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Willow Away!

I thought I would share my recent post that I wrote for Somerset Art Works with you, to give you a taste of what we get up to during hibernation time at Number Seven...

... I’m currently operating very much in low gear. January and February are the ‘quiet’ months after the roller-coaster build up to Christmas at Number Seven, and I can now relish in hibernating by reading, walking, planning and laying foundations for the year ahead. Last weekend was particularly special as I was able to visit the home and studio of willow maker Annemarie O’Sullivan. We had met on a number of occasions previously as she was one of the key artists commissioned to create work for Herbarium and A Landscape of Objects, which had both been curated by Yvonna Demczynska, owner and founder of London’s Flow gallery. As we all bid our farewells last summer at Lytes Cary, loose plans were made to join one of Annemarie’s workshops and take advantage of the wild swimming spots in Sussex, not realising that in reality we would find ourselves there in January!

Five of us were enrolled on the two-day workshop, including myself, Yvonna and SAW’s Creative Director, Carol Carey. I had no previous experience of willow weaving and felt no great pressure that I had to leave a fully-fledged maker. My main expectations were to simply enjoy the company and surroundings, and it was quite liberating to be joining a workshop where I felt I could just go with the flow and not be too precious about the outcome.

Day one was surprisingly quite intense, although Annemarie was very good at explaining that there was no rush, that we should fall in with the pace particularly with our first task which was to select eight matching rods from the bundle of willow. This task was repeated on a number of occasions throughout the making process and it was surprising once you had gained familiarity handling the material how quickly your eye knew what to look for. I loved handling the willow when it was rain damp and selecting by not just width and length but colour also. By the end of Saturday, we all had a base formed and willow uprights in place ready for the sides to take shape the following day. That evening we headed to the local pub and every basket we encountered fell under a more informed gaze; we all looked rather longingly at the huge log basket by the inglenook, knowing that our skills were a long way off.

Sunday was more relaxing, which Annemarie had promised, as we were at the stage where we were simply building height, the task became more intuitive with the repetition, although I didn’t quite reach a natural meditative flow, which must surely come with time and experience. Also I admit that I was so focused on getting the weave correct, that paying attention to keeping a curve to my basket became secondary, and as a result it became a little flat on one side – perfect for a bicycle basket!

Spending time making with Annemarie in her studio certainly made us all appreciate more fully the true amount of time and skill invested in making a functional ‘everyday’ object, and has made me view a well-conceived basket as I would contemporary handcrafted furniture. Annemarie has been making for fifteen years and initially studied at London’s City Lit, since then she has become highly regarded within her specialism and her work sells internationally. She has a deep respect for this ancient craft and is continually researching localised techniques and indigenous shapes, style and function. There was a wonderful collection of baskets on display in her home and studio including a beautiful bag for collecting snails. This fascination with learning traditional techniques is akin to learning to draw and is what informs her larger scale site specific installations. To break the rules, you need to master them, take them apart and have confidence in making your own.

Passionate about using high quality willow Annemarie grows around twenty varieties on a plot of land near her home, she also buys in Somerset willow which appropriately is what we constructed our baskets with. Since returning to its county of origin my basket has received cat approval, although I think my family expected something a little larger. I’m still unsure what to keep in it, naturally it has to be something worthy, although I am considering my swimming costumes as a nod to Annemarie’s swimming days and the rhythmic repetitive body movements comparable to that of her weaving moves and our shared love of wild swimming.

I’d thoroughly recommend taking time out to attend a specialist craft course, if you fancy a true break Annemarie is offering a week in France this summer and it sounds positively idyllic.


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