Beauty in Nature, Nature in Beauty

The 2017 University of Bristol Botanic Garden Sculpture Festival and Quilting Exhibition

By Alida Robey

Plant holder by Willa Ashworth.
Photo credit: Alida Robey

I have to confess that my expectations were low when I entered the University of Bristol Botanic Garden on Easter weekend to explore the sculpture festival. I have been to a few of these types of events over the years, none of which have done much to enhance either the setting or the ‘nicknacks’, described as art, on display.  I tend to favour simple uncluttered  gardens, focused on plants. My preconceived ideas were soon turned on their head, however, by the huge crowds queuing to get in and people milling about happily in the gardens. The right balance had been beautifully struck between fine art and very accessibly ‘buyable’ items. 

This year’s festival was the busiest yet with a record 4,729 people coming through; this annual Easter weekend event has been gaining in popularity with 2,459 people in 2013, 2,889 in 2014, 3,156 in 2015 and 3,161 in 2016. The exhibition effectively showcased the art, while at the same time drawing people through the various garden displays, with works of art that were well suited to each of the distinct areas of garden.
Large flame scallop by Philippa Macarthur.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
I spoke to several people who were all warmly enthusiastic about the whole event; helped by good weather, these visitors said they had enjoyed the atmosphere of bubbling positivity, been impressed with the creativity on display, and were thoroughly delighted in wandering through the gardens enjoying the new life bursting into leaf and flower. It was an all-round good day for people of all ages. 
I had seen a few people walking away clutching items of garden art that they had purchased.  Talking to some of the traders there, it was apparent that this had been a great success from their point of view too.  They loved being in the beautiful setting, had enjoyed seeing how the gardens had developed since previous years and were pleased at the response they had had from visitors who, if they hadn’t made purchases, often went off with contact details to follow up on at a later date.
Dish by glass artist Adele Christensen.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
One could not do justice here in print to the range and diversity of work on display. From the large shallow dishes made by Adele Christensen (see photos) with their lustrous and mysterious finish, looking like something you might find in a magical rockpool, reflecting sky and water. To the silver metal figure by Daren Greenhow, standing wistfully in a sea of anemones reaching out holding a bird perched on its hand and set beautifully at the base of a  great tree.

Ringing ceramic bells beneath the maple.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
The delightful family I joined for my tour of the exhibition drew me into things I might otherwise have missed. There was a beautiful maple tree with its new leaves unfurling above us and, as we walked under its canopy, we noticed ceramic bells suspended from its lower branches. All the family had a go at ringing the bells and their tinkling sound perfectly complemented the oriental atmosphere of the tree’s form and foliage. The wonderful thing about garden art is that, in having to endure the elements, it is generally made to be quite robust and therefore also capable of surviving the curious attentions of little children.  It was a great joy to see how much the children engaged with the pieces and delighted in the garden.
Metal sculpture by Daren Greenhow.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
I had gone around the sculpture part of the exhibition, and it was almost as an after-thought that I recalled there was still the Quilting Exhibition to see.  I love quilting, but wasn’t sure I was in the frame of mind to see ‘yet another display of quilting’. How wrong could I have been? I have to say that this ended up being the highlight of my day! I had never seen it’s like. One quilter using seemingly random lines of stitching to create landscapes, another creating a beautiful and very personal quilt narrating her family’s history. The latter used a technique whereby she had printed family photos and mementos of places lived into the cloth of the quilted sections. But the showstopper for me was this magnificent tableau by Jane Bjoroy called ‘True Nature’. Each exquisite creature is made by applying and appliqueing tiny pieces of different coloured cloth finely stitched. The whole scene of individual creatures was lovingly portrayed and beautifully interlinked into a stupendous portrayal of the magnificence and majesty of nature. 

I have scarcely touched the surface of the great talent that was on display throughout the Botanic Garden, and the great love that the people of Bristol clearly have for this haven of tranquillity and creativity. All I can do is use the few glimpses shown here to urge those of you who sadly missed it this year, to make sure you put the date in your diary for 2018!

Nature is an extraordinary sculptor.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
When it comes to it though, I am fundamentally a gardener at heart. It was nature as artist and sculptor extraordinaire that stays with me and which this exhibition highlighted beautifully, both in reflecting nature in art and by drawing attention to the setting.  These ferns (picture) for example, could just as readily have held their own in a sculpture gallery, to my view.
Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol and attended the Botanic Garden’s annual Easter Sculpture Festival for the first time this year. 

We came for Shaun, we stayed for the Garden

I had water,  snacks and my ‘Shaun Spotter’ app primed and ready to go. Everything my son and I needed for a few hours of Shaun in the City hunting. Friends were seeking out Shauns in Bristol’s City Centre while we did the Downs Trail – there would be some healthy competition on Facebook.
Our first stop was the University of Bristol Botanic Gardenas I knew that Shaun had been eagerly awaited by the Garden staff and I wanted to see how things were going. We met Shaun in the Jungle near the welcome hut. Morgan (my son) dutifully posed with Shaun so I could take a couple of pictures, but then he asked (closer to begging really) if we could go into the garden and have a look in the pond. Inspired by finding a newt in there a couple of years ago, he can’t resist looking in every time we go.
Morgan posing with Shaun of the Jungle at the Botanic Garden
Morgan has been coming with me to the Botanic Garden for several years now as I gain inspiration from the staff and surroundings for new blog posts. He’s familiar with it and we now have a bit of a routine, with the large pond always being the number one stop. There were two species of dragonfly and little blue damselflies taking their strategic positions around the pond. The water was crystal clear allowing us to see to the bottom clear across the pond.
On our way over to the raised pond near the Mediterranean Collection, we stopped to watch the action surrounding the bee hives (Morgan choosing to stay a very respectable distance away). The second pond brought our dragonfly species count up to three and Morgan spotted a discarded exoskeleton of a dragonfly nymph floating on the surface. This prompted a discussion about metamorphosis. As our eyes tuned into the life of the pond, we spotted water boatmen – Corixa punctata (some of the biggest I’ve seen), larvae that I couldn’t identify and whirligig beetles (Gyrinus substriatus). We watched as honey bee after honey bee came to rest on the water lilies to drink.
Who knows how long we stared into the pond. It was one of those wonderful moments of absorption – I wasn’t worried about the time or what to cook for dinner or a pressing deadline I had at work. I was just there.

Shaun’s popularity

Shaun of the Jungle has brought a lot of visitors to the Botanic Garden. ‘We had 1,000 people on Saturday,’ said Nick Wray, the Garden’s Curator. ‘There were 350 people on Sunday in the pouring rain.’
In fact, Shaun has proved so popular, the Botanic Garden has hired two temporary staff to direct visitors and deal with the increased traffic flow – there are only so many spaces in the car park after all.
However, unlike my pond-gazing son and I, many of these visitors stay for an average of three to five minutes – just enough time to get out of the car and snap a photo of Shaun. Nic is one of the temporary staff directing the Shaun seekers and he told me that for most visitors, finding Shaun of the Jungle is their first trip to the Botanic Garden. Though he said there have been quite a few people returning to specifically tour this new found treasure.
The artist who painted this Shaun sculpture, MartynaZoltaszek, took 30 days to paint the toucans, jaguar and other jungle life. She exhibited her work at the Botanic Garden on the 28th of July, which was certainly an additional bonus for Shaun seekers that day.

Time to move on…or not

‘Time to move on,’ I said. ‘Can we check out the glasshouses first please mummy?’ was the response I received. Our Shaun seeking time was dwindling, but who can resist the glasshouses? I told Morgan we could go, but that we wouldn’t be able to see any of the other Shauns. He chose the glasshouses.
In the glasshouses the lotus plants were in full glory. We were treated to some orchids in bloom and there was yet another pond to stare into.
The pond looking vibrant in the glasshouses
Alas, our Shaun count for the day was a grand total of one. But, given the choice, Morgan wanted to stay in the garden. I suppose for the same reasons he’ll walk for miles in the countryside or through a woodland, but I have to drag him along city streets to run errands; the stimuli we receive from natural versus urban environments affect us differently. Nature restores me and why would it be any different for my seven year old?

His summer to that point had been a sequence of play dates and holiday camps filled with social stimulation and activities. This is important. But so is sitting and watching larvae in a pond and bees foraging. I could have easily rushed Morgan along so we could accomplish the task we had set out to do – but for what? Helen mentioned Nature Deficit Disorder among children in her recent blog following Monty Don’s lectures. That day Morgan chose nature, no doubt to fill a deficit he was feeling that day. All I had to do was let him have the choice.     

The 2014 Easter Art and Sculpture Exhibition at the Botanic Garden

This is the second year in a row my family has worked off some Easter chocolate by biking to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden for the Easter Art and Sculpture Event. Unlike last year, however, when we were bundled against the cold, this year we basked in glorious sunshine. We’ve been so impressed with the quality of the art that this will be an annual event for my family…whatever the weather!
The Garden’s annual sculpture event was combined with the Friends of the Botanic Garden’s annual art exhibition, for the first time this year. This gave visitors a visual feast of outstanding artwork set in the backdrop of the garden in its full spring glory.

Over 2,800 visitors came to the gardens over the 4-day event. Events such as this, as well as the Bee and Pollination Festival, are important for the Botanic Garden as they reach beyond those interested in gardens – drawing in new audiences. This event brought in a range of West Country artists working in diverse mediums, from watercolours to ceramics and stained glass to metalwork – there was something for everyone.

Stainless steel sculpture of water lilies by artist Ian Marlow
Ian Marlow’s lilies were on display in the University
of Bristol Botanic Garden pond during the
Easter Art and Sculpture Exhibition.

A taste of some of the artists and artwork on display

One of the first pieces to catch my eye as I entered the gates of the garden was, of all places, in the pond. Stainless steel lilies, created by of Ian Marlow (, shone in the sunlight – a stark contrast to the dark water. Ian was also the creator of Sir Gromit ofBristol, which was certainly one of my son’s favourite stops along last year’s Gromit Unleashed trail.  

Willa Ashworth’s working display of one of lovely
metal open fire-pits offered warmth as well as
the promise of a sausage and hot cuppa.

Willa Ashworth ( was there again this year, with a number of new pieces. I went home last year with one of her beautiful garden wind chimes and I still adore it! This year, she had one of her open fire-pits set up with sausages cooking on a grill and a kettle bubbling away. Her working display created a multi-sensory experience – the smell and sounds of sizzling food, the warmth and glow of fire, the beauty of the fire-pit itself. I watched as people gazed at the fire, no doubt envisioning (as I was) the lovely little set-up in their own backyard. Willa’s functional metalwork sculptures are inspired by her love of gardening and one of her pieces is now permanently displayed next to the lake in the Botanic Garden.

Karen Edwards ( was another return artist this year, displaying her nature-inspired ceramics. Each of Karen’s pieces are hand-built and unique. I was particularly attracted to her planters, which appealed to my functional side. The organic textures in the ceramics not only drew my eye, but beckoned me to reach out and touch them.

Karen explained how she created the lovely textures in one of her pieces:

One of Karen Edwards’ nature-inspired ceramics with
imprints of ammonites and bark.

“The doors of my studio are clad with unstripped half logs,” explained Karen. “I pressed some clay onto one area, then made that into a cylinder that I biscuit fired to use as a small hand roller. I then pressed in some shell and ammonite textures. The textures are highlighted with metal oxide wash and slip (liquid clay).”

One of Jude Goss’s stained glass pieces hanging in the
Chinese herb garden.

The Chinese herb garden once again hosted the stained glass art, including that of Jude Goss ( My six year old was thrilled to once again see Sam Bailey’s ( metal dinosaur sculpture in the Evolution of Land Plants Display (nicknamed the grotto).

Stonecarver Tom Clark ( had handed his chisel over to a pair of children when I got around to his display. The youngsters seemed to be having a brilliant time chipping away at the block of stone. Tom served an apprenticeship at Chichester Cathedral and has since worked on many large and interesting restoration projects including WestminsterAbbey and The National Gallery.

While I was circulating through the outside gardens, my husband managed to get into the glasshouses where he was captivated by the stainless steel pieces created by Julian P. Warren (

My son, Morgan, was equally enthusiastic about Julian’s work and he told me all about it on the bike ride home, with the unbridled enthusiasm that comes with being six.  “There was this amazing dragonfly mum…and a bird of paradise with those little sticky-up feathers on his head and everything!”

Sadly, I didn’t get to all the exhibits as I was keen on joining a tour set up by Andy and
Nick for a number of bloggers (more on that below). I missed the botanical artists displayed in the Linnaeus Study room entirely! However, I have listed all the artists with links to their websites at the bottom of this post as they all made incredible contributions to the weekend event.

Oh…and I also got to hear about some delicious carrot cake on my bike ride home. Another thing I missed out on…the delightful refreshments being served on the newly finished west patio of The Holmes.

It wouldn’t happen were it not for the volunteers

As with any event of this magnitude, there is a whole lot of work that happens behind the scenes. With the Garden’s small staff, it is thanks to the many volunteers that it all comes together, and they are the first to admit it.

“It’s all those people out there that are welcoming people as they enter, giving tours, serving cake and refreshments and helping direct people around the garden that make this work,” said Nick Wray, the Garden’s Curator. “Without these volunteers, we simply couldn’t host important events like this.”

A personal tour for local bloggers

As part of the Garden’s plan to increase its digital presence and reach out to wider audiences, Andy and Nick hosted a tour of the garden for a number of local bloggers during the event.  Helen and I, both bloggers for the Garden, tagged along too!

We started in the meeting room with delicious cakes and a cuppa, while Nick gave everyone a briefing on the history of the garden, its core collections and more generally the role of botanic gardens. After lots of healthy discussion about the Botanic Garden and the role of social media in marketing, we all followed Andy into the garden where he briefed us on each of the main displays.

Fused and slumped glass artwork
Adele Christensen’s ‘Blomsters’: Fused and slumped glass
with mild steel support.

Despite having been to the garden many times before and having had lots of discussions with Andy and Nick…I still learned a great deal, and found new inspiration for blog ideas…so stay tuned!

Hopefully some of the other bloggers will have found some inspiration from the tour also – the Botanic Garden is, after all, a place for education and research, stewardship and conservation, but it is also a place of great beauty.

Artists on display were:

Susan Bracher (Email: susanbartle (at)
Pamela Clogstoun
Anne Girling
Nick Hasell (Email: woodbarnfarm (at)
Emma Jean Kemp (
Florence Maggs
Betty Marten
Connie Ridge
Cynthia Skinner
Dorcas Sohn
Jac Solomons (aka J Zulka)
Sheila Southgate
Julian P. Warren (
Frankie Wild

Refab Arts (

Weaving Ethel: How the Botanic Garden is bringing moas back to life

Last week I met Ethel. I’m not sure what image that name conjures up for you – perhaps it is the gutsy singer Ethel Merman or the eccentric EastEnders character Ethel Skinner. For me, I immediately think of Lucille Ball’s sidekick character Ethel Mertz in the old American sitcom I Love Lucy. It seems that Ethel is one of those names that summons a big personality, and the Botanic Garden’s Ethel is no exception. Of course, this might be due in part to her impressive stature at nearly 8 feet in height.

Ethel is a new willow sculpture currently under construction at the Botanic Garden. She is the first of two moa birds that will be on display among the native New Zealand plants in the garden. Despite her towering height, Ethel is going to be the smaller of the two birds, with the other giant expected to stand closer to 12 feet tall. The sculpture was named by her creator, Sally Meadows, who has been working two days a week on the ambitious project since February.

“Ethel had to be a female,” explains Sally, “because the female moas were much bigger than the males. It’s one of the biggest size differences known among bird species.”

Ethel is the first of two moa bird willow sculptures to
be displayed at the Botanic Garden later this year.

The plight of the moa

Moas are an extinct group of flightless birds that were endemic to New Zealand until they were driven to extinction. There were nine species all together, and the largest of the species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, could reach heights of 12 ft and are estimated to have weighed around 500 lb.

Artist renditions of the birds look very similar to an emu, with feathers that have evolved to look more like fur, broad feet and sturdy legs built for running, and a long neck for browsing foliage. While originally it was thought that moas stood with very upright necks, much like emus and ostriches, a more complete analysis of their bone structure suggests that it was more likely that they held their heads in a more forward position.

The ancestral moa species was thought to arrive on New Zealand approximately 60 million years ago (Mya). A sparse fossil record prior to 6 Mya leaves many ambiguities about the early evolution of moa species. However, it is thought that numerous species had evolved on both the North and South Islands and then at around 22 Mya, during the Oligocene drowning, those inhabiting the North Island went extinct as the land mass was below sea level. Those on the South Island took refuge on the land that remained above sea level (only about 18% of the current land mass of New Zealand) and then are thought to have recolonised the North Island again about two million years later.

Prior to the arrival of humans, the moa’s only known predator was the Haast’s Eagle, which had a wingspan that was just shy of 10 ft and weighed a notable 33 lbs. However, as a result of hunting, habitat loss and a slow population regeneration time, all species of moa were driven to extinction by the first Polynesian settlers, ancestors of the Māori, by around 1400 AD.

The tall tree with foliage only at the
top is mature lancewood (Pseudopanax
) – the immature plant can
be seen in the lower right corner.

Plants adapt to the selective pressures of tall grazing moas

Moas were grazing herbivores and analysis of the beaks suggests they were likely very effective ones; Pachyornis elephantopusis thought to have been able to slice through 8mm diameter twigs with its secateurs-like beak.
However, one native New Zealand plant that evolved significant defences against these grazers is the horoeka or lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius). For the first 20 years or so of its life, this tree has a series of very long, narrow, leathery leaves that have a very prominent central vein and serrated edges.  The leaves come off the narrow spindly stem and point downwards, which essentially resembles a spindly palm tree with knives pointing out in all directions. I imagine this would not be a herbivore’s first choice, even with secateurs for a beak.

Yet, as the plant matures it begins to transform its shape and appearance entirely. The lancewood eventually begins to form branches at the top and the new leaves lose their serrated edges and become wider and shorter. The hypothesis is that this species coevolved with the moa and once the plant surpassed the height of these grazers it shifted its strategy from a moa defense to a photosynthesizing offense; broader leaves on branches would be far better at harnessing the sun’s energy than the narrow downward facing leaves it had earlier in its life.
The immature lancewood has evolved
highly unpalatable leaves.

Ethel’s taller sister will eventually stand majestically near the Botanic Garden’s lancewood trees – a wonderful memory of an evolutionary arms race.

So how does one weave an 8’ tall moa out of willow?

When Sally shows me into the potting shed, Ethel is dramatically suspended by a number of ropes from the rafters. This enables Sally to move her up and down to work on different parts and to lift her out of the way if the gardeners need the extra space. However, with her head and neck complete, most of her body frame in place, and some temporary legs for stability, she is becoming increasingly less mobile.

Sally had taken a weekend willow weaving course at the Botanic Garden and had helped Vicky, a Botanical Horticulturist, do some demonstrations at last year’s sculpture exhibition in the garden. So, when she realised she was going to be made redundant in her job, she spoke to the garden’s curator, Nick Wray, about helping out with the moa project. The next thing she knew she was in charge of weaving the giant bird.

“I like doing creative things,” said Sally, “and my work in the past hasn’t offered me this.”

At the core of the sculpture is chicken wire that runs through the body and up the neck to provide extra strength. The overall 3D shape of the sculpture is due to a frame of different sized willow rings. The rings are then joined together by lengths of willow that are woven through the circles to give longitudinal support as well as provide a framework for weaving the outside.

Sally gets the willow from Somerset in bundles that are about five feet in length. The willow needs to be

Sally’s hands work swiftly as she weaves Ethel’s
willow body.

soaked for roughly a day per foot of length. It then needs to be given a couple of days to dry before it can be worked with.

Sally takes a length of willow and clips off a few inches at both the thick end as well as the spindly end. She then runs the willow across her knee, where she is wearing kneepads, to improve the flexibility as well as test it.

“If it’s not properly soaked,” explains Sally, “it will break on my knee and I can either re-soak it or throw it out.”

After the branch has passed the knee test, Sally takes it and pushes it through the woven circular structures of the frame tying it off at one end. Sometimes she uses twist ties to temporarily hold parts together as she works the piece, but these are removed and it is only the winding of willow upon willow that holds the massive sculpture together in the end…oh, and a little chicken wire at the core.

Ethel’s head and neck detail is complete.

“In the end, you’re at the mercy of the willow”

Sally points to a spot on the jaw line of the completed head and admits it bothers her. I have no idea what spot she’s talking about because it all looks pretty amazing to me, but she goes on to talk about the fluidity of the art. She works from a plan, but admits that “in the end, you’re at the mercy of the willow”.

Well, she’s not complete yet, but I think Ethel will do her name proud.