Flowerheads spun in steel
Glistening in the sunlight, Ruth Moilliet’s steel sculptures reflect nature’s lasting beauty
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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