Molly Russell, 35, the daughter of the late film director Ken Russell, inherited two phobias from her dad – death and snakes. Now she is creating life-sized animal coffins for her first art show, to tackle these phobias by exploring her extraordinary family upbringing and her fearful relationship with her father.
The coffins – designed for goats, crocodiles, snakes and even meerkats and donkeys – are a way of her dealing with her "dark and fearful feelings" of death and her dad. She has been plagued with morbid thoughts since, aged six, she watched her dad's film Mahler, in which the composer is buried alive. "My father would tell me horror stories about snakes and tapeworms, which led to my nightmares – but they were his fears, not mine. These animal coffins are a way for me to transform the darkness into joy and to grieve the father-daughter relationship that we never had."
Russell grew up in the remote Borrowdale valley, in the Lake District, with her father, mother Vivian and brother Rupert. "I feared dad as I feared snakes and death. I think they're all enmeshed. The goodness was my mother, brother and our animals."
It was not until her father left, when she was 12 years old, that she could keep animals in the house. "We hid the rabbits from dad," she recalls. "When we went on holiday, we had to take the animals with us disguised in boxes of Lego."
Soon their living quarters became a menagerie of animals similar to scenes from Dr Dolittle when her father left. "The house was overrun with animals – we had 120 guinea pigs, 18 rabbits, chickens, dogs, gerbils and mice that mum would feed – it was an act of rebellion."
Russell is spending a lot of time in a coffin factory in Durham, where she is collaborating on the coffins with coffin-makers J C Atkinson & Son of Tyne & Wear. "I thought of all the lovely sweet animals rather than snakes and tapeworms and how coffins could be made. It made it less sinister – a giraffe isn't a dark thing – so it became something more sweet."
Russell lives in Hackney, east London, and has a snake coffin in her bedroom. "It's become normal – it's not macabre any more," she says. She graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 2001 with a first in sculpture. She has published a photography book, Dog Show, with her mother, her father's second wife, after they toured dog shows snapping people and their pets.
But this is her first foray into the art world – with 12 animal coffin sculptures, as well as an animated video of her late rabbit, called Frite, disco-dancing to the song, "You're the Most Precious Thing in My Life" by Love And Kisses. "She was like my child really," says Russell. There will also be a floral tribute spelling "Frite", coffin animals made from flowers and behind-the-scenes photographs, taken at the coffin factory and funeral homes, as well as London Zoo and a pet shop.
"I used the same wood, veneer and handles that you would use for a human coffin," explains Russell. "I learnt from my father that humour is important in dealing with things – there is something quite amusing and light about these animal coffins. I like the juxtaposition of the dark and light."