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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

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