Skin/Skôra: Painter Nicky Arscott writes about art and the prospect of a Mari Lwyd tattoo.

I first came across Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ work a couple of years ago. I’d had this idea for a project that was going to involve the Mari Lwyd. While researching the tradition I came across Clive’s paintings and laughed out loud at the prospect of attempting anything quite as powerful, as meaningful or as beautiful as the images I saw in front of me.

I met Clive at a talk he gave in Aberystwyth, and subsequently took part in the Artlog ‘Puppet Challenge’. (I made a mother and baby, attached to each other by a woollen umbilical cord.) When I saw Clive ‘recruiting’ for Skin / Skóra, I immediately thought YES! I tried to leave it a few days before getting in touch, so that I had time to consider seriously the implications of the project (I think I managed about 3 hours) and then I e-mailed Clive to see how he felt about designing a Mari Lwyd tattoo.

Understandably he had reservations. I think, in fact, he was quite puzzled. Why would I want a tattoo of his Mari, with all it represented within the paintings, and with all it meant to him? We arranged a meeting for two weeks later, and during those two weeks I tried to work out what the Mari, and indeed the tattoo, might represent to me, because I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I love the Mari Lwyd celebrations. We go up the road to Dinas Mawddwy and take annual turns to get drunk and dance. I love the Mari song; the voices of the singers get stuck in my head for days. My daughter Lisa is obsessed with the clackety horse’s skull: skulls are one of her passions. Here’s a painting of her with a cow’s skull.

Besides enjoying the event itself, I also love horses. Here are ours: one large (Sid) and one small (Tinkerbelle).

I asked myself whether a love of the Mari Lwyd could possibly warrant the sudden and inexplicable longing for a Clive Hicks Jenkins tattoo of it. The conviction wouldn’t go away, and I was concerned that if people asked me to explain myself… as they almost certainly would… I wouldn’t have a very eloquent answer. I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve never wanted any design long enough to have had one permanently inked onto my skin. How could I be sure of the permanence of this particular desire?

I spent a long time talking with Clive about his work. I feel privileged to have had some of his thought processes and personal history explained as we looked through images of paintings with his Jack Russell terrier sitting between us on the sofa. We discussed the bed sheets that often appear in the Mari series: how sheets aren’t just sheets, but intricately connected to life itself: birth; death; love. One thing Clive said that has really stuck with me is this concept of creating something concrete as a way of coming to terms with a terror that can’t be named. In order to even think about dealing with this abstract ‘nothingness’, we need something physical to hold on to. A conduit; an agent. And how for me that’s what the Mari Lwyd represents on many different levels.

I mulled this over for a while, and then I started noticing something. Here is a poem I wrote a long time ago, when I was about twenty, after reading the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s tragic play, Yerma:


It was hysterical to wake in cicada-shrill dark

with my sheets ballooning up and down


dead grape stench hanging without within

because she’d opened my shutters in the night again.


Nena rubia she said let me tell you tall stories

how the sheets will always smell of apples

because I was not afraid to sleep with him.


When I was fifteen she got sad because

that was the age she got married.


Pobrecita mia. Now you will grow tetas let me see them.

She said they looked like little grapes anyway

and would not get me into trouble


but what a drama when I woke up

with la abuela’s dried flower arrangement

sewn into my hair!


She lied.

I was a virgin.


One summer she said she could smell the baby in her gut.

My feet were wet with her wailing spitting puta puta puta.


I slept in twisted bedsheets. On purpose

she made me dream apples falling from the ceiling fan.


The hottest night I woke to her nailscrabbling the stony floor,

knickers off, a knitting needle in my bed.

I was re-reading the poem and noticed the ‘twisted bedsheets’ and thought how, in a way, there’s something else of the Mari in there: a non-physical presence (in this case, a ghostly echo of the barren heroine in Lorca’s play) given a name. So I started looking at other things I’d written, and realised that these ‘presences’ surface in a lot of my work (including, weirdly, a poem with a strange, chain-smoking, horse-riding alter-ego called Mary) usually as a metaphor for something Other that is also inextricably linked with the Self; some manifestation of the unknown that surfaces within a poem or an image. I imagine that was what got me thinking about undertaking a Mari Lwyd project in the first place.

Here, also, is a painting from around 2010. I honestly don’t think I was trying to say anything in particular with it at the time (shortly after having a baby and moving to the middle of nowhere, amongst other things). The painting looks, in retrospect, like an attempt to harness control in some way, at a time when everything felt a bit chaotic. Funnily enough, it’s called The Mare.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the Mari figure, for me, is a myriad of contradictory ideas; not just ‘Self’ and ‘Other’, but also anarchy and order, fear and hope. It’s an empty vessel; a fluctuating metaphor, cropping up again and again in all its various forms. It’s an agent of change and possibility, and given that, I think the tattoo Clive designs will alter in meaning throughout my life: an ever-shifting symbol, reminding me of the permanent fact that nothing ever stays the same.

Nicky Arscott. January, 2015

The Puppet Challenge Part 3 : Nicky, Nomi and Ruth

Nicky Arscott, Nomi McLeod and Ruth Barrett-Danes

Nicky Arscott: The Sadness of Lillie Flower

Nicky writes:

“Lillie Flower is a tragic heroine from a folk ballad called Jellon Grame. Her horrible lover kills her, as usual. It’s all a bit violent, but when I chose the subject I liked the idea of being able to stitch her up and bring her back to life again.”

“It was a strange experience making Lillie Flower. I made her whilst sitting at a camp fire most nights for the past six weeks. I work at Glastonbury festival and we stay on site in a caravan. Lots of people would come and sit round the fire and share a drink and ask me what I was doing. It led to conversations about the grisliness of folk balladry; the versatility of crocheting; ‘suicide woolies’; the thinking behind murdering one’s spouse, as well as Caesarians and other birth-related experiences. Someone brought a book over that contained 12 stories of mothers from around the world who had died in childbirth due to unsafe conditions. In the end I put Lillie away to finish at home because she was making everyone sad. My children like to unbutton her stomach and pop the baby in and out and swing it round and round on its umbilical cord, but all I can think of when I look at her is that having your baby cut out of you and stolen must be the most terrible thing that could ever happen, even if you are dead.”

She lighted aff her milk-white steed,
And knelt upon her knee:
‘O mercy, mercy, Jellon Grame!
For I’m nae prepar’d to die.

‘Your bairn, that stirs between my sides,
Maun shortly see the light;
But to see it weltring in my blude
Woud be a piteous sight.’

He took nae pity on that ladie,
Tho she for life did pray;
But pierced her thro the fair body,
As at his feet she lay.

He felt nae pity for that ladie,
Tho she was lying dead;
But he felt some for the bonny boy,
Lay weltring in her blude.

Up has he taen that bonny boy,
Gien him to nurices nine,
Three to wake, and three to sleep,
And three to go between.

Verses from the ballad Jellon Grame

I’m deeply moved by Ruth’s knitted Lillie Flower, and the photographs of the puppet lying in leaf-litter with the canopy of bright oak leaves above her, are chillingly reminiscent of what happens to women at the hands of violent men, and yet simultaneously respectful and tender. These last images don’t present the visceral horrors. But then the best ideas are always open to varied and sometimes even polarised interpretations. For me, in terms of depictions of violence, less is always more. Here, Lillie might just as plausibly be Titania in her bower, as the broken and discarded victim of Jellon Grame.

Colour lends an optimistic note…

… while the same image rendered in black and white, is distinctly more disturbing.

Nomi McLeod: The Handless Maiden

Nomi writes:

“The Handless Maiden is a story which resonates with me. My puppet draws on the narrative just after things have started to go wrong – again – for the heroine. She has given birth to a beautiful baby whilst her husband the king is away fighting battles. But through the receipts of the villain… in some versions of the tale the devil, and in others an evil female relative… the young mother is thrown out of the palace and set to wandering the forests. Her clothes become torn and caked with mud. Her child, tied around her by a kindly servant, grows hungry as she struggles to feed him with her handless arms…”

It’s all in the eyes. Nomi’s beautifully modelled Handless Maiden brims with emotion and ‘back-story’. This is really, really rare in puppets. More usually the faces of figures, even those that are masterfully carved, are emotionally relatively neutral, and it’s the puppeteers that invest them with feeling. But even in these photographs, the Maiden’s face tells us everything we need to know about her history and condition. Her eyes are almost unendurably sad, and I’m left wondering how Nomi pulled this off. It’s like… alchemy.

I wish that I had made such a puppet.

Ruth Barrett-Danes: The Mistletoe Bride


I apologise that I can offer only one photograph from Ruth Barrett-Danes. Ruth was an early sign-up to the Puppet Challenge, and the first to send me an image of a finished puppet. I think I may have had more from her, but I can’t find them in the Puppet Challenge photo-archive.

Ruth took as her theme The Mistletoe Bough, a song of the 1830s that recounts the cautionary tale of a playful bride. In a game of hide and seek with her ‘lord’, the unfortunate closes herself into a heavy oak chest that becomes her coffin. This is the second of today’s ballad-inspired puppets. In both of them things end badly for a young woman, though in The Mistletoe Bough it’s a case of malign fate as opposed to murder.

The notion of the luminously happy bride is frequently rendered topsy-turvy in literature, drama, folk-song and film, with murder, madness and corruption replacing joyous nuptials: Elsa Lanchester, corpse-white in grave-wrappings, hissing like an angry swan in The Bride of Frankenstein, and Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, mummifying in her rancid wedding-gown while plotting vengeance on mankind. Ruth’s long-dead bride joins this gothic tradition. She is a little indistinct in the photograph, which I think adds a layer of creepiness to the image.


‘At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle — they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!
O, sad was her fate! — in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring! — and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.’