Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, Remedios Varo, and the Power of Collaboration

February 18, 2020

As you might have seen in our Facebook group or on our Patreon, our Carterhaugh Book Club selection for March is Terri Windling’s absolutely wonderful novel The Wood Wife! We are SO excited to dive into this one with you – it’s full of art, poetry, deep connection to place, and the subtle, soft magic we both love.

We feel like we’re both quite overdue for a reread on this one, and we’re so excited to share the experience of reading it with others who we know will totally GET it :).

In the novel, we both absolutely love the character of Anna Naverra, an artist who was inspired by one of our very favorite real-world artists, Remedios Varo. Varo was a Spanish surrealist who fled to Mexico after World War II. While there, she formed strong bonds with two other amazing surrealist artists, Kati Horna and, especially, Leonora Carrington. Davis Cooper, Naverra’s partner, describes Carrington as a “formative influence” for her in the book, and Carrington and Varo’s work were often influenced and shaped by each other. They always seem to be having a beautiful, strange conversation.

When Sara and I work together, as we do so often, we often think of people like Varo and Carrington or Elizabeth Siddal and Georgiana Burne-Jones (whose friendship we have a piece dedicated to in the upcoming issue of Enchanted Living!) or even Windling herself and Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and the rest of The Endicott Studio for Mythic Arts (which was admittedly not comprised of all women, there were also men in that group who totally got it)… women whose creative expression was repeatedly enhanced and made better by working with someone (or several someones!) who had similar tastes and really saw and understood them. It is a gift beyond measure, especially in a world that STILL undervalues artistic contributions from women, and helping others like us find collaborators, friends, and just… people who truly understand them has been one of the greatest joys of the whole Carterhaugh world. We know that we walk in the footsteps of others who were lucky enough to find their people and run with the inspiration that that gave them.

(Brittany admits that she likes to put Sara and herself in the shoes of Carrington and Varo, respectively, in her imagination… Leonora was obsessed with birds, Varo kept endless notebooks. Varo was quieter, perhaps even shyer, while Carrington wasn’t daunted by anybody. They “would just get together and laugh” according to those who knew them. They were best friends who were obsessed with magic and fairy tales and mythic themes and cats. The parallels are totally there! Here is a great article about the two of them if you’re interested.)

In the novel, Anna and the poet Cooper form a strong collaboration and romantic love too –

“The cabin too had an Anna Naverra painting on one side of the rounded fireplace…The painting was of the huge granite boulders that topped the distant Catalina peaks, an ordinary landscape of wind-shaped rock and desert sky. Yet as Maggie stood and stared at it, a figure slowly emerged from the stone, a sleeping man, formed from the rock and the sepia tones of the earth. Three red slashes were painted on the back of one hand resting on the ground; the only bright color on the canvas, it drew the eye’s attention. The figure was so subtly rendered that is seemed to waver in and out of her vision; one moment it was there, and in the next she was looking at a simple landscape again. The title was printed next to Anna’s signature. “The One Who Sleeps,” Maggie read, recognizing the phrase from one of Cooper’s poems.”

Many of Davis’ poems are directly inspired by Anna’s paintings, and vice-versa, yet another way this novel connects to, and pays tribute to, the power of artistic collaboration. The above quote also illustrates (pun sort of intended?) the wonderful descriptions of Anna’s paintings in the book. They are described so well – you really feel like you know exactly what they look like… it is no small feat to paint an image with words instead of paints, and Windling is a master at it.

Windling is, of course, an artist herself too. This is one of our favorites – we love when she combines her paintings with collage!

In honor of our new book club selection, we thought we would share a few of our favorite Remedios Varo pieces. One of the things we love most about her work is that each painting feels like a story in progress. We look at each piece and start imagining a whole fairy tale to go with it! You absolutely get this feeling from Windling’s descriptions of Anna’s paintings too (and obviously Davis is inspired to do just that!)

“Vegetable Architecture” by Remedios Varo (we love the animals in this one!!)
“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle” by Remedios Varo (how cool is this idea??)
“The Revelation, or The Watchmaker” by Remedios Varo (the utterly unimpressed cat gets us every time :P.)
“Cosmic Energy” by Remedios Varo (cats and violins, two things that definitely have cosmic energy… look at that cat’s smirky face!!)

Oh gosh, and so many more! We could just look at them for days, there are always new and wonderful things to discover. Here’s another wonderful article about Varo, centered especially on her witchi-ness :).

Again, we’re so excited we get to read this book together this month – please hop on over to our Patreon page to sign up to join us! You can also click here for more details about the book club in particular. In the meantime, do you love Terri Windling as much as we do? Do you love Remedios Varo, or any of the other surrealists? What are your favorite surrealist paintings? Feel free to answer in the comments here or in our Facebook group!

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