Image of artist Lorena Carrington in Castlemaine, Victoria.

Lorena Carrington

Interview By Catherine Atkinson
Artist Portrait By Nick Orloff

The visually arresting nature of Lorena Carrington's photographic works draws the viewer into fantastical worlds, constructed from the detritus of the natural world.

Lorena talks to Calder Western about her journey on becoming a photographer and illustrator, challenging fairy tale stereotypes and inspiring young people, especially young women, to see themselves as the strong, clever and adventurous hero of their own life.

How and where did your journey begin on becoming a photographic artist and illustrator?

I’ve been a photographer and exhibiting artist for a good twenty years, but books have always called me. It was a serendipitous introduction to Kate Forsyth on Twitter that brought me to my career as an illustrator. Kate and I worked on Vasilisa the Wise in secret, before finding our publisher Serenity Press. I haven’t looked back!

Can you tell us about your process of making a piece of artwork?

Most illustrators start their process by making sketches. I start mine by going for a walk. I usually head into the bush near our house. Firstly I collect photographs: I do a lot of crawling around on the ground and lying in ditches to photograph the bush in micro. While I’m down there, I pick up leaves, twigs, tiny bird bones and half-eggshells, moss and lichen. These I bring home with me to photograph on a lightbox. They get added to my folders of resource images, from which I draw images to create the illustrations.

The illustrations themselves are digital montages of the photographs I collect. I make creatures out of those sticks and leaves and bones and place them back into the photographs I took of their surrounding landscape. They are quite literally built up out of the landscape around me.

The humans in the illustrations are the people around me. My children, their friends, and anyone I can drag in front of the camera.

“Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women” and “The Buried Moon and Other Tales of Bright Young Women”, written by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by yourself, retell the classic fairy tales in a more contemporary setting without destroying the original context. What was the overall goal of these books for you both?

It was very important for both of us to stay true to the history of the tales. Fairy tales evolve through time. There’s no such thing as an ‘original’ story - they must adapt or be lost - but at the same time, we need to be reminded that a hugely diverse range of tales have always been there. In our books, the most important thing we wanted to share was that we have always had tales where girls and women have their own agency. We are so used to the idea of fairy tales being about princesses in towers, waiting for Prince Charming. But long before fairy tales were filtered through writers like Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, and the ‘golden age’ of fairy tales which coincided with a social expectation of women to be good and quiet, and more recently the ‘Princessification’ of fairy tales by Walt Disney, fairy tales were told mostly by women to other women. They were used to educate, pass on warnings (Little Red Riding Hood is the ultimate “Stranger Danger” lesson!), and often to guide young women through adolescence and into adulthood.

We want people to know that there have always been tales of strong women, but also that there are many definitions of strength. A ‘strong female lead’ doesn’t need to be slaying dragons and kicking down doors. She can also demonstrate her strength through bravery, intelligence and kindness.

From the beginning of time, there have been strong, powerful and amazing women. Do you think women still have a long way to go in becoming an equal force on par with men?

That’s such a big question. We’ve certainly come a long way, but there’s still so far to go. Some of the battles are enormous, and others we chip away at every day. As in fairy tales, sometimes we are faced with individuals who challenge us, and sometimes we come up against an invisible force. It takes all sorts of strategies: screaming battle cries, everyday actions, collaboration, education, resistance and teamwork. We’ll get there. I just hope we get to see it.

Does being female shape your photography and illustrations differently than your male counterparts?

Hm, I could answer that in so many ways! Perhaps there’s something in the gathering and weaving together of photographs that reflects the making of a quilt, traditionally a feminine art. I work from a feminist perspective, and I’m interested in women’s stories. I’m lucky to have developed something of a sisterhood around me in my working life and we support and sustain each other in so many ways.

As for the physical creation of my work, I think that’s harder to say. It’s a bit like asking a fish if the water is wet. The work I make is shaped by the history of photography, illustration and literature, and by my own experiences, and I don’t know how my work would differ if history was different, or if my life was different. Would I wield the camera differently if I was a man? I don’t know.

Edmund The Six Swans fairy tale illustrated by Lorena Carrington Mollie Whuppie on the bridge of one hair illustrated by Lorena Carrington

Who are some of your favourite people that have changed the world for the better and why?

We can’t deny the power of famous historical figures, but it’s the people quietly making small changes in their own worlds that I find inspiring. There must be a quote somewhere about ants moving what an elephant couldn’t.

Oh and Greta Thunberg, that goes without saying, and all of the young people fighting for change and to be heard. I get so frustrated with adults who belittle the insight and passion of youth. Listen to your teenagers. They know what it’s about.

“Wiser than Evening” is a book by you with a collection of quotes from fairy tales, poetry and literature. What was the reason for choosing this project and what are some of your favourite quotes?

My publisher asked me to work on “Wiser Than Evening” as a gift book, and it was such a fun project. I got to pull great piles of books off the shelves and flick through them: books I’d loved as a child, and others I’d never read before. I love the following by 17th-century French writer Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier de Villandon: “These tales may be hard to believe, but as long as we have children, mothers and grandmothers in this world, they will be remembered.” That idea that stories live forever as long as we keep telling them. I also included a snippet from W. B. Yeats’ The Stolen Child, one of my favourite poems, and now I wish I’d included something from Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”, my other favourite “humans being tempted by wicked folk” poem. Next time! I have to say, I also enjoyed sneaking two Anne Brontë quotes in there.

What is your all-time favourite fairy tale and why?

An impossible question! But I do love The Stolen Child (different to the poem above), one of the first tales I worked on for Vasilisa the Wise. It tells the story of a single mother, making her way in the world with her baby son. When she falls off the edge of a cliff while searching for food, her son is taken by the Sídh (fairies, but not as you know them). She is nursed back to health, then uses her own own wits and skills to get him back again. I love that there’s no L'Héritier “evil” character, no prince on a white steed; and the only magic in the tale is the love of a mother for her child.

Were you a creative child?

Absolutely. But growing up surrounded by art and books probably made that fairly inevitable! My mother Jenny is an extraordinary artist and has mastered many mediums, including painting, printmaking, weaving and bookmaking. My father Cliff had an enormous private library with books on the classics, philosophy, myths and literature. I was doomed from the start!

What do you love about what you do?

Absolutely everything. (Well, mostly.) I work on books that I love, with authors who I love. I get to go for walks and call it work. People bring me interesting presents all the time: twisted tree roots, beach finds and fox skeletons. Creating something new, that other people find beauty and meaning in, is an extraordinary thrill. I love working from home, though it means I never really leave work, but it’s work that I love, so it all works out just fine!

undefined Edmund Baba Yaga folklore tale illustrated by Lorena Carrington

Who are the artists that you admire or intrigue you and why?

Early on I was hugely influenced by modernist photographers like Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and Imogen Cunningham. As I moved into illustration, I found myself looking back at the fairy tale illustrators I loved as a child: the delicacy of Ida Rental Outhwaite, and the drama and beauty of Jan Pienkowski and Arthur Rackham. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by an incredible fairy tale illustrating community today: for example, Australian artists Kathleen Jennings, Spike Deane and Erin-Claire Barrow.

Describe your studio space. What is it like?

My “studio space” is a tiny computer nook nestled in next to our kitchen. Perfect for endless cups of tea and sneaky elevenses. We have a library at the other end of the house where I keep my lightbox and collections of interesting things, otherwise known as the “Shelf Of Bones”. When I need to photograph larger things (like people), I drag the studio lights out from the living room cupboard and photograph them against a blank wall.

Who has been your biggest support to date?

Certainly my partner James, without whom I would never be able to do what I do. He’s my calming anchor, and my most enthusiastic cheerleader. He also makes a damn good cup of tea.

Who do you look up to and why?

I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who works and manages to keep working in a creative industry. It has always been difficult to make a living in the arts, and now it’s more challenging than ever. And it can be cut-throat. The people I most look up to are those who have persevered and found their place in that world, then used their position to reach out to others with generosity and warmth.

How do you think your art reflects life?

From a practical sense, working with photography means that everything I create is created from reality, even a fragmented and reconstructed one! What excites me is the way I can make something completely fantastical out of real life.

Conversely, fairy tales are often viewed as trite fantasy and nothing more, but they reflect our lives back to us in very powerful ways. One tale in my next book with Kate deals with poverty, domestic violence, coercion and terminal illness, but it does so with compassion and kindness. It shows people facing huge challenges and finding their way through to a happily ever after. In every good story and in life, where there is adversity, there must be hope.

What books do you think have been the most formative for you?

That changes every day. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve spotted a book as an adult and said “Oh, that was my favourite!”. I still read “The Secret Garden” every couple of years. It feels like such a comfort every time. I used to read “The Lord of the Rings” every summer holidays, but I don’t think I’d have the patience for it now! Certainly old illustrated fairy tale collections: I have a beautiful edition of Edmund Dulac’s “Fairy Book” from 1916, which is one of the first things I’d grab in the event of a fire.

What is the best advice you have ever been given?

Persevere. You must keep going. Kate Forsyth said it to me, and I think about it almost every day. The people who “make it” in the world of books are the ones who keep going. They aren’t disheartened by rejections, or other people getting better sales or reviews, or by the fear of “2nd (or 3rd or 4th) book syndrome”. They work hard at what they love and they keep working.

What is the strangest thing that has inspired a piece of your work?

There are all sorts of things that inspire specific pieces: conversations, other artworks, a bird flashing past the window, but the most obvious one is probably a fox skeleton. Some friends were staying while I was trying to illustrate a bridge of skulls for a story in Vasilisa the Wise. They went for a walk in the bush near our house and returned with a silk scarf wrapped up in a neat bundle. Inside was a pile of bones, with a small fox skull perched on top. They had discovered a whole skeleton, totally cleaned to the bone by ants but remarkable undisturbed. Every single bone was there. So, I photographed all the bones to scale, Googled “How a fox goes together” and pieced it back together again like the world’s most interesting jigsaw puzzle! It became the main structure for the bridge of skulls (pictured below).

food The Stolen Child illustrated by Lorena Carrington Edmund

What has been your happiest moment to date?

In life, of course I have to say the birth of my children! In books, there are many incredible moments but they can be few and far between, so I’m learning to hold onto them tight! There’s no thrill like holding a new book in your hands for the first time. After Vasilisa was released, Kate and I were invited to the Perth Writers Festival. I was flown over, put up in a 5-star hotel, and got to hang out in the green room with the likes of Helen Garner, Maggie Beer, Heather Rose and Claire G. Coleman. I had dinner with Richard Fidler and Kari Gíslason, and spoke on a panel with them, and the next day literally bumped into Tex Perkins on the way to breakfast. If this is published life, I thought, I’ll have it! Sadly, and you won’t be surprised to know, it’s (mostly) not. I adore going on school tours with Kate. I always learn a huge amount, from both Kate and the students. I’ve also made friends with some of the most wonderful human beings on earth. Book people really are the best people.

Do you have any design philosophies and what are they?

My favourite stories are those that find a good tonal balance. There should always be a glimmer of light shining through the dark, but there’s also no such thing as light and happiness without a knife-edge of darkness. That’s what I try to achieve with my work. I spend a lot of time making sure I achieve a good sense of balance between light and dark; both thematically, and in the design and colour of the work itself. Given that people’s reactions to my work range from “Oh it’s too creepy for me!” to “It’s so whimsical!”, often about the same specific piece, I figure I must be sometimes getting it right.

What are you particularly proud of in your career?

I mostly feel like I’m in the right career when people tell me how much a book or a particular illustration means to them. The following might seem like a small thing, but it touched me so much: a reader had a copy of Vasilisa, signed by both Kate and I, but it lost an unfortunate encounter with a glass of water, or was it a bath. She tried to salvage it, but it was ruined. She bought a new copy, and had a book conservator rescue and paste in the signed page. It was the first realisation I had that our book was a precious object to someone.

You live in Castlemaine. Does the town influence and inspire your works?

You couldn’t possibly be an artist in Castlemaine and not be inspired by living here. I often say you can’t walk half a block without tripping over yet another local artist or writer. But seriously, we are so lucky to have such a thriving artistic community here. The surrounding landscape is in all of my work too. It took me a while to understand and get a feel for it - mining has left the ground broken and the trees scrappy - but there’s nothing more beautiful than walking down one of our bush tracks in early spring.

What do you recommend people should visit whilst in Castlemaine?

For food, you can’t beat Johnny Bakers for takeaway pies and cakes (I’d sacrifice the last day of my life for the pork & cherry pie and an almond croissant), the spectacle of Das Kaffeehaus (get the Persian Wedding Sausage and a Turkish coffee), and my home-away-from-home Togs (salad plate, lemon slice and a pot of earl grey tea, thank you).

While you’re at Das Kaffeehaus, wander around The Mill for galleries, locally made booze and bread, and get lost in the Wonderland that is the Castlemaine Vintage Bazaar.

For some lesser-known secrets, go for a swim at the Expedition Pass Reservoir (but watch out for tiger snakes), find the other anticline along the Kalimna road, and while you’re there head down one of the smaller tracks and count the many varieties of tiny and spectacular wild flowers. They’re coming out right about now.

Do you listen to music while you are creating? If so, which artists do you find the most inspiring?

It’s funny - I tend to find music with words distracting, yet I listen to podcasts. Maybe it’s because I’m not tempted to sing along to them! Some of my favourite relevant podcasts are Breaking The Glass Slipper, The Cryptid Keeper, Deviant Women, So You Want to Be a Writer, What the Folklore, and the wonderful and reassuring The First Time Podcast, which is all about the first time you publish a book.

I do listen to classical music when I working. Preferably small ensembles like The Flinders Quartet and the local Orpheus Piano Trio.

Coming in March 2020 is the book “Snow White and Rose Red and Other Tales of Kind Young Women”. What was the process of choosing these tales and do you believe that they will help change the mindset of the traditional fairy tale that is ingrained in us, that men are handsome and brave, women are beautiful and passive?

Kate and I choose the tales together. We always collaborate on a long list of tales, then wrangle them down to seven. Our first book focuses on tales of brave young women; the second on bright young women, who use their wit and intelligence to save the day. Our third revolves around kindness. I think kindness is vastly underrated as a source of strength. Showing kindness at the right time can change a person’s life. It can be a guiding light to the lost and an anchor in a stormy sea. Sometimes it’s hard to be kind. It’s something that should be celebrated more.

We have this idea that “traditional” fairy tales are children’s stories full of weak passive princesses. Often that’s the case in our contemporary interpretations of them (ahem, pick any early Disney movie), but if you go back and look at the oldest written versions of say, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White they’re anything but! They’re stories of sexual awakening, class struggles and the potential dangers that lurk in the woods. We’re often frustrated that fairy tales seem so invested in the fantasy of “true love” but forget that many of them were told in a time when marriages were arranged for the political advantage of one’s father. True love very rarely came into it. So why not dream occasionally of being swept off your feet? But really, those “happily ever after” tales are much rarer that you’d think. We’ve just (mostly) forgotten about heroines like Katie Crackernuts and Molly Whuppie who rescue their princes and outwit giants.

What is next on the agenda after the release of “Snow White”?

My next adventure is a trip to France and Ireland in a couple of weeks to build up a resource library of photographs for my next two books: a collection of French fairy tales with the incredible Sophie Masson, and a book of deliciously dark and lyrical stories by Northern Irish writer Jane Talbot. I’ll spend the next year working on them, as well as a couple of possible not-yet-announced projects. I can’t wait!



Lorena Carrington's work can be viewed at lorenacarrington.com and her books are available through Serenity Press and all good bookstores.