where else, or who else, do you draw your inspiration?
Definitely they have influenced me. Beyond my own mythic imaginings that have drawn from many sources in the world around me and sources lost to my conscious memory that I can’t identify, inspirations include Bosch, Botticelli, Frida Khalo, Jan Svankmajer, Ladislas Starewicz, Ray Harryhausen, Joseph Campbell, the ancient myths of many cultures…
What are you currently working on? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
In addition to getting Seed in the Sand ready, I am working on a series of eight small paintings that I want to release as an art book, and I have just finished a script for a live action film I would like to make. There will of course be a little animation in it. My next step is to do a few storyboards and prepare a pitch for it so I can start to search for financial support. I really hope to find a way to make this film. Since it is live action it will require a team to make it. That is a little different than toiling away alone in a garage for years, so I can’t just dive in without help.
One of my friends who read the script liked it so much that he suggested I write more stories. So you may see new publications from me if inspiration takes hold. Time will tell.
My list of projects is excitingly long and sometimes daunting. But, given time, health and support, they will all be accomplished.
Oh, man. Oh, wow. Consider my day made. I write about stuff and things and various people all the time, but this time, someone wrote about *me*! Well, they wrote about my blog. What an utter treat! I am delighted and humbled. Many thanks to Katie over at Wyrd Words & Effigies for including me in your Blogging In The Dark feature.
If Katie and her blog sound familiar to you, well, then you have got a great memory, because I did a little interview with her last year! If you’d like to refresh your memory, or read more about this fascinating writer & blogger & all together lovely person, head on over here for our Q&A!
Katie is also writing at her wonderful new blog/project A Living Witch, which you will definitely want to peek in at, as well.
This article was originally posted at Haute Macabre in April of 2017.
As a child, and even today, I am utterly transfixed when confronted by ornate wallpaper patterns. I often find myself stopping mid-sentence, entranced, when tracing the intricate imagery with my eye, delighted by surprising things which begin to emerge from the whorls and swirls of the repeating motifs. I always thought it would be a hoot to try and sketch the things I saw contained within those marbled, mottled microcosms, but in the end I never do. Though, artists, I do wish you would steal that idea and make a collaborative coffee table book with your results. I’d be your first customer!
The wallpapered visions of my childhood, in the late 70s through early 80s were pretty trippy, and sometimes gave me nightmares (I was a weird, impressionable kid and I suspect I experience pareidolia), but you know what? For all of my histrionics and delayed bedtimes, at least I can say that they never poisoned me.
Unfortunate souls purportedly poisoned by arsenical wallpapers in the mid-to-late 1800s, however, would no doubt beg to differ.
Long regarded as a waste product from mining, and commonly known as a poisonous substance, arsenic nonetheless had myriad uses in the Victorian household: in food and food colorings with which one one ate and entertained, in lady’s soaps and cosmetics applied to one’s person; in the dresses, hats, and stockings that one wore on a daily basis and special occasions; in the painted toys one’s children delightedly played with (and probably put in their mouths, because, children); and not to mention the handy powder used to rid one’s home of vermin…or to rid one’s self of a few pesky relative or two– hence the nickname “inheritance powder”.
And, of course, for interior design.
In 1775 Swedish chemist Carl Scheele developed the vivid green pigment known as Scheele’s green, made from the compound copper arsenite; the depth of color and superb pigmentation made it highly sought after for clothing and interior manufactures–perfect for domestic décor and to color the florid opulence of the paper hangings that were so desired during this period.
Floral motifs, arabesque designs, and trompe l’oeil illusions, as well as panoramic landscapes were the distinctive style of the French designers, whom the British admired for their air of elegance and luxury. The tide was to shift, however, in favor of the British, whose skilled block-printing and imaginative and innovative designs were considered so fashionable that the French employed spies to discover the secrets of the papiers d’Angleterre. Who knew the world of wallpaper manufacture and design was so thrilling? I can almost imagine these creators as contestants on a reality television show…except…there is of course, a deadly twist.
During this time, England and many European countries produced wallpaper laced with arsenic. And while several of them were relatively quick to recognize the problem and ban such products—this was not the case for England. Even as the products’ hazards started to become a hot button topic in drawing rooms and gentleman’s clubs, many people actually pooh-poohed these warnings as fear-mongering, as they still believed that these design items somehow differed from purposely toxic arsenic items. It would be several years and many campaigning committees, committed lobbyists, shocking headlines, satirical cartoons, and even a sensationalist novel before opinions were to change.
Over in the US, chemist Robert Kedzie included examples of wallpaper poisoning in his “Poisonous Papers” essay for the Michigan State Board of Health, and as part of a campaign to alert the public to the dangers of arsenical wallpapers, Kedzie collected wallpaper samples from stores in Detroit, Lansing, and Jackson, and hand them trimmed into 100 books, which he distributed to libraries throughout Michigan. Titled Shadows From The Walls Of Death, the books were remarkably effective means of publicizing the dangers of arsenic in wallpaper.
William Morris, an artist and designer associated with both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, designed some of the most iconic wallpapers of the era (and, incidentally, was the son of the man whose company was the largest arsenic producer in the country).
Like many of his contemporaries, most of Morris’s well-known early designs contained arsenic-based colors and like most Victorians he seems to have experienced a disconnect as it relates to the poisonous arsenic that made the headlines and that which he used in his design pigments for the beautification of people’s homes. Morris summarily dismissed health concerns about arsenic-based pigments in wallpapers. A letter written by Morris to his dye manufacturer in 1885 states, “a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten by witch fever.”
No problem here, Morris assures us, nothing to see, carry on! A strange and rather blasé attitude from someone thought to be an environmentalist and champion of worker rights and safety provisions.
Nonetheless, Morris & Co. bowed to pressure and removed arsenic from its wallpapers voluntarily in 1880. While in other countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Italy, it was the development of regulatory measures and legislation prohibiting the use of poisons and other harmful substances, the wallpapers in Britain began to be marketed as arsenic-free “entirely as a result of British demand, rather than by any action of the British government.” As general opinion turned against the companies that used arsenic in their wallpaper colors, “the people of Britain used the power of their pocketbooks to make the presence of arsenic in wallpapers obsolete, and as a result, their homes no longer held a fatal secret.”
I’ve been ruminating on the captivating and dangerously beautiful Victorian wallpaper facsimiles in Lucinda Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever for a few months now, and wouldn’t you know– as soon as I sat down to start writing something about it in the last few weeks, not one, but two articles about the very same thing appeared on my radar. It would seem that this toxic topic holds a macabre fascination for us, even today.
And as usual, such interests are cyclical; back in 2003 Andy Meharg of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland published a piece regarding a chemical analysis performed on an early example of the ‘Trellis’ pattern wallpaper. The Trellis pattern is believed to be Morris’s first wallpaper and was produced from 1864 onwards. In damp rooms, it is believed, fungi living on the wallpaper paste turned the arsenic salts into highly toxic trimethylarsine and sickened people. Reports Meharg: “I analysed the green pigment by energy-dispersive analysis and showed unequivocally that the coloration was caused by a copper arsenic salt.” Interestingly, enough, two years later in 2005, a Royal Society of Chemistry published an article titled “The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth” and in attempting to read it, I’ll admit, it’s a bit over my head, but my point is that it would seem to be an enduring obsession.
Let us for now then, gaze at these exquisite plates and wallpaper tiles from the relative safety of our computer screens, or from the pages of Hawksley’s stunning compilation, without fear of “internal irritations”, paralysis, and other mysterious illnesses.