The Visionary Art of Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt was born and raised in the Netherlands in the province of Drenthe: a beautiful, dolmen-studded region in the northeast of the country, near the German border. She spent five years studying fashion illustration design in Amsterdam, and at the age of twenty she embarked on a professional career as a fashion illustrator. In 1964, Marja moved to London, where she created fashion drawings for major stores in England and abroad, as well as for newspapers and magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She was also involved in the ballet — both as a dancer and as a costumer for various productions -- and she made clothes for a Plimlico boutique that catered to the likes of Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Pete Townsend, and Brian Jones. (Faithful was often photographed during those years in a cape Marja designed for her.)

Marja Lee KruÿtWhile she was living in London, in a flat above Quentin Crisp's, Marja met her future husband, Alan Lee, a talented book illustrator. In 1975, the couple moved to a rural village at the edge of Dartmoor, sharing a house with their friend and fellow-artist, Brian Froud.

Brian Sanders described the house in 1977 (in the book The Land of Froud):  "From the outside the house is a modest Victorian cottage set back from the street in a tangled garden. From the moment that one crosses the threshold, guarded by a moss and lichen jewelled hand pointing skywards, from amid a welter of muddy wellington boots, a different land begins. Two families, the Lees and the Frouds, live here: the real Lee children side-by-side with Brian's family, the Troll King, his brother, and their mother. The mother has a hand in her back, and when Brian holds her they become one. The puppet fits to him and there is a deep affection between them: Brian the wizard surrounded by his animate creations, discussing them with a child who believes in them as much as he does. Walls, shelves and floors are crowded with books, toys, found objects and constructions. Ghosts, faeries and pictures of goblins abound." (It was during these years that Alan and Brian produced their now-classic art book, Faeries.)

Meanwhile, Marja continued to pursue her London-based illustration career until her children were born, but afterwards (like so many other women artists of her generation) her fashion work was set aside while she raised her children, and provided admin support for her husband's busy career. Yet even during those years focused on running a household, her creative powers did not lie dormant. She created costumes for local theatrical productions, and for figures sculpted by doll-artist Wendy Froud; she drew portraits, designed hats and clothes, and studied the Celtic harp...all while excelling in the area Grace Nuth has dubbed domythic art: bringing myth, magic, and romantism into every aspect of domestic life.

 Marja Lee Kruÿt

In 1998, her children grown, a new chapter in her life began when Marja returned to the studio. The work she produced was astonishing: drawings and paintings with a rich maturity of vision that had been quietly brewing over all those years, emerging like dreams, straight from the subconscious, each one a treasure of mythic art.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I've always been interested in dreams," she says. "And in myth, mysticism, and symbolism. Through the use of color, of line, of the symbolic nature of garments, objects, patterns, and flowers, I attempt to create pictures that work on many different levels: marrying our everyday reality with other planes of dream and intuition. Painting, to me, is soul work, healing work. It's a kind of meditation."

Marja Lee Kruyt

Her creative practice is a spiritual one, craft and technique in service to spiritual intent.

"I begin each picture with a ceremony," she explains, "opening myself to the picture's theme and asking to be given the symbols with which to represent that theme. It's important to stay wide open as I work, to let the images come through me, unforced, shapes and colors emerging intuitively. It's a slow, deep, painstaking process, and a single picture can take me several months -- working out the composition and colors by doing many drawings and watercolor sketches first. Each part of the picture must be right; each element has an individual meaning, yet must also be woven into the rest of the design. I often use Celtic patterns, for instance, which represent the way things weave together in life -- and the way that our lives in the here-and-now are woven with other dimensions of consciousness.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

 "Flowers, animals, stones -- all these pictorial elements must work as part of the painting's composition, but have symbolic meanings as well. The specific flow and movement of a garment, for instance, can represent different aspects of spiritual awareness. I draw upon Celtic symbols ... Eastern symbols ... Steiner colour theory ... Perelandra essences ... mandalas ... whatever the picture calls for. Watercolor is a fluid medium and I strive to work with, not against, the flow. That may sound airy-fairy but it's not, really; watercolor is a medium that requires technical precision too. In art, as in life, we must be grounded and free-flowing, intuitive, all at once. I suppose making pictures in this way, like any spiritual practice, is really all about balance."

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"My background in fashion illustration is probably evident in my paintings, as well as my love of music and harps. I also like painting children, representing that childlike part within each of us. And fairies. Living here on Dartmoor, fairies were bound to turn up in my pictures!

"I have always loved the Victorian 'fairy painters' and book illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites: William Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti. But the artists who have influenced me the most are Gustav Klimt, Sulamith Wülfing, and the Renaissance painters Sandro Botticelli and Benezzo Gozzoli -- particularly the angels. Wülfing's influence is probably the most apparent. I feel an affinity with her. She drew angels even as a little girl, often talking about her angels and guides, and was influenced by Krishnamurti, the White Brotherhood, and the Theosophical Society. She was a mystic, really, and expressed her mysticism through her art. There are things that we can portray through pictures and symbols that we can't convey as easily through words. Art can speak directly to the soul. Wülfing's best pictures do this -- as do some of the great religious pictures from the Renaissance.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I think art can be healing, moving, enlightening. It can also be puzzling, disturbing, or even upsetting...and sometimes that is necessary. It wakes you up. When you live with a picture, when you keep looking at it and taking it into yourself over a period of time, it can change you: moving you from one way of thinking to another, from one level of consciousness to the next. I like pictures that make you keep on looking, that reveal themselves and their meanings slowly. Art that keeps on giving you more, and a little more, every time you look."

Painting studio

Marja works from an exquisite painting studio at the back of a "secret garden," tucked away at the end of a path behind the old stone building where she lives. It is from here she does her "soul work," weaving painting and spiritual practices into a life lived on many levels at once. She creates magic on each one of those levels, and trails beauty behind wherever she goes.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja at Kelmscott Manor

Photograph: Marja Lee Kruÿt at Kelmscott Manor (William Morris' country house in the Cotswolds), 2017. For a post about our trip up to Kelmscott, go here. For folklore of the harp, go here.

The paintings and drawings above are under copright by Marja Lee Kruyt, and may not be reproduced without her permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The Brian Sanders quote is from The Land of Froud (Peacock Press/Bantam Books, 1977).


Skunk Dreams

The Skunk and the Magnolias by Jessica Roux

I'm sure I was not the only child who dreamed of sleeping with wild animals, although the closest I've come to that Jungle Book fantasy is to curl up with Tilly snoring beside me. The reality of animal life in the wild is different than fantasy tales of course -- as Louise Erdrich reminds us in this passage from her essay "Skunk Dreams":

"When I was fourteen, I slept alone on a North Dakota football field under the cold stars on an early spring night. May is unpredictable in the Red River Valley, and I happened to hit a night when frost formed in the grass. A skunk trailed a plume of steam across the forty-yard line near moonrise. I tucked the top of my sleeping bag over my head and was just dosing off when the skunk walked onto me with simple authority.

The Mouse and the Buttercup by Jessica Roux"Its ripe odor must have dissipated in the frozen earth of its winterlong hibernation, because it didn't smell all that bad, or perhaps it was just that I took shallow breaths in numb surprise. I felt him -- her, whatever -- pause on the side of my hip and turn around twice before evidently deciding I was a good place to sleep. At the back of my knees, on the quilting of my sleeping bag, it trod out a spot for itself and then, with a serene little groan, curled up and lay perfectly still. That made two of us. I was wildly awake, trying to forget the sharpness and number of skunk teeth, trying not to think of the high percentage of skunks with rabies, or the reason that on camping trips my father kept a hatchet underneath his pillow. 

"Inside the bag, I felt as if I might smother. Careful, making only the slightest of rustles, I drew the bag away from my face and took a deep breath of the night air, enriched with skunk, but clear and watery and cold. It wasn't so bad, and the skunk didn't stir at all, so I watched the moon -- caught that night in an envelope of silk, a mist -- passing over my sleeping field of teenage guts and glory. The grass in spring that has lain beneath the snow harbors a sere dust both cold and fresh. I smelled that newness beneath the rank tone of my bag-mate -- the stiff fragrance of damp earth and the thick pungency of newly manured fields  a mile or two away -- along with my sleeping bag's smell, slightly mildewed, forever smoky. The skunk settled even closer and began to breath rapidly; it's feet jerked a little like a dog's. I sank against the earth and fell asleep too.

The Marten and the Foxglove by Jessica Roux

"Of what easily tipped cans, what molten sludge, what dogs in back yards, what leftover macaroni casseroles, what cellar holes, crawl spaces, burrows taken from meek woodchucks, of what miracles of garbage did my skunk dream? Or did it, since we can't be sure, dream the plot of Moby Dick, how to properly age parmesan, or how to restore the brick-walled, tumbledown creamery that was its home? We don't know about the dreams of any other biota, and even much about our own. If dreams are an actual dimesion, as some assert, then the usual rules of life by which we abide do not apply. In that place, skunks may certainly dream themselves into the vests of stockbrokers. Perhaps that night the skunk and I dreamed each other's thoughts, or are still dreaming them. To paraphrase the problem of the Chinese sage, I may be a woman who has dreamed herself a skunk, or a skunk still dreaming she is a woman....

The Hare and the Oak by Jessica Roux

"Skunks don't mind each other's vile perfume. Obviously they find each other more than tolerable. And even I, who have been in the direct presence of a skunk hit, wouldn't classify their weapon as mere smell. It is more on the order of a reality-enhancing experience. It's not so pleasant as standing in a grove of old-growth red cedars, or watching trout rise to the shadow of your hand on the placid surface of an Alpine lake. When the skunk lets go, you are surrounded by skunk presence: inhabited, owned, involved with something you can only describe as powerfully there.

"I woke at dawn, stunned into that sprayed state of being. The dog that had approached me was rolling the grass, half-addled, sprayed too. The skunk was gone. I abandoned my sleeping bag and started home. Up Eighth Street, past the tiny blue and pink houses, past my grade school, past all the addresses where I had baby-sat, I walked in my own strange wind. The streets were wide and empty; I met no one -- not a dog, not a squirrel, not even an early robin. Perhaps they had all scattered before me, blocks away. I had gone out to sleep on the football field because I was afflicted with a sadness I had to dramatize. Mood swings had begun, hormones, feverish and brutal. They were nothing to me now. My emotions seemed vast, dark, and sickeningly private. But they were minor, mere wisps, compared to skunk."

The Goat and the Willow by Jessica Roux

The Chipmunk and the Bay Laurel by Jessica Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, an American painter whose work is rich in carefully-observed flora and fauna. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

The images here are from Roux's "Woodland Wardens" series, an oracle deck in progress. (I hope it's completed and published soon.) For those of you in or near Tennessee, the series can be viewed in the Jessica Roux exhibition at Gallery 205 in Columbia through Dec. 1st.

You can also see more of her work on her website and in her print shop here.

The Fox and the Ivy by Jessica Roux

The passage above is from "Skunk Dreams" by Louise Erdrich, first published in The Georgia Review (1993). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Morning in the Studio

The Kuerner Farmhouse, where Andrew Wyeth painted

From "How I Get to Write" by Roxanna Robinson :

"In the morning, I don’t talk to anyone, nor do I think about certain things.

"I try to stay within certain confines. I imagine this as a narrow, shadowy corridor with dim bare walls. I’m moving down this corridor, getting to the place where I can write.

"I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

"....The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else. This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands. Deep, slow currents, far below the surface, shift me in ways I needn’t understand. There is no sound, no scrutiny. Waking, I’m still close to that silent, preconscious, penumbral state, still focussed inward. I’m still in that deep, noiseless place, listening to its voices, very different from those of the outside world."

(The full article is here.)

Snow Flurries by Andrew Wyeth

I read Robinson's piece (on The New Yorker blog) thinking, "Oh my gracious yes, that's it exactly!" -- for I too like to be up and out to the studio before anyone else in the house is awake, climbing the hill from house to studio by the light of the stars. I don't want to speak or be spoken to; I don't want to be jogged from this liminal state; I want to rest on the delicate threshold between the Night World and the Day World just as long as I can.

At this moment as I write, the sky is still dark, the studio hushed with pre-dawn enchantment; the only sounds are the ticking of the clock, water rushing in the stream outside, and a single owl calling from the woods. I compose these morning posts as I drink my coffee, waking (as Agatha Christie's Poirot would say) the "little grey cells" up. But I musn't be too awake, not yet, in order to slide gently into the writing day before the "fragile membrane of the night" has been pierced.

Tilly snuggles up beside me, yawning, dozing, waiting for our morning walk out in the woods. The tap-tap-tap of the computer keys is a familiar, comforting sound to her. She is waiting for the sun, and the click of the laptop closing, and the words: Okay, girl, let's go.

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

“Outside, there was that predawn kind of clarity, where the momentum of living has not quite captured the day. The air was not filled with conversation or thought bubbles or laughter or sidelong glances. Everyone was sleeping, all of their ideas and hopes and hidden agendas entangled in the dream world, leaving this world clear and crisp and cold as a bottle of milk in the fridge. ”
- Reif Larsen (from The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet)

The paintings above are by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). The photograph at the top of the post is of the Kuerner Farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he often painted. This post first appeared on Jan. 16, 2013.


Finding the way to the green

Chagford in the hills

From Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths:

"Every generation of children instinctively nests itself in nature, no matter matter how tiny a scrap of it they Tree Nymph by Virigina Leecan grasp. In a tale of one city child, the poet Audre Lord remembers picking tufts of grass which crept up through the paving stones in New York City and giving them as bouquets to her mother. It is a tale of two necessities. The grass must grow, no matter the concrete suppressing it. The child must find her way to the green, no matter the edifice which would crush it.

"The Maori word for placenta is the same word for land, so at birth the placenta is buried, put back in the mothering earth. A Hindu baby may receive the sun-showing rite surya-darsana when, with conch shells ringing to the skies, the child is introduced to the sun. A newborn child of the Tonga people 'meets' the moon, dipped in the ocean of Kosi Bay in KwaZulu-Natal. Among some of the tribes of India, the qualities of different aspects of nature are invoked to bless the child, so he or she may have the characteristics of earth, sky and wind, of birds and animals, right down to the earthworm. Nothing is unbelonging to the child.

Tilly in the buttercup field

Drawings by Virginia Lee

" 'My oldest memories have the flavor of earth,' wrote Frederico García Lorca. In the traditions of the Australian deserts, even from its time in the womb, the baby is catscradled in kinship with the world. Born into a sandy hollow, it is cleaned with sand and 'smoked' by fire, and everything -- insects, birds, plants, and animals -- is named to the child, who is told not only what everything is called but also the relationship between the child and each creature. Story and song weave the child into the subtle world of the Dreaming, the nested knowledge of how the child belongs.

Tilly as a puppy

"The threads which tie the child to the land include its conception site and the significant places of the Dreaming inherited through its parents. Introduced to creatures and land features as to relations, the child is folded into the land, wrapped into country, and the stories press on the child's mind like the making of felt -- soft and often -- storytelling until the feeling of the story of the country is impressed into the landscape of the child's mind.

"That the juggernaut of ants belongs to a child, belligerently following its own trail. That the twitch of an animal's tail is part of a child's own tale or storyline, once and now again. That on the papery bark of a tree may be written the songline of a child's name. That the prickles of a thornbush may have dynamic relevance to conscience. That a damp hollow by the riverbank is not an occasional place to visit but a permanent part of who you are. This is the beginning of belonging, the beginning of love.

"In the art and myth of Indigenous Australia, the Ancestors seeded the country with its children, so the shimmering, pouring, circling, wheeling, spinning land is lit up with them, cartwheeling into life....

Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee

Buttercup Girl

Chestnut Nuptials by Virginia Lee

"The human heart's love for nature cannot ultimately be concreted over. Like Audre Lord's tufts of grass, The Bird Keeper by Virgina Leeit will crack apart paving stones to grasp the sun. Children know they are made of the same stuff as the grass, as Walt Whitman describes nature creating the child who becomes what he sees:

There was a child went forth every day
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became...
The early lilacs became part of this child...
And the song of the phoebe-bird...

In Australia, people may talk of the child's conception site as the origin of their selfhood and their picture of themselves. As Whitman wrote of the child becoming aspects of the land, so in Northern Queensland a Kunjen elder describes the conception site as 'the home place for your image.' Land can make someone who they are, giving them fragments of themselves."

The Listener by Virginia Lee

And yet, Griffiths warns:

"consumer societies are stealing children away from their kith, their family of nature, in a steady alienation. This is not about some luxury, a hobby, a bit of playtime in the garden. This is about the longest, deepest necessity of the human spirit to know itself in nature, and about the homesickness children feel, whose genesis is so obvious but so little examined. Writer on Native American spirituality Linda Hogan describes the term susto as a sickness of soul caused by disconnection from nature and cured by 'the great without.'"

The May Queen by Virginia Lee

Young Tilly

I'm interested in the ways that fantasy literature and mythic arts can address modernity's epidemic of susto, leading us back to the natural world in imagination, and in reality. Indeed, it's my belief that art-forms like ours, deep-rooted in myth, folklore, and archetypal symbology, are uniquely suited to do so. I'll be quoting more passages from Kith in the week ahead, as well as adding my own thoughts on the subject; and I invite you all to contribute to the discussion in the Comments below.

The art in this post is by my friend and neighbor Virginia Lee. To see more of her wonderful, whimsical, exquisitely beautiful paintings, drawings, and sculptures, please visit Virginia's website, mythic arts blog, and Etsy shop.

Buttercup field

Buttercup fieldThe pictures of Tilly as a puppy are from 2009; the others were taken in fields bright with buttercups this morning.


Passing it on

The Snow Queen illustrated by Anastasia Arkhipova

"After nearly a dozen years writing realism for adults, I felt an indefinable, irresistible urge to write a fantasy for young people. Not for any specific child; but rather, because I believed it could be a powerful and serious literary form. It turned out to be the most creative and liberating experience of my life, letting me draw on my own deepest feelings far more than I had ever done.

"Since then, my books have been children's fantasies -- a term I don't find very expressive or descriptive. In the same way I see no essential difference in writing for adults or young people, I see no conflict between realism and fantasy. Both try to illuminate human relationships, conflicts, and moral dilemmas. I do admit that I much prefer fantasy. To me, it has the emotional strength of a dream, it works directly on our nerve endings, whatever age we happen to be, touching heights and depths not always accessible through realism. In fantasy, my concern is how we learn to be real human beings. It's a continuing process."

- Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007, author of The Chronicles of Prydain)

The Snow Queen illustrated by Anastasia Arkhipova

The Snow Queen illustrated by Anastasia Arkhipoval

The Snow Queen illustrated by Anastasia Arkhipova

"There were always tales passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Down through the generations they came, so that we would never forget that place, that magic, that elemental and awesome power that abided in our forbears. In each generation the power of the tales rests with us, the storytellers. I weep, I cry with joy, I exult in the God-power of the words.

"And so I have tried to pass them on to another generation, to keep alive the mortal power of our earlier selves, even as the world changes and dies, sleeps and awakes anew to the force that gives life to our souls. So that some child can hear the tales and find them awakened in herself to pass on to yet another generation. "

- Evangeline Walton  (1907-1996, author of the magnificent Mabinogion Tetrology)

The Snow Queen by  Anastasia Arkhipova

The Snow Queen illustrated by Anastasia Arkhipova

The beautiful paintings for Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen above could easily have come from the Golden Age of book illustration at the dawn of the 20th century...but in fact they are by a contemporary Russian artist, Anastasia Arkhipova.

Arkhipova was born into a family of artists in Moscow, studied at Moscow State Academy of Fine Arts, and has illustrated many books for publishers in Russia and abroad. In addition to The Snow Queen, she has also illustrated Andersen's The Princess and the Pea, The Tinderbox and The Steadfast Tin Soldier; Moliere's The Bourgeois Gentleman and Tartuffe; Cervantes' Don Quixote; Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther; and editions of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and from Russian writers. She is a member the Russian Academy of Art, where she has the title of "Honoured Artist of Russia," and has won many international awards.

Today is the last in our series of posts spotlighting just a few of the many fine book artists of Russia and other lands of the East. Have a good weekend, gentle Readers, and I'll see you again next week.

Hans Christian Andersen by Anastasia ArkhipovaI regret that the picture reproduction here isn't of the best quality and doesn't do full justice to Arkhipova's art, but there is only a small amount of her work available online.