Once upon a time at Vivacity City Gallery

The deep, dark wood, the wicked witch, the big, bad wolf... We all love folklore and fairytales – they’re part of our childhood that we never grow out of, blending deliciously dark themes and gruesome action with simple moral tales of good and evil. Now, a new exhibition by Art Pop-Up at Vivacity’s City Gallery entitled Once Upon a Time (March 17-May 21) gives fairytales a 21st century twist, exploring environmental issues in a range of media, from film to woodcarving – and even creating some entirely news tales with the help of local primary school pupils. The Moment talks to some of the artists involved...

Artist: Sam Roddan

How did the idea for Once Upon a Time come about?
It tied together the various different interests that we have as artists, and this idea of shifting morality. Sue Shields, who I’ve worked with several times before, also has an in-depth knowledge of folklore and fairytales, and we have a crossover of interest there. In my work I’m fascinated by how society deals with power and the structures within it, and to me fairytales and morality tales – showing how our perceptions of good and evil have shifted over time – are a really interesting reflection of that.

How are you weaving environmental themes into these old tales?
Take the plastic water bottle, which my piece is based on. It signifies numerous different things. It’s disposable, it’s useful, we’re supposed to be drinking more water to keep healthier, but the flipside is that it results in oceans full of plastic waste. So, making trees and a woodland glade from plastic water bottles seemed to make sense when we’re talking about how important it is for the environment to recycle.

What can visitors expect to find at exhibition?
Sheelah Mahalath Bewley is making a tower of Babel with doll’s houses, which will be sited within the woodland glade. Her work deals a lot with belief and how ingrained belief becomes – but it’s also one of those recurring symbols that occurs in fairytales, this hidden abode in the forest. We’re also working with an Estonian artist called Anu-Laura Tuttelberg, and she has made a beautiful 10 minute stop-motion animation, based around the idea of Little Red Riding Hood which will be showing throughout the exhibition. The works are mostly sculptural, but Sue has also written her very own fairytale! She is also making de-forested dryads – spirits of the trees – carved in wood, and starling ‘pods’, which relate to immigration.

We’re also working with three Peterborough schools – John Clare Primary, Nene Valley and West Town – doing illustration workshops so they will create a new fairytale with poet Mark Grist and illustrator Laura Barnard [see our interview with Mark Grist opposite]. Paper Rhino will be doing the overall art direction and design, pulling the narrative and illustrations together to produce this beautiful 32-page book with some pop-up elements to it, and that’ll be in the exhibition as well. The education programme is supported by Peterborough Presents, and Vivacity and the Woodland Trust are supporting the exhibition. The Woodland Trust’s National Tree Charter was started last year, and part of the exhibition will be the opportunity for people to sign up and support the Tree Charter before it’s presented to Parliament in November.

It sounds incredibly rich and varied…
Being conceptual sculptors, we don’t have a typical material that we work with – it’s always derived from the concept and message we’re trying to convey. Some sculptors always work in specific materials – stone or bronze or whatever – but conceptual sculptors take the message and concept and then choose the materials to best express it. For artists, it’s brilliant, the idea of this enchanted woodland glade. It carries such symbolism, and its open to anybody and everybody – it can be explored in so many different ways and every viewer can take something away from it. Fairytales stretch the imagination – in a way there’s no limit to them.

Artist: Sue Shields

‘One thing I am doing is taking the traditional role of the starling in fairytales – starlings are very good at mimicry, so they were associated with witches and regarded as witches familiars, like the black cat – and also the “murmurations” or patterns that large numbers of starlings make in the sky, into which a lot of meaning was placed. But I’m using these to illustrate modern concerns – how their numbers are declining rapidly, mostly because of agriculture, where one crop is grown to the exclusion of everything else which provides very little for ground-feeding birds.

‘So, I’m doing a soft starling sculpture – textile based – and getting a thatcher who lives in rural Cambridgeshire to make a reed bed for me, and then suspending above it like a murmuration. They’re made out of cloth, but hung in a way a taxidermist might hang an animal to dry. I’m also learning how to carve, making primitive eads that are to do with dryads – spirits of the trees. Every living tree has a dryad associated with it, and generally in art they’re quite sexualised – strapping women with pouty lips – but mine won’t be like that! They’re more like African masks, and made out of found wood with acorn eyes and hair made from Old Man’s Beard, with twigs for their bones. That’s to do with deforestation.

‘Here in Peterborough we’re lucky enough to have PECT who are actively planting urban trees, because it is well established that green spaces in urban environments are beneficial for mental health, in addition to cleaning the air and helping prevent flooding. But there’s an issue raging at the moment in Sheffield over the cutting down of trees in the city. So, I’ve written my own fairy story, based on the battle in Sheffield, but with wider connotations to our treatment of trees. It combines that with elements of the Pied Piper and an old Russian folk tale called Old Mother Lime Tree.

‘I’m doing what is effectively hand-printed wallpaper with a depiction of that story. That also includes starlings, who come to the city but are no longer welcome – a reflection of our attitudes towards immigration at the moment, because some starlings also migrate. Old Mother Lime Tree goes to talk to the trees in the city, and they decide that humanity doesn’t know any better, so all the old trees pull up their roots and leave – all but one, which is hemmed in by tarmac. It’s a grim tale!’

Poet: Mark Grist

‘I’m working with pupils across three primary schools to create a completely new fairytale. The pupils have created their own characters and designed what they look like, and we’ve been working on the magical forest it’s going to be set in – we have some really cool ideas for that!

‘All the pupils have also been creating their own fairytale stories and now I’m going through every one of these and taking out moments so we can have a kind of collaborative story that talks about this forest. It also talks about the importance of looking after our forests. The stories are all very funny, too! Next, our artist Laura Barnard, along with Paper Rhino, is going to take all this and the kids’ designs, and create a pop-up book from it all.

‘It’s been really exciting taking these idea they’ve been coming up with. All their stories have a really strong beginning middle and end, with lots of jeopardy and conflict. They’ve been really good at raising the stakes and finding additional ways to make things more tricky! And also providing amazingly creative ways of solving the problems – lots of stuff that I could never come up with, which is what’s always so exciting about working with young people.

‘There are some great evil characters. We have a witch, an evil king who keeps throwing things away and building new castles, and a monster that just wants to eat everything. What they’re really showing, all these evil characters, is negative qualities that we have within ourselves – greed, jealousy and so on. But there’s also resourcefulness, resilience and positivity to combat them. You have these deeper, underlying message in all fairytales, and I think that’s why we’re so interested in them.’

Once Upon a Time by Art Pop-Up 17 March-21 May City Gallery, Peterborough  

The project is supported by Vivacity, The Woodland Trust, Natural England, Peterborough Environmental Trust, the Kiwanis, The Ernest Cook Trust and Mid UK. The education programme is led by Paper Rhino with Mark Grist and Laura Barnard and supported by Peterborough Presents.  


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