Reimagining the British Witch

Hayley Potter

My first encounter with the works of Hayley Potter was in 2008, and the Secret Creature project: a diverse melange of strange, semi-believable owl-sheep-cat-bat-birds that flocked together in the branches of a community tree and peered out at you myopically.

Since then her work has developed and her subjects proliferated. She has worked for a host of clients (Amelia’s Magazine, ARC Magazine, The Poetry Society and many others) and she continues to produce imaginative, playful work of her own devising – book covers, narrative pieces, cards and more.

But there remain a few key threads that continue to characterise Hayley’s style: warmth is one of them – there’s a joy to all of her work – and also a kind of openness to the unusual: “the magic of the everyday,” in her words. What strikes me too is her affinity with creatures (animal, mythical) and sensitive attunement to the individual personalities of these creature-subjects. There is rarely anything generic; each animal is its own entity, with its own history and hopes. You may have noticed her rather fine work for the logo of The Learned Pig.

Lately, she has been researching and responding to the figure of the British witch at the Museum of Witchcraft thanks to a residency with Hatch. We decided to find out more…

 
 

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The Learned Pig: What first sparked your interest in witches, and the figure of “the British witch” in particular?

Hayley Potter: I grew up in Kent, England, and I remember stories of witches being told – I think they affected how I viewed ordinary places. Sandwich in Kent, where my family are from, has many ties to witchcraft and was one of the locations used for witch trials. When I was seventeen I worked in a restaurant in Sandwich, I remember helping renovate a very old fireplace and we found a jar of bones underneath. We later discovered that they were witch bones and had been left there to try and prevent witchcraft.

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The witch has appeared in my work a number of times, but I wanted to spend more time really researching and analysing the figure of the witch before I committed to creating my own version. Last year I was given the opportunity to start a new project with the support of Arts University Bournemouth, and I felt that the witch idea I had had towards the end of my MA at the Royal College of Art was a good one to breathe new life into. It also seemed quite timely, as there has been a lot of new interest in the witch in the arts. The recent exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies at the Scottish National Gallery is a good example of this, and the show is now open at the British Museum until January.

TLP: How did the residency at the Museum of Witchcraft come about?

HP: I had already spent two days in the magic and beliefs collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, looking at objects that were considered to have been made by witches or to prevent witchcraft. This was really useful in getting an overview of witchcraft in Britain, and visiting the Museum of Witchcraft seemed a natural progression because their collection is so huge and their team so knowledgeable. I was offered the opportunity to be an online artist in residence for Hatch and so, with the support of Hatch and Arts University Bournemouth, I managed to fix a time with the museum that would allow me to use their collections and amazing library in beautiful Boscastle.

TLP: What were the most exciting finds of your residency there?

HP: I really thought that the sea witchcraft section was going to be the most useful because those objects are difficult to find elsewhere. I started there, but I was actually really fascinated by the spirit houses and the way animals had been used in witchcraft, both as allies, transport (!) and ingredients.

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TLP: How has the project evolved during and after the residency?

HP: The residency was such a great experience and really allowed me to explore several different avenues that I could use as a focus for this body of work, without worrying too early about an outcome. I’m now working on a body of visual work inspired by some archaeological notes about a secret witches coven that was uncovered in Cornwall earlier this century. The work explores the figure of the witch in a Cornish setting, and tells the story of this particular group of witches, using the evidence that has been uncovered as a starting point.

TLP: What is it about the image of the British witch that you’re especially looking to capture, rethink, evoke?

HP: I am interested in contributing to the imagery of the British witch, and analysing what we know about her and how best to illustrate her now. I would like to consider not only what she has been, but also what she is now. There are many people who consider themselves witches, but not the type that stands at our door at Halloween with a pointy hat and wicked face. I’m interested in representing what she is now in an creative way, using my research to inform a new body of imaginative work, and probably a narrative.

Hayley Potter

TLP: Why do you think there is such a close relationship between witches and animals?

HP: I think there’s a very long answer to this, and a short answer – so I will give the short answer! Witches who practice magic (sometimes also referred to as pagans) value nature; they respect it and believe in its potential as a tool for magic, manipulation or healing. Many witches or pagans also worship natural elements. Paganism or witchcraft as beliefs have had to be very guarded because they haven’t always been tolerated by other religions or political situations. It’s quite possible that witches or pagans felt they could trust animals over humans, and would sometimes need them as allies to help them, or even just keep them company in difficult situations.

TLP: Your work often explores animals – real and mythical – imbuing them with a sense of individual personality (rather than generic symbolism). What is it that draws you to the non-human?

HP: I think my interest in animals goes back to being very young and being brought up to respect and look after animals. I had a lot of contact with different types of animals, and even helped to look after injured animals and birds. When you’ve spent a lot of time with animals in this way, you’re more aware of their individual characteristics and qualities. They each have their own personalities, as we do – and I think this must be what comes through in my drawing. When I was at college I would spend a long time drawing at London Zoo and in animal sanctuaries, and I was really inspired by artists that explored anthropomorphism in their work such as Kiki Smith and Paula Rego.

Hayley Potter

TLP: I’ve always thought your work has a very clear visual identity. Do you try to adjust what you do from project to project or are you keen to retain a sense of continuity?

HP: Thank you. For client-led briefs I think consistency is important so they know what to expect. I aim to have a creative identity that can be applied to lots of different things, but naturally this identity has developed as I’ve gained more experience and worked on different projects. I would still prefer to have a creative identity that’s flexible over a style that may pigeonhole me into a way of working for a defined purpose.

TLP: How do you think your work has changed over the past few years?

HP: I think the themes that inspire my work have remained quite similar, but I’ve definitely embraced different ways of making to answer client- and self-initiated briefs. I also think that I continue to learn more about my audiences – which work is suitable for different genres or age groups – and how I can build upon that. For example, the work I might make for children has a very different feel and content to what I would make for a gallery. There can be pressure to streamline what you do but I just think it’s important to understand who your work is for. I really enjoy continuing to learn, to keep growing as an illustrator/artist and to keep setting myself and accepting commissioned projects that challenge me – to avoid the work getting stale. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I dread going to the studio.

 
 

You can see lots more images from Hayley’s residency here and also here.

www.hayleypotter.com
www.museumofwitchcraft.com

Image credits (top to bottom):
1. Hayley Potter, Drawing from Springwatch BBC documentary ‘The Vanishing Hare’ (detail), ink on paper, 2014
2. Hayley Potter, Untitled, (from Visualising the British Witch series) mixed media, 2013
3. Hayley Potter using the library, photo courtesy of Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, 2014
4. Hayley Potter, Untitled, ink on paper, 2006
5. Hayley Potter, Witch riding a goat (pattern experiment), drawing, paper cutting, photography, 2014

 
 

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Tom Jeffreys

Tom is a writer and curator, and editor of The Learned Pig. He writes primarily about contemporary art, and is particularly interested in work that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. His writing has been published in, among others, Apollo, Frieze, Monocle, New Scientist, The Independent, and World of Interiors. His first book - Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot - was published by Influx Press in 2017.