Site icon Johanna Flanagan

The Eye Thing and Clumsy Symbolism


So, the one eyed thing. That thing I do where my dolls would be a lot prettier if I didn’t deliberately give them mis-matched eyes.

I get asked about that a lot. I think people imagine that it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to, that the one eye, or mismatched eye thing is meant to “mean” something.  I don’t mean this post to be in any way disrespectful to anyone who has ever asked about the eye thing, please ask me what ever you want about my work and I will try my best to answer but please don’t be disappointed if I haven’t given it too much thought yet.

We’re taught that in art things mean other things, and we’re taught that if you want to talk about art then you have to learn to talk about what things are supposed to mean instead of what they actually look like or, heaven forbid, make you feel.

When I was at school we were taught that “real” artists used symbolism in their work and that we should totally, definitely do that too. We were taught to go look at what meant what and then once we knew, we’d select suitable colours, objects and motifs that meant stuff and we would cram them into whatever we were doing to symbolise what we meant. Which brings me to one of my pet peeves….., second hand symbolism as a means of self expression.

Of course, rather than being a judgement on anyone else, this is about me reflecting on things I used to do and don’t like to be reminded of when I see other people doing it because it’s … uncomfortable.

Let’s take the example of a rook, since that’s the pseudonym I have chosen.  A quick Google search will tell you that a rook, a crow or a raven symbolises death and the underworld.  Want to make something spooky?  Just add a raven.

Yes a rook represents death but you don’t need Google to tell you that.  If you live anywhere near rooks you’ll know the sound of their caws on a cold winter morning as the trees stand bare and the sky is cold and grey over your head, telling you that, guess what….death is here! The plants are dying back and the other birds are flying south because it’s going to be cold and dark for months before the whole world comes back to life again. It’s hard to imagine rooks without seeing the cold sky and bare branches that they perch on, and death is part of that whole picture.  And if rooks don’t mean something to you, then don’t put them into your work just because they mean the thing you want to say.  Find your own symbol!  Go bloomin’ live your symbolism, don’t bother looking it up online as a first port of call, by all means check it but don’t just hurl some clumsy symbol into your work because Google told you it might be relevant. Find your symbols, find your points of reference in your world and then let them speak for you and you know what, other people WILL get it, even if it’s just subconsciously.  Don’t patronise your audience, or yourself for that matter.

If you want to connect with your darker side through your work don’t research dark symbols, go spend time in dark, dead places.  Go to the woods in winter and see life dying back so that it can come back again refreshed and relieved. You’ll understand a hell of a lot more if you actually live it. Go listen to how quiet the woods become ( I know, I’m ALL about the woods) , feel how frozen the ground is, how bare the trees are, then wait …. Want to know what colours symbolise hope? Go hang out in your garden in the spring and watch the bright green shoots push their way up through the cold ground, or pay attention to that tiny little happy warm feeling you get when you see the first daffodils bright and yellow and turning their heads to the sun.

And when you look at other peoples’ work, by all means find out what they were on about, but first of all, as yourself how you feel about what they’ve made.  Does the work make you happy, angry, uncomfortable?  Ask yourself why that is, don’t go straight to the little description next to the piece in the gallery, or to the vastness of the internet to tell you what it’s all about.  Go there once you’ve had a think about it and maybe formed some opinions of your own.  Your reaction to art is just as relevant and important as anyone else’s.

But back to the eye thing.

Those who ask about the eye thing aren’t wrong, yes it does mean something.  They are just wrong about the order of events ; I do it then work out what it means rather than working out what I want to say then working out what would say it best on my behalf.

When I was a little girl I had a deep, seemingly irrational terror of losing my right eye.  I had recurring nightmares of it being taken or shot or knocked out of my head.   I have very large eyes and it’s something that people have always commented on to the point where I actually believed that I could see more than other people because my eyes were so much larger ( I tended to take some things very literally when I was a child) , so the idea of losing one of my precious big blue eyes horrified me and would send me into a blind panic.  Just writing this makes me cover my right eye with my hand and take a deep breath.

I’d been making the one eyed dolls for months before it had occurred to me that it might be connected to my childhood fears, in fact, I used to make sock monkeys ( I was the proud owner of Ebay’s first ever dedicated sock monkey shop in 2004! ) and they all had one tiny little eye and one giant beautiful one.   With the dolls and drawings, it just sort of happened.  The anthropomorphic dolls, the rabbits and the bears don’t have human eyes,  but for the “human” dolls it just sort of made sense.

My childhood fear of losing an eye was one of the deepest fears I can remember,  because it was too irrational to explain, and because it gripped me when I was a child with no way of understanding where it came from.  It crept into my nightmares.  It’s my part of underworld, my dark scary place, the hidden part of me, and it comes out in my art.  My dolls, my beautiful dolls that would be so lovely if they weren’t just right on the edge of ugly and dark and creepy and weird.  But to me that IS beautiful!  The dance between light and dark, the one embracing the other, the shift between ugly and lovely and back again.  I create a self portrait that combines my idealised self and the worst fear my little girl self could imagine.   My hopes on one side and my fears on the other.  Because that’s kind of where I live my life from, and it comes out in my work.

All of your work will be a self portrait so let it be a portrait of YOU, your life, your fears, your reactions, your loves, your hates,  not your browsing history, not other peoples conclusions or observations, not Wikipedia and not Google.

Instead of cramming symbols into your work, how about just doing what comes naturally, letting it develop, then maybe at some point doing a bit of detective work into icons, mythology, psychology and symbolism, or maybe just your own life to see what you were maybe on about in the first place.   Trust your creative instinct. Let it have free reign for a bit and see where it wants to go.

But back to the eye thing.

If someone had asked me at the beginning of this post what the eye thing meant I would have told them it didn’t really mean a whole lot, that I just did it without thinking (in fact that is exactly what I told someone on Facebook about an hour ago) .   It turns out they are right though, there is a whole lot to it.  I shudder to think what I’d come up with if I’d Googled how to symbolise all the the things I needed to say instead of just getting on with it.

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