Flow­er­heads spun in steel

Glis­ten­ing in the sun­light, Ruth Moil­liet’s steel sculp­tures re­flect na­ture’s last­ing beauty

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Diane War­dle Pho­to­graphs: Clive Doyle, Andy Labrow

“Here indeed was the fairest field for the dis­play of the imag­i­na­tion, in the end­less com­bin­ing of forms of novel beauty.” Edgar Al­lan Poe, The Do­main of Arn­heim

Apatch of glit­ter­ing light splashes against a tan­gle of hol­ly­hocks and lupins in the bor­ders of a coun­try gar­den. The sum­mer sun is shin­ing on a daz­zling metal al­lium, glint­ing off the crown of steel petals which sur­round its head. More than 6ft (2m) in di­am­e­ter, the gi­ant sculp­ture dwarfs its sur­round­ings, ad­ding a touch of make-be­lieve and theatre to the tran­quil set­ting. The eye-catch­ing struc­ture is the work of Lan­cashire-based artist Ruth Moil­liet, who fash­ions the del­i­cate shapes and pat­terns of na­ture in steel. Fo­cus­ing mostly on flow­ers, she aims to give a deeper pic­ture of the world around her, high­light­ing the way in which form and func­tion com­bine to cre­ate beauty. Her work is of­ten large-scale, invit­ing the viewer to walk among su­per­sized sun­flow­ers and an­chor-like dan­de­lion seeds, get­ting up close to parts of the flower usu­ally passed un­seen.

Nat­u­ral de­sign

Ruth started work­ing in metal while study­ing fine art sculp­ture at Manch­ester Univer­sity. Here, she first cre­ated the gi­ant al­li­ums which re­main her sig­na­ture piece. “I love the fact there’s an outer sphere with a hid­den in­ner struc­ture, a hid­den thing go­ing on within the flower,” she says. “And there’s also that won­der­ful rep­e­ti­tion of form. The amaz­ing thing about na­ture is that it fol­lows set pat­terns and pro­por­tions. I du­pli­cate those pat­terns within my de­signs. A me­tre-tall al­lium will al­ways have a cen­tre of 10cm and the flow­ers will be 10cm. It’s all scaled ac­cord­ingly.” This sense of na­ture be­ing highly en­gi­neered un­der­pins her work. “Ev­ery part of a flower, down to the small­est com­po­nent, is de­signed to ful­fil a spe­cific pur­pose, and ul­ti­mately to en­sure the plant con­tin­ues to grow and sur­vive,” she says. “My pieces are very much about bring­ing this en­gi­neer­ing to light. It’s about look­ing at the plant, tak­ing stock, see­ing all the dif­fer­ent struc­tures within it, and piec­ing them to­gether again. “Al­though we think of flow­ers as del­i­cate, frag­ile things, as a whole, they’re ac­tu­ally in­cred­i­bly tough. They’re among the old­est species on our planet. They can thrive next to busy roads and on rub­bish dumps, so the steel re­flects their strength and per­ma­nency.”

Path­way to cre­ation

Ruth’s love of na­ture goes back to her child­hood, when she would col­lect things from the gar­den and look at them un­der a mi­cro­scope. Mak­ing rose per­fume was a favourite hobby, and she al­ways pressed and drew flow­ers. “I fan­cied my­self as in The Coun­try Diary of an Ed­war­dian Lady,” she smiles. “At school, my arts ed­u­ca­tion was very tra­di­tional. We used to do botan­i­cal draw­ing and fine line draw­ing, which stood me in good stead. I still do things the same way now. At univer­sity they ob­vi­ously push you to stretch your ideas, so I didn’t do that kind of work for years. But part way through my degree I thought ‘why not go back to what in­ter­ests me?’” Fol­low­ing her degree, she com­pleted an MA in art as en­vi­ron­ment. This helped de­velop her interest in the way peo­ple, plants and an­i­mals in­ter­act with each other and with the wider land­scape. “The way a flower looks, its shape, colour, scent and mark­ings, is a de­sign to at­tract a spe­cific pol­li­na­tor, usu­ally an in­sect, which car­ries the pollen to that same species of plant else­where,” she ex­plains. “It’s why so many dif­fer­ent types of plant con­tinue to ex­ist. I want to cel­e­brate the har­mony of the

nat­u­ral world, how plants and in­sects need each other to sur­vive, and how we need them.” In 2001, Ruth won a two-year grant from the North West Arts Board to set up a stu­dio. Then, a ma­jor break­through came in the shape of an in­vi­ta­tion to ex­hibit at the Crafts Coun­cil. Here, her work, and par­tic­u­larly the al­li­ums, gained wide recog­ni­tion. Since then, she has ex­hib­ited up and down the coun­try, in gal­leries and sculp­ture parks, as well as mak­ing com­mis­sioned pieces for the home and pub­lic spa­ces. Each can take be­tween four and six weeks to com­plete.

Fab­ri­ca­tion

Be­cause of their size, her sculp­tures are made in sec­tions. For the al­li­ums, which usu­ally start at 2ft (55cm) in di­am­e­ter, but can be up to 6½ft (2m) across, the cen­tral core, stems and petals are made sep­a­rately. To bring her ideas to life, Ruth has teamed up with Lan­cashire-based metal fab­ri­ca­tors and laser cut­ters, of­ten go­ing into the work­shop to work along­side them. “We’ve built up re­ally close re­la­tion­ships over the years,” she says. “Work­ing with spe­cial­ist com­pa­nies like this lets me pick up on their ex­per­tise with the ma­te­rial, ad­ding to my own knowl­edge. It al­lows me to broaden, rather than limit, my ideas and de­signs. It also gives me flex­i­bil­ity, let­ting me work on sev­eral pieces at a time.” An ini­tial sketch of the de­sign is fol­lowed by a to-scale model of the piece, us­ing pa­per, card and alu­minium foil. This gives her a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how the ma­te­ri­als can be formed and recre­ated in a big­ger com­po­si­tion. Sketch and model are then used as a guide for fab­ri­ca­tion. The core of the al­lium is cut from metal sheet and rolled to cre­ate a sphere, to which the steel-rod stems are welded. This is the most in­tri­cate part of the work: “It’s a very spe­cific thing. There’s a set way to make sure that all the stems are at­tached to the core at the cor­rect an­gle. Be­cause the flow­ers aren’t at­tached to the stems when you’re do­ing it, you’ve got to vi­su­alise the spac­ing. It does take some work­ing out, es­pe­cially when the piece has stems of dif­fer­ent lengths.” Once the stems have been at­tached, the whole core of the piece is bead blasted to give it a matt fin­ish, and chem­i­cally cleaned. It is then taken to Ruth’s stu­dio in Rams­bot­tom, where she adds the flow­ers by hand.

Flower ar­rang­ing

The num­ber of flow­ers to be placed around the core of the al­lium is worked out math­e­mat­i­cally. “I’ll look at the size of the sphere, work out its sur­face area and the flow­ers I am us­ing, and then work out the num­ber I need. This can range from 400 up to 650, de­pend­ing on the look re­quired for the fin­ished sculp­ture. If they’re quite far apart, as with the Al­lium schu­ber­tii,

then I’ll need fewer than if they’re go­ing to over­lap or in­ter­lock.” The flow­ers are laser cut from Ruth’s sketched de­signs. “When work­ing on a de­sign, I’ll start with quite a rough sketch to en­able me to un­der­stand the flower’s struc­ture and forms,” she ex­plains. “I’ll then sep­a­rate and draw all the dif­fer­ent parts that will be recre­ated within the sculp­ture, and do pre­cise sketches for scan­ning. I de­lib­er­ately have re­peat forms within the work, just like in na­ture. In the al­li­ums, I show no vari­a­tion in the petal sizes in a flower, al­though with other flow­ers I may use more than one form in a re­peated pat­tern.” Once cut, it takes ap­prox­i­mately a week to clean the al­lium flow­ers by hand, then bolt them onto the stems. The bolt heads cre­ate the cen­tre of the flower. “The flow­ers can also be welded on, but bolt­ing them means they can be changed more eas­ily, should any ever get dam­aged,” she says. “It also opens up the

G K Ch­ester­ton, The Glory of Grey

pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing dif­fer­ent colours. A piece I’m work­ing on at the mo­ment is go­ing to have three dif­fer­ent lengths of stem and then flow­ers in sil­ver and two dif­fer­ent tones of gold, so the colours will change over the sur­face of the piece.” The flow­ers have ei­ther a bright satin or mir­ror pol­ish fin­ish, de­pend­ing on the type of sheets of metal they were cut from. This gives con­trast and draws at­ten­tion to the outer sphere. It also means the al­lium re­flects nat­u­ral light, its ap­pear­ance shift­ing as the light bright­ens and fades through­out the day, and with the flow of the sea­sons. The fin­ish also en­sures that its im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings are re­flected in the al­lium, draw­ing it into the land­scape.

Show­piece

Choos­ing the fi­nal set­ting of the al­lium is very im­por­tant. “I al­ways de­sign them specif­i­cally to suit the site, so they hope­fully be­come a talk­ing point,” she says. “One of the things I’ve al­ways found pleas­ing about them is that they suit any en­vi­ron­ment. You can put them in­doors, or in a coun­try gar­den.” Ruth has of­ten been asked to re­site sculp­tures when the owner has moved house. “They take them with them when they move,” she says. “Some­times that has in­volved a crane. Peo­ple be­come very at­tached to the al­li­ums. I think it’s the spher­i­cal shape. It’s some­how so ap­peal­ing and easy to live with. It’s a piece you’ll al­ways en­joy. You’re not go­ing to get tired of it.”

“Against a dark sky all flow­ers look like fire­works. There is some­thing strange about them, at once vivid and se­cret”

As in na­ture, there is no vari­a­tion in the size of the metal flow­ers. Ruth bolts the in­di­vid­ual flow­ers to the metal stems by hand. Stems are welded onto a cen­tral core, mak­ing sure they are spaced cor­rectly. Some have dif­fer­ent lengths and fin­ishes that can cre­ate an interesting light ef­fect.

The vary­ing lengths of the stems glint­ing in the sun give the im­pres­sion of move­ment, like a sparkler

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