Smile Politely

The merrily macabre world of wood cut illustrator Lydia Puddicombe

Lydia Puddicombe’s home studio is filled with plants, pets, natural sunlight, and, of course, the friendly phantasms of her wood cut illustrated characters. For anyone other than this artist, the combination of warm and weird would fail to mix. But for Puddicombe, it is this very tension that is the source of her magic.  

Her work is the result of an alchemical process which blends the things she loves (plants, pets, patterns, working with wood) with the things that haunt her (the notion of ghosts and how they serve as a way for us to process death).  As we spoke, I asked her how she described her work, and we both agreed that there was a note of “whimsy” but that there was more to it. Their dark, domesticity makes them oddly, but happily suited to living in the quiet corners of her buyers’ homes. In fact, Puddicombe “loves to hear that one of her pieces lives in a bathroom” and is there to ponder and interact with during our mundane, human moments. 

With Puddicombe, the paradoxes continue.  Her engaging smile and enthusiasm live side-by-side with her edgy body art and the merrily macabre subjects of her work. When talking about her inspiration she dives deep and dark into childhood fears of ghosts and death while acknowledging the whimsical humor of her skullflowers. In a sense her work brings death to life, and manifests it in a way that feels approachable, friendly, and not without humor. This vision of a living (and often laughable) death, includes ghost teeth, ghost toast, and clumsy ghosts literally bumping into kitchen applicances in the night.

In Puddicombe’s world, death exists within the natural world, its empty skulls putting into sharp relief the joy of the flowers. When death is made familiar perhaps we fear it less; perhaps the colors of the flowers brighten in contrast. Or maybe that’s just what this reviewer sees. For someone as thoughtful and intentional about her subject matter, Puddicombe embraces the idea that the meaning of her work is co-created by owners.  When a piece goes home, its up to the owner to continue to write its story.  The first whispers of the idea, the seed is planted in her mind and manifested with her hands, but the rest is up to you. 

Starting out in art school, Puddicombe was gently disuaded from her initial path as an illustrator by an instructor who first saw that she had not found the right fit.  As the daughter of a carpenter, wood carving seems like a natural fit.  She set forth to find her process, her subject matter and her audience. And now, as full-time artist, she’s killing it (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

For an artist who traffics in such ethereal subject matter, Puddicombe’s process is suprisingly straight-forward. Her diligence and streamlined process come from this acceptance of the business-side of her life. There are drawings days, there are carving days, and there are coloring days (featuring colored pencils and the occasional bit of paint).  Occasionally there is a break for promotional work, during which she tends to her website and social media presence. There are days of cranking out ideas, good and bad, because a successful, full-time artist knows you can’t just sit around and wait for the muse to strike.  Yes, those gifts from universe do come, but they are rare. 

[gallery lydia_puddicombe]

Once a month, or maybe more, she takes the show on the road, bringing her art to fairs and shows around the area and beyond. Occasionally she sees a familiar face return for another piece.  She has built an audience.  They are as complex and paradoxical as she is and she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Working in analog is deeply satisfying and a welcome relief from our digital world, but it doesn’t come cheap. Hours of talent, training, and hard work are behind each piece and, though its taken her time to get there, Puddicombe knows that in order to continue she must charge accordingly.  Every single mark is handmade. And this is the piece of advice she gives to every young artist:  “know your value.”  She knows there are shortcuts she could take, but chooses not to. She does offer limited prints of her carvings in order to reach out to young buyers with limited art budgets. 

In yet another seemingly paradoxical way, Puddicombe pushes herself harder each year (she doubled her output last year and I’m exhausted just hearing about it), but that doesn’t stop her from taking time to participate in and nuture the network of artists and makers she feels lucky to be a part of. She expressed her continued suprise that despite the number of talent artists, makers, and designers in our town, collaboration and support win out over competition. Another piece of advice for artists —and, perhaps, for all of us—”do the work you want or need to do, not what you think you should do.”

As we wrapped up, I asked her what was next.  In addition to noting the two upcoming events listed below, Puddicombe shared that she is experimenting with size—both working in slightly larger sizes and using the illustrator’s magic trick of scanning large to produce more detailed, vibrant prints.  She also observed that her work is getting more complex, particularly in her use of patterns—a nod to her love of blending the familiar and the domestic (rugs, wallpaper, quilts)— in her depiction of her beloved, beguiling ghosts. 

Here are two upcoming opps to meet Lydia and snag some of her work.  They will haunt you in the best possible way. 

Lyd & Ted at Urbana’s Market on the Square
Saturday, June 1st, 7 am to noon
See Facebook for future dates

Photo from Facebook event page

1st Friday Gallery Opening of Death Show
The Art Farm
Friday, June 7th, 5 to 7:30 p.m.
252 N Park St, Decatur

Photo from Facebook event page

Find out more about Lydia Puddicombe on her website, or follow her on Instagram

All additional photos by Debra Domal

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