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27 June 2013

Where the Wild Teasels Grow.

The photographs that Gillian Widden has been steadily posting on her artist blog had me intrigued. So, keen to find out why her home was gradually being overrun by her collection of teasels, I invited myself round. Many Artists tend to have a passion for collecting and adding to their 'nature tables' but Gillian's seemed to be more driven than pure appreciation of form or for drawing research. Teasels have become not only the core inspiration for her current project but also the medium for the final sculpture.

Sitting on the kitchen table was a teasel head, pale cream in colour almost bone like. I initially thought that Gillian had bleached it for it to be so pale in colour, familiar with the dark brown teasels of dire dried flower arrangements from a 70's childhood.

Gillian then went on to enthusiastically explain all about teasels, their Latin names and the Somerset connection. At one time Somerset was the main producer of teasels for the fabric industry, a county famous for it's cider was also prized for producing the 'best' teasels that were exported to the textile mills in Yorkshire. Kent is famous for it's fields of hops and the distinct regimental lines of poles on which they grow, we are also all familiar with photographs depicting hay ricks drying in the sun, however the fields around West Hatch, Staplefitzpaine,  Bickenhall and Curland  were home to another very distinct agricultural sculpture - 'tepees' of green teasel heads. This enigmatic black and white photograph from the Farmers Arms at West Hatch shows how tall these structures were, you can imagine how striking a whole field would have appeared.

The growing of teasels was a time thirsty crop,they are a biannual plant so could not be harvested until 18 months after being seeded. Picked whilst still green and the stalks are still supple, the men would harvest handfuls of 49 teasel heads, the 50th stalk would then be inserted and used to fasten the bundle, these bunches were then tied to a pole and left to dry in the sun. Woman accepted they had smaller hands so their bundles consisted of 40 teasel heads.

The teasels grown in the fields were not the same variety that we see today growing wild on the Somerset Levels. Back to the teasel in the bowl, this is a 'Hooked' teasel, Dipsacus Sativus, and is far stronger, it's barbs more regular than it's native cousin Dipsacus Fullonum, which looks like a bad hair day in comparison. It is thought the Romans introduced the hooked teasel to Britain, but here's the mystery, despite this plant growing so prolifically, especially in Somerset, right up until the 1980's, there is no trace of it what so ever of it still growing in the wild. This has meant that Gillian has had to use it's untidy cousin to create her work. Yes, she could have imported the hooked teasel from Spain where it is still grown as a crop, but for Gillian the repetitive almost meditative harvesting aspect is very much a key element of her work.

Gillian's final piece will visually portray the steady decline of teasel production from it's heyday in the 1940's - a complete pole of green teasel heads will represent this era, then brown and finally black illustrating it's complete demise by 1990. Gillian estimates that the ten poles will hold approximately 12,000 teasels - 10,000 being the average daily harvest of an adult cutter. Dyeing the black teasels has proved to be quite a messy process, researching the right medium, Indian ink was the winner, plus the lack of sunshine this year has been a major hurdle, Gillian has no studio and has to make the most of working outside. 

The lack of sunshine has also resulted in many plants being a month behind this year, so it's fingers crossed that there will be green teasels without their flowers available to pick come August in time for her exhibition in September.

I was initially under the impression that this project was Gillian's submission to the SAW Abundance initiative, but no, she is a busy lady and once the birds have finished nesting she needs to start harvesting reeds which are to cover the huge 16ft long framework that she has had made to depict her take on 'The Horn of Plenty' and so August for Gillian will truly be harvest time.

The teasel sculpture is her contribution as one of the collective known as The Blackdown Hills Artists and Makers, to an exhibition at The Tithe Barn, Cotley near Chard. Opening in the week preceding Somerset Art Works on the 14th September it will then run for three weeks. Celebrating the craft and industry, past and present within the Blackdown Hills, the exhibition will no doubt highlight many 'lost' skills that are only remembered by an older generation whose lives were shaped by these industries. The show promises to be a eclectic mix, involving ten artists working in music, sculpture, film, photography and dance.

Gillian is incredibly enthusiastic, bursting with ideas for future projects. She showed me her experiments with sea weed and a box of dried hawthorn berries waiting for some kind of sensory project; a need to harvest more this year to get the quantity required. Maintaining this momentum is key if you are to survive and thrive as a practicing artist, especially one that has so recently graduated. If you are not careful it is all too easy to let everyday life get in the way, wait until you have that perfect studio before you create that 'masterpiece', but for some creating is an itch that has to be scratched and the studio will naturally evolve or hopefully like Gillian you have a very understanding family that doesn't object to the house being taken over by nature in the name of art.

Gillian is obviously on the lookout for locations in Somerset where she may collect more teasels to complete the project, she is sensitively aware that she does not take too many from one location, so as not to deprive the wildlife.

Do you know where the wild teasels grow? Or perhaps your garden is full of them.

View Gillian's work this September - 

The Blackdown Artists and Makers BHAAM

As part of the exhibition there will also be the following events:

Saturday 28th September, 3.00pm
Meet the artists. A panel of artists will discuss their approach to making the work for the exhibition
Friday 4th October, 7.00pm
Ruth Bell leads a Jive demonstration followed by FREE Jive lessons and dancing.

Catherine Bass leads a performance by the Blackdown Early Music Projects, inspired by her work in the Blackdown Hills.

All events are free, for further information 

SAW Abundance Garden Trail

Little Yarford Farm House
Admission £4.00 Children Free

15 June 2013

The Contemporary Craft Fair

I adore the Contemporary Craft Fair at Bovey Tracey and felt embarrassingly excited about attending this year after having to miss out last summer.

This year saw the festival celebrating it's tenth anniversary and the wonderful weather certainly was a welcome birthday present for all those involved. Visitors were able to relax in the sunshine, the deckchairs and sun hats made it feel incredibly idyllic and the gentle breeze was a welcome reminder of how wonderful our English summer days can be.

Organised by Sarah James in partnership with The Devon Guild of Craftsmen the festival is held in Mill Marsh Park, a short walk from the Guilds permanent home in the Town. The annual festival enables them to not only celebrate the best makers in the region but also those on a national level. The standard of work is incredibly high, the selection process ensures this is maintained as there are only 200 stands available and the organisers are conscious that all skills are represented - if not careful it could easily become purely a jewellery show.

Despite it's natural growth in popularity the festival has remained true to it's roots and ethos, retaining it's atmosphere, creating an event where everyone's experience is one of enjoyment, from the exhibitors to the buyers and the makers of the future.

The size of the site has no doubt restricted expansion and taken away any pressures that the organisers may have felt to add more marquees each year; this has not only contributed to retaining the high quality but also ensures the show is manageable for those visitors to enjoy in in one day, any larger and the result would be simply overwhelming.

The organisers are to be congratulated on also providing a freshness each year, yes the show has changed but you certainly do not over hear visitors negatively bemoaning that 'It's not like it used to be...' The atmosphere has always been vibrant, relaxed and inspiring and continues to be so.

I bumped into a past colleague who like me has attended the show from it's very beginnings, happy to be in such a creative environment and to quote her words, "Drunk on the beauty!"

Amongst the makers selling at Bovey Tracey I spotted three who regularly exhibit during Somerset Art Works. For Lucy Large it was her first time at The Contemporary Craft Fair but she explained it was everything she had anticipated and was enjoying the whole experience. Used to primarily working in a more fine art medium and selling through specialised galleries her more recent venture into the craft of paper cutting has allowed her to sell direct to the public and exhibit at craft fairs, which she feels has made her work more accessible. When asked if she would attend next year the answer was a positive yes. Her stand look bright and inviting in cool blues, shades of white and grey.

Print maker Julia Manning has been selling her prints at the fair for the past eight years and enjoys meeting and selling directly to individuals who collect her colourful, expressive prints of birds and beasts. Exhibitors at Bovey Tracey are able to camp on site and Julia explained that there are some wonderful walks following the river in both directions which obviously allows for some quiet contemplation and relaxation after a busy day talking to lots of people. Julia also exhibits at Print Fest and will be at in Art in Action in July - a show I have never attended but have heard very complimentary recommendations. 

Solange has exhibited at Bovey Tracey since it's inception only missing one show last year. She is a very familiar face on the Somerset art scene as many will recognise her as one of the young artists who established the Makers co-operative in Bath Place during the early 1980's. 'Little did we know that it would be such an integral part of our lives and closing after twenty eight years was a such a difficult decision.' Any gallery that survives that length of time should be congratulated as sad to say many have come and gone in that time. 

The Contemporary Craft Fair is not just about makers selling their work it is also about visitors engaging with craft. There is a whole programme of lectures,demonstrations and workshops and for families the highlight of any time spent at the fair is the incredibly well organised, inspirational marquee that is the children's craft tent. All the activities are free and I have often witnessed many adults wishing they could join in, many do sneak in if it's not too busy. One year I remember seeing a group of small children literally sitting in a nest of colourful wool all eagerly learning to knit. This summer however and slightly older, it was the Graffiti Grannies turn to play with wool, leaving their distinctive playful creations on the site.

Over the years the mosaic table has been one of the true success stories of the show, always the busiest activity in the children's tent the wonderful results are proudly on display at The Guild. This time they decided to push the boundaries and the children were able to adorn a three dimensional piece - the result was this sheep lazily chewing the grass oblivious to his coat of many colours.

There is entertainment of course - not too much though as you are there to buy! The children adore the antics of the traditional Punch and Judy. For young and old, Jonty Depp always makes an appearance, whether it's as The Mad Hatter or Jack Sparrow - it amazes me how he remains in character the whole time, even when the festival finally came to an end on Sunday afternoon and he was taking a well earned cup of tea he still kept up the 'drunken' banter.

I would thoroughly recommend a visit to The Contemporary Fair, as an exhibitor it is highly regarded within the craft industry and a great platform to showcase your work, not only direct to the buying public but gallery owners who are often on the look to purchase new work, hence I would strongly advise that you have some trade prices worked out prior to the show if you feel that this is something you would like to seriously follow up. If however you feel this is not for you do not feel pressured to say yes and then have to back out at a later date -  the same advise is true when preparing for Somerset Art Works.

For collectors of artisan crafts this show is a must, as I am sure that you will find something that is totally unique to stamp your individual style on your home. I fell in love with a wonderful felted grey hare by Stephanie Carswell, but he was a little beyond my budget so I had to suffice with buying a felting kit to have a go at creating my own felted creature - although I am sure the result will not be quite so stunning. However whilst enjoying a cup of tea before our journey home I couldn't help but over hear the very excited gentleman next to me who was taking said hare home to his new house 'Badger Cottage' I naturally congratulated him on his delightful purchase and how lucky he was. Plus it is reassuring that the visitors were buying.

For families it is a great day out, the grown ups get their culture fix and the children hands on in the craft tent - there is also a tree that just has to be climbed. For foodies the array on offer is pretty good too. Oh! There's music and ....

I'll be there next year will you?