From unicorns and fairy queens to giants and trolls; These are just some of the creatures that you will encounter when you stroll through the pages of Jenni Gudgeon’s debut book, Folkland Fables: Scottish Fairy Creatures.
Jenni is an award-winning photographic artist currently residing in Fife, and she has a lifelong fascination with mythical creatures and fairy-tales, which has been the main inspiration for most of her work.
‘Folkland Fables’ is written as a guide to the mythical creatures that you can find in Jenni’s local woods. Among the pages, you are encouraged to use your fairy-sight to spot various different mythical creatures. The book interweaves fantasy with reality, as there are also some real-world themes that are tackled, such as bullying and anxiety.
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Jenni at Asylum recently, where she held a signing for the release of her book. As someone who also grew up on fairy-tales and has a soft spot for all fantasy creatures, it was an absolute delight to sit down and chat about her work and be drawn into her world;
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I have been a photographer for 30 years and then I started learning to draw about 12 years ago. When I got confident enough at drawing I wanted to combine the two of them. I tried various things and etching into photos was the thing worked for me because there is gold underneath the surface of photos and I just loved it. So, it just started off with little patterns on photos and went bigger and bigger. Then, I had taken photos in my local woods and spent a year photographing the light and shade in there. So, when I started etching into the pictures I was just using the ones I already had around and I started etching what scary stuff could be lurking in the shadows.
One day I thought, ‘what exciting stuff could be lurking in the shadows as well?’, and then I etched part of my troll picture. When I was etching him I made up stories about why he was so sad, because no goats had ever ‘trip trapped’ across his bridge…poor troll. When I exhibited him I told this story and people were like, ‘Jenni this is a book’, and I thought, ‘I can’t write a book, don’t be ridiculous. I can barely draw, I don’t know if I could write a book as well!’. Then three days later I woke up with the first 3 lines in my head and went, ‘I am writing a book. What on earth do I do now?’. I have never had any ambitions to write books and I was never brilliant with words. I almost failed English at school. I had never done anything like this. Luckily a friend of mine is an author so she helped me and I spent a year learning how to write. Five years later I have brought out a book.
You have slightly answered the second question, which is great! It was just about your new book Folkland Fables and how did the process develop?
Yes! I don’t know if there is much else to say. The way I create the characters is by researching them online first, and then I put away the computer and get my notebook out and free-write about anything interesting that I picked up. That is where the characters and story come from. Then I turn the legends on their heads. I wonder how the mythology has shaped their characters and wonder what they would be like if they were real and if they were people you see every day, like your work-mates and your school-mates. I was trying to get lots of different types of people in there, my will-o-the-wisps are bullies, my kelpies have low self-esteem, and my giants are fun. I try to get all these mixes of people and act like they are people you see every-day.
I have noticed that your work is heavily inspired by mythology and fairy-tales.
I have always loved that! What I love about the art that I do is that the photograph is the reality and then what I etch into it is the human imagination and mythology. The photograph is what you will see if you are just there, but if you can see magical creatures then this is what you will see!
What initially drew you to these forms of story-telling?
According to my mum, one of my favourite books, when I was a toddler, was ‘3 Billy Goats Gruff’. I have just always loved mythological creatures, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ was one of my favourite books growing up, ‘Kingdom Under the Sea’ by Joan Aitken was another one. I have just always loved them!
Can you tell me a little bit about Folkland Fables and what readers can expect from it?
The book is written as a guide book to the mythical creatures who live in my local woods and left with the gnomes for the next person who sees fairytale creatures, and it was written by the last fairy-seer. So it tells you everything you need to know when you first meet those creatures, but the pictures are also bursting with intricate details and things to find, such as animals to search for. The stories and the pictures work together but you can just look at the pictures and I always say that, for younger kids, they just like searching for the tortoise in every picture!
Some of the themes are more grown-up, there is bullying in there and some of the creatures are quite violent…Kelpies kill kids! So, that sort of thing is a bit much for little kids, but I have had it bought for babies and they just like looking at pictures.
Fairy tale stories have always been dark, take the Brothers Grimm, for example. It never really registers in your head as a kid how dark these stories are.
No, you don’t really have the sense of your mortality at that age, do you?
Exactly! I was having a flick through the book earlier and there is a lot of stories in there. Has it all been inspired by Scottish mythology and folklore, or have you drawn from any other inspirations?
Mostly. There are the basic creatures such as giants, the fairy queen, gnomes, trolls, and unicorns; But, there is also Ghillie Dhu’s, Kelpies, Shelleycoats, which are lesser-known ones that are very much based in Scotland.
Do you think that Scottish mythology has offered you a lot to work with and can maybe work with more in the future?
Yes! There are so many that I couldn’t put in. I am writing my second book, which is the ‘Mythical creatures around the coast of Scotland’, and I always say that it is because the mermaids were annoyed at being left out! Them and the dragons!
How are you finding the process of writing a book the second time around?
I am much more confident about writing. With my first book, I had a set of pictures that I was using and I would lay them out and see which one spoke to me and what creatures were going to be on them. Whereas this time I am going out and taking photos specifically to etch mythical creatures into, which is a different way of working. What I do, is I go on photo walks because I need a lot of black in my photos, but I also need a lot of detail for the etching. That is sort of in the back of your mind when you are photographing but I am not thinking about what is going to be there at this stage. Going out and photographing for a particular picture that you already have in your mind is sort of harder. I had to do that a couple of times, I would be walking along the stream and wanting my Shelleycoat to be lying on a rock in the stream but there has to be black behind it so you can see him. It is harder but you have to do it sometimes.
You mentioned earlier that you were an artist and a photographer before you became a writer. How did you find the process of becoming a writer?
I loved it, absolutely loved it! I never thought that I would enjoy writing, but I can’t imagine not writing now because it is so great. I realized that I have always been a story-teller, but only in pictures rather than in writing. There have always been major story elements to my pictures, whatever pictures I am doing, I look back on my whole career and there has also been very much a story. Mixing the two has been really great.
How did you get the novel published?
I am independently published. I was lucky because my friend, who is an author, was able to suggest cover artists, editors, and formatters, so I was able to get everything ready. I do it via Amazon, but I also just bought a huge amount of book so I have my own stock.
How has the response to the book been so far?
It’s been lovely. People have been so into it and I find, that the people who like it, just so like it and that has been amazing.
Is there a piece of mythology or folk tale that you have been inspired by and would like to work with in the future?
For the next book, I am looking forward to the giant in the Giants Causeway. This Spring I am heading over to Staffa to photograph Fingal’s Cave and then Fingal is definitely going to be one of the next ones, and I am so looking forward to it! I also went and photographed Sawney Bean’s cave, which was quite exciting. I have the thread of an idea for that story. Basically; the cave is supposed to be a mile deep and there is an unmentionable creature that none of the other mythical creatures will even talk about, and it lives in the depths of that cave and turns any living person mad. So, it’s not Sawney Beans’ fault! I have no idea what I am doing with Fingal’s Cave at the moment, I just wanted to have that in!
You create your art by etching into photographs. How did you figure that this is an art style you could use?
I have been a photographer for a long time, I also used to process films for a living, and you just know that there are colours underneath. That is just one of the things you learn, is that if a wet photograph gets scratched, it is ruined. It is just one of those things, a piece of knowledge that you pick up quite early on in your career as a photographer. Photographers say that your photo is ruined if it gets scratched, and I am turning that on its head and making the scratches a thing of beauty.
Last question here; But do you have a piece of advice you would give anyone who is looking to create their own art?
I would say; Believe in yourself and practice. My first picture was my trolls, my second was my giants, and I spent an entire summer procrastinating the drawing of my giant pictures. Eventually, I realized that I needed to get better at art to do it, so I took a wee break and got more lessons. Then I realized that I drew something badly, then I drew it again, and I got a little better. Some of these pictures, especially the early ones, I will have done a drawing ten or fifteen times, just getting the lines better every single time before I even attempted to etch them into a photo. You have just got to do it and practice it and it gets better because I never realized that. Getting the confidence to do something badly and improve it each time, and like I said, I almost failed English in school. I managed to scrape a pass and never did it again, and I presumed that novels were written the first time and there was no editing. I thought someone had written these beautiful novels onto the page as they are. No one ever told me that you go over the words over and over and over again, and you get better every single time. So my advice is, do stuff badly and improve. That’s what I’d say.