VISION: Rumors of Remedy / Mischa De Stroumillo

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Mischa is a friend and collaborator. We know each other from London; growing up and weaving paths in friendship groups. It wasn’t until she visited New York that a natural synthesis of vision took place and we first documented an indigo project I was doing at the time. More recently we came together to shoot Spun, my first foray into handloomed textiles.

Mischa intuitively understands my vision and appreciation for materials, and brings her own unique eye and talent towards creating visceral and evocative images. Her background is tied to the land; she grew up foraging for her father's wild food company, and went to a Waldorf Steiner school which has a strong emphasis on working with the hands, crafts and nature. 

Her own practice is captivating and I immediately bonded with her over her love for the land. She authentically sees and understands craftsmanship and the truth of the natural. Her fascination for the natural world led her to create this project: Rumours of Remedy, where I took this special chance to be able to talk more deeply with her around her background and interests.

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What’s this series about?

Rumours of Remedy is a cross-disciplinary project where I investigated into the medicinal wild Flora of England. This project holds influences that stem back to my childhood, growing up in the countryside foraging and playing in the forest. I began with exploring the contrasting natures of Mysticism and Natural Science, by reconsidering folk medicine and witchcraft and using scientific methods of representation and ordering. It’s a role that allowed me to create a space where artistic expression and transformation connects both the mystical and the scientific - two areas of interest that I keep returning to. I studied, identified and collected therapeutic plants around Sussex which I then photographed and hand printed through the photopolymer technique on Japanese papers -  a process similar to traditional etching.

What is mysticism, how do you define it (for plants)?

To me the mysticism in plants is there ability to connect both the earthly and spiritual through their physic and healing capacities. In every culture you will find rituals and ceremonies that engage with native flora to access higher realms through hallucination, transformation and healing.

What's your connection to this? 

I have been very lucky to be brought up holistically by my mother; who treated my family purely with homeopathic medicine and food from local biodynamic farms. This has instilled a deep respect for the curative and sometimes magical abilities of plants. It has inspired me to use my art in a similar context; for this project I appropriate the role of a witch with the duty of the artist. In the same sense that plants connect the earthly to the spiritual, I believe that art has therapeutic capacities; I see artist’s sharing characteristics with that of the Shaman, Healer or Witch.

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What are the plants you documented and what qualities do they have?

The plants I have showed here have many qualities but I will just speak about a few of my favourites. Milk Thistle is used to treat the liver, travel sickness and light depression. Burdock’s young shoots and roots can be used to make a tonic to treat colds and flu, but in homeopathy it is usually used for skin problems such as acne and eczema. Lady’s Mantle is a women’s plant, it has many soothing qualities for female related problems - it also has an affinity to the breasts, and can be used for easing pain during menstruation and has been heard to have breast-firming abilities... Many cultures use it for fertility. Mugwort is a diuretic when dried and used as a tea, it also helps with regulating menstruation and menopausal symptoms. In shamanic rituals it is burnt at the beginning of a ceremony for purification. Silver birch is considered sacred in many cultures, it symbolises renewal and regrowth and contains thousands of health benefits.

What are your favourite healing plants?  Do you have any experiences with plant healing? 

My favourite therapeutic plant to collect is silver birch sap. Every year in the first two weeks of March, the sap from the silver birch tree rises in order to give the tree a kick of life for the beginning of spring. This is the perfect time to collect the sap, by making a small hole in the bottom of the trunk and using a tube to guide the sap into a bottle. Drinking birch sap straight from the tree is one of the most refreshing, energising and cleansing drinks; its sweet and delicious taste is similar to earthy coconut water, full of antioxidants.

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Can you tell me about the history of medicinal flora or folk medicine in the UK? Is this the same as witchcraft, or is there a separation?

Plants have always played an important role in religious and spiritual rituals, for their magical powers. Most of English herbalism was generally taught and practiced by the women of the households. Women have forever been healers - the unlicensed and often misunderstood physicians of western history. Although historically women were not allowed an education or any form of formal knowledge, they began to learn from each other, passing on experience from neighbour to neighbour mother to daughter, generation to generation. These women were traditionally favoured and branded as wise women by the people and their families and witches by the authorities. Although male driven orthodox medicine and fear of being classed as a witch disrupted this sharing of knowledge, I think that the beginnings of medicine and herbalism originated with the mothers, midwives, witches and women of the community.

Tell me about mysticism versus science. For example; the botany of plants (painstakingly, fact-checkingly, documenting) versus the homeopathic/healing qualities of plants, which is sometimes, conversely to science, seen as a pseudo science or quack science? When did science take over from folk medicine?

This separation from our roots , desire to control, label and rationalize the natural world is a contemporary concept. Rather than drawing on natural and spiritual elements, and forming a personal diagnosis of each individual, science’s boundaries and systems of knowledge pull away from natural continuity. The tensions between science and herbalism began when rational minds were not receiving reliable evidence using scientific methods, and the use of flora for medicine was then considered alternative. The failure in scientific systems is their inability to see things as a whole. Holistic medicine deals with the whole being of a person, it uses herbs in the context of the various systems in the body and acknowledges that people also have feelings, minds and spirits – these things are as important to health as our bodies.

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Why photography?

Both my grandparents were painters, and alongside my Steiner education I found myself forever painting and drawing, but never felt fully satisfied with the outcome. When I received my first camera at around the age of 12, I realised that painting was not the only form of artistic expression; I could recreate something I found beautiful or stimulating without using paint – this was revolutionary!  I began playing around by opening my camera and exposing the film to the sun for brief moments, producing wonderful painterly results on the surface of the film, I realised then that I could paint with light!

What do you shoot on, and why ? Can we speak about technology, the use of or avoidance of, in relation to your work?

I like the physicality of analogue, it’s tangible; it takes you back to the craft. I find sanctuary in processes. The photographic process is very meditative unlike the digital, it requires a certain amount of time, patience and an element of surprise. The digital on the other hand is fast, constantly evolving and all on a screen, it makes you work like a machine. You can’t recreate the calmness of a dark room...

Do you ever consider the moving form for your work? Video , moving image?

I have worked with moving image once; I made a short film of my sister Ania foraging. It’s a vast but satisfying medium. I still have a lot to learn, but it is something I would like to explore in the future.

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Are you more interested in process or the final result?

Process. I think it’s where creativity lies.  My process seems to be never ending, each project infiltrates and motivates the next, morphing into another form, I often find the end result underwhelming...   I like to think of my practice as a whole - whether I am photographing a flower, person, stone or garment, I like to treat everything as an equal canvas for expression - segregating into conclusions and collections makes me anxious.

What’s your method of research/process?

I use my foraging and walking as a starting point. I like to walk, collect, arrange and process found organic objects and then ideas naturally grow from there. Research normally comes in the form of books; I have a lot of books around me, but tend to never finish them...

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What informs your practice?

My background in Steiner education and being connected to the seasons and land through foraging has informed a lot of my practice, which often comes into conflict with the fast-pace modern society we inhabit. There are certain tensions that arise between contemporary culture and a fragile environment and I guess that is what inspires my on-going exploration of the natural world. I think it’s very important to utilise old methods, traditions and look at indigenous cultures for inspiration in this current state of the world.

I think there's always the push and pull of city versus nature, and you mention it briefly. We are in a state now where most people are dependent on cities for their livelihoods; yet we also desire a return to the land. Do you think it's nostalgia or a reaction to our increasingly 'technology-dependent' world? 

Human beings exist in the context of the entire planet. All these levels work together in a dynamic interconnected system. It seems that various health or mind issues today – anxiety, stress, acne, heart disease – are reactions to both cultural and ecological problems that often reflect our alienation from nature and ‘natural’ lifestyles.

Stay tuned to see future series from Mischa. She recently returned home from an artist residency where she lived and worked alongside the indigenous Kuna community of Panama. There she explored the relationship between ritual, myth and nature through the Kuna culture.