Home as a Way of Being: The Story of Sealskin Explored in the Project ‘Displacement Dwelling Home’ at Sydenham Garden, Lewisham

Sydenham Garden is a magical place…

… a shelter, a forest,

…a sunlit glade,

…a place where art and nature are embraced in activities to promote healing, creativity and community. It embodies the concept of home as a way of being, a place to be free and true and vital, as is contained in the story of Sealskin.

Sealskin is the magical tale of a seal-woman forced to assume a conventional land-bound existence until her physical decline compels her to relinquish the life she has built and return to her wild home beneath the sea. It is a tale of freeing oneself of social norms and attachments and finding a way back to a place of nurture and understanding.

At the beginning of the story, the seal-woman and her friends shed their skins to dance in the moonlight. When the seal-woman’s skin is stolen by a lonely fisherman who disturbs the dancing women, the seal-woman’s friends are able to leap back into the protection of their own sealskins and return to the safety of the sea but the seal-woman is left trapped on the rocks, exposed and terrified, compromised into agreeing to live with the fisherman until he returns her skin to her.

There is a seeming conflict in the significance of the sealskin this story, as initially it is shed to allow the seal-women to dance freely, but a different freedom comes with wearing their skins which allows them to escape into the depths of the ocean, a truer realm.

“The pelt in this story is not so much an article as the representation of a feeling state and a state of being – one that is cohesive, soulful… The return to the wildish state periodically is what replenishes.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes in ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’

The dilemma of the seal-woman is perhaps indicative of the conflicts of living a full and creative life: there is a time for shedding one’s skin, for revealing talents and beauty, but there is also the need to go where we are safe to make our art and connect with ourselves, to  draw, paint, write, dance, sing alone and in the company of others like ourselves who support and understand.

Without her skin, the seal-woman lives on land as a human, but as the years pass she begins to decline. When she finally gets back her skin, its containment frees her, enabling her to return to the depths of the ocean where she is truly herself, wild and free. The resumption of the skin thus enables her return home, to a home that is neither place nor building; home as a place of rightness.

When we swim down deep into our thoughts and feelings and imagination we find our own wildness, our truth and we are able to nourish ourselves.

“It takes will and force… but it can be done…one will awaken to the voice calling from home, calling one back to the core self where one’s immediate wisdom is whole and accessible.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes in ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’

We all need such a home, a place for aloneness and togetherness, for making our own art and sharing it with others.

Small gifts were brought in spontaneously – on this occasion, a ring of shells, uncannily appropriate to the under-water theme of the workshop!

Sometimes in our workshops there was total silence, a warm gentle deeply-focussed quiet out of which playful exploratory unique personal artworks grew. 

We used watercolour resist-techniques to make concertina books (also known as leporello books) inventing characters who are transformed underwater into wild and fantastical selves.

“Stories awaken a sense of movement and colour and design that helps the conscious mind to contact the essence of a scene or character.”

Nancy Mellon in ‘Storytelling and the Art of Imagination’

The period of making art prior to sitting in our story circle was vital to creating the feeling of freedom and generosity, the expansiveness to dream and invent from which good stories are made. Out of the circle of talk and laughter wonderful stories emerged, playful, sweet, true.  

Even after participants went home, they carried on working! Exquisite, heart-felt poems and short stories appeared in private hours, were written down and read out the following week – stories seemingly born out of the simplest of fairytale prompts.

“The imaginative world, though an unstable region, is a profoundly real one. In it is constant motion and transformation… gradually you can orient yourself and interpret what is happening there.”

Nancy Mellon in ‘Storytelling and the Art of Imagination’

Making art and making stories together, exploring the old tales with their simple words and strange images, their layers of meaning, messages, ideas and solace – it is a way to releasing the imagination and letting it lead us to creativity and connection; a way to being at home in the world.


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