The King Made of Fruit Peel

I’ve been enjoying a correspondence with artist and jewellery designer, Marti Dean. He kindly agreed to give an interview about his work and his techniques. So here without further ado, I present Marti Dean and The King Made of Fruit Peel.

Above: Marti Dean’s mask for the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green.

Clive: Well, Marti, last month I didn’t know you at all, and here I am interviewing you in preparation for making a post about your work. For readers I’ll briefly explain that I came to look at your website because I could see from my WordPress stats that referrals to the Artlog were coming from you. At your website, to my delight I discovered you’re the artist who has made a beautiful foliate mask for the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green, and you kindly give credit to the Jack-in-the-Green mask I made many years ago that was the forerunner of your own. (Thank you for that.) How did the commission to make your mask come about?

Marti: I started participating in JITG, back in my early 20’s but was able to be more practically involved when I relocated to Hastings in 2004. Dancing with Mad Jack’s Morris and being asked to be a “Bogie”, the green men who carry and escort Jack, put me right at the heart of things.

Marti Dean in the foliate guise of a Hastings ‘Bogie’.

I’d produced a design for the events programme and merchandise based on the Jack’s face as crafted by Dave Lobb. I think by this point people realised I was an “arty type”, and understood I had an empathy with the spirit of the event. The committee, who are good friends, asked me to create a new face for Jack to celebrate the 30th year of the event. This was an incredible request, charged with my own ideas of what Jack meant to me and how others perceived him. I was totally green (excuse the pun) in producing something like this, but the inspirations were immediately obvious to me. I sat with a big ball of clay in front of me and my hands started working. I had no clear idea of what I was making, no specific developed design. 

My first memories of Jack featured your subtle and elusive mask, where as Jack twirled it was only caught in a glimpsed moment. The second inspirational source was the wonderful faces of my fellow Bogies, a fine body of men! 


Above and below: Clive Hicks-Jenkins mask for the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green.

Below: Marti Dean mask for the Hastings Jack-the-Green.

There was a huge amount of work involved in making the Jacks’ face, including the original clay sculpt, mould-making and casting. The cast needed a lot of careful refining, and the painted surface is over 25 layers deep, built up from a black green to the lightest highlights. This multi-layered pigment, gives the colour a rich and lustrous depth.

Sculpt-wise, there is a lot of detail in this “greenman” face which is not usually seen when it is fixed onto the Jack’s body. When we dress him (the Jack), we attempt to integrate the face with the leafy body by surrounding its edges with foliage.

I was a little apprehensive about how people would respond when he emerged from the Fishermen’s Museum for the first time in 2008. However, having seen the face for the first time, many people said to me, “Well of course that’s Jack, that’s how he looks”. In finding a new face for him, I’d represented something people already knew in a tacit way. Jack lives with me and I always say good morning to him.. Many of the things I make have a life of their own. I don’t mind if people think I’m a bit odd!

Clive: Now, a little explanation please. You’re a designer of jewellery, right? I assume you did a foundation course in art before deciding to specialise.

Marti: Yes, I completed my Degree in 1993 and my M.A. in 2004. In that time I have produced and sold my own jewellery collections and also designed in the fine jewellery sector .

Oak King Collection by Marti Dean: chains in satin finished silver and gold.

Clive: Clearly there are green and folkloric themes running through your work. I particularly love your oak leaves. We share that iconography, because I use the oak leaf as a leitmotif in paintings and book illustration.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins drawing of Hervé and the Wolf in falling oak leaves: Sleep Fall. 2011.

For me the use of oak leaves wasn’t a conscious decision, but evolved over quite a long period. How did it happen for you?

Oak King Collection by Marti Dean: a choker and two necklaces in satin and polished silver, 18 carat yellow and white gold.

Marti:  Magical and folkloric themes have been a common thread through all my making, they are a reflection of the things that I connect with and that inspire me. The traditional themes of the “Oak King” and of the “King for a Day” became my inspirations for this jewellery collection. Designed back in 2004 as a response to my first experience of  Jack in the Green, this collection reflected my interest in these archetypal stories. Most people who bought or buy items from this collection do so because they like it, rather than having any deeper understanding of its background. I’m quite happy for people to interpret and enjoy this work as they wish. We are lucky in the U.K. to have such a rich wealth of living, seasonal traditions, often revived or maintained by local enthusiasts. In Hastings for example, we have traditions such as the Wassail, Mumming, March Hare Day, Bonfire, the Wild Hunt” and Jack in the Green, to name but a few.

Whilst several of these have historic roots, some of the best traditons are the ones where someone has been inspired to make them up!   I would direct anyone interested or inspired by folklore and traditions to the website of the Museum of British Folklore

Clive: When I went to your site, the image that particularly knocked my socks off, was the Mandrake King. How did you come to make this extraordinary piece of work, and what drew you to the theme?

Marti: In 2011 my friends at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscasle, asked whether I would like to contribute to a book they were creating called “The Museum of Witchcraft – a Magical History”.
Originally, I  intended to make a piece based on the “Witches Ladder”, a curious object of string interspersed with feathers, alleged by the builders who accidentally discovered it, “to aid witches across a roof”. This was in fact a traditional English charm which employed sympathetic magic. The spell was to be speeded on its passage by the inclusion of the feathers of  a bird.
So, I had this idea of designing a dramatic necklace based on this item. 
But that night, quite by chance, I had a dream..  Drawn down to the side of an old stone folly in the woods close to where I live, I discovered a natural spring. This emerged through a Roman arch and  lead to a still pool. By the pool-side ferns I made the acquaintance of  the Mandrake King. When I awoke I knew exactly what I had to do. A frenzy of fruit skins, orange, lemon, lime and a technique I had developed in the 1980’s, all conspired to bring him back. As the needle stitched I thought of the many wonderful mandrakes I had witnessed  at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle and also in their recent    book “A Magical Reliquary”. In little time, there stood before me the Mandrake King! 

Clive: While in Brussels earlier this year, visiting the Toone Puppet Theatre with my friend the artist Philippa Robbins, one evening after supper in our apartment she made a skeleton pelvis out of the peeled skin of a satsuma! (Philippa has a great passion for all things to do with the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’.) You’ve made an entire figure out of this fragile material, and moreover one that’s mind-staggeringly complex in its construction. What I admire about it is the coming together of all the elements. Fantastically odd and unexpected in appearance, characterful, beautifully designed and meticulously engineered/crafted. In all of this I can see the eye and hand of the jeweller at work. How big is the figure?

Marti: He is 17 inches tall, not including his roots !.

Clive: I have technical questions. Do you mind?

Marti: I’ve got permission to answer!

Clive: As peel dries it becomes brittle and, I would have thought, unworkable. Did you work with fresh peel? (I can’t think of any other way in which you could have stitched it.)

Marti: Yes, all cut shaped and stitched fresh. As the peel dries and shrinks, the stitched joints come alive through articulation. I have a process that speeds this up with immediate results..
Initially, the peel becomes almost leather-like and retains some flexibility. During this drying process the material is plastic, rather like putty and you can sculpt or model three dimensional forms into it easily. Once fully dried it is very hard and lasts for years. I have pieces I made back in 1987, they look exactly the same as when I first produced them. 
It is a very direct process, very quick. It works with all fruit and vegetable skins. I have had fun with everything from potato skin to pineapple and lychee!

Clive: Is there a wire armature inside the figure, to help it hold its shape?

Marti: He does have a little support in his arms and legs. So he’s able to assume any position! 
My earlier pieces in this medium did not, these included body sculpture and life sized spider crabs which freely articulated at the stitched joints.
The large and crude looking curse doll was produced the early 1990’s, and did not feature any internal support, it was hung by threads rather like a puppet.

Curse Doll. 1992

Clive: These figures must shrink quite a bit.

Marti: Knowing the material and the process from previous creations I was quite conscious of the change in scale as the peels and skins dried, so it was easy to work to this final scale. Also if things come out too big you can trim and adjust very easily. So it happened in quite a spontaneous way. This is an entirely different process from designing and making jewellery pieces, these have tended to be much more reflective in terms of the decision making process.

Clive: One of the things that’s so compelling, is the sense of a vegetative material that has a resemblance to human skin, even down to the pores. In that respect the figure looks almost like a piece of taxidermy. Is that how this came about? Did you look at a bit of drying peel and think… hang on a minute, there’s something here that’s worth exploring…?

Marti: When I came up with the process in the 1980’s I didn’t have any particular interest in taxidermy. Of course now my home is full of the stuff! The Mandrake King is certainly in the tradition of the type of creatures often encountered in Victorian taxidermy dioramas.

Clive: Of course there are other traditions of fruit being used as sculptural material, such as the American folk-art dolls with heads made from desiccated apples. But I’ve never seen a figure entirely made of citrus-peel before. Have you?

Marti: I’m the only person who has ever used this medium in this way. I devised this process back in the 1980’s when I was on my Art Foundation course. The tutors didn’t quite know what to make of the work!
I have spoken to people, including the students I teach about this process, so am rather surprised nobody else has tried it as yet!

Clive: You imply at your site that the figure went into the woods and stayed there. Was it hard to leave behind something so carefully wrought? (I get it, I really do, that desire to relinquish something precious and let it decay back into the ground. But even so it must have been difficult to walk away from an artwork over which you’d laboured so hard. ?)

Marti: I can reassure readers that whilst he often returns to the woods, he much prefers life in my cluttered “heathen” home, which is full of similar curiosities!

Clive: Have you made any other works in this way? And do you have any plans to make more? (Please say yes!)

Marti: Yes, I have made many items in this medium, although the Mandrake King was the most complex in terms of components and details. I have to say it wash’t a struggle by any means to make him, and it has since occurred to me that he might need to to fashion some of his woodland or seaside acquaintances. In recent conversation there was a mention of a particularly ugly “Fiji Mermaid”… my needle is poised in anticipation.

Below. Marti Dean at right, togged up as a Morris-dance chimney sweep.

Clive: Marti, it’s been a great pleasure to chat with you and learn about your techniques. Clearly we share quite a lot of enthusiasms, creatively speaking, the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green being but one. I’m so pleased that we’ve established contact, and I’m going to be alert to future opportunities on which we might consider some form of collaboration. Here’s to that!

14 thoughts on “The King Made of Fruit Peel

  1. I meant to reply earlier that I had a visceral reaction to the Mandrake King, an intense admiration for its strange beauty and the obvious craft needed to bring him forth. Also a slight, POSITIVE revulsion, such as I have for the art of certain ancient cultures-the work being so alien and strange that it shakes my cultural expectations. This fetish fellow does just that.

    How nice to live in a place that carries on its ancient traditions with Jack-in-the-Green fests. We have little of that in the States. The Old Gods go neglected. Perhaps that is why Mexico and her love of past gods holds such personal fascination.

    Thanks also for the link to the Museum of Folklore site. I’m eager to explore that as well.

    I will visit Marti’s site from time to time, eager to see what he is up to.
    Thanks and be well,

  2. These are great! I love the folkloric origins of the figures it really adds to their depth and charm. They also look incredibly well made, love how the stiching forms detail and ‘contour’ lines.

    I remember seeing a Vincent Price ‘create a shrunken head’ kit from the 60’s/70’s which you made from a dried apple with cotton wool for hair!

  3. Shall come back and read and look some more after I return from the Carolinas. My mother gave a lot of fruit peel jewelry (made by a South Carolina artist) as fun presents last year, and I was fascinated with the colors and textures.

    • Glad to have been able to bring something interesting to your attention, Lyn. I think Marti’s creative skills have combined in the Mandrake King to such unique effect. It took me by surprise when I came upon the photograph of it, and I knew straight away that I wanted to write about it here.

  4. I am blown away by this. What a find. I’ve made small items from orange peel but only as embellishments for other items. The thought of making a complete figure is mind boggling and also to read about using other skins like potato and pineapple sets the mind off thinking of all sorts. Stitching? Who knew? Great interview and an introduction to another talented artist!

  5. I love the silver oak leaves – like Green Man chainmail.
    It’s all very interesting work! Marti’s heathen home must be a treat to visit.
    I’m intrigued by the drying process. The thought of working a less fragile satsuma pelvis is very appealing! Food (!) for thought.

    • Nice idea, that, Philippa… Green Man chain-mail! The jewellery certainly has a timeless quality. I can imagine it splendidly adorning the shoulders of a King or Queen in some ancient kingdom.

      It’s interesting that Marti emphasises the speed with which he made the Mandrake King. Doesn’t look like a fast process… all those tiny segments and stitches… but I have to assume he sews faster than I do. And I would expect too… though he doesn’t explicitly say… that he uses an accelerated drying system in much the way you’ve been using your oven set on low to fast-dry papier mâché. (And as I’ve been using too, putting my recent ‘cyclops’ puppet in the warming oven of the Aga.) However he works, it’s a fantastic use of materials. The quality of the ‘skins’ is such a perfect match to what he makes from them. There’s a pleasing integrity… a ‘rightness’… in the finished object, that I greatly admire.

  6. fiji mermaid!! i would love to see that!! i am just floored by this mandrake man…the cheekbones are fantastic, and it’s true what you’re saying about the pores…. i love the root-feet, this is so unique! it seems like it must be a magic figure…..
    what a find!!

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