Step into the enchantedly dark fairy tale world of the extraordinary paper sculptor.

As a child, Su Blackwell was at her happiest when immersed in the woods. It makes a certain sense, then, that her new crowdfunded book, should take us back to the place where it all began: the forest that fired her young imagination. Into The Dark Woods takes us straight to the heart of her imagination; her book draws readers into the worlds of the familiar women of fairy tale while incorporating ‘how-to’ elements which instruct on creating the exquisite objects we associate with her under our own auspices at home. It is, she says, a self-help book at its core, allowing us to draw out positives that apply to our own lives from the stories we’ve grown up with.

Su has illustrated books such as The Fairy Tale Princess; designed art fabrics for Liberty London; and contributed to columns in magazines, such as Harper's Bazaar. A true multi-disciplinarian, she also works as an art director and as a theatre set designer, the latter a natural leap since her bewitching and beguiling artworks are like mini stage sets themselves.

Here she tells us about her latest book, her heroes and the nature of folklore.

Can you tell us about Into The Dark Woods – what is the idea behind it?

I had a burning passion to write and illustrate a book for a long time, but I didn’t know what shape it would take. I decided I would start by writing and making art about something I was familiar with: fairy tales. As a reader of fairy tales, I was keen for the book to appeal to adults, rather than children. I felt there was a gap in the market for this type of book

It differs from your previous work in that it is, in part, an activity book. How have your workshops informed that aspect of the book?

I’ve been running workshops for years alongside my practice. I felt there was a real demand for practical workshops, for people to learn new skills, which fits into the mindfulness movement, and this obviously escalated during the pandemic. People are always very encouraged in the workshops and come away feeling good about themselves. As an extension of this, I wanted it to be a ‘how-to’ book, giving readers the skills to make their own paper models and giving them an online forum to share their creations. I found books already on the market to be very ‘craft-driven’. I wanted this book to be a balance of wonderful stories, eye catching artworks, and learning new skills. I wanted to create a relationship with the reader. It is really a self-help book, in that you can take something positive away from the tales, and in a more practical sense, from ‘making the objects’.

As well as the beautiful book art for which you are known, you have also written this book. What was that experience like – do you enjoy the writing process?

I did enjoy the writing process, although it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to work at it. The nature of my artwork is inspired by stories, so in a sense, I see writing as an extension of that, although meanings can be made more ambiguous in my visual art. I found it a cathartic process, but now it’s in the public domain, I feel nervous, because I have written a very personal introduction. I felt that was needed though: to put the fairy tales into context, to explain my artwork and what drives the ideas behind it.

Are the stories based on existing tales, or are they completely new?

The book is a vehicle for my art, an extension of it, and so I wanted to keep the art as pure as possible. I’m interested in the pure form of fairy tales, which I feel are still relevant today. My process began by scouring my collection of illustrated fairy tale books and selecting illustrations to cut out with a scalpel, then laying the cut-out characters on my desk.

I chose to retell seven classic fairy tales with strong female protagonists. I sourced the original versions of these tales and created artworks, using the cut-outs to illustrate them.
I then went back to the artworks, and re-wrote the tales, changing bits here and there, in a similar way to the artwork, whereby I cut out the original characters and placed them in new settings. I’ve taken the original tales and re-visioned them.

You crowdfunded this book. What was that experience like – and where can people buy a copy?

To create the book as pure and as intended, I decided to try crowdfunding. I felt this offered me a level of creative control, that I otherwise may have found difficult to achieve. It was a very proactive process, but it enabled me to reach out and build relationship with my readers early on, and they have been part of the journey, which I think is important. The book will be available via my online store and in select independent bookstores, including John Sandoe and Much Ado Books.

What do you think it is about folklore and fairy tales that we continue to find so compelling?

I think we find them compelling because they adapt across cultures. To quote Maria Tatar, ‘They are the plots we endlessly rework in the narratives of our lives’. They help us work through things like fear and hope, and they show you a way out of difficult situations.

You’ve said before that you were happiest in the woods as a child. Were those early experiences formative?

Absolutely. I had a very free childhood. I think I was one of the last generation of children that played outside; there were always other children around. The woods were my playground and I spent many days exploring in my imaginative world, inspired by Tolkien and books by C.S Lewis. I felt like I was in a fairy tale!

I love that there is a darkness to your work – I can feel overtones of Angela Carter. Who would you say are your greatest influences?

I read Angela Carter as a student and her writing has been very influential, as have academicians, Marina Warner, Maria Tatar and Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The latter’s book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, helped to shape this project. For visual artists, I’m inspired by works of Leonora Carrington, Paula Rego, and contemporaries, Kiki Smith and Rachel Goodyear, who use myths and folk tales to explore issues of power and the feminine psyche.

And what are you working on now? Any dream future projects?

A few years ago, I collaborated with a very talented animator friend, Carmen B Mason, on a short film, based on the story of Pinocchio. It received plaudits and was selected for the British Council Crafts Programme. During lockdown, Carmen and I began talking about working with each other again, this time on a series of short stop-frame animated stories. So, that will be my next project, working with Carmen to literally bring stories off the page and into life, through the medium of film.

By Nancy Alsop
October 2021

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Su Blackwell
Alastair Hendy, The Walking Magazine

Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.