Posted by on May 22, 2020

“Little Red” Acrylic on Panel. 29.7 x 21cms

Art, for me, is truly magical. Like music, it has that incredible ability to stir the deepest recesses of the soul without words. So how is it that a bit of goo smeared across a flat surface with some hairs tied to a stick holds the power to compel some people, or repel others, with such a deep emotional connection to both? The answer lies in stories which play an important role in the lives of all humans from the moment they are born. We teach our children through stories, we share information by telling each other our experience, and we have fond memories of stories, too. When I was a child my Dad would read to me for hours from richly illustrated books. I’m sure the seeds of my passion for art were sewn there, staying up quite a bit too late to read just one more page and giggling away as my father put on silly voices or intentionally changed the stories to make me laugh.

An understanding that we, as humans, have an innate predisposition for narrative thought is helpful but, through my paintings, I want to get to the essence of the feeling evoked by those fairy tales from childhood, and my love of them is not enough to engender those feelings in others who may not be interested. In a fast paced, modern world it is easy to see how these seemingly simple tales told “once upon a time” in a “land far away” might appear to be irrelevant at first glance.

What’s so special about Fairy Tales?

On the surface, fairy tales are fantasy; as such they are free from the jurisdiction of religion and can, therefore, speak about life in real rather than acceptable terms. As fantasies go, they are perhaps among the most real of stories, rooted in the realities of human misery and desire where parents murder their children, horror lurks in dark corners, men lust after gold, and women are both saintly and evil. They also cover familiar situations: the oppression of people by land owners, the dependency of the elderly on their families, the overworked individual who is desperate for a day off, mothers who die in childbirth, and occasionally, moments of joy.

By combining circumstances such as the lack of something and the desire for it, fairy tales allow their readers to consider possibilities safely in the realm of fantasy. We think of these stories as being suitable for children, but many of us never truly let go of them, or rekindle our affection for them when re-reading them to our own children, their meaning having changed with the benefit of adult experience. Bruno Bettelheim conducted a critical study of fairy tale in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, which he wrote from his perspective as a world renowned psychoanalyst. He said,

“As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life.”

This deeper understanding is echoed in the words of Marina Warner, an award winning scholar who has spent her life writing about myth and fairy tale. She asserts:

“That fairy tales are cast in the language of the psyche, with the forests and palaces, snow, glass and apples symbolising deeper, concealed truths, has become widely accepted; psychoanalytical methods provide entry into the stories’ meanings, and, like the hotel maid’s key, can open every door, including those that lead to forbidden chambers, the dark corners of humankind in general as well as the secrets of a particular individual.”

Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, valued fairy tales as the creations of humanity’s “collective unconscious”, a deep layer of the unconscious that stretched beyond the individual psyche, filled with archetypes who wove into the stories a kind of coded wisdom which would help us pass through the various stages of growing up safely. He believed that myths are important to all humans and that these archetypal figures made it possible to express unconscious ideas in an accessible story form. This lends the stories a universal appeal. It is important to note that in the same way the meaning of words, as a product of conflicting social forces that require constant reinterpretation, can change, the language of symbols can be equally slippery, not just from community to community, but also from person to person. I do not want to go into a deeper discussion about linguistics or semiology here, except to say that rather than damaging the appeal of a story, the spontaneously metamorphosing language of symbols, actually acts to strengthen the meaning of the stories to a wider audience. We each see what we want to see and what makes se
nse to us.

How does all this relate to a painting?

I believe that a painting, like a fairy tale, needs to have a long relationship with its viewer; to keep providing new answers if it is going to continue to be a stimulating companion. This becomes difficult when the work depicts a subject which can be defined, explained succinctly, or understood by means of education. It is prescriptive and viewers are either interested or they aren’t. There is also the possibility that unfamiliarity with the story, might leave you feeling that you didn’t “get” the work.

Artists, like myself, who employ unconcluded narrative, avoid this by rejecting the prescriptive approach. I want the encounters with my work to be dialogical experiences with viewers responding in an open and interpretive way. I describe myself as painting the ignition points of narrative. This means that I provide visual clues, but intentionally fail to make sense of them. This leaves the viewer in doubt, creating a void which the viewer must fill using their own experience and reasoning. Whatever resolution they find within the work will be correct, and it will connect with them because it is their own. As the experience of the viewer changes, so does the potential reading of the work. This gives the relationship of the viewer to the work the same potential for longevity as the reader has with fairy tales. Looking at a painting on the wall may seem to be an external preoccupation, however, the act of looking send us on an internal journey of potentially unfathomable lengths.

“The fairy tale journey may look like an outward trek across plains and mountains, through castles and forests, but the actual movement is inward, into the lands of the soul. The dark path of the fairy tale forest lies in the shadows of our imagination, the depths of our unconscious.”

~ Terri Windling

I hope this gives you some insight in to my practice and what motivates me to step out in to the studio day after day. There is only one thing better than making work that speaks to and surprises me, and that is when someone else takes a painting home and goes on a new adventure with it. I am always fascinated by the new stories they spin to each new person they meet.


  1. Liz B
    May 23, 2020

    Leave a Reply

    💚 Thank you very for this post Emma – it’s a fascinating insight , into not just your work , and life and very thought provoking . Do you happen to know the work of Mervyn Peake at all ? He was both a writer and an illustrator ( mostly for his own writing ). the gormenghast trilogy is a masterpiece and a personal favourite . His illustrations are quirky. I’ve subscribed to your mailing list for updates. Keep up the good work . Liz x

    • Emma Martin
      May 23, 2020

      Leave a Reply

      Hi Liz, I’m certainly aware of him although he isn’t one I’ve studied in detail. In the past I’ve got rather sidetracked by Rackham, Dulac, Gorey and Beardsley, but I’ll take a closer look based on your recommendation! Thanks for subscribing. Your support and your comments are very much appreciated. Stay safe and well. Emma x

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.