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Storytelling and Narrative Art

This is a slightly edited version of an article that was published by in Facts and Fiction magazine Issue 103, November 2017).

According to the magazine’s website:

‘Facts and Fiction is the only independent national storytelling magazine in the UK. (Although UK based its outlook is worldwide and it often includes articles about and from other storytelling cultures and has subscribers in many other countries.) F&F was founded by Richard Montague in 1991 and Richard Walker (Mogsy) took over as editor in 1993. Present editor, Pete Castle, succeeded him after Richard's untimely death in 1999 so it has always been edited by a working storyteller.’

(accessed 10/6/18)

I am a regular subscriber to Facts and Fiction, and would recommend it to anyone interested in storytelling and folklore. To subscribe to Facts and Fiction, click here.

Please note that all of the links in the article were live on the date of editing (10/6/18)


Surrey Storytellers meet the Fabula Collective

Among the usual dross that pops-up on Facebook, and other social media sites, there is the occasional nugget of gold, and when I read a post by the Children’s Laurette, Chris Riddell, recommending ‘Ways to Tell a Story’, an exhibition by the Fabula Collective at the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, it had all the signs of a seam of precious metal. And so it turned out to be. The exhibition was advertised as presenting ‘old stories retold in exciting new ways and new stories being shared for the first time in this display bringing together the 17 artists of the Fabula Collective. Told through many different visual methods – drawing, making, animation, film and photography.’ The Fabula Collective is a ‘multi-disciplinary collective’ of artists who first met on the MA Sequential Design/Illustration and the MA Arts and Design by Independent Project courses at the University of Brighton. According to their website, ‘The group come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines including illustration, moving image, writing, narrative textiles, art therapy, fine art, and graphic design and are connected by a desire to tell stories through images, objects and text.’

After visiting the exhibition in February 2017, I contacted Juliette Rajak, one of the artists, and enquired about obtaining a copy of her work (see right) and, from this initial contact, a group of the artists of the collective invited me to return to the gallery with some other storytellers to meet with them so that we could discuss the connections between their art and storytelling. Having posted photographs of the exhibition on Facebook as ‘teasers’, I extended the invitation to some of the regular tellers at Surrey Storytellers (which meets once a month as the Three Heads in a Well storytelling club in Ewell, on the London/Surrey border (click here for the website).

In the middle of April, I returned to Hove with Trish Chiltern, Effie Gemi-Iodanou, Martin Hunka, Belinda McKenna and Richard Trouncer to meet three members of The Fabula Collective: Louise Dennis, Penelope Chong and Dagmara Rudkin. As storytellers, we each bring an individual approach to the storytelling process, both in the way that we conceptualise stories and in the way that we tell them, and the artists similarly represented a range of ideas about story and different methods of representation. Topics in the shared conversation reflected the diverse interests of both the storytellers and the artists and included: mythology; therapeutic art and storytelling; autobiography; the role of play in story and art; the tensions between improvisational freedom and the necessity of structure; and, finally, the nature of truth in art and story. There was no set agenda for this encounter but, rather, we let the works in the exhibition provide talking points for the artists (who discussed the inspiration behind the works, and the processes in making them) and storytellers (who identified connections with the ways in which they find stories that are ‘waiting to be told’ and adapt them for live performance). What follows, then, is a series of vignettes that represent the principal areas of discussion, with photos of, or weblinks to, the works of art over which the talk tumbled and around which ideas were woven.

Traditional fairy stories featured heavily in the works in the exhibition, with direct references to versions of stories from the Grimms, Perrault and Anderson. In particular, Assieputtel and Cinderella were represented in works by Louise and Vanessa Marr, as well as in the collaborative piece, ‘The Story Cabinets’ (which includes a miniature box set used in the creation of an animation film). From the outside, Louise's piece is quite clearly constructed from a cardboard box, while the inside is finely rendered in paper and card sculpture. An ascending white staircase is easily seen in natural light, with adjacent wallpaper which is decorated with birds, shoes, branches and dresses; however, as the stairs turn at the ground level, they descend into the darkness of a basement. With the help of a torch, the viewer can see down the stairs to an undecorated room with a floor which is strewn with ashes, and this is where we find a two-dimensional barefoot girl dressed in rags (rendered in pen and ink). This is, of course, Aschenputtel (the Grimms’ version of Cinderella), and returning to the well-lit staircase we find a three-dimensional (and beautifully made) golden shoe which is resting, abandoned, on a middle stair. Not only does Louise invite the viewer to recognise motifs of the tale but to also explore the story in their own order. Whilst the stairs create a narrative core, the viewer naturally starts with the part of the work that is naturally lit, only then realising there is more to explore as you follow the stairs down into the basement. Thus we make sense of the story by reading it backwards, moving from light to darkness (whereas the published narrative takes us from the darkness of Aschenputtel’s oppression by her step-family, to the light of her rebirth as a princess). The torch allows us to explore, in an order of our own choosing, symbols which identify stages in the narrative: the tree as marker of Aschenputtel’s mother’s grave; the child in the cellar; the birds which help Aschenputtel; the dress and shoes which enable her to meet the prince; and the abandoned shoe that identifies her as his true bride. The spartan nature of the exhibit means that every element sits within its own space and is easily identified – perhaps serving as a metaphor for the storyteller who, when choosing a story to tell, is looking for some aspect of the narrative which stands out and upon which they can hang the story.

The Story Cabinets similarly highlight story motifs in order to draw the viewer to recognise a story and then ‘tell’ it for themselves. In contrast to Louise’s work, the range of motifs for each tale displayed Story Cabinets is more limited, presenting the bare minimum needed to suggest a specific story. There is a river of shredded paper, through which ripples of printed text tumble over each other, and on which seven brothers are caught at the point of being returned to their natural forms from their enchanted state as swans. Following the river to its end, we find Cinderella’s coach facing the grave tree from Aschenputtel, while curling up the side of one of the cabinets is an over-sized beanstalk surmounted with a giant pair of legs. As the beanstalk twists upwards, it glances the sides of a four-poster bed in which a girl sleeps on a pile of mattresses, between two of which a pea is clearly visible. Round the other side a bunch of oversized keys hangs over the scenes below, each key marked with a reminder of the means by which Bluebeard dispatches his wives – the unfortunate women’s heads hanging below. As with Louise’s work, the viewer has to sequence the motifs for themselves in order to construct the relevant story, or indeed create a new one.

A contrasting approach is demonstrated in one of the cabinets which contain three almost

identical towers which tell a sequence from the story of Rapunzel: the first tower with a firmly closed top window, the second with an open window from which hangs an inviting length of hair, and the third on which the braid has been replaced with a ladder – presumably woven by Rapunzel from the pieces of silk that the prince brings her, but sadly unused as the couple’s escape plan is discovered by the witch. This sequential and linear representation is perhaps unusual in narrative art, and has a direct relationship with comic strips where events are represented as a graphic plot.

Based on our own expectations that stories will be linear, it is very easy to project sequential narrative onto art and Penelope’s beautiful hand printed mezzotints ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ presents what appears to be large format film strip of a relationship between two coat-hangers which are shown in moments captured as they spin around each other. However, the artist explains that the images are not, in fact, sequential, but that each image represents a key event in the relationship between the ‘lovers’, so that it is like a series of flashbacks/memories which only become story when they are reordered by the viewer.

The different methods, and media used, to present story motifs prompted conversations about the different approaches that storytellers take to adapting and learning the stories both in the selection and inclusion of specific elements, and the way that in which sequences of events are memorised. Belinda explained how she tries to find a symbolic and significant element of the narrative (such as an object) around which the story can turn. She then explored the function that such objects can serve in the narrative. This search for a ‘hook’ is something that several of the storytellers could relate to, but for each one the hook served a different narrative function. Belinda’s approach is one that had much in common with the work in the exhibition where the artists had chosen individual and recognisable motifs to represent each story. Each of these has a symbolic resonance beyond simply being something that we remember from a tale. In particular, the work of Vanessa Marr was particularly striking: it explores the role of women in traditional tales with a series of traditional yellow cotton dusters embroidered in red thread with symbols (such as an iron) and texts (such as ‘locked in Silent Slumber Awaiting Loves [sic] first kiss’), each of which is related to women’s roles in story. As someone with an interest in gender roles in fairy tale (specifically from a ‘queer’ perspective), I reflected on how I try to raise issues of class and gender within traditional tales as I tell them. So, during a story I may challenge the audience about the representations of men and women – for instance, questioning Snow White’s domestic role in the household of the dwarfs. The conversation, though, did remind me that my approach to story is more structural than thematic and, although plotting events in a linear sequence, I give a lot of thought to mapping relationships between the key features of the story, and then events are narrated around the pattern of these relationships.

Dagmara’s work, ‘The Story of Henny Penny’, rather than being motif driven, concentrated on the characters of the story of Henny Penny (or Chicken Little), the exhibit in the gallery being

the figures that were used in her animation film of the same title (you can find the animation using this link). Each of the characters, Henny, The Fox, the Cockerel and the Goose is made from household objects that relate to the personality of each character. So, the materials used in the construction of the louche Cockerel include playing cards, while the head and neck of the domestically-minded Goose is formed from a rubber glove. For the purposes of her presentation of the story , then, the bare and two dimensional characters, typical of written accounts of folk and fairy tales, have been filled out so that they become recognisable personalities rather than simply labels attached to characters that have no existence beyond their functions within the narrative. Effie made links here with the mythic stories of her Greek heritage in which a character (such as Heracles) develops throughout a series of tales in which they appear; this means that they develop more individuality than the fairy or folk tale characters that are common in the European tradition. The discussion then broadened to the way in which several of us (Richard, Effie, Belinda and I) have drawn, in our tellings, on autobiographical stories, either as stand-alone tales or ones that are woven together with traditional stories, and the way in which we have chosen those aspects of ourselves that we are prepared to reveal in our telling, and those events which are excluded from any retelling because they reveal that which we prefer to be hidden.

This final conversation led naturally into discussions of the nature of truth in story. Indeed, the common thread running through the encounter between tellers and artists was the idea that when we tell stories, either orally or through visual art, we make choices about the version of the tale that we wish to tell. We, therefore, choose which events and motifs will be included, omitted, emphasised or played down, and how they will be combined in order to engage our audiences and convince them of the truths that we wish to convey.

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