Kirsty Mitchell is an award-winning fine art photographer from Surrey, England. She is the creator of the otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland. Kirsty began the project in 2008 as an escape from reality after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in the production of it was her way of working through her grief and making something beautiful in her mother’s memory.
“For me being an artist is getting out what is inside of me.”- Kirsty Mitchell
I first heard of Kirsty when my friend, Mary, invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and certain I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s art, I dismissed her offer. I already had put Kirsty’s work in the same category as some of the digitally altered, fantasy photographs that I’d seen on the web. Finally, at Mary’s insistence I looked up Kirsty’s website. I was awestruck. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. It boggled my mind that there was no Photoshop used to fabricate the magic in her photographs. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.
The next month when Mary asked me to take a road trip to see an exhibit of Kirsty’s photography at the Paine Museum in Wisconsin, I was immediately in. The museum was also hosting a question and answer session with Kirsty the evening the exhibit opened, and we planned to attend. I had fallen into Wonderland headfirst. I had to see the photographs in person, meet the artist, and get my booked signed.
At the question and answer session, I discovered that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is utterly honest without a tinge of fakery. There are no details of her life when asked about that she won’t share. I felt a deep connection to her personally. I understood how she used her art to work through her difficulties. I had done the same thing my whole life.
“I was doing something because it was coming out of me and I just had to follow that calling to see where it would lead me.”
Kirsty’s openness about her fragility after the passing of her mother endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When she began the series she already had an amazing career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. She had no idea why she was driven to bring it to life or where it would take her. All Kirsty knew was if she didn’t express her grief in this tangible form she could’t go on. For seven years, she worked tirelessly assembling the sets and creating the costumes to capture her photographs of an alternative existence.
During the journey of making of Wonderland, she had the good fortune of a friend putting her in touch with an “old school” gallery curator. It was a pivotal point on her artistic path. He wanted to know if the photographs Kirsty brought to him were her best work? He made it clear that he didn’t believe they were. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small amount of pieces.
“And so I did it. I went cold turkey. I was really frightened that no one would remember me. In that year away I made what is known as the ‘White Queen Trilogy.’ When I came back and I released those pictures is when everything changed. Everybody just sat up and was like, ‘What the hell is this? This is something totally different.’ You know, you have to labor over something if you want people to trust and believe in it and see who you are through it. That’s why following your passion is so important. If your heart’s not in it, how are you going to give it all you’ve got?”
“Nature is intrinsic in my work, inseparable. It’s my inspiration. The woods are my church.” – Kirsty Mitchell
Kirsty’s dedication to her series meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. Everything she does is massively linked with creation and nature. She and her production team took days off work when a photoshoot was scheduled so there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that rain or shine, the atmospheric conditions always brought an unforeseen beauty to the photograph. She attributes the influence behind the weather conditions as her mother’s energy. Between all the little glimmers in the atmosphere and changes in the weather they always felt a kind of a presence with them.
“There is this thing. I worked with a very tiny team of people. There is my husband, Matthew, Elbie the amazing make-up artist and hairstylist, and Katie the model. And then there’s this other person – my Mum and she does the weather. I have this mantra, my Mum does the weather and we embrace whatever is sent to us. There’s always a reason.”
Kirsty’s spiritual leanings evolved through her mother’s illness and came into focus after her death. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.
“There is one picture in the series where I tried to put that into an image. Gaya the Birth of an End was about me trying to create an image that explains the power of the release of the human spirit, how we are this wheel, these vibrations. If you throw a stone into a lake, the stone is gone, but the vibrations continue. In the same way the circle of life has sort of vibrations that go out, but come back into somebody. People may leave you physically but not in other ways.”
Kirsty had help behind the scenes creating Wonderland. If you ask her, she would agree that her mother’s love was an equal partner in the venture. If Maureen hadn’t taught her daughter to dream and embrace who she was Kirsty may have never become an artist. That same love was the alchemy required to transform the biggest tragedy of Kirsty’s life, the death of her mother, into a masterpiece.
“When I lost my Mum, I had nothing to cling too. I felt like a kite whose string had been cut. I just felt weightless and lost for so long and then suddenly one day I began just walking in the woods. I just can’t explain it. I began to feel this kind of vibration from the land. I remember the day that it happened and I remember sitting on the forrest floor with my back against a tree trunk, just sobbing and crying. I guess that’s why creating the series became such a therapy for me. I felt like I was in my Mum’s arms every time I was in the woods creating this stuff.”
Kirsty’s Wonderland book was published to huge acclaim in November 2015. Since then its popularity has snowballed. This year the renowned Fotografiska photography museum in Stockholm, Sweden, has slated Wonderland to be their 2018 winter show.
Where has Kirsty’s life taken her since her monumental book was published? On Christmas Eve of 2015 she gave birth to their son, Finch. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through treatment and today is cancer free. It seemed natural to her to put her energies into a new body of work about that journey.
“I’m so excited about being able to connect with people again through turning my personal story into something beautiful. In this new project I am a completely different woman. I’m now a mother. I gave birth to my son, and then faced my own mortality all within eight months of each other. Where Wonderland was a kind of escapism, in my new series I want to stand with feet firmly planted on the ground and face all the emotion I went through.”
Kirsty is now immersed in the production of it and has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines this series will take two to three years to complete. She envisions producing 45 pieces versus the 75 that she did for Wonderland. “I want to make the most beautiful, extraordinary, costumes and sets and bring the quality level up again, raise the bar again.”
There is not a doubt in my mind that Kirsty won’t bring her intention to fruition. Look out world. Prepare to be wowed.
*Coming up next: American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, Valerie June
Text and images © Sue Shanahan. Wonderland photographs ©Kirsty Mitchell
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