Jane Glynn is “Out in the Woods”: Uncanny fairy tales and the Wild (wise) woman

I’ve been interested in researching and learning about what is going on in exhibitions and artistic manifestations. I have a particular interest in how women artists convey existential questions or subtle concerns of daily life. In this quest, I am delighted to review the work of Letchworth-based artists Jane Glynn, at the Letchworth Arts Centre (1-22 December, 2013). The exhibition title is “Out in the Woods” and it includes the every day task of drawing a “face”.  Previously, Jane had taken the mission of creating a book everyday: meaning, producing, assembling the artifact and sometimes drawing or painting in it.  This year, faces and figures of girls started to emerge, almost unconsciously. The artist said that she did not really govern what was coming, she just let the “faces” to come out through the drawings. The result is  impressive, most of the faces are from girls who look at you, interrogate you, haunt you, surprise you, sadden you, cheer you… the collection is varied: different media is used, charcoal, ink, crayons, pastels or watercolors. The girls decide what to wear as their medium.

The reference to “girlhood” is also connected to a visual narrative of fairy tales. But be aware that this is not the saccharine Disney’s version of the traditional stories. As the artist remarks, the original tales touch a very dark side of imagination: the Grimm Brothers deal with violent topics, quests and adventures; while Hans Christian Anderson’s tend to describe more personal and intimate agonies. Jane is an amazing story teller, and she has a gift for taking you to the realms of fantasy and imagination. In the few meetings I have had the pleasure to talk to her, there is always a tale to tell: last time, prior to the exhibition, she was weaving a long piece of rope to be hanged from her window at the Ferens Building (Digswell Arts Trust Studios-).  Jane reminded us of the tale:

(I will try to tell the story but it may lose some of the fascination created by Jane’s version)

“It is one of those Grimm’s stories, in which a woman is pregnant and craves certain fruits that grow in the next door garden. The garden happens to be owned by an enchantress or a witch who caught the husband stealing the fruit, and in retaliation asks him to give her the unborn baby. The baby turn to be a beautiful girl, who is named Rapunzel, as the fruit craved by the pregnant mother. The girl is then brought up by the witch who imprisoned her in a high tower. Every night the witch calls: ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair’… (hair, again!)  One day, a prince sees Rapunzel and he calls her using the same phrase… Rapunzel lets her hair down and the prince climbs up the tower. They fall in love and plan to escape, but the witch learns about their plans and she cuts Rapunzel hair and lock her away. The following night the prince  called Rapunzel  and the witch gets him up using Rapunzel’s plaited hair… once he is up he meets the sorcerer and she pushes out of the tower. Falling down, the prince hurts his eyes and become blind… Rapunzel is expelled to the woods where she gives birth to the Prince’s twins… One day…

(what happens next, I let you find out… but don’t worry… in some versions it has a happy ending!)

Fairy tales are central to Jane Glynn’s work, her illustrations are dense and full of meanings… in her own interpretation of Rapunzel, she creates an eerie animation, with blurred borders between the familiar sides of the story and the more ‘sinister’ aspects. In other words, she captures the “uncanny” in western fairy tales, that familiar yet uncomfortable feeling we get when we hear the whole story… Clearly, there is much more than the “happy ending” but a number of quests and challenges to overcome. Not surprisingly, in a market oriented world, those stories have been deprived of the dark side, but in doing so, they are robbed of their holistic meaning. Likewise, as suggested by Freud in his use of this term, there is a connection between the ‘uncanny’ and the familiar, as two polarities in need in conciliation. In this exhibition, Jane Glynn connects the ‘girls’ with that place in our minds that is seldom approached. On the contrary, what her work suggests is to enter into these realms  to be “out in the woods” and get in touch with the primeval, the intuition, the inner wisdom that is normally quieted in the ever noisy modern world.

This return to the primeval in the female mind recalls the groundbreaking work of Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes titled: “Women who run with the wolves”. In this book, Pinkola dissects the “fairy tales” as potent reminders for women of tangible and intangible dangers, but also, these tales propose the solution.  Take for example, the “Red Shoes” story, whereby a girl is seduced by the sparkling red slippers that make her dance and dance and dance without any control… how this can be applied to our modern lives as women: tempted by the multiplicity of roles we “can” play. The successful executive, the brilliant mother, the sexy lover, the loyal friend, the responsible daughter, the intellectual, the artist, the educator!  How many times we have been “sucked” into the whirling world of endless tasks and obligations. Ok, I speak by myself, taking on board big projects, stretching my hours to the limit, trying to be “perfect” and not let anybody down… running against deadlines, pursuing the next challenge, the promised promotion, the prestige of a position, a title, an identity in red shoes…  And we whirl and twirl until we collapse!

In a similar way, Jane Glynn’s illustrations are each of them a reminder of the intuitive powers that we try to silence. The girls talk from the woods of our imagination and inner wisdom. As in the folk tale of BabaYaga  (very common in Russian’s children literature in the Slavic tradition) the ‘wild woman’ is feared, and yet, she holds the fire and the power to heal. The heroine, Vasilisa, approach her in trepidation but is guided by her “inner voice’ of how to deal with BabaYaga’s multiple challenges: cooking and cleaning, metaphors of nurturing and clearing of our minds and bodies.


The artist took the Master Degree in Children’s Book Illustration (Anglia Ruskin University), a very appropriate field for developing her incisive view on children’s stories and tales. This exhibition relates to her recently published book “My sister likes”  published in German by Carl Auer. The interesting thing here is how she weaves the language of children’s books with a more sophisticated message, captured cleverly by children, whose wisdom we tend to ignore.

Finally, I would like to refer to the curation of this exhibition presented in the form of grids or quilts made with each of the illustrations. The artist was inspired by the exhibition of a quilt belonging to her great great great grand mother in a Museum in Norfolk. This ancestral connection represents a material weaving of female wisdom, and it also refers to the “Wild Woman” or the wild girls in Jane Glynn’s exhibition. This serendipitous decision is actually a master stroke considering that quilting is can be both domestic and subversive.  Academic quilter, Ann Rippin explains:  

‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ in The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker.  Parker’s thesis is that young women were taught the qualities of femininity – taught how to be women – by being taught embroidery.  They were taught quietness, self-containment, composure, to keep their heads down, to be neat, to be diligent, to see things through, to be silent and content with their own company.  And to be happy to stay at home.  [Roszika Parker] also states that young women were taught to copy designs and not to be independently creative.  Parker suggests that this was so successful that embroidery and femininity became synonymous: embroidery was women’s work, and thus we are set up to find the super man in his glory Christie, funny when he picks up a little cross stitch.  The Subversive Stitch has just been republished and is well worth getting hold of.  Its title comes from Parker’s theory that women have always used needlework as a way of making statements about their worlds and of challenging societal norms and constraints placed upon them.

After attending this exhibition I realized how I feel increasingly attracted towards exploring that contentious field of “feminine art”… it is not a coincidence that the most thought provoking exhibitions I’ve attended in recent months are presented by women artists. From my own perspective as a female artist, I cannot deny that the topics I explore can be included in the category of “feminine art”: botanical illustrations (there is a longstanding tradition of female botanists whose contributions to the field are still unacknowledged!); or my work around Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, as an icon of feminine art or feminism… but this has to be left for a next post!



Thanks Jane for inviting us to your wonderful world “out in the woods”!


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