Blog

Catch up with Countryfile on BBC iPlayer

If you missed the South Wales episode of Countryfile, featuring my botanical wax sculptures and the scientific collections which inspire my work, you can now catch up on the BBC iPlayer. You can see me chatting to Ellie Harrison at 43.28 and the programme is available until 2nd July. I hope you enjoy it!

My Forget-me-not wax sculpture which was featured on the South Wales episode of Countryfile, next to some real Forget-me-not specimens

Filming with the BBC One Countryfile team

Last Thursday I spent a lovely day filming with Ellie Harrison and the BBC One Countryfile team. We looked at the inspiration behind my natural history artwork, visiting the wildflowers at Howardian Nature Reserve and the scientific collections behind the scenes at the National Museum Cardiff. Then we went back to my garden studio where Ellie and I had a go at making a celandine flower from beeswax. It was so interesting to meet such a professional team and see all the work that goes into the creation of a television programme. Tune in to see the whole Countryfile feature on BBC One, Sunday 2nd June at 7pm.

Making a Wild strawberry sculpture from honey bee wax. A scientific art collaboration with Cornell University, New York.

In November 2017 I attended the Cross-pollination, Revaluing Pollinators through Arts and Science Collaboration conference at Swansea College of Art. The conference marked the end of a successful and pioneering project funded by both the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Arts Council of Wales, combining Art with Science to explore new insight into perceptions of the value of honeybees and wild pollinators.

As an artist I’ve spent most of my career working alongside scientists on science communication projects and my current work focuses on the protection of nature and features pollinating insects, so the project was of great interest to me.

At the conference I heard many fascinating lectures and discussions but it was my chance conversation with Assistant Professor Scott McArt, from the
Entomology Department at Cornell University, that sparked a creative idea which has developed into a collaborative piece of artwork, soon to be exhibited in the new PolliNation exhibition at the Mann Gallery in Cornell.

Scott’s NYS Beekeeper Tech Team at Cornell had been conducting research to promote best management practices to improve honey bee health and reduce colony losses. The team had been examining pesticide levels in wax from honey bee colonies in New York State and had collected many wax samples which were analysed and shown to contain pesticide residues. The honey bees had been visiting wildflowers which were contaminated with agrochemicals and transferring those chemicals to their wax. I specialise in creating botanical sculptures with wax, a skill that I learnt whilst caring for a unique collection of over 1000 wax models in the Amgueddfa Cymru scientific collections. The idea for the artwork was to use the beeswax containing pesticide residues as an artist’s material to create sculptures of the contaminated wildflowers. The pesticides residues would be listed clearly as the materials used to create the work, thus communicating Scott’s research in a subtle and powerful way.

I decided to start by creating some test pieces to see how feasible it would be to work with the Cornell wax. Scott was able to post me some wax samples from his lab, which I melted down to remove any traces of honey, then coloured and sculpted into flower forms. The wax was very flexible and easy to work with in comparison to the refined white beeswax that I normally use.

Time lapse video showing the beeswax honeycomb which was supplied by Scott’s lab at Cornell University, melting in my wax melting pot.

Creating a celandine test piece using honey beeswax from Scott’s lab at Cornell University.
The finished Celandine test piece made from beeswax on the left and the real Celandine flower specimen on the right.

The next stage of the project was to choose which wild flowers to represent in the final piece of artwork. I was able to look at reports from the NYS Beekeeper Tech Team on pesticide residues and data from Scott’s lab on pesticides in wildflowers that are adjacent to apple orchards New York. One of the wildflowers listed was Fragaria vesca, Wild strawberry, which contained one of the highest levels of total pesticides recorded in parts per billion. I decided to focus on this plant not only because it was loaded with pesticides, but also because it was a common wildflower in both the Ithaca region of New York State and here in South Wales. Luckily I had some wild strawberry plants growing in my front garden which I was able to use as fresh reference material, even if it was winter and there were no fruits or flowers to be seen!

Wild strawberry plant specimen collected from the front garden of my home in Cardiff.

I also visited the vascular plant herbarium at Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales to take photographs and record measurements of dried and pressed Fragaria vesca specimens collected in America and the UK.

Fragaria vesca, Wild strawberry – pressed, dried and mounted herbarium specimens from National Herbarium of Wales at Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Cardiff.

The final sculpture took several weeks to complete. I created moulds from the fresh plant leaves in my garden with silicone and plaster, which I then cast in coloured molten wax. I made stems and plant runners from waxed tinned copper wire, and petals, sepals and stamens from waxed silk fabric and threads. The strawberry fruits were made from wax coated dressmaking beads and I attached tiny plant hairs made from silk to the stems and leaves. The sculpture was finished with acrylic paints and varnishes and displayed in Pyrex glass measuring beakers in reference to the scientific nature of the work.

Making the flowers from waxed sheets of silk.
Strawberry fruits made from dressmaking beads coated in molten wax and attached to waxed wire stems.
Leaves made from wax brushed into plaster and silicone moulds. Plant runners made from waxed wires.
Time lapse video of me making moulds of the wild strawberry leaves from my garden with Plaster of Paris and silicone rubber.

This is the finished piece and the accompanying title which describes all the materials that I used to create the work.

Fragaria vesca, Wild Strawberry.

Materials – Beeswax, pesticide residues in the beeswax (piperonyl butoxide, fenpyroximate*, metolachlor*, azoxystrobin*, coumaphos, pyraclostrobin*, cyprodinil*, trifloxystrobin*, fluopyram* and atrazine), tinned copper wire, tissue paper, dressmaking beads, cotton thread, silk fabric, dry ground artists’ pigments, acrylic paints, acrylic varnish.  

*These pesticide residues were also found on nearby strawberry flowers.

The finished sculpture.

Finally the sculpture had to be packed very carefully for its journey to Cornell University. I placed it in a strong cardboard box and secured it with dressmaking pins and Plastazote supports to prevent any movement. It is due to be taken in hand luggage on a flight to America next week by one of the project artists, so it’s certainly getting some special treatment and will hopefully arrive in good condition ready to be set up in the display.

The PolliNation exhibition at the Mann Gallery runs from April 15th until 30th September 2019.
 
Many thanks to the artists, Linda Norris for inviting me to the Cross-Pollination conference and Sarah Tombs and the Swansea College of Art, Art/Science group for kindly including my work in the Cornell Mann Gallery display. Thanks also to the scientists, Assistant Professor Scott McArt for giving me the opportunity to create a piece of artwork from his research and to the National Museum Wales botany curator Sally Whyman for sharing her expert knowledge of the collections.

The Art Shop & Chapel, Abergavenny

Today I had the pleasure of meeting Pauline Griffiths, owner of The Art Shop and Chapel in the market town of Abergavenny. I’m thrilled to announce that she’ll be showing my work at her gallery, in the lovingly restored 16th Century Town House on Cross Street, as part of the 2019 Abergavenny Art’s festival in June. It is such a special venue, with artworks thoughtfully displayed amongst household objects in a domestic interior setting. Many thanks to the event organisers for putting me in touch with Pauline, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to create a collection of pieces especially for this beautiful gallery.

Swallowtail butterfly commission. A case study.

Last summer I was commissioned to make a special piece of artwork to celebrate a client’s big birthday. She has a passion for nature, gardening, walking, and interiors, and she wanted something a specific size to fit above the fireplace in her living room. She asked if I could make one of her favourite insects, a swallowtail butterfly, etched into a sheet of copper.

I regularly visit the Entomology collections at the National Museum Cardiff to take research photographs for my work, and I had already taken many images of their stunning butterfly collection. (I must have quite a passion for them too!) I was able to show my client the photographs so she could choose a favourite one as a reference for the artwork, then I ordered a custom made copper sheet to her specifications and began work.

The first stage was to sketch the butterfly on the copper sheet in a resist material, so when it went into the etching bath, it remained as a raised image on the surface of the metal. I also marked the plate with my own reference code, made up of my initials, the year, the month, and a three digit sequential number for that month. This is something I usually do with all my etchings, not only as a record for myself but in reference to the numbering systems used for the museum collections where I find my inspiration.

After etching, I oxidised the metal to blacken the entire surface. I sometimes create bright colours on the surface of my copper pieces by using different techniques, but this time I wanted the background to be mostly deep blacks and greys to let the shining butterfly image take centre stage.

I then started to scratch and sand the textures and tiny details into the surface of the metal with wire wool, sandpaper and a needlepoint tool. I photographed each stage and sent email updates to my client so she could be involved in the process, making decisions and seeing the piece develop as I went along.

The finished artwork was coated with several layers of UV resistant varnish and mounted in a traditional style frame to suit my client’s interior style.

On completion, I was overjoyed to receive a review of the artwork from my client… I think she was very happy with her special birthday commission!

Summer visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a quest to see Mister Finch’s textile art

I have long been a fan of the magical textile creations of Mister Finch, so when I heard about his solo exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I knew I had to visit! Luckily I was able to plan a trip over the summer as part of a family holiday and I’m so glad that I did. Each character in ‘The Wish Post‘ display, from toadstools to woodland creatures, has been brought to life with recycled materials and found accessories, and given a role in the artist’s fairy tale story.  It was fantastic to finally see the detailed sculptures of this humble and talented maker first hand.

I was also able to walk for miles around the fields, lake and forest of the beautiful sculpture park, following the trail to find some truly inspiring artwork along the way. The highlight of my visit was walking into the chapel courtyard and being able to see and touch the cold cast metal surface of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Iron Tree‘. Then entering the 18th century chapel building itself to see Chiharu Shiota’s ‘Beyond Time‘ installation of woven white threads; a breathtaking experience.

Mister Finch: ‘The Wish Post’ is open until Sunday 23rd September and Chiharu Shiota: ‘Beyond Time’ is open until 4th November.  Ai Weiwei’s ‘Iron Tree’ is part of the YSP open air collection along with the other sculptures featured in my images.  A visit to this wonderful park is highly recommended.

‘Fashioned from Nature’ at the V&A

During my latest trip to London I was able to visit the ‘Fashioned from Nature‘ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was excited to see the display for several reasons, I have a degree in textile design, a love of nature and many years’ experience working with natural science collections in the museum sector, so an exhibition that combines these passions was always going to be at the top of my list. But the display is not just an incredible collection of objects, it tells a complex story of the relationship between the fashion industry and nature from 1600 to the present day. It shows how the beauty of the natural world has inspired fashion designers, how natural materials are processed to create fabrics and used to adorn garments and it illustrates clearly the negative impact that the fashion industry and we as consumers continue to make on the natural world. The exhibition is powerful and inspiring, and I will certainly be thinking more about my fashion choices in the future.