N A R R A T I O N S & F A B R I C A T I O N S

  • MOTH PROOF

    My only encounter with a Death's-head hawkmoth was in Kensal Green Cemetery, on the grave of the nineteenth century 'Colossus of Equestrians', Andrew Ducrow. His Greco-Egyptian mausoleum is - as you would expect of a circus performer - large and impressive, just like the moth.

    Moths fascinate and repel me in equal measure. I may even be Mottephobic, such is their affect, but that day, standing beneath the shadowy trees, barely breathing, the sight of this largest of British moths (it has a 12cm wingspan) was extraordinary and memorable.

    The Death's-head hawkmoth has a sinister reputation, doubtless due to the skull motif on its thorax that gives it its moniker. The Latin names of its sub-species: 'atropos', 'lachesis' and 'styx' are taken from Greek myth and all relate to death. These are brazen moths that raid beehives for honey undisturbed due to their ability to mimic the scent of bees, and if irritated in the world beyond, will produce loud, mouse-like squeaks.

    The Victorian entomologist Edward Newman wrote: "…let the cause of the noise be what it may, the effect is to produce the most superstitious feelings among the uneducated, by whom it is always regarded with feelings of awe and terror."

    Its literary associations with the supernatural and evil have indeed fostered superstitious fear and bad omens. The species unsurprisingly features in 'Dracula', as well as works by Poe, Hardy and Keats, and is cinematically recorded in 'Un Chien Andalou' and 'The Silence of The Lambs'.

    There is even a specimen in the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge, retrieved from the bedroom of George III by his physician during the monarch's second bout of 'madness' in 1801. Though I don't know which is the more intriguing; the eerie insect or the story of its regal provenance…

    All of this caused me to return to my box of human hair, which en masse shares a tonal colour palette with the Death's-head hawkmoth, yet never seems to diminish. The ever-lasting - mothproof - properties of the medium (and wanting create something substantial to make a dent in its content) made hair the appropriate choice to capture a Death's-head hawkmoth, albeit one ten times its size.

    This work will be on display in my studio alongside other new pieces during Cockpit Arts Open Studios from 9 to 11 June 2017 - should you wish to see it in the flesh…

    Opening times:

    Friday 5 - 9pm, Saturday & Sunday 11am - 6pm

    Cockpit Yard, Northington St, London WC1N 2NP

    Main image: Igor Siwanowicz

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  • HAIR RECEIVER

    Some of the contents in the box of human hair found in the street (recounted in my last post), has been made into new work, mostly pummeled and pounded into felt of different forms and sizes. Although at the time of its finding, I was exploring a different union, that of ebony and hair.

    I had recently bought some antique ebony including a hair receiver, a yogurt sized pot with a finger sized hole in its lid. This was an accoutrement into which a Victorian lady would stuff the loose hairs from her brush until she had sufficient strands to make a 'ratt', a potato-sized hairnet-encased cushion over which to fashion the hair still attached to her scalp into the voluminous style of the day.

    A century later, hair receivers are often mis-sold as inkpots or pencil stands. I love the name. It makes me think of Bakelite telephones and messages from the spirit world – both things that were reflected in the first piece I made, which additionally combined an unruly length of russet hair.

    I hadn't envisaged that the incorporated hair would conjure up thoughts of ectoplasm; the supernatural viscous substance supposedly exuded from a medium during a spiritualistic trance while manifesting spirits, and widely considered a hoax made from cheesecloth, gauze or other natural substances.

    I bought more hair receivers and other ebony artifacts, along the way learning that the blackness of the wood was often enhanced, and the pieces, which ranged from candlesticks to crumb-brushes, were frequently screwed together.

    Unscrewing the components for restoration, I reconfigured them into new ensembles. I cooked up my own filler, drilled or sawed arrangements that didn't quite fit, and a restorer showed me a trick to regulate the different shades of black.

    Each piece incorporates varying quantities of russet hair as a memento mori to the eternal properties of the substance. The resulting work is an unlikely harmony of dissenting parts, seemingly purposeful, yet without apparent function.

    Working with ebony is slow and requires patience. The finest quality looks more like shiny plastic than fine-grained timber. It is a hard oily wood that clogs drill bits, causes steam to rise when it gets too hot and emits a slightly fishy smell. Not quite smoke and mirrors. But almost…

    Summer Open Studios

    Friday 9 June (5-9pm)

    Saturday 10 & Sunday 11 June (11am-6pm)

    Cockpit Arts, Cockpit Yard,

    Northington Street,

    London, WC1N 2NP

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  • A METAPHORICAL HAIR SHIRT

    An unexpected gift came my way on Valentine's Day, when someone at the studio said he'd spotted a box dumped in the street and, on seeing its contents, had thought of me. He'd even taken a photo. Was I interested…? It was a box of wigs.

    The junction he directed me to has been strewn with curious things in the past, so I couldn't get there fast enough, increasing my pace the closer I got, just in case some like-minded soul was doing the same from another direction. The box was surprisingly heavy as I scooped it up, only then noticing that it contained not wigs, but real lengths of hair. What treasure! What creations I could make…

    Within minutes, I was overcome by guilt. I thought of a friend who'd donated her long hair to a children's charity to be made into a wig. How could I justify keeping the hair? Close examination revealed dozens of plaits in various colours and styles; natural, dyed, curly, waved, frizzy and straight, and all tightly bound at each end.

    My bounty was rapidly becoming a burden, and I decided I shouldn't think too deeply about what I could make with it. I texted my news to a friend, who requested a few pieces for his 'office dressing up box'. No way! I had now started moralising about the hair and its ownership. I thought about the original donors. And potential future recipients…

    The charity's website had a list of requirements, and the clean-smelling, fragrance-free hair seemed to tick all the 'suitable' boxes, except… it had to exceed 17cm in length because 10cm is lost when a wig is made due to the knotting process.

    All the boxed hair was too short. That was why it had been discarded.

    Now the self-imposed weight has been lifted from my shoulders, I have yet to decide what I am going to make, though feel an inexplicable responsibility to keep it all together.

    I have long celebrated the potency of hair in my work. It is a medium that flags fashion trends, reveals the status of our health and diet, as well as our ancestral DNA. I believe it retains the aura and energy of the person connected with it. Hair has a biological life cycle while we live and, since it doesn't rot, gains an eternal existence once we die. It is the remains, the absence and the memory of a person.

    I must honour it wisely.

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NARRATIONS & FABRICATIONS

Artist Jane Hoodless presents a personal glimpse at some criminal, cultural and curious aspects of British social history, and shares a little of the inspiration and research behind the work she creates.

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