Welcome to Sammy’s studio

Photo of Sammy Paloma wearing a yellow and black tartan dress and white blouse standing in the white corner of a gallery space.

There is a trinity of subjects I’m currently obsessed with: toilets, boglands, and crossroads. I’m fascinated by toilets and sewers and boglands and crossroads as gateways of egress and ingress to Underworlds where The Outcast Dead may dwell. Historically, those deemed criminals were often buried at crossroads and bogs for the same reason; that their souls may forever be lost and not find their way to salvation. As a trans girl and a witch, I’m in love with the phrase ‘The Outcast Dead’ (as used by Crossbones Graveyard near London Bridge, an unconsecrated Victorian burial site now dedicated to The Outcast Dead). 

My work is driven by the politics of the eulogy: who gets to be grieved, how that grieving is allowed to happen, and what kinds of stories are remembered of the dead. 

For this residency I’m going to begin developing a project mapping these gateways to the lands of the Outcast Dead, which I’m collecting under the title, ‘Sewer Sonnets’. I’m interested in sonnets as writing born of love and devotion, and I see devotion as being my main research methodology in this project. 

I always try to approach the subjects of grief and the dead with a balance of levity and care, because I truly believe grief to be both a transformative, inherently playful/magickal force and utterly world-destroying at the very same time. That being said, grief can be an intense and raw subject, particularly for those of us who have lost someone close to us, so please take care here. I’m always up for talking about this stuff though, so feel free to comment here.

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A animated gif of a crossroad of white guts on a black background. The guts are pulsing, like they are either breathing or in the act of digestion.
Gif from Surface of Scum, a character generator computer game made by Sammy Paloma & Uma Officer

I’ve been thinking about guts. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about thinking about guts. It’s more of a hunch that there is work or attention needed in that area, both of my life and my art. Guts have appeared in my work for at least the past 5-6 years, if not longer, and yet I feel like at some point they became a kind of stand-in for an unfinished thought. When it started I think the thought was around unseen processes happening in the background (like how wallpaper can function like an engine to the actions inside a room even though u may not consciously notice it). But it’s evolved to take on digestion, and waste, and mess, and desire, and grief. And in a funny way, guts were also always there almost as a reminder to myself to actually listen to my own guts. But there’s some other stuff there too – appropriately – beneath the surface of the image of guts. The guts of the guts. And this post is a kind of note-to-self to feel into that. To get on up inside those guts again. Sorry not sorry.

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La Mort

A greeby-brown, browny-green ink painting. A wet looking expanse of brown-green, in the centre of which is a dark-green bubbling bog. Out of the bog can be seen three hands, one foot, and the head of a person who's gender is unclear, wearing a crown on their head (with their tongue hanging from their mouth).

A little painting I did vibing with the 17th Century Tarot de Marseille Death card, taking it’s iconography of harvesting the dead to the site of the bog. I enjoyed making the inks as boggy as possible.

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The Bog is a Thin Place; A Sanctuary, A Portal & A Home

A watercolour painting featuring a pair of Simpson-yellow arms with black chains around the wrists. The hands have long and gnarly bright green nails wriggling their way towards the sky. The chains around their wrists also extend upwards towards the sky.
The arms are splashing out of a boggy, bubbling hole in the ground. This hole of green bubbling sludge is surrounded by brown earth blooming out at it's edges.

I love that phrase u sometimes hear about Halloween/Samhain: “the thinning of the veil”. From the idea of thin times it’s only a small leap to that of thin places. In Shetland witch (or heksi) folklore it is said that the stretch of sand that runs between high and low tide is the undisputed territory of the devil. Folk magic loves a threshold, a space between spaces (oh so liminal): a beach, a fog, the meeting point of two rivers, a keyhole, midnight, a crossroad. A bog. To get lost in a thick fog whilst traversing a bog might just about be the perfect setting to summon the dead. My sense is that these thin places and times are potent precisely because they can function as temporary sanctuaries, a home for those pushed to the margins. Not unlike Doom Patrol’s Danny The Street (DC Universe/HBO) a roving sentient genderqueer street that goes where it’s needed and provides a home to for us misfits.

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Bog Gods

An animated image with the words 'bog god and god boggy' in the centre. Above and below the words are a set of crossed bones, and then a single bone is on the left and the right side of the image. All the bones are painted in a very loose, naive looking style, with messy watercolours. The bones vary in colour from dark brown to bright yellow, but they all look old and discoloured, like the bones have rotted beneath the ground before finding their way into the picture.
More playing with illuminated manuscript inspired animated borders

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Bogs present and bogs past

I was just in Cambridgeshire, spending a week at Wysing Arts Centre. This was a huge amount of fun, and I’ve got a lot to reflect on from my time there that I plan on writing about here. But, one of the things I was really intrigued by (and had a great chat around with Rosie Cooper, Wysing’s director) was the history of the fenlands in the East of England. Now, this is something I am by no means an expert on, but it struck me as interesting to be in a famously dry part of the country, but up until the 16/17th Century was predominantly an area of wetland known as The Fens. Some amazing things came from the fen drainage, in terms of making the area incredibly fertile ground for food production (the East of England produces around a third of Britain’s fresh vegetables). But also, a huge amount of things were lost, with the drying peat soil releasing millions of tons of CO2, and with sea levels rising this area is incredibly vulnerable to flooding. Also, there’s something here about ‘productivity’, about fen drainage as an immensely violent process of enforcing anthropocentrism on the land, and it’s peoples (something that was fiercely fought against by the Fen Tigers in an inspiring period of history of working class guerrilla warfare). This idea of inefficiency is one I feel a strong sense of (admittedly ambivalent) kinship with. I often feel lazy, which I know is my own internal able-ism, but this makes it no less hard to battle with. Still, I persist to be at peace with the pace of my own rhythms, no matter their own circuitous and non-linear patterns of productivity.

A photograph of me and my girlfriend, Maria, with adorable matching black raincoats, smiling like a pair of fools, utterly drenched by the rain. The green of a field and some trees can be seen in the background.
Me and Maria, caught in the rain on our way to the closest shop to Wysing, in Bourne (which incidentally had great home-made curries in the freezer section)

On the first day at Wysing we went for a walk through the woods to the local shop, where we got drenched in rain as lightning and thunder crashed about above our heads. Brief expulsive rain storms happened proceeded to happen pretty much every evening we were there too. It felt kinda like the wetlands were trying to claw their way back to the soil by tooth and nail. And with rising sea-levels, it seems certain the East of England’s rich arid grave of bogs past will return to wet.

A super cute animation made by young people from Great Fen Greenwatch (a volunteering group for 12-18 yrs), Huntingdon Youth Centre and Great Fen volunteers.

So I’m now thinking back on my past obsession with depicting moments of spillage, which were always ways for me to talk about grief and the impossibility of controlling it. Grief as almost being definitionally a thing that exceeds all attempts to bracket it off, a thing that whether you like it or not will bleed out into every part of your life, colouring all.

‘The Pedal Bin of Cups (Grief Card #4)’ 2021, watercolour, pencil & fluorescent pen on paper, 56x76cm (image credit: Chelsey Cliff)

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Baby’s First Sonnet

A photograph of a sketch book page showing the editing process for the poem that is read in the audio file accompanying this post. The page has lots of crossings out all over it on the left-hand side of the page, and on the right is a simple line drawing of a tap. Also in the frame of the photo we can see the sketchbook is on a wooden table that has a couple of long scratches in it, and a few flecks of paint, and a pair of scissors with yellow handles are sat on the desk to the right of the sketchbook.

My first stab at an actual, proper, real, official, legit fourteen-lined sonnet. And it just so happens to be bog-themed. I wrote this in response to my friend Rabindranath Bhose’s work, who is currently working on a boggy solo-show which will be opening this June at Collective Gallery, in Edinburgh. Rabi and his boyfriend, Oren (who is also a super interesting artist), came to stay with us in Shetland a month or so ago. We visited lots of bogs together (including the site where the Gunnister Man was found, about a 15 minute drive from our house here), and I owe a lot of my current, reinvigorated, love of bog-lands to their visit.

So, the bog sonnet. This is where I’m up to with the edit so far (though it’s still very much a work in progress, so go easy on me!):

Thy holy bog / Riddled with holes

All categories stray / Graven made whorls

Other-World’s holes / Face holy sky

Sphagnum crusty stars / Moon shaven thigh

Pot holed skies / Knotted with graves

Bodies aether-deep / Carpet bone weaves

Sopping arid graves / Death reversed tomb

Firmament portalled peat / Bog bless’d gooch

Rite bidden tomb / Fecund stone cog

Ensouling our rot / Thy holy bog

Salt lubes cog / Hanged Man brains

Prayer crossed things / Loss borne gain

Feet like brains / Riddled with whorls

Preserved can’t stop / Other-World tolls

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“It’s a sewer of slime!”

A photo of a square watercolour painting using metallic muted tones. The painting shows a stone-work opening to a sewer with a central passageway descending off into the distance. The stones are a metallic lilac hue. There is a black hole in the centre of the image into which a river of muddy green and reddish sludge is either disappearing or emerging from, it isn't clear which way the river is flowing.
A photo of a rectangular painting using bright fluorescent inks. The painting shows a stone-work opening to a sewer with a central passageway descending off into the distance, dividing into two tunnels. The stones on the outside of the tunnel are a combination of greenish-yellow, outlined with red-blue-purple. The stones inside the tunnel are bright green outlined in bluey-purple. A river of muddy dark green sludge is either disappearing or emerging from the two tunnels in the centre of the image, it isn't clear which way the river is flowing.
An animated gif from the movie Ghostbusters 2. It is a long-shot showing Dan Ackroyd's character with a hardhat and headtorch, and holding a torch in his hands, dangling from a wire into a cavernous sewer space, with his legs frantically kicking. The whole image is in a reddy-pink hue. A central river of bright pink liquid is quickly flowing beneath Dan's character into a circular tunnel. At the bottom of the image is a subtitle in bold font and capitalised that reads: "SLIME! ITS A RIVER OF SLIME!"
An animated GIF from Ghostbusters 2

Beneath the streets of Rome lies the Cloaca Maxima (‘The Great Drain’), one of the worlds earliest sewage systems (named after the Etruscan deity Cloacina, a goddess of purity and filth). Pliny The Elder called Rome a “hanging city”, referring to the rivers churning beneath it through the Cloaca Maxima’s depths. It seems this feat of engineering was considered much more than merely a place to dispose of the city’s waste, but was a numinous and mysterious site, a literalisation of the city’s Underworld.

A series of brick semi-circular tunnels disappear into the distance, where stairs can be seen ascending out of these depths. The smooth floor is covered in puddles of water. This is an Ancient Roman sewage system that is light enough that it appears it is now used more for exhibition and tourists than for everyday use.
The Cloaca Maxima

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A kinda illuminated manuscript

This is a kind of mock-up of something that’s been floating around my head for a minute. I’ve been crushing on illuminated manuscripts recently (particularly the 9th Century Christian Gospel manuscript The Book of Kells), and have been thinking about how to do a similar thing for a text-based adventure game (for example, here’s one I made earlier – I have no idea what the new game will be yet, but I’m trying to be ok with working in the dark about that and just following my guts). So this is it, an animated border for a game to come.

For over 5 years now whenever I start a new painting or drawing, before I put anything else down on paper, I draw some guts. It feels like they should be the foundation from which everything else is built on top of. The image of guts have become a stand-in for me that speaks to eating, digestion, shit, waste, and desire. So it feels appropriate for this to be one of the first things I make as part of the residency.

An image of a book spread open. The book is the Book of Kells. On the left hand page is a square of celtic knots words in Latin written in a font that makes it hard to read. Above this square is word in an ornate script. The colour pallet is red, blue and yellow, and the paper looks very aged. On the right hand page is a page of writing in Latin, with the first letter of the first word of each sentence being drawn in a coloured flourish, whilst the rest of the letters in all the other words are black.
A facsimile production of The Book of Kells

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A mind map with 15 bubbles in it, featuring the following words: Psychic-map; Bogland; Sewers; Crossroads; The Underworld/The Dead; Bones; Outcast Dead; Griving; Song/Keening; Outpouring; Eulogies; Waste; Toilets; 14 lines of romance/devotion; Sewer Sonnets. 
The words 'Sewer Sonnets' is in the centre of the map with lines flowing out from there to each bubble around it.

The first thing I do whenever I start a new project is draw a mind map or diagram as I find it to be a super useful way of getting a sense of where I want the work to go. And so, this is a mind map of interests I’m aiming myself towards for the Vital Capacities residency.

Looking back over it, there’s one glaring absence in this map: cannibalism. I just watched the TV show Hannibal, and am low-key obsessed (and probably permanently tainted) by it’s very gay tale of aching desire and the high aesthetics of anthropophagi (or human-eaters). To my mind, cannibalism connects nicely into the above mess of interests. There is a beautiful Buddhist food offering my girlfriend taught me, composed by Roshi Joan Halifax: “Earth, water, fire, air, and space combine to make this food. Numberless beings gave their lives and labors that we may eat. May we be nourished that we may nourish life.” Food always carries the dead with it. Of course, Hannibal accelerates his victims proximity to their death, and a number of times refers to them as no better than factory farmed livestock, so I’m not sure ‘ethics’ are high on his agenda, so much as aesthetics.

I love finding a title for a new body of work, it feels super freeing to have a banner, ‘SEWER SONNETS’, under which all sorts of ephemera can be connected and begin communicating with each other. I am really interested in how sonnets are this weirdly specific poetic form (traditionally it is a poem composed of 14 lines in iambic pentameter) that has emerged as THE genre of love poetry, and potentially even more specifically as the ultimate genre for dead lovers’ poetry.

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