Grief's Wonderland

“Legacy” refers to what we leave behind, but Kristy Mitchell, of Surrey, England, created a lasting legacy for her mother after she died—fashioning an elaborate and fantastical photo series inspired by the hours she spent listening to her mother read her stories when she was a little girl.

Mitchell, who was a trained fashion designer, turned to photography after her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008. It became her “only escape when I could no longer talk about how I felt,” writes Mitchell in her artist’s statement, and after her mother died later that year, Mitchell says photography “engulfed” her.

She found herself creating images that captured how she felt when she was a child and her mother—who loved books and had been an English teacher for decades—was reading her stories, her work bringing her back to a sense of wonder.

The photographs themselves are only part of the art of Wonderland: the elaborate and painstakingly detailed costumes, wigs, and props took Mitchell months to construct as she drew on her work in fashion and background in art history in order to create the vibrant and majestic images she had in her mind’s eye. She worked in partnership with makeup artist Elbie Van Eeden, as well “a few passionate friends helping out for free.”

The characters were not a recreation of anything that already existed...they were the faded memories of the stories my mother read to me as a child, all mixed up with dreams and the underlying sadness of my adult grief.

Each image became a visual fable within its own right—some of them requiring a year to plan and up to five months to build.

She eventually left her day job in fashion to dedicate herself to the completion of the series, which in the end took five years total. As she was working on the series, she posted updates on her website, as well as with accompanying behind-the-scenes videos of each of the shoots, which built her a huge following and recognition from the press.

By the time the series was complete, Wonderland was already well-known. Her images were published in magazines and websites around the world, and she showed in galleries around the world as well. Recently, she had her first solo museum show with the series. And at the pinnacle, she self-published a gorgeous volume of the Wonderland works—which almost immediately sold out. She went on to print a second series, and offers limited-edition prints on her website as well.

Not only did Mitchell create a towering memorial to her mother’s memory, she also created a new life for herself in the process. “No matter how sad the origin of it all was,” she says, “I will always treasure that this small and very precious awakening has happened”