Enjoy the following 'Stories within Our Isles' by Melissa Kime, a London-based painter and naturalist. Melissa's expressive work captures the magic and memories of her everyday, in particular the people and animals she meets. Her artwork is inspired by her love of folk art, culture and craft, and her upbringing in Wiltshire, a place where superstition and folklore lies deep.
When I walk out into the churchyard, I am hit by the wind’s breath, its strong and fresh. I hold onto it for a long time thinking of Jack Frost. I think of nearly everything as an actual person with fragile human emotions, so I tend to greet the wind like I greet the trees or the local pigeons (Polly and George). On the winds back it brings the pungent scent of rotting leaves, damp and wet remnants of rain and a trail of weighty horse chestnut seeds. The lime tree leaves billow along too and then fall at the bottom of the tree trunks and lie there until spring when they are removed by Lewisham council. Sometimes the leaves crumple into little nests, small habitats for the insect or snail community that the graveyard hosts. These leaves are quite special for they were once the structure of carefully constructed dreys that the grey squirrels who live in this churchyard made. Once they get old and a bit shabby, they are then pushed out of the trees so room can be made for new more secure ones. Squirrels often have the luxury of summer and winter houses.
Sometimes when I climb back behind the hedgerows I find an unwanted drey, if you didn’t part the bushes and go back into its mulchy lairs you would never see them or notice them, but they are so incredible - intricate secrets that the natural world keeps, real treasures - each drey is a perfectly preserved cocoon of history, of a squirrel generation, of new life and seasons it shows science and how the weather has effected the wildlife that lives in the churchyard like when Storm Eunice came for example. I crouch down into the undergrowth and I smell the dreys and I try and breath that whole scent in and remember it especially when I’m painting.
Autumn is my favourite season. It reminds me of acorn gathering in Bowood’s House grounds in Wiltshire when I was young - crunching through the array of red and ochre leaves and the excitement of finding magic amongst nature. Rings of mushrooms - once my Mum and I spotted a ring of fly agaric, which I’ve never forgotten. I played with snails or spiders in my back garden and looked for fairies with my Dad in Avebury’s standing stones and in my garden too. Folklore and the landscape with its unfolding seasons have always fascinated me, along with the many ditties, poems and stories that travel alongside our haunted lands.
Now I am an adult I still have that childlike wonderment of the natural world and at finding its magic charms like walnut shells bitten into the shape of a heart and my favourite acorns. During lockdown, I was re-awoken to it but found it in a place that you wouldn’t really imagine it could exist, the local graveyard, now one of my most special places to visit. I miss it and its animal inhabitants so much when I am not there, rather like Heidi the young girl in my favourite story by Johanna Spyri. Heidi gets very homesick when she is taken away from the mountains and the goats, Peter the goat boy, the wild mountain flowers and the smells of the Alm that she starts sleep walking. She craves the mountains so much it becomes truly painful. I feel that nature has started to do this to me too, if I’m not there I get a withdrawal as if I’m not much different from the land myself. I must carry old nut shells that the squirrels have cracked open with me in my pocket so that I still feel the churchyards presence.
I live in Deptford in Southeast London and my flat looks out onto St Pauls Churchyard, it’s an old churchyard and I don’t think anyone has been buried in it since the 1860s. The graves are piled up in a higgledy piggledy fashion alongside the old brick wall and behind the wild hedgerows. I had gone through a blockage with my work in 2020 and I find that when this happens, going out and drawing and really looking at the world again helps me to find meaning in my work.
One day I was trying to feed a squirrel and a man came up to me and told me, ‘I’m so glad that someone else is looking after the squirrels again.’ His friend Charlie had done it previously, but he had sadly passed away. Charlie had had the most special friendship with the grey squirrels, they would come to his call, play with him, do tricks and they loved him as much as he loved them. I didn’t know it at the time but I guess that day changed my life really, I goggled Charlie and found out what he called the squirrels in the churchyard and I started doing the same, I also read about how grey squirrels were being persecuted because of the red squirrel decline and how they aren’t protected at all by English laws if they become sick. I do have a Saint Jude complex and I like to help the underdog, so I wanted to help them and that started off my very special friendship with these squirrels.
The squirrels started coming to my window and then gradually they would sit with me, show me where they lived, let me see their babies and now one boy squirrel, Sooty, will jump onto me, let me stroke him (sometimes) and leave me nut presents by my bed. He smells that same wonderful smell that I first described of crumpled lime tree leaves. They truly let me in and accepted me as one of them. My paintings since then have been about encapsulating these encounters. I always include biographical figures in my work as painting for me is a way of preserving memories and so now the people in my paintings are joined by the squirrels, the birds and sometimes Biscuit, Deptford’s local cat who I see around daily. I draw a lot in my sketchbooks first and then work from those drawings. Recently the weather and the transition of season in the form of colour has become more apparent to me, my drawings in the summer had a brown and yellow colour palette, colours of the scorched summer grasses that surrounded us and were so desperately longing for a drink. Then, suddenly, I noticed sprigs of green came back into my work and into our real life with the arrival of the rain.
When I’m outside drawing on the church bench, I really try to come to grips with what I am feeling, seeing and smelling, helping my paintings feel more genuine to me, personally. Recently a male figure has begun to emerge in my work, a bit like an angel - I always loved Skellig by David Almond, the angel that was always in-between an angel and a man. Skellig is never fully explained, and I guess that is sort of what the wildlife, especially the squirrels and the people in my work are like as well, especially Sooty who is like a human boy trapped in a squirrel’s body almost talismanic or maybe just an extension of the nature that he has come from.
I listened to a lecture on the history of trolls recently and it described how they are an extension of the nature around them, from the shapes and traces of life that it produces. That’s very similar to the worlds I paint, floating in between a state of real life, memory and the imagined.
Melissa studied her MA at the Royal College of Art, a post grad diploma at the Royal Drawing school and completed her BA in Fine Art at University College Falmouth. She has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally.
Words & Artwork by Melissa Kime | Photography by Fergus Franks