In late August 2021 I was invited to Ashridge Field School by Desdemona McCannon. A magical week of workshops and talks, with an emphasis on intergenerational learning. Including talks by Olivia McCannon on her work with Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Lally MacBeth on The Folk Archive and workshops from Desdemona on block printing, Penny MacBeth on sailors pin cushions and Stephen Fowler on Tetra Pak printing. Over Tunnocks wafers and tea Stephen went on to tell me about the upcoming Punkie Night taking place at Cecil Sharp House. I caught up this week with Stephen, Zeel (Geoff Coupland) and Aidan Saunders
Matthew: Can you tell me about how the three of you came to work together?
ZEEL: it kind of stems from something Stephen started, but has become its own thing and Stephen descends on us like a fairy god mother to help once upon a time, now and again. Stephen back in the late 90s started what he called ‘a folk disco’ called ‘MURRI’ which was inspired by a Bavarian, or at least German cat who would apparently sing to a piano accompaniment back in the olden days and so I was slightly involved doing magic lantern shows and this and that. Occasionally being allowed to draw a cat now and again but Stephen did all those amazing posters and we had fantastic collaborators like Cast Off who were like a guerrilla knitting gang and Tatty Devine who do these amazing costume jewellery out of plastic and Perspex.
Then eventually that kind of faded off, I think it kind of became so big, or potentially so amazing, Stephen decided to keep it little bit more on the down-low and kind of move off in another direction but everybody remembered it and thought it was fantastic.
Then I met Aidan at Camberwell College of Art where he was a student, I was never his tutor but because Aidan is very outgoing we’d end up chatting about stuff in the corridors.
Eventually we realised we were both kind of interested in folklore, first of all we were talking about Americana, but he’s also deeply interested in his Welsh heritage as well and stuff from the British Isles. We decided to do a book called The Golden Thread Project UK~USA that commemorated and celebrated the journeys that Cecil Sharp and Maude Karpeles’ took during the first world war to the Appalachian Mountains in America. There they sought to find versions of English folk song, or rather British folk song, that had been preserved there in earlier forms. I think they were most interested in survivals rather than developments. So we got who knows how many artists into this….
ZEEL: 28 felt like a 100, it really did, but we got amazing stuff out of them, so they each did a comic strip. There’s one by Jonny Hannah, there’s one by Hunt Emerson who is a kind of comics legend really. It featured legends and people who had just come out of college and they all interpreted one of these songs in their own way. We also had an exhibition and two special musical nights at Cecil Sharp House for that in 2018 – that was also kind of a revival of ‘MURRI’ the folk disco because we had some of the original DJs and lots of the old faces and very young kids as well there, not only the old faces but their children there as well. There were all sorts of things like clog dancing and music from Lisa Knapp who’s a pretty amazing folk singer and musician.
Aidan: I remember going to ZEEL and being like ‘we should make this comic about like folk and americana and stuff like that’, and we started going into it and there’s this lovely bit of serendipity that when we decided to make the book it was the centenary of Cecil Sharp’s trips to Appalachia. Cecil Sharp House really wanted or needed somebody to celebrate that so we were really lucky to fall into it. There are a whole load of artists that we worked with before, as well as Stephen, who were happy to work with us again. We did a Kickstarter as well.
ZEEL: I think we’ve only got a handful of copies left so it sold out.
Aidan: Oh! There was one more thing, I think with the artists that we chose. I think there was this frustration with the way that folk was being presented… We really wanted to promote some brilliant artists that we didn’t really feel were getting the time of day, there’s a comic artist in here in particular who ZEEL introduced me to called Lord Hurk, to give him even a bit of a platform, he in my mind is a master of his craft, and just to give him a bit of a spotlight as well as some other brilliant illustrators who steer away from that mid-century oeuvre.
ZEEL: we want to bring new voices to the subject matter, to the matter of England, to folklore, so we are not just regurgitating the same sort of mid-century modern Ravilious, watered down and watered down and watered down. As much as we absolutely love that stuff I think if we maybe over use that then everyone will get bored and go away from folklore again. It’s really interesting to meet with really young people at festivals and sometimes you’ll just meet a 10 year old kid, and you’re talking to them about fairy tales, and they’ll be talking in their local dialect, and you’ll realise that some of the ideas and influences that are in old folk songs are still alive in the flow of life, and that’s really really exciting and it’s not something that’s just the province of the middle classes and the intelligentsia. We want to be really egalitarian and diverse with what we celebrate and who we celebrate it with which is maybe a tiny bit radical I don’t know.
Stephen: You mentioned the work you did with the Hart Club… (https://hartclub.org/)
Aidan: Oh yeh so we, ZEEL, just before lockdown we were supposed to be working with Hart Club doing a series of workshops and making a procession and then obviously lockdown happened and it just didn’t happen. It looked like Hart Club was going to be closing down and Helen Ralli (Founder of Hart Club) didn’t know what to do and we went to her with an idea saying “You know we’d still very much like to do a project with you, how do we work around not being there doing the workshops?” So we invited some new artists and some artists who have travelled with us on this journey of The Golden Thread Project to create art activities packs for some of their members who were struggling with isolation during lockdown. A lot of their community spaces were shut so we managed create a load of art activity packs and with Arts Council funding could distribute them for free and some of the outcomes have been absolutely amazing. The Longwood Centre for the Visual Arts (LCVA) distributed all the packs for free.
Aidan: We had a show around LCVA and now that’s up in Cecil Sharp House at the moment, the main exhibition is our work with Hart Club and Folk Beasts which I’m still really proud of.
Matthew: and how long is the the exhibition for?
ZEEL: I think it’ll be on till Christmas if not after.
Aidan: Sometimes when you talk about folk to some people or myth or legend they just sort of think of dust or something. The way we’ve re-packaged it and especially with folk music, covertly talk about folk beasts, myth and lore through these art activity packs.. you know you don’t get that sort of dusty feeling out of it. It is new but it’s is still very much the folk tradition. I feel anyway but again I might just be talking absolute nonsense.
Stephen: I think what’s interesting about the packs is, you’ve got all those different artists and illustrators, some as you say who’ve just graduated and others who are into their middle age they’ve got all their different backgrounds and understanding of folk beasts and mythological beasts that they’re bringing to it so it’s multiple voices and then you’ve got all these people, because the packs consist of a sheet to contextualise it and explain what the animal is and that’s obviously written by the artist and illustrator from their perspective and it’s normally linked with something they’re personally interested in and then there’s a print that they’ve done. So each person will get a piece of artwork and then instruction sheets which are beautifully drawn and so there’s that interpretation of that story, that’s been handed on and then interpreted visually. I think through making stuff, the person making it will get an understanding of it and change it in some way. So you’ve got all these different voices so as ZEEL was saying earlier it’s not just someone being inspired by their first introduction to folk music, whether that’s ZEEL and I’s generation which would have been through school radio shows and what was going on on the television at the time, it’s vital to what’s going on now. Also because we used a risograph machine so the colours were really vivid and strong so they’re not kind of browns and oatmeals, I’m talking I suppose about cliched sort of tropes… they’re obviously fine to use but it’s just quite interesting to see other ways of how these things are interpreted and distributed.
Matthew: So based on all of this that you’ve told me and that first event at Cecil Sharp in 2018 I’m assuming that you couldn’t repeat that because of what’s happened to the world between then and now. Did you manage to keep going with that or did you move virtually? And can you tell me about the workshops and events for Halloween this year?
Mr ZEEL: We did have other exhibitions and stuff, like in Hastings we had an exhibition called ‘Gold in the Green’ and there was music as part of that. We had this guy called Ted Versicolor, who bows a stick that makes insane kind of noises like ancient temples but it’s basically a stick and its wired up and mic’d up and makes the most amazing noises. Then Nic Burrows, who has a band called Fell, he played and that was really good. Lots of wood things that we made, and prints and things.
Matthew: Was that between lockdowns?
ZEEL: That was like the next year, so 2019? or…
Aidan: It was 2019, time is weird! We were going to do a Halloween event, it’s how we started the Punkie Night, because Cecil Sharp House got in touch with us again and said ‘we want to do something for Halloween, do you have any ideas?’ and Geoff has this book by Homer Sykes who is a photographer where he says he’s always been captivated by this picture of Punkie Night so from this meeting we were like Punkie Night’s what we’re going to do it on.
ZEEL: It’s called Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs by Homer Sykes.
Aidan: Because of University of the Arts London our scope for the show and what we can actually achieve has massively increased. Now we’ve got a series of workshops that the three of us are doing as well at Camberwell and at Cecil Sharp House and this book which I’m very proud of. When we thought about doing it I think all of us were a bit like ‘how’s this going to work?’ because we’ve got quite different styles but you know we got through it, we met and we just got our heads down and it works, well in my mind anyway.
When we heard the music that Sharron did, because we showed her our artwork and she wrote the song literally based off what we did and we told her about Punkie Night, she’d never heard of Punkie Night before. The song that she made for us, you can tell that she has seen the pages, you can tell that she’s got really invigorated by the whole Punkie Night and Hinton St George, and ah! It’s just brilliant! It sounds like bespoke music, it’s like seeing our artwork transformed into audio.
Matthew: I love that, that you’ve done that, it’s great and Sharron is brilliant isn’t she, so that’s a really good fit. Is Sharron going to play as well?
ZEEL: Yes she’s the headliner, she said that she was going to get a few other musicians to be on stage with her as well.
Aidan: It was so great meeting with Sharron because we approached Cecil Sharp House years ago with our first project and we never thought that they’d be interested because I don’t know, self-deprecation maybe. When we first went in there the first thing they said when we sat down was like ‘we’d like you to do a show’. We sat down with Sharron and Sharron almost instantly went ‘I could make you a song’ and we were just there like ‘whatttt, really? That’s amazing’. It’s so nice when those things work out because we were so scared.
Matthew: So your new book is going to launch that night as well?
ZEEL: yes basically yeh.
Aidan: and it’s such a pleasure, working with ZEEL and Stephen who’ve got a bit more experience than I have in this field and every time I work on a project with them I feel like I’m becoming a better illustrator and more learned in myself.
ZEEL: I agree, it is a real privilege for you to work with us!
Stephen: What is interesting about the book is in my understanding… you approached me and said ‘oh we’re doing this event do you want to be involved? Maybe play some records’ and didn’t I say ‘oh why don’t you do like a zine or something for it?’ it’s an opportunity to do a small publication, so in my head I was thinking ‘oh it’ll be like a small zine with images associated with the tradition of that and that we can hand out with the tickets’. Then we met in Cecil Sharp House at the beginning of the Summer and by then I think it had turned into how do we do this.
I can remember from school when a teacher creates a background and says ‘right everyone let’s make an Anglo Saxon village and everyone can draw various elements’ and you’ve got this modular system you can move around. So we came to it from that idea but then it extended into this huge project of 32 pages with all these different backgrounds and a family and all these people interacting. So it turned from something that was potentially going to be a very simple zine into this huge picture book and think as Aidan was saying in one way it’s like a monster but at the same time working collaboratively with Aidan and ZEEL has challenged me and I think my drawing and characters and all these sorts of things that I’d probably avoid doing because they’re difficult, it’s sort of stretched me to produce better work. I don’t really have much computer experience so like you did a backdrop and…. when seeing ZEEL and Aidan’s characters walking through the picnic is one of the magical things to see. One its really really funny, these little critters walking down the side of St George’s Memorial Hall, like a village hall and you can imagine them going into this hall you’ve drawn so it’s absolutely hilarious and radical to see these characters inhabiting this world that we’ve conjured up. It’s obviously sort of based on this village or this small town, its great. In fact ZEEL’s very ambitious and Aidan’s very ambitious vision of what it wanted to be has created something really great which I think if we were working on things individually we would’ve come up with something very much smaller so I think what I like about The Golden Thread is ZEEL’s very good at being like the band leader to really get the most out of everyone. So almost stretching them to the point where they become the better versions of themselves.
ZEEL: Stephen has an amazing way of drawing from all his book references and photo references which is one kind of element of his work and he also can draw and cartoon really spontaneously in a way which I think is really related to the way that he played and drew as a child and I think what we needed him to do is slightly fuse those skills together and he was able to rise to that challenge.
Matthew: Can you tell me more about the afternoon workshops?
ZEEL: So there are three workshops, there are 10 places on each of the three workshops, they run simultaneously:
Learn how to create Papel Picado with a UK-Halloween twist for yourself, with Illustrator Aidan Saunders.
Enjoy a Punkie Night themed workshop exploring this rewarding and accessible printing method, as championed by that master of Lo-Fi printmaking, Stephen Fowler.
Make turnip and mangle-wurzel Punkie lanterns the traditional British way with ZEEL.
Matthew:And what will happen in the evening?
ZEEL: So what will happen in the evening is that we’re hoping a to have Morris side to help us start off proceedings, dancing in the garden. The idea is that we’ll wear these big masks and walk into the hall holding the words of the Punkie song and singing the words of the Punkie song and we’ll be greeted illustrator Nick White who is going to appear as the crow for the evening in the crow costume he wears and he played and performed in the first music evening me did. So he is the MC and he’ll be reacting to some short archive film that we have of the event that happens each year in Hinton St George, and introducing the acts. The first act is this guy Ted Versicolor or Nick Weekes (that’s his real name) and James Weaver. So Ted will play the bow the stick and James Weaver will kind of twiddle the knobs to make it sound amazing.
Then the second act is a local band from Hastings called Crunchy Bat, Orson is putting together great waves of samples and processing and guitars and drums and things like that to make these kind of soundscapes based… kind of relating to folk material like Billy Redden, he was the actor in the film Deliverance and played the young man who played the banjo and in the original film he didn’t actually play the banjo there was somebody’s arms…. But he’s still alive and living in Appalachia and kind of works in a Walmart or something and occasionally he is brought out retirement to act in various films that are shot in the area and there’s really sweet little interviews of people trying to get him to play the banjo and him just going ‘ploink ploink’. Orson has got those sorts of things together and he’s also doing a version of the folk beast theme that I sang on, you can see the little film clips, including that music on the Instagram and I think he’s working on a version of the Cruel Mother as well which is a particularly gory, tragic sort of folk song and some other stuff. So then there’s an interval and then Fell, I think it’s Nic Burrows
Aidan: It’s funny with Nic, because I knew Nic before and when he came to our show, when he actually played for us in Hastings, I was like ‘oh my god you’re a musician, you know like wow you can really play’ and he was like ‘yeh yeh, I can play a bit’
ZEEL: Then after that we have Sharron Kraus hopefully with friends, let’s see.
Matthew: And are you DJing as well Stephen?
Stephen: yeh, I will be, definitely yes
ZEEL: me and Aidan will be chewing our fingernails probably
Matthew: it sounds like a great night, I love the sound of what you’re doing and I assume this won’t be end now we’re are free to move around and do things again?
Is this going to become something you do either at Cecil Sharp House or elsewhere as a more regular series of workshops and nights?
Zeel: well. I think we’re kind of about making the artwork but we’re not adverse to music happening as part of that. There’s a very natural relationship between one and the other that is entirely necessary but it takes a great deal of work to do a music night every month or even every twice a year of something so I don’t know, we haven’t really thought about it that much. I know I’m probably shooting myself in the foot by saying this but if anyone has ideas for how we could kind of collaborate with them about that, say occasionally appearing on a radio show or something then we’re open to suggestions. It would be really fun. There are issues involved in that we all have teaching jobs and things like that as well, and I live in Hastings, and Stephen lives in Bristol and Aidan lives in Brecon area.
Aidan: To be fair the way that we run The Golden Thread Project, it started off with the book as the main project but then we opened up our website where we always encourage illustrators to sort of basically get in touch and tell us their stories and give them a platform and through having this dialogue online we’ve had a few occasions where we’ve basically been given projects… it’s got to the point now where projects seem to not land in our laps but certainly we definitely have a dialogue with people. We’ve got a show coming up in November or a project happening in November about Gawain and the Green Knight making shadow puppets in America and then we’ve got another show for Heart Club in late November. So although we don’t have any plans the projects seem to find us a little bit, don’t they ZEEL?
Zeel: yeh it’s beginning to happen that people know what we do and it’s a particular little niche in folk; in that it’s really aligned with comics. So if somebody in say the comics world hears that somebodies into folk then they’ll say ‘oh yeh The Golden Thread Project’… we’re beginning to make connections which is really exciting.
You can book your place on one of the Punkie Night workshops here
Saturday 30 Oct 2021 3:30pm-5:30pm
Cecil Sharp House, London
£20 | £10 Under 26
All materials provided.
Suitable for all levels of skill.
Each workshop limited to 10 places.
And tickets for the evening event can be purchased here
Saturday 30 Oct 2021 7:30pm-9:30pm
Cecil Sharp House, London
£14 | £10 Under 26