The Witchy Tree

Peter and I went on a walk with our friend Mary-Ann Constantine and her children on the hills above their home.

Below: cotton-grass seed heads make good Hobbit ears!

During the walk I picked up a dried stalk that caught my eye, and carried it home. At Ty Isaf I put it, root end upwards in a shot-glass on the kitchen table, where it sat for over a year. Every day I looked at it. Occasionally Mary-Ann would call, and prompted by the dried stalk, we would recollect the walk.

Eventually I carried the stalk upstairs to the studio, where I planned on using it as a model for drawings of the haunted wood in Hansel & Gretel, my picture-book project with Simon Lewin for his Random Spectacular imprint at St. Jude’s.

Illustration graduate Johann Rohl arrived at Ty Isaf in August 2015, to work for a month on a project in the studio that required we make collaborative artworks. Both of us used the dried stalk as a model for drawings of trees. In this image, the drawing of a tree on the right is by me…

… and in this photograph of a maquette of the woodcutter father I made for Hansel & Gretel, the tree behind it has been drawn by Johann.

Here are trees by both of us, together with an owl made by Johann for our collaborative project.

In Berlin, my friend Phil Cooper is preparing magnificently  mood-drenched models to be used for the animated ‘book-trailer’ we plan for Hansel & Gretel, and he’s recently sent photographs of a tree he’s made based on the ‘Witchy Tree’ work he’s seen online here at the Artlog and at Facebook.

And here it is in a shot alongside Phil’s model of the Witch’s cottage

That’s a lot of work out of one dried stalk picked up on a Welsh hillside.

24 thoughts on “The Witchy Tree

  1. Pingback: Don’t go into the woods… | Hedgecrows

  2. Pingback: The Root that Grew Into a Tree | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Thanks for an inspiring post, lovely to see art grow from a collaboration such as this, it makes me feel good inside! Interesting that in my memories of folklore the elder tree was often planted near the home to keep the witches away, which is why I prevented G from cutting ours down, and I can confirm that so far I have never seen a witch here. I love the tale of Trevor curled up asleep in the hollow tree, wonderful!

    • Hi Liz, I believe the custom of planting an elder tree near the house to keep witches away originates in the Isle of Man, however, in other parts of the country people would not burn elder-logs for fear they would ‘bring the Devil into the house’. In Ireland, witches were thought to use elder boughs as magic horses, while in England the crooked-branched tree was thought to be the form of a bent old witch, who would bleed if she were cut! You can take your pick which you believe.

      There is a chance you may have a witch guarding your house, as there is a legend of a witch turning herself into an elder tree, in order to steal milk from a farmer’s cows. I am unsure why the witch thought elder trees were qualified to do this job, as milking udders with branches seems a very tricky manoeuvre to me!! Sarah x

      • How funny, what you say, Sarah !
        Because in the garden at home, we have a “faeries corner”, (formed by a big oak, a hawthorne tree , and a lime tree , each one for one apex or vertex,- I am not sure of the word- ), and we go and sit there, when we feel we need special protection.
        Faeries are good witches, Are they not ?

      • Hi Sarah, thanks for the fascinating info, I think I will choose the Isle of Man’s interpretation of this myth, for I couldn’t do without our elder tree, she gives us delicious elderflower beignets ( deep fried elderflowers dipped in a light batter, sprinkled with icing sugar) in May, and I make elder flower champagne every year; then I leave some flowers to become juicy red berries for the birds,(although when in the UK I would make elder flower wine which is unheard of here!) If she is a witch I believe she is Goode Witche for being so generous with her wealth. It’s gratifying that we can bend the myths to suit our needs! xL

        • Hi Liz and Maria, I like to think of you both with benevolent spirits in your gardens watching over you. You have made my mouth water with talk of your elderflower beignets and elderflower champagne Liz. In the East of England, they believed the Elder-Mother, Hyldemor, lived in the trunk of the tree and you had to ask permission of the ‘Old Lady’ or ‘Old Girl’ to partake of her gifts. The correct way to approach the tree was to say: ‘Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree’. I think the same rules would apply for using some of her berries! Sarah x

          • Thanks Sarah, your words are noted. I will ask her permission next time I pluck her flowers, she must think me awfully rude so far; now, do I ask in French or English? In general I do tend to thank any flowers as I pick them, and apologise if I knock an insect away, so maybe that has sufficed.xL

    • Judy, it’s been an adventure. There was no saying Johann and I would get along in the studio, though the reality is that the arrangement has worked extremely well. Meanwhile in Berlin, my friend Phil was producing some impressive ‘German Expressionist’ models for his own painting projects. When I saw them they blew my socks off, and I enquired whether he might like to get involved in the book-trailer project. Before I knew it there was a witch’s cottage and tower, blasted skies and a medusa-like tree to set the scene. All this was done with no fuss. He studied the drawings I’d made for H & G, and came up with his own spin on the setting, investing it with wonderful presence. It’s rather oddly both his and mine, like our strange ‘love-child’! Ha ha!

      • How fantastic. All love children should be so drenched in beauty 🙂 you are so good at creative networking… making things happen. And Phil, I can totally imagine just getting on with the job without any fuss and coming up with something spectacular. As for Johann, I think his fierce work with a pencil works perfectly with your measured excellence. His drawing is like a pennant flicking madly in a high wind. I wonder if his hand moves quickly or just gives that impression.

  4. I love each and every one of the trees inspired by the natural treasure you found on your walk, Clive.

    The title of your post has brought back memories to me. As I child, I used to play in the woods with friends, close by to where I lived. In the woods there was an elder tree we called “The Witchy Tree”. It was in the early stages of natural decay and was slowly on its way to returning to the earth, where it had stood for a couple of hundred years. Despite the name we gave the tree, none of us were frightened of it. The tree had curled round and down upon itself, as it aged, and we used to climb up and sit inside the protective nooks it offered to us to use. It was a special tree.

    It’s intriguing how people’s perceptions of trees have changed over the centuries. The elder tree of my childhood, at different times, has been looked upon as both a guardian of the earth and as synonymous with the devil himself. You have chosen to set your ‘Hansel and Gretel’ at a time of mass hysteria about ‘witchy’ goings-on, so the trees in the pictures for this project take on a deliciously sinister air as a result.

    I wonder if we will view “The Witchy Tree” any differently in the other world it is soon to take root in?! All I can say is that mysterious masked owl looks perfectly at home there!! (-:

    • Hollow trees are magical places for the childish imagination. There’s a story in our own family about my father. As a boy he was playing with matches in a hayrick on the family farm. Of course it caught on fire and blazed to a heap of ashes. Trevor bolted and vanished during the uproar, a fact that aroused everyone’s suspicions.

      His elder sister, Amy, kept her own counsel during the search for Trevor. But when eventually her father’s anger had changed to concern, and then fear for his youngest, she led them to a tree in the churchyard, hollow but accessible from the crown. It was the siblings secret hideaway, a place they visited together. But this time, having lowered himself into it alone, he was too small to get out again by himself. When his father climbed the tree to look down the hollow trunk, Trevor was curled up in the base of it, asleep.

  5. How wonderful that the dried stalk, lying on the ground one minute, doing it’s thing, was found by you, and taken home, where it’s inspired all kinds of creativity and where it is celebrated and seen all around the globe, entering stories I’m sure it didn’t expect to; love it! Beautiful drawing by you and Johann 🙂

      • Clive, I had the idea of a story telling using multi-dimensions, as I said above. I wanted to use projected animation and 3D objects and figures plus still 2D images within the same telling of that story. Its theatre and live story telling. I am a bit overwhelmed–not having much experience in theatre, or how to successfully handle the melding of these different media within it.
        Its a story of a Pharaoh, a rose that arises from between his majestic toes and a lotus blossom.
        I bit off more than I could chew I am concluding.
        I am delighted to see the sets Phil has made and your drawings, your collaboration!

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