Kirsty Mitchell's Artistic Wonderland: Sublime And Supernatural

Kirsty Mitchell’s opulent fantasy portrait series, Wonderland, began in the summer of 2009 as a homage to her late mother’s legacy of teaching literature to children. Maureen Mitchell was an English teacher who illuminated the minds of countless children with her fantastic stories for over three decades. When Maureen passed away, Kirsty turned to photography to create a “storybook without words”— an enchanted visual space that would serve as a home for the “fragments of fairytales” she remembered from her mother’s storytelling.

Anne has previously followed Kirsty’s evolution as an artist and her recognition as one of 100 photographers — along with AOC favourite and Kirsty friend Kate Scott — in Vogue Italia’s first Corso Como PhotoVogue 2012 exhibit. Both artists were also featured in Vogue Italia’s second exhibit this summer of 25 photographers, now able to feature more works at Corso Como founder’s Carla Sozzani Gallery.

I was astounded to discover recently Kirsty Mitchell’s artistry and we are pleased to showcase her work and evolution as an artist in this major feature on AOC’s front page. ~ Feanne

Gaia, The Birth Of An End - Wonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

The obsessively detailed props are created entirely by hand— a laborious process that gives Kirsty a sensuous and tactile connection with her creativity, while simultaneously easing her grief. Each shoot is thoroughly documented with behind-the-scenes footage and diary entries. Gaia, The Birth Of An End features an extraordinary handmade headdress— crafted entirely by Kirsty herself— so enormous and heavy that it needed to be attached to a wooden beam in the studio “to take the weight off the model’s head”. The image depicts Gaia’s transformation from mortal to divine, and the impressive headdress is symbolically elevates the character into her goddess state.

I quickly found that that the physical creation became my favourite part— the chance to step into the scenes for real was unlike any other experience in my life to date. It made my daily existence a better and richer place, and slowly helped me deal with my grief. At first people presumed everything was created in Photoshop, the scale of the props, the colours, even the entire landscapes the models were in! So I began to write thorough diary accounts about each picture, and took behind the scenes photographs of the shoots and costumes being made, so the viewer could understand the amount of work involved. There were no stylists, designers or professional support teams and nothing was commissioned. It was simply a few passionate friends working for free, with what I could afford out of my wages every month, whilst I begged and borrowed the rest. - Kirsty Mitchell

The Storyteller - Wonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

The breathtaking natural beauty of the English countryside served as both stage and muse for the elaborate portraits, some of which were planned a full year in advance in order to capture particular seasonal moments.

I chose my local landscape as our setting, and searched for areas of natural wonder, which could convey my feeling that despite its theatrical inhabitants, Wonderland was in fact real… and all around us. Over time I developed a deep bond and respect for the locations in which I worked, and hoped that through my pictures I could remind others of their forgotten magic and beauty. I became fascinated with the pockets of wild flowers that would appear for only a few brief weeks of the year, such as the English bluebells. In some cases I would wait the full cycle of 12 months in order to return prepared with a concept and model, to capture the scene in full bloom. These vivid natural colours in turn dictated those of the costumes, and soon a pattern began to emerge. - Kirsty Mitchell

The Ghost SwiftWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Wonderland’s details are delicate, yet striking— reflecting the nature of the written word, which manages to incite revolutions despite being nothing more than fragile assemblies of ink letters on paper. The fluttering paper and silk butterflies in The Ghost Swift took weeks just to cut by hand, but the incredible result is well worth it.

Her character represents a creature born from the essence of stories— a body of books and forgotten ripped pages, created by the natural elements and insects that surround her. I wanted her half human form to be the marriage of the earth and printed words; spun together by the moths and butterflies that shared the hollow she would spend her life guarding… For these scenes I wanted to create an image based on the trickery of tales, and so my choice to use paper was a direct link to the true story of the Cottingley Fairies which my mother told me about when I was young… Personally I have never liked sickly sweet stories, it is the underlying darkness of folklore, the rose’s thorn, broken promises, and moonlit curses that make my skin prickle. - Kirsty Mitchell

Rose Child - Wonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Delicious, vivid red often surfaces in fairytales as a thematic metaphor for sensual temptations.

DanausWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Luminous patches of sunlight manage to break through the dark, dense foliage in this captivating portrait of barely-there, almost ghostly butterflies.

Wild ThingWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

A precious kiss of warm sunlight on a sweet, fresh morning.

While Nightingales WeptWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

The children’s story Gammelyn The Dressmaker inspired this character— Gammelyn’s Daughter. Her magical dress is made from butterfly wings, allowing her to fly away from her captors. In a similar manner, the escapism afforded by creating these portraits allowed Kirsty to leave behind the pain of grief.

Gammelyn’s Daughter, A Waking DreamWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Portrait Of A PrincessWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

This fragrant lavender scene is a lovely variation of the “wheat field earth goddess” theme.

The Briar Rose - Wonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Fairytales often feature “hidden treasures”— metaphors for valuable lessons or prizes that are earned by undergoing intense personal journeys. The bridge hidden deep in the woods is one such archetypal symbol. This one was discovered by Kirsty shortly after the first anniversary of her mother’s passing.

It was the strangest thing, this tiny fairytale bridge / tunnel embedded into the forest floor… It was such a gift in such a strange place… It was like she led me there, it took away all my sadness and replaced it with complete wonder, it was so precious I can’t put it into words. - Kirsty Mitchell

The Queen’s ArmadaWonderland 2009-2013 by Kirsty Mitchell

Uncertain journeys through strange new worlds— this silent picture of sailing ships speaks volumes of Kirsty’s adventures and learnings in her years of creating Wonderland portraits.

Nothing prepared me for the emotional journey it became, and the very special friendships it produced… It is true to say that in losing my mother I lost so much, but equally this new unexpected path has changed my life forever. So, no matter how sad the origins are, I am so very grateful for what has happened, and the precious friends I have gained. At present I still don’t know what the future holds, but the day I see my mother’s name printed on the inside cover of the Wonderland book… it will feel like I have finally fulfilled my promise to myself… and her precious memory. - Kirsty Mitchell

Artist’s self portrait - Kirsty Mitchell

This last photo shows us the artist herself. In a raw diary entry, she talks to us about her insecurities— yet another example that illustrates how widespread body image issues truly are— and how she decided to eschew skin retouching.

It was a hard reality to face after only taking photographs of models for two years, and the shock of seeing myself again was pretty strange. I have obviously edited the picture, but in this case I chose not to go through the usual process of retouching the skin… In the end I forced myself to look directly into the lens, in strong daylight and just see this as a record of myself for when I’m older and won’t care about the insecurities I have now. - Kirsty Mitchell