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Changelings at the Chapman Gallery

Sarah Tierney talks to artist Teresa Wilson about her collection of lost boys and fairy children

Published on February 8th 2010.

Changelings at the Chapman Gallery

Dolls and puppets appear in horror films almost as frequently as they do on children's TV.

They have a strange ability to reassure toddlers while simultaneously sending shivers down the spines of grown-ups. But this exhibition at Salford University's Chapman Gallery is likely to disturb the under-5s as much as it does the over-18s. There's nothing innocent about these uncanny creations. They're the size of children but their facial expressions are those of adults. And not very pleasant adults at that.

Teresa Wilson, the Salford University artist-in-residence who created them, calls them “little people”. She says that they're not children but changelings – fairy people who have secretly switched places with human babies. “Traditionally fairy people live for hundreds of years,” she explains, “so there could be a little old man in a little child's body with a wizened face.”

The Brewery of Eggshells

Changelings often pop up in folk law and poetry, and each of the pieces in this exhibition is linked to a particular tale. One of the creepiest creations, two sour-faced babies beckoning from a pram, is called The Brewery of Eggshells – the name of a Celtic fairy story.

Says Teresa: “The story goes that a mother with twin babies had to nip out to a friend's house and leave the babies on their own. On her way back, two fairy people crossed her path. At first the babies seemed to be okay but then they didn't grow normally. She began to wonder whether they'd been switched.

“She asked the wise person of the village what to do and he said you need to brew up some eggshells in a pan. And when you've done it, walk to the door as if you're going to give the brew to the harvest men, and listen to what the babies are saying.

“When she does so, the babies, who can't talk, start to repeat a rhyme in an oldy-worldy language. So she grabs them and throws them into the river and they're switched back again into human babies.”

Teresa thinks that the tale could have been a way of explaining post-natal depression or what used to be called 'cretins' – babies who don't grow because of a hormone deficiency. With long, skinny arms and baggy clothes, many of her dolls look shrivelled and decayed. They are created by wrapping a wire skeleton with cloth like a mummy – it gives them a corpse-like look which would be alarming even without their misshaped faces and haunted expressions.

Lost Boys

Teresa must be one of the few people who doesn't see them as particularly unsettling. “I sort of want to reach out to them,” she says. “They're damaged little people. I don't find them scary but I know a lot of people do. The babies in the pram – I don't have that connection with them, but the lost boys are definitely quite loveable.”

The Lost Boys is a piece inspired by poems in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience and the lost boys in JM Barrie's Peter Pan. Like all of the art works, it carries a sense of tragedy and loss. “I was working with the idea of getting a figure to act out emotional traumas, real and imagined ones,” says Teresa. “Although they are all connected to stories, you don't have to know the stories to respond to pieces. I prefer for people to make up their own.”

Lost Boys

It's not dissimilar to how psychologists encourage children to act out their experiences using dolls. And it seems that, for some people, the changelings are therapeutic rather than disturbing. Teresa says she sold an earlier creation to a student who had been in a very bad car accident:

“It's taken her about two years to recover from the crash. Her legs were really badly broken so she's still on crutches. I think she identified with the damaged little person there. She just wanted it in her room.”

Changelings, Chapman Gallery, Chapman Building, Peel Park Campus, Monday 8 February-Friday 26 February, 10am-4pm daily. Free.


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