Friday, March 31, 2017

Tara Tree-tops and Craw, A Dedication to Brilliant Artist

When I was a little girl, my favorite book was The Bumper Book.  Each day I'd find a cozy spot on the sofa, open the large picture book on my lap, and lose myself in the illustrations.  I could read, but I had no interest in the written stories, just the ones that were told through Eulalie's illustrations.  It wasn't until the year 1979, when Kit Williams's book, Masquerade, came out, that I would find myself in a similar world, lost to the beauty and magic of art. 

This book, this story, this masterpiece was in short, a children's book for grown ups.  I'd been collecting beautifully illustrated children's books since 1974, and when I saw this one, I didn't hesitate to purchase it.  Behind the story of a little jack hare and a lost jewel, a golden hare, was a riddle, a treasure hunt for a real jewel buried on a hill somewhere in England.  Perhaps the description of "behind the story" is not correct.  The story was written as a riddle with the express purpose of changing the way the world viewed art, and of course, the treasure hunt for the buried jewel.  To not just see a beautifully painted picture, but to explore every corner of it in the effort to solve the riddle.  And, in by doing so, appreciate further the brilliant work of Kit Williams.

Having just finished watching a 2009 documentary on Kit, the book, and his work in the following years, I assume he would probably like nothing better than to never be reminded again of the book that brought him fame.  Not all artists gravitate towards publicity and celebrity, but that does not keep admirers, such as myself from celebrating his work.  From what I understand, Kit and his wife Eleyne live a very quiet life, where both artists immerse themselves in the thing they love best to do.  Create things of beauty.  Knowing this now, I can only imagine how surprised they must have felt when I wrote to them recently, through their website, and asked permission to create a doll from the illustration of Tara Tree-tops and Craw!

Apparently, I'd "missed" adding a return email address to my inquiry, and Eleyne, bless her heart, had looked me up on the Internet and wrote to me asking if I was the one who asked about Tara Tree-tops. I wrote back immediately, that it was I, and she and Kit granted me permission to make the doll.  I was deeply touched by her effort to find me, and since then have been putting all the love I could into costuming this doll with her accessories.

When I first received the 14" Maggie Iacono doll as a gift from my friend, Betsy, it was Tara Tree-tops who I'd wanted to make her into.  However, she spent some time on my shelf as Marguerite Magritte, if you remember her.  So what stopped me from pursuing this initially?  Craw and the seed dandelion.  Where was I going to find a crow that looked like Craw, and in the perfect size for this doll?  How on earth was I going to make a good facsimile of a miniature seed dandelion?  Well, my foray into needle felting changed all that.

The illustration of Tara Tree-tops and Craw has always been a favorite of mine from the book Masquerade.  There is something about the idea of flying, sailing in and out among the clouds on a breeze, being so high above the earth as to be able to see the world from such a view.  Free from the ties that bind.  I also love the ballet and the beautiful costumes the dancers wear.  The delicate pink satin slippers that enable their feet to dance en pointe.  I was now able to pursue the creation of this doll.  To try.  And, I really did not know where to begin. 

You'd think after all these years of studying this painting, that I'd have had an idea, but sometimes you just have to start trying things.  Which is exactly what I did.  The first thing was to draft a pattern of a body suit for the doll.  I'd made an all-in-one design for the tutu to be attached to.  I quickly learned that this costume was not going to come together in this manner, and pulled out my Robert Tonner New York City Ballet doll costumes to study their construction.  What I discovered was that the costumes were made in three parts.  The bodice, the panties (for lack of a better term), and the skirt.

As I continued to study Kit's painting, I noticed that the ruffles were adapted in a spiral and this simply wasn't going to work on a doll.  If you notice the top ruffle or petals, towards the waist, they are smaller and seem to wrap and grow wider as they move down the skirt.  This could be an illusion "in flight".  Perhaps it is a fault to see or read so much into the illustration of a costume, but also humbling not to be so interested in solving the riddle of the story. My "riddle" has been in how to bring those illustrations to life on a doll.  Her costume, to me, is the flowering dandelion.  She holds the seed dandelion in symbolism. 

The best approach to creating the look of the tutu was with many, many box pleats.  I used the yellow silk I had left over from Gay Event's Walking Costume, and a green silk taffeta for the bodice and panties. There was no way I was going to be able to make as many green leaf stems on the bodice as Kit drew on the original, so I suffered the painstaking effort of creating just a few and turning those points inside out.  Fray Check was my friend in this endeavor.  Then there was the zipper.  I used a small, 2" vintage Barbie zipper for the front, and machine stitched the yellow in between the leaves.  There are some things you can do when interpreting illustrations to costumes for dolls, and some you cannot.  The yellow between the leaves would have been "flower", and could have been realized if for instance, I used wool felt to create the bodice.  But, ballet costumes should be made of silk in my mind, and so I "interpreted". 

A full yellow bodice with box pleated ruffle on top was fitted beneath the green leaf bodice.  The rows of box pleated dandelion petal were sewn to the pants, then the bodice sewn to that.  The costume closes in back with tiny hooks and thread loops.

Tara's stockings are a light green knit jersey and her slippers are pink silk on leather. 
The next task was to make her wee seed dandelion.  I was not going to go into this project blind.  I grew up with dandelions in our yard.  I would sit as a child for hours during the summer months, and blow the fairy seeds along the wind wishing for a dream to come true when they found their eventual resting place. 
When I lived in Ontario, Canada, for two years, we had a field that stretched out behind the house.  Living on the east coast of Canada was a far cry from the climate of California where I grew up and still live.  Everything felt different.  Even the bugs were bigger, and there's nothing like experiencing your first ice storm while driving a sports car at night.  Silly Californian!

We'd moved there in the dead of winter, and by spring, a little magic came my way.  One morning I was looking out the kitchen window at the field below and admiring all the pretty yellow dandelions that grew so abundantly.  When all of a sudden, they began disappearing!  It was like something beneath the earth was pulling them under, and they were out of sight, gone.  My husband came by and told me there was a ground hog out there eating them all.  Pop-pop-pop, they'd disappear into his mouth.  I've never looked at a dandelion quite the same way since.  But, I digress.

And, I will some more.  Dandelions are a hearty little weed.  I'd prefer to think of them as flowers, although gardeners would disagree.  I was studying the reason why Tara was wearing a dandelion tutu and carrying a seed dandelion.  I wanted to understand the connection and why Kit painted her this way.  Dandelions come up as a flower.  When pollinated, the pollen goes down the stem into the ground and produces the seed dandelion, which grows next to it.  The seed dandelion, in turn, spreads its seeds through physical disturbance.  The seed takes root and the cycle continues.  A gardener's nightmare.  The problem with pulling the dandelions out, is that when they come back, they come back with a shorter stem to prevent you from yanking them up again so easily.  So my theory is that Tara and her seed dandelion are closely connected through this cycle.  I won't trouble you further with this as we still have Craw to discuss. 
Tara's seed dandelion was constructed using pieces from millinery flowers.  Seed pollinator stems were attached to a floral wire then wrapped in silk ribbon.  Needle felting wool was then gently wrapped around the seeds in a bubble form and gently felted into place.  This little dandelion was hard to photograph, but I promise you it was made "anatomically correct".

Craw is Tara Tree-tops's friend crow.  Tara finds him handsome, and he answers "'Ansome, 'ansome, 'ansome", in the story.  She aids Jack Hare's progress on his journey to the sun in a riddle of her own. 
As with the dandelion, I had to do some research on crows.  Sometimes it is not enough just to have a illustration in front of you.  How does he look from behind?  What does his tongue look like?  Certainly a tongue would be present if he was cawing with his beak open.  I studied many needle felted versions of crows and none had an open beak.  Well, no wonder.  Its not an easy thing to do.  And, I once again watched an instructional Youtube on needle felting birds.  This time, I thought I'd try it will full armature.  Mary Lenox's robin was not done on armature.  Only his legs were created this way then wrapped.  I have a very difficult time following instructions, but I thought I'd try.

Craw is 2 1/4" tall and 4" long.  Most of these instructional videos are done with much larger subjects.  I use a 26 gauge, white cotton wrapped wire for the armature.  Something so thin that it doesn't hold a bend or shape when you needle felt wool to it.  About half way into making him, I was ready to give up.  But, I never do.  Its determination that drives me, and I know I entirely overthink the process at times.  He came together quite nicely, and quickly, when I gave into the joy of simply making him, and not making him to someone else's specifications.

The most magical thing happened at the end of this project.  Its one of the reasons Kit created this story.  To make us look, then look again.  I may never see everything that this painting offers, but one detail became exciting clear when I tried to position Craw on Tara's wrist.  I knew he had a gold ring around his leg, and attached to this was a chain.  But, where did the chain connect to Tara?  My eyes are not what they used to be, so I pulled the book under my magnifying lamp and discovered that the chain was attached to a ring on her finger.  I felt giddy as the first day of spring!  What a marvelous imagination this artist has!

As I noted early on, this treasured story, and the fame that came with it, will undoubtedly haunt the quiet, gentle artist that lives and works in seclusion.  But to many like myself, its publication was a special time in our lives that will never be forgotten.    For further reading on Kit Williams, this is wonderful article I found today

And, to watch the BBC Four documentary on the 30th anniversary of Masquerade (2009), with an intimate look into Kit's life and work, please check out this link  Its in six parts, but they're connected concurrently.  Such amazing work!  If you watch it, you'll discover that Tara shows up in another one of his paintings.
Happy Spring!
Miss E. Mouse 

Marionettes from the story.

A peddler doll from the story.

Kit's second book, untitled, another quest.


  1. A remarkable rendition .... from one outstanding artist to another! The thought process, not only in the making of the garment and accessories, but so too in the interpretation of the story, are, to say the least, masterful!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. How fantastic! I had those books too and Kit Williams was one of my childhood heroes and I still love his work. I just googled Tara Tree-tops today to see if there was any other reference to the name and character as I never forgot about her and found out about your lovely doll. Nice work!

  4. How fantastic! I had those books too and Kit Williams was one of my childhood heroes and I still love his work. I just googled Tara Tree-tops today to see if there was any other reference to the name and character as I never forgot about her and found out about your lovely doll. Nice work!