Tessa tells us about her fairies, narrative inspiration, and bugs
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I first came upon Tessa’s work at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention. Wandering past colourful cover artwork and dark images of horror and gore, I was drawn to this clear white space in the corner of the room. And then I saw what was hanging in it. Suspended from fine, almost invisible wires, a battle raged in the air between bees, dragonflies, flying beetles, and tiny, terrifying skeletal fairies. I joined a small group of people wandering around this scene, oohing and ahhing to each other in glee. The detail was amazing, with each fairy constructed from pieced together insect parts that made truly convincing little creatures brimming with menace.
I immediately accosted the artist, Tessa Farmer – looking very smart, and not a bit like she might be carrying an empty Tic-Tac box in her pocket in case she came across any dead insects ¬– in a bid to find out more. Despite my perhaps overenthusiastic demeanour (there were a lot of book launches going on with a lot of free wine), she kindly agreed to let me interrogate her about her amazing artwork.
When I finally catch up with Tessa she is just about to set off to Chile to gather exotic insects. It all sounds rather grand and exciting!
“It’s an expedition with entomologists from the Natural History Museum.” Tessa tells me, “It doesn’t seem real at the moment. They’re going on a collecting expedition in Chile and I’m going with them. Their motto is ‘If it flies it dies’! I don’t know what the ethics of that are…”
But Tessa usually has to make do with more traditional methods of purchasing bugs (did I just say traditional methods of purchasing bugs?!), collected in a variety of ways. “I buy the exotic ones... from insect dealers. And the native ones I find them already dead. I never kill things myself. Other people find them and I get given lots.” I picture friends and family dropping by Tessa’s for tea with a pocketful of bluebottles gathered from windowsills. “I think people think I’m not interested in flies but it’s useful to have big flies. I get them from an entomologist from the Natural History Museum, but their legs are often broken. They’re underrated. In the summer, if you walk around looking at the pavements, the number you can find is astonishing.”
When I saw her exhibition for the first time, I was completely spellbound by the dramatic narrative element of Tessa’s work. There are characters, personalities, and parts to play. “For me, that’s the most important part, it’s an evolving story through the main body of work. It took me a few years to realise the narrative, or maybe it took me time to allow myself to be immersed in it [the story]. As an art student, I always found it very difficult to talk about my work and to explain it in terms of art and concept, and justify it. I found it easier to tell the story of the work. So, I think I found myself becoming the narrator unintentionally, but as a means of being able to explain the work to people.”
And, with sometimes hundreds of elements, working out the narrative must be a complex process. “I normally don’t plan a piece entirely. When I start the piece, the artwork develops, but it kind of keeps developing until I’m installing it. I imagine it in my head, with scenarios, and what I want to create within an installation, but sometimes there are gaps, and I know once I’m installing they’ll become space for playing as well, they’ll be continuations of the creation. They’ll engage with each other, and sometimes more elements of the narrative appear. I’m not very good at finishing. I sometimes only finish installations because I run out of time. I’m never satisfied.”
Tessa’s work demands something of the viewer, making it very interactive. You must draw your own meaning from the piece. This means that the story will shift and change depending on who is looking at it. I asked Tessa if she liked this organic process or if she wished she had more control.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating seeing people not really getting it. Sometimes if I’m in the space I might point things out or explain things. If I’m not there, then I don’t want to be too prescriptive. What I’ve noticed is that children generally get the narrative really quickly, and for me that’s affirming, that I’m getting it right. I think it’s really important to look at things closely over an extended period of time, and once you engage with some of the action then you see more, so it continually engages you more and more. Sometimes the titles have clues or explanations, but sometimes it’s ok if people don’t see it, as not everyone can see fairies.”
As a child Tessa was a fan of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies, but Tessa’s fairy creations have evolved from traditional pretty beginnings to the downright terrifying. “The first fairy I made was at university, and it was a kind of twisted flower fairy, so it was a kind of skeletal, human foetus, with skeletal wings, and I made it to put inside of a tulip. We were doing Human Anatomy, and I was really interested in skeletons. I don’t think I’d been thinking of fairies, I suppose I must have been, but I also just wanted to understand this human skeleton and how to construct it. It was a making process combined with imagination. I wanted to make something that looked realistic that I could then go and find… I remember photographing it in my mum’s garden and taking it and showing my brother what I’d found, and then he freaked out because he thought it was real. So it became a game. Before, I was making things out of natural materials as interventions in landscapes, so subtle and playful.
“I think I was trying to convince myself they were real. In my mind I had this idea of tiny, insect-sized fairies, but I couldn’t make them then. It took me about three to four years. It was a case of honing my skills and with that process the ideas developed. My work’s always been kind of labour intensive, with my hands proving what my mind created. I think I’m existing in their world, in my mind.”
There is a truly childish delight that comes over me when I look at Tessa’s work, bringing me back to that feeling of wonder I had when I built houses for fairies out of twigs and moss at the bottom of my garden. Although I think I would have had a bit of a fright if one of Tessa’s fairies had taken residence, as she thinks they might be more bug-like than your classic ethereal faye.
“I don’t know whether they’re of our realm. I think they might be a kind of insect. That realm is quite alien. I’m not sure that I believe in a spiritual world. I think my ideas are quite grounded in the physicalities of nature. I think I’m more influenced by science and mythology.”
Interestingly, considering the fantastical nature of her art, Tessa hasn’t really got much of her inspiration from the world of speculative fiction.
“I hadn’t been but I will now after Fantasy Con. It was really rich in terms of inspiration and it made me realise I need to read more.”
Well, as an avid reader of fantasy, I am whole-heartedly impressed that Tessa has created this complex fantastic world with little outside influence from the genre. Perhaps that’s why her work is so original.
Tessa in her studio
You can see Tessa's work at:
Apiculture: 'Bees and the Art of Pollination' at Peninsula Arts, University of Plymouth from 12 April - 31 May 2014.
Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bathwick, Bath, BA2 4DB from 14 May - 07 September
3a: 'The Insectary (detail)' 2007, bones, insects, plant roots
10a: 'The Coming of the Fairies (detail)' 2011, taxidermied swan, bones, insects, plant roots
11: 'A Prize Catch' 2010, dessicated blue tit, insects, shark tooth, hedgehog spines, plant roots