When grief almost felled her, she picked up a camera and found herself transported somewhere better. Fashion designer Kirsty Mitchell stepped into her own fairy tale world, shed her old skin, and became an artist. The shattering loss of a beloved mother led to a body of work that touches and comforts thousands of people the world over.
Text: Maria Lindén
Photo: Kirsty Mitchell
Wonderland is a series of images that depict photographer Kirsty Mitchell’s own alternate reality, a beautiful and frightening fairy land – built, populated, and dressed by the English artist. Wonderland is also where Kirsty Mitchell found refuge after her mother’s death from cancer in 2008. The process of creating the beautiful homage helped her through her grief.
It is a world where lonely creatures with piercing eyes and grandiose costumes threaten to climb out of the images. Some of them have almost become engulfed by nature; others are growing out of it or slowly disintegrating into it. Pale frosted faces peeking from bulbous roots. Flowering bluebells creeping their way up a dress in a glade. A body enveloped by a burrow. Snow, blooms, sun on a billowing field. All taken under an English country sky, at the mercy of the seasons.
Kirsty has a theory.
– My mother was with me in the wind, the rain, the woods, when I was taking those pictures. I’ve always been very connected to nature, it’s sort of my church, but it wasn’t until after I lost my mother that I really awakened to it. I discovered this innate energy, and found solace in the trees and the changing of the seasons.
Wonderland was shown in its entirety for the first time at Fotografiska in Stockholm. More than seventy images with titles like “She’ll Wait For You in the Shadows of Summer” and “Gaia, the Birth of an End”. All of them evoking the passing of time, the feeling of transience and what comes next.
As unique as Kirsty Mitchell’s world feels, there’s also something very familiar about the environs and figures. You get traces of Grimm, Bauer, Beatrix Potter – but she makes sure to point out that she hasn’t just recreated existing stories. Her pieces are faded memories of childhood stories and wispy dreams, but mostly they are a processing of grief. A place Kirsty didn’t even know existed until her mother, Maureen, passed away. It is omnipresent, a shadow in the midst of beauty and artfully arranged petals.
“I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. I’ve always been real and I think that’s what people connected with.”
Over the past decade, Kirsty Mitchell has been dealt the extremes life sometimes offers. One after another: Her mother’s death, the birth of son Finch, postnatal depression, her own cancer diagnosis and treatment, a new career, breaking through as an artist, and self-publishing a best seller.
– Losing my mother was a bittersweet gift. If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have gotten to know myself and what I am capable of. Wonderland got me through the grief; it’s the worst and the best part of my life. In my darkest moments, when I also got cancer and didn’t know if I would make it, I could look at what I’d created and think that I had no regrets. I had lived.
Finding Better Memories
When Kirsty found out about her mother’s brain tumor, she was a successful fashion designer in London, trained at the London College of Fashion and Ravensbourne College of Art, who had interned with Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. Her mother’s illness became a decisive moment in her creative career. Before that, she had lived without the camera that has come to be her best friend.
– I went through all the horrors of illness with my mother. Her hair fell off when I washed it, she lost the ability to speak and lost control of her body. I was losing my best friend and she was never going to get better. We switched places and she became the child, and I had to care for her. Taking pictures became my way of shutting out that horrible reality.
After Maureen passed, Kirsty still had those images of hospitals and disease etched into her mind’s eye. She felt a desperate need for memories of other parts of Maureen’s life – Maureen the beloved English teacher, the bookworm, the diarist, the storyteller, and Kirsty’s best friend. The mother who, says Kirsty, gave her the most precious gifts a mother can. A sense of imagination and a belief in beauty that became her roots and shaped her into her present self.
– I tried to deal with my grief by going back to a safe memory – the times when my mother would read to me. That’s when we were the closest. All of a sudden I wanted to look through all those books of fairy stories again and I went searching online, buying anything I could get my hands on. Opening those books sent me right back to the moments of my mother reading to me. It felt like we reconnected and that’s what inspired Wonderland.
Seven months after her mother’s death, Kirsty started working on what was supposed to be a small summer project. Using all her knowledge of costume design and art history, she began to make corporeal the insistent vision the story books had awoken.
– I can’t explain it. It was inside me and had to come out, and I had to follow that voice. I barely knew how to use a camera and definitely didn’t have any plans to give up my job to become an independent artist.
As she worked, something started happening.
– The grief changed, I could handle it better. At the same time, my heart was changing and suddenly it belonged to photography. I kept going when the summer ended. After two years it was untenable to keep working full time with both design and photography. I felt like I was having an affair on the side of my job, so after eleven years of a good job in fashion I quit to make monsters and fairies in my back garden, Kirsty says with a laugh.
She documented her process and posted those pictures online. She shared in great detail the demanding process, the months of preparations, the failures, her legs covered in bug bites and all the kinds of weather that befell her, but also made behind-the-scenes videos to show that despite what some might think, her shots aren’t all Photoshop trickery. In addition, she posted parts of her diary, opening up her innermost self and sharing her vulnerability.
– Photographer friends kept telling me not to write about my mother or that I was crying, that I often felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. But I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. I’ve always been real and I think that’s what people connected with. I have almost 400 000 followers on Facebook and they’re as interested in my personal journey as they are in my work.
Once, she got an email from a boy in a village near Mount Everest, right when the bills were piling insurmountably high and she was considering selling her self-designed wedding dress and going back to a full time job.
– He’d looked at the pictures and read the words of Wonderland and cried. His dad had just passed away and he wrote that Wonderland helped him through his grief, and he thanked me. That helped me understand that my work touches people, so I got myself together and kept going.
Do It Yourself?
The turning point came just a month later. The Daily Mail wrote about Wonderland, and soon it was featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue Italia, The BBC News and The Guardian, and she started getting contacted by galleries. What really changed Kirsty’s life for ever, though, was the self-published book that broke crowdfunding records and became an overnight bestseller.
– The words and pictures in Wonderland can’t be separated. When the pictures started appearing in the media a lot of big publishers got in touch and wanted to do a book, but nobody wanted to include the diary entries, so I decided to publish it myself.
By happenstance, the book has become something of a self help phenom. The first book signing in the US turned into an impromptu mass therapy session. Kirsty met a family that had tried their hand at their own Wonderland-style projects when their grandmother had died, and a women who gave a copy of the book to everyone in her family after her cancer diagnosis.
– The book isn’t just about me anymore. It’s got its own life. It’s been a kind of therapy for people I’ve never even met. A grief counselor who had driven over 800 miles to my signing said that either we don’t talk about death at all, or we talk about how to get rid of our grief, what we can do to forget and move on. They had never experienced a situation where people talked as openly about death as we were in that Wonderland context, Kirsty says.
In her next project, Kirsty turned her camera back on herself. The same night that Wonderland went into its second printing, she found a lump in her breast and was stunned when it turned out to be grade three breast cancer.
– I had created life, and eight months later I had to face my own mortality.
It’s been a few years since that diagnosis, and she has now been given a clean bill of health.
– My husband and I have been given a second chance, and we want to make the most of it. With cancer, you can never really be sure what the future holds. We’ve rented an old manor in the countryside that looks like a fairytale in itself, and I have the whole second floor to myself to work in. The worst part of cancer, worse than the treatment, was not being able to create for two years. I’ve started a new project dedicated to my son. I want to give a voice to the experience of having cancer and having a baby.
At times, her voice wavers when she talks about her mother. Is the grief still as strong, a decade after Maureen’s passing?
– Grief will always be there, it doesn’t get smaller. But your life can get bigger around it.