Last month I dropped by the Centrespace studios – a cooperative space for artists and designers, with a gallery, in Bristol – to pay a visit to artist Eleanor Glover who is currently working on a rather special project involving a suitcase, a few old umbrellas, a shower-curtain, some cornflake packets, guitar strings and a couple of pieces of recycled wood. Experimenting with sculpture and calligraphy, Eleanor’s works to date have all told stories and her fascination with shadows and the ‘shadow self’ (a concept which stems from Jungian psychology and its exploration of the darker, repressed and unconscious sides of ourselves), can be seen in her wonderfully expressive sculptures – for example in Shadow/Self and What It Is where shadows add an ethereal dimension to the physical piece. Birds are also a recurrent feature in her work (for example in the sculptures Pin Hole, A Close Examination, Ark, Passage and Once) and seem to represent extensions of their human character counterparts – they are at once companions, messengers and perhaps the embodiment of human fantasy in that they are able to fly, and in that flight achieve a freedom, that we can only imagine and long for. Eleanor’s works are intensely personal, thoughtful, brave and humorous – so I was very excited to find out more about her latest ventures into the world of shadow puppetry theatre…
Eleanor’s studio is a homely space accentuated by comforting signs of thought, contemplation and creation. Cardboard character cut-outs lay in piles around the room among the recycled materials, drawings and tools which would help bring them to life. Eleanor reached into a cupboard, pulled out a brown and black suitcase and laid it on the desk. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary suitcase but a travelling puppet theatre. Its front had been cut out and replaced with a screen made from an old shower curtain behind which her puppets come to life with the help of a small lamp. The stars of this suitcase stage are all made from recycled material such as cardboard which Eleanor seemed be relishing in the freedom of – “it’s not as exacting as wood; it doesn’t demand perfection” – she told me, as she started to animate one of the birds with the help of a guitar string contraption which moved its wings backwards and forwards.
Eleanor explained that her move into shadow puppetry was something of a natural progression from her mixed media narrative artwork. Earlier on in her career, she became apprentice to toy-maker Ron Fuller, creator of magical mechanical toys and automata, which, along with the works of toy-maker, sculptor and talented visual artist Sam Smith, inspired her to begin her own experiments with characterisation through sculpture. As a child growing up in the ’80′s, I was given all sorts of electronic toys (such as a Speak ‘N Spell, a Light Bright and various mass produced dolls) but the only toys to have really stood the test of time in both my memory and my ‘save pile’ are two clever and intricate folk-tale inspired mechanical wooden toys that I was given when I was about five. They brought me endless pleasure and seemed to communicate with my young self in a way that the more fashionable electronic toys never managed to. Shadow puppetry, likewise, has communication at its centre and it’s something which both children and adults seem to respond to. Perhaps it’s the dreamlike state that these dances with shadows allow us to enter – almost as if it they take us away from the harshness of the world we live in and reconnect us with something more primordial, where it’s more acceptable to access and process deeper truths.
Since 2008 Eleanor has taken to the road with her portable theatre to perform a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Constant Tin Soldier, a story through which she felt she was also able to tell and communicate something of her own narrative. She’s performed at a variety of events and workshops including the Bath Literature Festival, the Black Swan Arts Centre in Frome and Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales – all to an enthusiastic reception but has also used the medium to help children growing up under challenging circumstances to tell their own difficult stories (apparently travelling to another planet is a popular theme with many of them). The children are encouraged to get involved with all aspects of the show, including the foley art (Robert Plant apparently once lent a hand as some thunder) and it has so far proved a successful medium for free expression.
A few weeks before my visit, Eleanor received the good news that she had won a place in Channel 4′s Random Shorts competition which has commissioned her to create a short shadow film with animator Emma Lazenby (a BAFTA award winning short-film animator in her own right). Eleanor is therefore currently in the process of working on a short shadow play she has written entitled The Visit, the storyboard for which was covering the back wall of her studio whilst I was there. I won’t spoil the story but it’s a poignant work which centres around a woman with a dog-shaped hole in her heart and draws on feelings of loss and sadness to create something which is ultimately uplifting. In Eleanor’s words “it’s about the desire for something you haven’t got, the journey that that takes you on and the ultimate realisation that perhaps you’ve got what you need to be happy all along”.
The Visit is due to screen on Channel 4 in Summer, 2013.
For more information and news on this and the works and workshops of Eleanor Glover, please visit her website at http://www.eleanor.glover.freeuk.com/index.html