A conversation between Olivia Fletcher and Jerusha West for ‘Swans in My Grandma’s Garden’, Springseason, November 2021 (an exhibition which showed the process behind Solidago)

Introduction by Olivia Fletcher

Fiction is created even when we tell things as they are or how they once were; the past gets embellished, perhaps even tarnished, in the act of re-telling. Photography, involved as it is in repetition – reflections and light etched on chemical paper – allows for the repurposing of material, actions and images. Susan Stewart has written that ‘in the repetition difference is displayed in both directions, just as “identity” is created. We thus cannot see the repetition as secondary, or auxiliary, to the original, for instead of supplementing or supplanting the original, it serves to create the original.’i Although a fictional film, Jerusha West’s Solidago (2021) is based on factual events that took place across the UK and Northern Ireland during the 1960s.

West's use of object and quotation is Solidago’s defining feature, repetition creates the original, to the extent that we may characterise the film as having a distinctly mythic quality. Told using a voiceover, the narrative of Solidago takes its cues from the troubling number of women who were forced into adoption in the UK and Northern Ireland during the 1960s because they were unmarried. Testimonies from women who suffered physical and psychological abuse at mother-and-baby homes sparked a government investigation where it was found that around 9,000 babies died in under 80 years (twice the rate of the infant mortality rate for that period) in Ireland’s church-run homes.ii Women were forced to surrender their ‘illegitimate’ children to an uncertain future. The struggle between the body and the (often forced) denial of motherhood is the beating heart of Solidago.

West’s film retells the history of the Baby-Scoop era. The film tells it at a slant. Using her painterly influences, West brings these narratives to new, prosperous life: an imagined scenario where a woman, Edith, is sent to a commune in rural England to give birth to her child. The women who live there – a place called Solidago, after the perennial flower – care for one another and sustain themselves on the food they grow; entertainment comes from the dynamic performances that unfurl on a make-shift stage, lit up by campfire. The performers wear colourful, painted masks and the camera lingers over gelatinous cakes, covered in foraged rosemary and other flower heads; behind Edith’s bedhead, we see detailed canvases crafted by Aimée Parrott, originally intended as decorations at the artist’s wedding.

In 1958, a few years before Solidago is set, a woman called Jane Brakhage went into labour with her first child. Jane’s husband, Stan Brakhage, was a filmmaker and they had mutually agreed that the birth would be filmed from beginning to end. This was the first time that childbirth had been recorded on film stock for artistic purposes. When Window Water Baby Moving (1959) was screened in New York a year later, Maya Deren (a friend of Brakhage’s) threw up her hands in disgust and declared that giving birth was a ‘very private affair’ and that it should not be made public in this way. Later, Jane explained how Deren saw the film as an intrusion into the myth of womanhood. ‘Even the animals,’ Deren raged, ‘when they give birth, they do it in a private place.’iii

Around the same time that I was researching this encounter and writing about Brakhage’s film Window Water Baby Moving, Jerusha West and Geoffrey Hazelton-Swales were writing and making preparations for the filming of Solidago. We met in Jerusha’s kitchen – the location always changing. We pored over books, reproductions of Derek Jarman’s sketchbooks and Mary Kelly’s incredible Post-Partum Document (1973). Jerusha and Geoff took it in turns to tell me about how the script was progressing and whether the locations they were scouting could be used to realise the fictional Solidago setting. During all of these meetings, the film sat among us in the abstract. Each of us held a different version of Solidago in our minds.

The film was shot in 2020 – during a global pandemic – on 16mm film. Amazingly, Solidago retains some of the unnamable but deeply distinctive mysticism that floated in and across our initial meetings in 2017. After many conversations, discussions that have proven life-giving to each of our works and research interests, it’s fitting that Jerusha and I decided to record our final dialogue about Solidago in writing, creating a co-authored text to mark the occasion of the exhibition Swans in My Grandma’s Garden (2021) at Springseason.

OF: You first started playing with the idea of film when you were studying at Slade School of Fine Art. What does your fine art background bring to the filmmaking process?

JW: I was in the painting department at the Slade, so, in a sense, I found my way into filmmaking through paint – although in many ways I think the work you make (or the mediums you choose to work with) can come from somewhere much more primal, unconnected to school. Studying at art school definitely made filmmaking more of a physical possibility, though – having access to equipment, and being surrounded by lots of people who were doing it. I think the way I approach drawing, painting and sculpture on a purely aesthetic level has translated into Solidago with my choice of colour palette, texture, etc. Throughout the process of making the film, there were points where it reminded me of making a collage: many elements fitting together; intrinsically working.

OF: Some of the characters in Solidago look like they could be subjects in your drawings and paintings. Janet Malcom once wrote that if you scratch a photograph you find two things; a painting and a photograph’, which seems to point to the penetrative qualities of painting. Whats that relationship – between film and painting – like for you?

JW: I try not to separate the two (art making and filmmaking) but each has their own apparatus which can set them apart quite a bit. To me, writing and directing film feels very reliant on my memories of interactions and relationships with other people, whereas art-making is less so, coming from somewhere more insular maybe.

I think, in general, the work people make can be very affected by more fundamental experiences one has – the landscape you grew up in, the texture of the curtains in your bedroom growing up, what you saw, watched, read or heard as a child. Your wounds; your parents’ wounds; their traumas and so on. I think all these things really do seep into your work even if it takes the form of resistance.

OF: Solidago is shot on 16mm film and the narrative is told using a voiceover. You assimilate experimental cinematic techniques and cite influences like Carolee Schneemann and Stan Brakhage, both of whom worked solely on film-stock for much of their career. Why does Solidago rely so much on analogue technology?

JW: I love the rich and magical aspect of analogue film, and how it contrasts the heavily digitalised world we live in now. I have always preferred it to digital technology on the whole. For Solidago, it felt important to use analogue in order to honour and depict the 1960s authentically, and to evoke a sense of cultural nostalgia.

OF: Theres a line from Solidago that really stuck with me: set against an image of a dead bird, the voiceover tells us about a woman who taught important lessons about our flesh; our skin. She told us that our bodies were like birds; that each man we gave ourselves to would pluck another feather from us’. It’s a moment that dwells on the potentially brutal forces within nature, and how sexual partners may impact a persons sense of self. How is this idea figured throughout the film and does it exist in other forms, perhaps in some of your other work, too?

JW: I often return to imagery of animals and nature as a way of conveying sometimes inarticulable human feelings or situations. 

In Solidago, it was particularly birds that kept recurring as an image while we were writing and preparing for the film. I felt like they related to some of its central themes: birth, growth, motherhood, loss.

That bird sequence you mention was actually the starting point for the whole film. A French cousin of mine had given me similar advice when I was a lot younger, and so the image had been with me for many years before Solidago was written.

In some ways, such a statement might feel very problematic; it feels so backwards, with female sexuality and liberation in mind. But at the same time there is also something timeless and relatable about the statement, which I think allows it to fit within a 1960s narrative, as well as being relevant to a contemporary audience now.

I feel that many people might be able to connect with that statement if they were brutally honest about their experience with sex (and I’m not just referring to sex solely in a physical sense, or just for women even).

OF: So even though birds are symbols of fertility and maternity throughout the film, theyre also an attempt to collapse the perceived binary of human and animal. What was your thinking behind this?

JW: I was talking to Geoff about this recently (whom I wrote and developed the script alongside), about how the nakedness, vulnerability and shame associated with sex could come from a more psychological space, regardless of gender; in the way that you sort of loses yourself and sees the complexity of the self for a moment. That can be quite traumatic, really; a stripping away of the feathers.

But obviously for women, there are more complicated layers and lenses in addition to this. Given how patriarchal our civilisation is, and considering the way that women’s bodies and sex have been depicted for thousands of years in culture, in the media, pornography and so on,  the representations we have been given of sex and gender disparities are so ingrained in us all that I think it’s impossible for them not to seep into our experience of certain situations, whether subconsciously or actually acted.

OF: In the fictional setting of Solidago, were presented with a utopian community, a place where women take care of one another independently of the structures of the state and nuclear family. Its not solely a place for women to give birth: the main character, Edith, is the only pregnant person there. How does Solidago interpret the history it re-tells?

JW: I was drawn to this part of history – it being a time when women were literally forced to be silent. My mother was adopted in 1969, and my biological grandmother (aged 16 at the time) was sent away to give birth secretly. Solidago emerged partly from a desire to explore and open a dialogue around this period.

It was important that the women living in Solidago not be depicted as objects of the male gaze; that they were instead portrayed as more independent and resilient, performing agricultural tasks to keep their community in order – tasks that have been traditionally associated with masculinity.

The community in some ways acts as a utopian space in feminist terms. The 1960s are painted as a period where women were becoming sexually liberated and free, but the decision to set the film in a rural community set apart from the norms of 1960s Britain contrasts this perception with the widespread patriarchal and oppressive beliefs that were in fact much more apparent during that time.

OF: Your film takes into account the history of the Baby-Scoop era as well as countercultural movements that experimented with alternative forms of living. Why do you think such experiments often led to failure and dissolution?

JW: I have looked quite closely at post-1900 communities in the past five years and have considered their potential as utopian spaces: The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, Monte Verità, Drop City, amongst others. To a degree, these sorts of communities can function as utopian spaces: a place where equality between people and a sense of community is the driving force; where humans are at one with nature and where the overall ambition is to employ a more simplistic method of living, where spiritual values taken from reimagined pasts can be revived.

They create a sense of community or escapism in precarious and unstable times. Considering examples of communities or cults where things have become very dark (an extreme example being Jonestown) and having spent time in several ecovillages myself, my conclusion is that they can never live up to their utopian ideals. There is always a hierarchy or power difference between the leader/founder and other members which has the potential to be dangerous.

OF: During her stay at Solidago, Edith witnesses a series of performances put on by other masked members of Solidago and experiences graphic dreams in which the other women seem to be painting blank walls with layers of blood, which reminded me of Carolee Schneemanns concept of kinetictheatre and painting. Although part of the commune, Edith is excluded from these creative moments. What role does performances play throughout the film? Why is Edith not part of this ritual?

JW: That's interesting you mention Carolee Schneemann since I’ve always liked her work (although when developing Solidago she was more of an indirect reference). The painting with blood was partly inspired by looking a lot at Viennese Actionism – I’ve always found the movement interesting and took from it in this instance to illustrate or symbolise a nightmare she was having about having an abortion.

In terms of the folkloric elements – particularly the theatre scene with the masks – her role here was more an observer, attached to, but not totally part of the community. The poem “The Stolen Child” by Yeats comes to mind a bit here. I liked the way she almost could be positioned between two dimensions or worlds – a utopia of sorts, and wanting to escape from the real world which has more potential for suffering – and the realisation that it isn’t possible to ever totally escape one's problems.

OF: As you have mentioned, the women in the film are often engaged in agricultural tasks: cleaving wood, shovelling and tilling the soil. Theyre jointly responsible for the creative logic behind Solidago, since they build and sustain it from the ground up. Do you feel that your filmmaking shares in a similar spirit of collaboration and improvisation (or, put another way, a making-dowith what you have)?

JW: The project was very much built from the ground up. Even though I had been making moving image projects for a while,  I hadn’t made a film before on this scale,  so it did feel quite like starting from scratch.  There were also the unusual obstacles that came with making a film during a pandemic  – we managed, though.

Film relies on collaboration and a trust in other people for it to function – which is very different to a solitary studio practice, for instance. It becomes a shared process with multiple brains involved which can be exciting. I loved working and collaborating with everybody involved.

It has been nice to have included artists and their works in the film as well as in this exhibition – my background in fine art and that community being important in informing my film work. Aimée Parrott’s fabric paintings that were originally made for her wedding were featured in the film, as well as a painting by Sarah Batey who is a close friend and who was at the Slade with me. I’ve also included some pieces by Ed Hill – even though they weren’t in the film, there are crossovers in our interests so it felt important for them to be included, along with a painting by Gillian Watson.

OF: You have said how the aesthetic of painting influenced your colour and texture choices. What else influenced your choice of materials?

JW: Whilst developing the costumes, Sophie Daniel (the costume designer) and I wanted the costumes to be sourced in a sustainable, non-wasteful way. We also felt that it was important that the costumes worn by the Solidago members reflected the natural resources that the women would have had access to: a handmade, patched-together feel – reflective of their circumstances and lack of access to machinery living outside of society.  The result of this was a focus on natural materials, dyeing techniques, and hand embroidery for the handmade costumes in the film. Sophie spent the months running up to the filming in the Dorset countryside with her partner's family, which gave her the opportunity to get into the mindset of living and working somewhat ‘outside of society’, and to forage materials for natural dyeing from the garden and surrounding woods. She used alder tree bark in varying strengths on the cotton calico to give a lived in/dirtied feel to the clothing. Another technique employed was eco-friendly oxygen bleaching.

Similarly, objects used in the production design were also sourced in a more sustainable way. The elaborate set designs and fabric and wood emphasise the 60s and their affinity with craft and the handmade – which Syd Harmony (our production designer) and I talked about a lot.

I looked a lot at Picasso’s Rose Period and a bit of Leonora Carrington’s work which influenced the theatre scene and costumes, as well as the masks I made which are on display here. Archive images of post-1900 communities, specifically The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (whom my tutor Alastair Mackinven first introduced me to when I was at the Slade) were a very important reference point throughout the development of the production.

OF: The film is also a portrait of a place: the fictional landscape of Solidago. It was shot in a familiar place, near your home in Suffolk. Was the location of the films location important to you? Could it have taken place anywhere else?

JW: Originally it was going to be filmed in Dorset as I had a group of friends in mind who all had connections to that area (you being one of them!) and I wanted to collaborate with them in some capacity. But then I ended up spending more time in Suffolk and it eventually made sense to film it here. I moved to Suffolk just before the pandemic (although now live between London and Suffolk) which meant I had a prolonged period before shooting to really immerse myself in the landscape whilst scouting for the locations. I went on so many long walks during the lockdowns; quite often, I would see more animals than humans, something I had never experienced before, having grown up in South East London and not having lived outside of the city for that long.

I saw Patti Smith play live last month which was amazing. One of the songs was about William Blake whom she described as a “casualty of the Industrial Revolution” which I feel really resonates now: maybe we could all be casualties of capitalism and the digital age, crucially reminding us of the importance of the natural landscape.

OF: There are many visual and textual references made throughout the film and exhibition that indicate your engagement with the cult of cinema as well as the era the film is set in. The title of your exhibition, Swans in My Grandmas Garden, is another reference to an image. How do these images cohabit within the film and across your practice more widely? Is there anything that reconciles their differences?

JW: I pay attention to, and feel I am quite perceptive of, patterns and symbolism in my life. I find it interesting that patterns can often be repeated, how sometimes the most unexpected people in one's life can end up becoming very significant –  filling roles that are subconsciously desired or becoming embodiments of one's deepest insecurities or fears. I enjoy the unexpected internal poetry in these experiences. They often translate into my work as chains of associations – however abstract or literal they might ultimately become.

The title Swans in My Grandma’s Garden came about during a lockdown when I was collating and looking at photographs of my birth; photographs of my mother; photos of her biological and adoptive mothers. The title of the show refers to one of the found photographs: a photograph of swans that are swimming across the river at the end of my grandparents’ garden.

Throughout all of this, I have thought a lot about the idea of ‘the mother’, principally in regards to my own birth and its relationship to my mother's birth,  but also to other women in my life who have had significant roles.

Reese Witherspoon’s red lipstick in the exhibition ties into this, as well as being connected to the cult of cinema.

Somebody who was significant in my life for a time gave me the lipstick;  someone in Hollywood had given it to her and she didn’t want it. I think the lipstick in this instance has become a very loaded object or symbol. To me, it represents some of the thoughts I had whilst developing the film about the more eerie ritualised and performative quality of mainstream cinematic culture (a red-pigmented smile above a crimson-carpeted foot), as well as it simply being an unintended present from somebody (who didn’t actually want the lipstick) but who – for a while – was going to be my stepmother.

The lipstick is a sort of ode to that period of my life, just as the exhibition and film are in many ways an ode to motherhood and birth.

i Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of  the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 1993), pp. 20-21.

ii Executive summary of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (2021) https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/22c0e-executive-summary-of-the-final-report-of-the-commission-of-investigation-into-mother-and-baby-homes/ [Accessed November 2021]

iii Jonas Mekas, ‘Recollections of Stan Brakhage’ in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker ed. by David James (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 2005), p. 107.