Like hansel and gretel and generations of other lost children, I have been following a trail. I first drew a girl with a house on her head after hearing my eight-year-old niece say her head was like a house, with rooms in which she could shut things she didn’t want to think about and lock the door. I gave the house-headed girl a companion, dressed in a bear suit. The choice had to do with my own loving, yet fierce, sister and the contradictions inherent in teddy bears as a child’s comfort when bears in the wild are so fierce. This led me to a sequence of images and stories from antiquity to the present of girls in animal skins: the ancient cult of Artemis that dressed girls in bearskins in the borderlands to do a ritual dance to ward off sexual life from coming on too soon; the tale of St Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill, who ran away with a monk to escape her father’s incestuous advances, wearing a jester’s hat (donkey’s ears); the literary fairy tales of the seventeenth century onward that echo St Dymphna’s tale of girls running away in bearskins, cat skins, donkey skins.
My work is about childhood and negotiating traumatic experience. In a bigger sense, it is about how power structures create trauma and how the little folk survive within those structures. I want to understand how the stories we tell—whether they are family lore, fairy tales, or cultural myth—are [End Page 129] woven together to create systems and identity as well as counterculture. My work is about finding my way through the dark forest and figuring out how to get out of the gingerbread house without being eaten. It is about storytelling and the ways that telling tales help us navigate emotionally difficult terrain. It is also about how all stories, even true stories, are just fragments. I deeply believe in the importance of myth and symbol, of narrative as a process rather than an end point. What matters to me is that my drawings conjure (and make light too) of our fears. I want them to make the viewer feel like it is okay to struggle and to ask questions about how we struggle, adapt, and survive through difficult circumstances. I want the pictures to vacillate: between truth and fiction, between past and present, between power and fear. In this way my work stimulates dialogue. This doesn’t happen by chance. I use recognizable imagery rendered realistically through many details within a fanciful, surreal but somewhat familiar context so that people will become absorbed, perhaps lost in the magic of the illusion only to realize something’s not right here and begin to ask questions: How should I feel toward these subjects? Are they in a state of change or is this their wholeness? What is the truth? Who gets to tell the story? Where am I in all of this?
I use pencil on paper because it is so primary, so simple. Children use pencil as a first tool to learn to write and to make manifest their imaginings. Pencil reminds us of writing and tracing. We know that it is fragile, erased, and gone in a second. But that erasure is never complete, leaving a lasting mark that becomes part of the fabric of experience on the page. I layer the images and use elaborate border work to contradict the idea of one central truth. You never know where the real ground is in my work, nor the true story. My drawings, like narrative and memory, are circular and strange and contradictory.
What drives my work is my desire to give shape to things that can’t be seen in the real world: a girl with a house for a head, a hot air balloon covered in eyes, a half-bear woman, my mother as a tree. I want to make figurative traits seem literal—a girl who bears the burden of all the family secrets she has heard is shown to have a...