So some people might remember when I got to go home last Christmas! By home, I mean my homeland of New Zealand [cue fireworks!]. It's been a long time away for me, as the last time I got to go home was in 2001 for my sister's wedding. There's a lot I could say about my time spent back in Christchurch, but I'll just sum it up by saying it was one of the most rewarding and wonderful experiences, and gifts, I've ever been given in my entire life and I am so full of gratitude and joy because of it. I have a wonderfully supportive family, and I will never stop saying thank you to the people who got me to where I needed to be.
Among the many wonderful things I got to do was a trip to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve with my beloved cousin. I have only a handful of strong memories from my childhood, and Willowbank had some of the clearest ones. There are bossy deer who steal your pellet bag off you, and chatty birds, unfussed wallabies and maybe a kiwi if you're very lucky and very patient. But - best of all - there are long fin eels.
Aren't they hideous? I love them.
At WIllowbank they live in this little river/pond arrangement that snakes through the park, and has a section with a glass tank wall and steps down so you can see them lurking away in the shadows. I have memories of it always being wet and dank and vaguely unpleasant, and that my brother absolutely hated them and would refuse to go near them. That might be why I love them so much - a mixture of them being perfect Halloween creepy crawlies, and because I'm a complete brat of a baby sister.
Returning was a slightly different experience, as the walkway wasn't nearly as dark and miserable as I remembered it, and the eels were mostly pretty chill and just hung out near the jutting feeding areas waiting for tourists exactly like me to offer them pellets that would suck up, and then grumpily spit out in disgust [took me a while to remember I had to buy meat for them].
On leaving, I was disappointed that there weren't any eel plushies to buy to accompany me home, and of course this naturally meant I had to make one upon returning to England and my studio.
'Ello. Is me!'
Hello there cutie.
Ok, so let's be honest - eels are not particularly cute. They're pretty awful looking to be honest, they're long and slimy, with big mouths hiding little white teeth and then there's the eyes - like the eyes of the dead staring unblinking up at you from the murky water. They're perfect if you're into creepy looking sea monsters, but they're hardly going to win any Miss Wildlife Universe pageants. But, surprisingly, there's a lot more to them to be appealing than you'd assume. Firstly, those long bodies are actually very soft and velvet-like when you touch them [do it, I dare you, touch the nightmare fuel] and they move too slow and gawky to seem threatening. Watching them, they seem pretty good at bumping into things, stopping momentarily to internally roll their eyes, and bumble off in a different direction only to bump again. They may have the eyes of soul suckers, but the look they give you when they bump into your leg is priceless - like how dare you stand there, the sheer audacity. Spending time with them, two words I would use to describe them would be ridiculous and downright sassy.
I played around with the scale for a while [I made one that could have easily been a ring, and trust me that gave me enough ideas to write down and never get around to], and also with the pose. Truthfully, long fin eels are a little stiffer than the moray eels we're used to seeing twist and turn, but I thought it would be nice to mimic some of the traditional Maori pounamu [greenstone] shapes as the flowing designs would match so well.
The design that ended up being the most visually successful was the fishhook, with the little guy peeking over his own tail and giving a bit of a cheeky look. The decision making in this one was pretty organic - the black plush was the best choice for the velvet like skin of the eel, and of course he had to have his little nostril tendrils. For the underbelly, I had to bring in a little Patchwork Toad colour and give him multicoloured spots.
I feel like seeing the underbelly of an eel in the wild should be a bad omen or something. The only thing I found challenging with this [aside from photographing a solid black toy] was picking his eyes. Longfin eels have these weird bleached out eyes that sometimes seem completely blind and pointless, and then other times feel like they're zeroing in on you. I tried a few of my regular eyes, I even painted set set this odd shade of grey. Eventually I had a go with some flat back rhinestones, and they worked a treat! Unfocussed, yet glittering with intent.
I had so much fun making this little dude. Making new designs for my growing patchwork zoo is my favourite part of this whole process! I wish I had more time to focus on it, but between work, work and moving it only pops up in moments like these - and I wouldn't miss them for the world! I sent this little guy off to New Zealand for my cousin as a thank you for showing me around so much, and just because I love her. Hopefully I'll be able to do some more work with this design in the future, you never know!