Scattered across the rolling green hills of the Cotswolds, enchanting woods with glades of dappled shade serve as inspiration for many North Cotswold artists who are opening their studios and hosting pop-up exhibitions as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival (4th-27th May), the UK’s oldest and biggest open studio and art-trail event.
In Adelstrop near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gordon Charles is one of the many fresh faces for 2019. He paints mainly in oils, in a lively style focussing on representational landscapes, especially woodland in different lights, with dominant vertical lines and striking colour contrasts. Tolsey Cottage, where he lives and works, is surrounded by trees and from the art space that houses his select exhibition for Artweeks, visitors can see beyond the formal garden into the young woods beyond which have inspired many of the pieces on show (Artweeks venue 439).
Gordon has spent much of his life in mine-management, and he sees a parallel between the pit props in underground tunnels and the strength of the vertical axis in his striking woodland paintings. ‘I live in the middle of a wood which has a fantastic range of coloured leaves: at various times of the year it takes your breath away. My woodland scenes represent comfort and – for me – evoke the security of pit props holding up the roof of coal mines where I worked in Nottinghamshire, underneath Sherwood Forest, in what was sometimes a very hostile uncompromising environment. I am perhaps painting the emotion of mining – maybe these evocative haunting-but-warming woodland scenes are the closest I can get.’
In nearby Chipping Norton, Lesley Wildman also builds compositions with strong vertical and horizontal lines, using delicious hues of variegated wools, cottons and linens to create intriguing hypnotic landscapes, of both woodlands and open views. ‘Lines fascinate me,’ she smiles, ‘as they lead our eyes to see depth if they are placed at the right angle.’ Her bewitching yarn vistas capture the land and sky with tone and texture and surprising perspective: thickened lines give a visual weight and a feeling of distance.
Lesley’s work is on show both in The Fibreworks, Middle Row (Artweeks venue 443), and in a twelve-artist exhibition Into the Woods, in the town’s theatre with work in many media on show (Artweeks venue 442). Here, Martin Sanders’ turned-wood pieces in all shapes and sizes celebrate the personalities of individual trees, each with its own personality. He creates bowls, dishes and decorative pieces with a spontaneity of approach that allows the emerging design to respond to the knots and grain of the wood and their inherent unpredictability. Alongside, printmaker Rose Atkins captures the sharp lines, gaunt shapes and contrasting colours and textures of trees while Jane Abbot’s paintings depict enigmatic ancient trees from Woodstock’s Blenheim Estate, inspired by the mystery within the trees and the tales they could tell from hundreds of years ago.
Wall-art by artist Caroline Nixon is not only inspired by the woodland – Caroline even gathers local pieces of nature to use in her creations which you can see both in Chipping Norton Theatre and her Long Compton studio.
Taking regular walks to the mystical Wychwood Woods to forage for interesting leaves, Caroline is also an avid collector of fallen leaves at Batsford Arboretum. Just below an ancient drover’s ridge where the Rollright Stones stand, her garden too is a treasure trove of plants used to make natural dyes for her botanical contact printing process, a contemporary adaptation of the ancient art of dyeing cloth with plant-based pigments. Caroline rolls and binds an arrangement of leaves tightly against the fabric before applying heat and pressure to coax the pigment out of the leaf and into the cloth. I have a wooden studio in the garden, but I work outside whenever I can, with tables all over the grass,’ she smiles.
‘There’s a huge amount of science behind the dying process,’ explains Caroline who, after a career as a GP, is fascinated by the chemistry involved. ‘Many of the plants that you would expect to be great for colouring fabrics – like beetroot and elderberries – are “fugitive” dyes, in that the delicious purple of their juice turns brown after only a few hours and then begins to fade.’
‘For some of my pieces I use a totally natural palette, in the earthy greens and browns of the forest floor, or for brighter colours I introduce marigolds for yellow; the bark of the tropical tree logwood can be used for a whole spectrum of blues and purples from gentle lavender to dark navy or cochineal adds a bright pink. This is a dye that comes from a beetle and I source it from a Mexican cooperative who have an ethical approach and grow the beetle on cactuses! Closer to home, in the garden I grow a plant called Madder that grows like crazy and I use its root for those rich terracotta oranges and reds you see in traditional oriental carpets. It’s one of the world’s oldest known dyes.’
Caroline creates fabrics for wearable art – from scarves and bags to jackets – as well as hanging textiles for interiors and framed pictures. For the latter she first prints treated paper and then heavily it embellishes with dyed threads and stitch. ‘I am inspired to create by the shapes of the leaves themselves,’ she enthuses. ‘There is an art nouveau shape and symmetry to many: the fig leaf, for example, is bold and dramatic and suggests an almost geometric design whilst feathery leaves lend themselves to delicate patterns. Gustav’s Klimt’s work too is perhaps a subliminal influence. I’m looking to add gilding and introduce a little real gold leaf into my wall art, as well as making hand-bound books and lampshades, and the shadows will add the intrigue of the woods at twilight.’
For more on these artists and hundreds of art events across the North Cotswolds during the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival visit www.artweeks.org.
Published in the May 2019 edition of Cotswold Life