I know I’ve told you all about Betsie Withey. Like when she was making my “Champagne Nebula” gown for an award nomination. Or when I hosted the “Art for Art” series on my blog, in which artists talked about how Betsie Withey’s fiber art inspired them (click through for parts One, Two, and Three).
But I don’t know if I’ve told you about her Poison Garden project.
Well. I’m here to show you more. But first let me tell you how it all started.
Betsie and Jess (poet, writer, editor, and literary critic Jessica P. Wick, that is) were visiting Carlos and me for some holiday. Let’s call it Krampus. It might have been any number of holidays. Or perhaps just a weekend of museum visiting and fine dining. Hard to say.
Maybe Betsie was bent over her embroidery. Maybe we were talking of hemlock. Or figs. Or tombstones. At any rate, something in our conversation prompted me to start quoting my favorite bit from The Lancashire Witches by Thomas Shadwell.
Henbane, Hemlock, Moon-wort too,
Wild Fig-Tree, that o’re Tombs do’s grow,
The deadly Night-shade, Cypress, Yew,
And Libbards Bane, and venemous Dew,
I gathered for my Charms. Harg.
And I Dug up a Mandrake which did cry,
Three Circles I made, and the Wind was good,
And looking to the West I stood.
(Um. Exactly like that, actually.)
And then I might have said, oh so wistfully, “Betsie, you ever think about turning those mad textile skillz of yours to making POISON GARDEN PLANTS, like the medicine garden they have at the Cloisters?”
(We may or may not have just visited the Cloisters that day. Maybe for the Heavenly Bodies exhibit. Dang, what a great exhibit.)
However it happened, the subject came up naturally. In this version, I’m taking credit for the idea. But Betsie might just as easily have done it. Or Jess, murmuring into our ears like the sinister power behind the throne. Or Carlos, eavesdropping in from the other room.
BECAUSE ALL OF A SUDDEN, Betsie and Carlos were whispering and conspiring, and then–VOILA! Betsie had herself a major commission from my beloved Carlos, AKA Dr. Husbandpants, to invent a whole bouquet of new poisonous blooms, and from them make a wreath for me!
Because, like, I’m the luckiest bride of the curliest-headed English Professor, um, ever?
Now, in case you’re wondering, creating a poison garden from scratch is no easy thing to undertake. Since that inspiring day, it has taken Betsie years of painstaking labor–this, on top of running her own business, and, until the pandemic, working a retail job–to realize her vision.
Betsie had to find examples of leaves and flowers out in the wild and deconstruct them, to see how they were put together, so she could recreate them in silk. When she couldn’t find a live plant, she had to order examples online. She drafted flowers and fungus in drawings and practice scraps. She then created the flowers and fungus again in many hues and shades of dupioni silk, hand-dyed velvet, ceramic, wire, felt, and embroidery thread. She repeated the work until it met her standards and satisfied her. She wove a wicker crown on which to structure it all. Some pieces, she decided, would be free-standing, to clip in and around the hair, or wear as an addition band above the wreath. Some pieces would be part of the wreath proper.
Betsie Withey was, as she always does, making wearable sculpture art.
As I recently reminded Betsie, my 40th birthday is coming up in December! ALSO, my book, Saint Death’s Daughter–which, yes, has a bit to do with flowers and poisons, and a bit more to do with powers that (like the plants in a poison/medicine garden) can be perilous or helpful depending on their use–is coming out in April.
In other words, this is a perfect time to say: Poison Garden, you are PERFECT as you are! C. S. E. Cooney loves you, baby. And she wants to wear you LIKE WOAH.
To that end, I then I went to visit her at her studio in Westerly and try on all her flowers and fungus and leaves for the first time. I wanted, I told Betsie, for the poison garden to be the aesthetic of Saint Death’s Daughter.
O the wonders she hath wrought! She had made absolute heaps. An actual garden. Enough for, like, fifty wreaths. And some garlands. There were mountains of jewel-bright, lustrous, FATAL artworks just lying around her studio! It was stunning. Breathtaking! Rainbows spilling out everywhere! More tucked away in hidden baskets and drawers.
And, lemme tell you, there were Amanita Muscaria mushrooms FERDAYS.
I played the role of Betsie’s happy model. The artist fitted me as a queen for her crown. But we ALL know who the EMPRESS OF SILK REALLY IS. And we both got to glimpse for the first time an inkling of what the final Poison Garden will look like.
So. Sometime soon, within the next few months, this project will be complete. And on that day, you–yes, lucky YOU–will ALL be able to benefit from Betsie Withey’s extravagant genius! All her extra poisonous plants, along with anything else she cares to make along these lines, will be available for purchase on her Etsy page, with all her other treasures! (And don’t forget: she takes commissions!)
In the meantime, mi enjambre–have some PICTURES!
And don’t forget to support Betsie Withey and artists like her by shopping from independent creators!