Frequently Asked Questions
Below are the answers to some of the questions I am frequently asked.
Hopefully if you have a question, or were just wondering, the few examples below should help -
if not please contact me and I will be happy to answer your questions.
Where do you get the willow?
Most of the willow I use comes from the Somerset levels but there are growers all over the country. I tend to use the growers in Somerset because I know the quality of the willow is usually good and they don’t often run out of willow! Willow is an amazing plant to grow as a crop - the more you cut it the happier it is and the more it will grow so is therefore a highly sustainable crop!
Can you use weeping willow that is found in many gardens?
No. Well...you could but it is very difficult to condition this type of willow for use so it would need to be used fresh, it would very quickly become brittle and it would shrink as it dries creating gaps in the sculpture! You can however use lots of different materials in sculpture – clematis, vine, bramble, ivy and many materials you might find in hedgerows but all would succumb to the same issues as mentioned for ‘garden’ willow!
The willow used for basketry and sculpture weaving is of specific varieties that possess certain qualities that lend themselves to basketry and sculpture work. This could be because of their natural growth pattern – long, fine, tapered rods – their innate flexibility once prepared, the texture of the bark or the colour they retain once dried and then prepared for working.
The Latin name for willow is Salix and there are some 350 – 400 different varieties within the genus. Many of the varieties are used across the world for weaving but the most common used for basketry and sculptures are Salix purpurea, Salix viminalis and Salix triandra.
And of course you could use all sorts of other materials as well – in combination with the willow or on their own – rope, fabric, metal, wire, reeds and rushes, found objects, plastic carrier bags – the list is as endless as your imagination!
How do you prepare the willow prior to use?
Most willow growers cut in early spring - usually one year old growth sometimes two year old growth - and then the willow is dried naturally before it is sold. If you try to bend a willow rod once it is dried it will snap so before it can be used for basket making or sculpture it needs to be soaked in water for a period of time. Once it is soaked it then needs to be mellowed or rested for a period of time to complete the conditioning and make it fully workable. The mellowing process involves allowing the willow to properly absorb the water and become flexible enough to bend. Different types or varieties of willow need different soaking and mellowing times so it is quite an involved process - definitely need to keep track of whats going on in the soaking tank and mellowing sheets!!
How long have you been making willow sculpture?
I have been working with willow since 2007; I started with baskets and moved on to plant supports, obelisks and sculpture. I love making baskets and, being a full time gardener, I make obelisks and plant supports all the time but I really enjoy the creative and interpretive freedom that sculpture affords me.
How long do sculptures take to make?
It very much depends on what it is, how large it is, if I have made one before and how detailed it needs to be. Large sculptures can take weeks to complete. A medium sized piece like a sheep, hare or pig takes around eight to ten hours to make, a smaller one like a pheasant or a chicken can take three to four. Having said that if you add in the willow preparation time (soaking in water), the actual making time and then the time it takes for the spray oil treatment (for waterproofing) to dry the whole process can take six to eight weeks – even longer in colder weather - it also depends very much on how busy I am with orders - as this is not a full time enterprise for me I have limited time to work on sculptures!
So if you want something for Christmas you need to order no later than October and preferably as far before that as you can!
Do you only use willow in your sculptures?
Some sculptors who work with willow will only use willow but I, like many others, sometimes use a metal frame or armature which I almost always make myself. I do this for several reasons, not least of which is that if a sculpture is supposed to stand upright I want it to do just that but I also like them to be safe and secure. A metal leg on a sculpture also keeps the willow off the ground, which prolongs its life immensely. None of the frame is visible once the sculpture is complete apart maybe from the bit that sticks in the ground to keep the sculpture standing safely upright.
I also occasionally use wire to persuade the willow to do what I need it to do and stay where I put it – the tail on a pig or pheasant for example. I may also occasionally use a bamboo cane - bamboo is incredibly strong so, much like steel, I might use one here and there to add extra strength. I use bamboo uprights on obelisks as it greatly prolongs the life of the obelisk as opposed to using willow uprights.
I use all sorts of devices to help me in the various stages of the making process because unfortunately I don’t have eight pairs of hands – string, cable ties, bulldog clips, wire – all very useful and mostly removed once the willow is secured.
Why do you use a metal frame?
For some sculptures I use a metal frame of sorts – usually for two legged things and the larger sculptures. I do this for several reasons, not least of which is that if a sculpture is supposed to stand upright I want it to do just that but I also like them to be safe and secure. A metal leg on a sculpture also keeps the willow off the ground, which prolongs its life immensely. None of the frame is visible once the sculpture is complete apart maybe from the bit that sticks in the ground to keep the sculpture standing safely upright. The frame that I use is called an armature and it often doesn't bear much resemblance to the shape I am trying to create. The steel is there for support and safety as opposed to being a shape to follow! Another point to note is that if I have used a steel armature for a large piece - a stag say - the owner always has the metal armature which can be re willowed should the willow get damaged or rot away!
Where does the inspiration come from?
Everywhere and anywhere! Obviously birds and animals are around us all the time and are fairly common subjects for garden art. I am currently working on some ecclesiastical figures inspired by a sculptor called Phillip Jackson and some marine creatures which I hope to be bringing to shows and featuring on the website soon. I keep a list of ideas as they come to me so that I don’t forget them – they can hit me almost anywhere – walking on a beach, in the supermarket, watching TV – absolutely anywhere. If you see me in the street studying something chances are I am working out how I could make it in willow! I can also be midway through creating something and suddenly see something completely different as it develops and therefore can go of at a tangent just to see what happens. Another great source of inspiration is 'Do you think you might be able to do a.......?' I do love a challenge so if there's something you fancy having made in willow please contact me to discuss!
How do you get them to look like the animal they are supposed to look like?
I use reference images mostly sourced via stock images on the Internet. I do occasionally go and have a look at the real thing if I can – just to get it clear in my head exactly what I am aiming for. Once I have a clear image of what I am trying to achieve I set to work creating a kind of skeleton in willow – using various shaped and sized hoops - on to which I then build the character in question.
Although willow is a wonderfully diverse and flexible material to work with it is not always possible to replicate very small details so if I am creating something that has very fine detail I may caricature it or put a contemporary twist on it. Caricaturing a subject sometimes makes it harder to get right but it does mean that I can play up the things that people know - or think they know - about a particular thing. Hares for example don't have a round 'fluffy' tail and neither do rabbits but it is one of the things that people instantly recognize and identify with. I have been asked in the past to replicate peoples pets but, unlike a painter or a bronze sculptor, it isn't really possible for me to recreate 'the twinkle in the eye', 'the quirky head thing they do' or the 'notch out of an ear' that makes that pet unique. I can however create a generic version of a particular breed of animal - a french bulldog perhaps or a specific and distinctive breed of sheep so it's always worth asking me what I can and can't do with willow!
I would hope that all of my sculptures are recognizable as what they are supposed to be and using artistic licence is one of the ways that I try to achieve this. I also try to ensure that all of my sculptures have a little character - they need to 'talk' to me and ultimately to the people who commission them or buy them!
How long do sculptures last?
It can depend on what the sculpture is, how much weather it is subject to and very specifically how wet it gets and how long it stays wet! If sculptures are cared for as per the instruction sheet supplied with them they should last a minimum of five to seven years and possibly considerably longer. I have a piece in my garden - a warthog - that is ten years old - he's seen better days but he's still there and will be until he literally falls apart which I hope won't be for a few years yet! The texture and colour of the willow changes over time as it weathers but it should stay woven together and strong providing it is cared for correctly!
You mention spraying the sculptures - what do you spray them with and why?
The sculptures are made of willow which is effectively dead wood so I spray the sculptures with an oil which effectively forms a skin on the surface of the willow and helps it to repel water which in return lengthens the life of the sculpture! All sculptures are supplied with a care sheet, which details how and when to spray. The care sheet also suggests other tips to prolong the life of the willow.
What about delivery?
Well...I'm near Colchester in Essex. Sculptures can be collected from me if you are able. I do get around the county of Essex quite a lot so that shouldn't be a problem - if its a long way from me and I'm making a special journey there may be a delivery cost involved. I really don't like sending sculptures via any kind of courier so contact me and we'll sort something out!