Garvald Artists Work ‘Naturally’ at the Botanics

When the artists of Garvald Edinburgh were invited by Ian Edwards, head of Exhibitions at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to create artwork in response to their experiences of the Gardens it was a project that made sense because the values and purpose of the Garden resonate deeply with their own. In their arts, crafts and catering workshops Garvald aspire to foster connections with the natural world, aiming to work respectfully with materials of and from the earth. ‘Naturally,’ is a wonderful opportunity to see the creative work that goes on at Garvald Edinburgh.

‘Every idea in you that becomes to you an ideal creates vital forces in you.’ Rudolf Steiner

The idea of adults with learning disabilities being the featured artists in a major exhibition at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, seeded two years ago, is now an inspirational, creative and thoughtful ideal. Workshops featured in this exhibition are the pottery, weaving, puppetry, art, glass and woodwork. Each workshop has researched, designed and created art works that reflect the quality of each craft and its relation to nature. The artists have walked, sat, talked, drawn, photographed, listened, touched, watched and thought – in and about the garden. They were given behind the scenes access, and welcomed warmly by archivists, arborists, botanists, horticulturalists and educationalists. The artists have responded to their experiences by creating artworks both diverse and inspiring, f rom origami orchids, bold watercolours of cacti and textiles dyed with plants, to sculpture carved from a storm felled tree, to felted bugs, a ‘green woman’ in glass, and much more.

A strong principal in the philosophy of Garvald Edinburgh is to make things. Making is a transformative process: taking a substance and through the maker’s hands changing it into a different shape. In ‘Naturally’ flat cotton canvas is folded into hybridised lilies and orchids; clay is gently and assuredly sculpted into a field of flowers; wool is spun, knitted and crocheted into a medley of shapes; sheep fleece is hand felted into animal forms which inhabit the threatened ash tree.

Painting workshop leader and exhibition co-ordinator Morven Macrae has been working in preparation for ‘Naturally’ for two years. Artists working on individual projects have had frequent visits to the Garden. One featured artist, Elizabeth Halliday, visited the Glass Houses and expressed a particular interest in the plants of the Cactus House. In the studio (see picture above) she turned her sketches and photos done on site into a series of large watercolours. The delicacy of Elizabeth’s drawn line and mark making combine beautifully with her control of colour to create radiant artworks.

Elizabeth says, ‘I do big paintings properly and I think what colours I put on. I think about the colours. Colours makes me happy. I concentrate because it’s more complicated.’

Garvald Kwok Kin Chan Clay LiliesArtist Kwok-Kin Chan enjoyed a visit to the orchid nursery where orchid expert Bruce Robertson let Kwok-Kin handle a number of orchid flowers. Chan is a master of material and has translated his paper origami skills into fabric and clay to create a field of hybrid flowers.

Eric Fleming, artistic glass workshop leader, was keen to link the work of the Botanic Gardens to social therapy, which forms the background to the way Garvald works with adults with learning disabilities. Social therapy cultivates a regard for nature, as does the Botanics. The glass workshop studied leaves and plants, making sketches then using this as the basis for a piece of art.

Over in the pottery Nico Anderson worked together with workshop leader Donald Ker to create 12 large mounted plates that tell the story of the Botanic Gardens. Donald was keen to honour the people who began the Garden in the 1600s; Doctors Sibbald and Balfour. Nico and Donald spoke about them, and others; discovering, says Donald, ‘the origin of this treasure for Scotland is filled with extraordinary adventurous characters. Their initial impulse,’ he says, ‘was to create a physic garden to grow plants for medicinal use. What we now have is a garden for the soul.’

The weaving workshop chose botanical dyeing for their theme; a natural process where plant materials are gathered and steeped to colour cloth. They began preparing last winter, collecting oak and cherry bark. In the spring they collected daffodils, docken, gorse and hawthorn; in the summer dandelions and blackcurrants and in the autumn blackberries and damsons.  Caroline Swift, one of the workshop leaders, commented on the astonishing range and subtlety of colours they achieved. The weavers have two pieces; a large hanging mobile made from plant dyed fleece balls, the other a wall hanging showing the sample colours and research behind this work. Lesley Fletcher and Nathan Logan are the featured artists here, but again, as with all workshops and their exhibited artworks, a community of hands and minds have all left their mark.

The woodwork contributed an installation ‘Fallen Tree’ (after the storm). Here woodworkers James Bennett and Michael McLellan stripped, shaved, scraped, rasped and sanded the limbs of the fallen tree, transforming the devastation into beauty and simplicity of form. The puppetry workshop made felted bugs and insects displayed in glass bell jars, while Michael Brooks gathered leaves and made strong visual wallpaper sample patterns.

And there is so much more.

‘We place great emphasis on displaying art and quality craft in a professional, contemporary manner,’ says Morven Macrae, ‘as we aim to continue challenging preconceptions about the capabilities of artists with learning disabilities.’

Garvald Edinburgh’s exhibition – NATURALLY – GARVALD ARTISTS AT THE BOTANICS, opens on February 8th at the John Hope Gateway building, and runs until March 23rd. All worked exhibited at ‘Naturally’ is for sale and proceeds go towards the continuation of the Garvald Edinburgh exhibition programme.


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