How to grow a three-ton water lily
- Credit: Candia McKormack
I last caught up with Cotswold artist Natasha Houseago in 2019 when she was working onsite at Gloucestershire Archives on her huge abstract piece for them, called The Archivist.
Carved from green oak rescued from a country estate near Chipping Norton, after the tree had to be felled due to decay from fungus, the piece was representative on the work Natasha does – working on a large scale, and always with the community in mind. For the Archives, Natasha had incorporated elements associated with Gloucestershire’s history and the collections, including items representing mining in the Forest of Dean, an aerial view of GCHQ, the boat hulks at Purton, and a buckle found in Huntley on an archeological dig.
Today, she’s back working among the Gloucestershire community, but this time in the glorious grounds of Nature in Art – the world’s first museum and art gallery dedicated to fine, decorative and applied art inspired by nature, and situated just two miles north of Gloucester.
The museum’s grounds were the setting for Natasha to work on her stunning three-ton water lily sculpture, made of green oak and destined for Oakhill Nature Reserve in Goole, Yorkshire.
Natasha chose the symbol of a water lily for her piece as Oakhill has water courses, a brick pond, wood pond and other waterways on site... and also because Goole has been classified as Britain’s biggest inland port (Gloucester may be the most inland, but it’s certainly not the biggest).
‘They wanted a tall gateway piece,’ says Natasha, ‘so that when people are travelling through the area, they would see this huge totemic piece, symbolising hope and wellbeing, among the industrial buildings.’
The 16-foot sculpture has been formed from the trunk of a 200-year-old green oak, rescued from Bathurst Estate after the tree fell in recent storms. The piece is inverted – the root ball can be found at the top, forming the flower head – and so working on the top-heavy sculpture was a challenge, but not one that Natasha was too put off by.
‘As a sculptor, you have to be really involved with the logistics of an installation,’ she says. ‘With this one, I actually contacted world-famous sculptor David Nash for his advice and he simply said, ‘Well, I wouldn't attempt carving a three-ton piece of oak that was top-heavy.’ But I did it anyway!’
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Natasha generally works on pieces in situ, so they’re already embedded in concrete up to a metre deep, but as this one was going to be travelling to Yorkshire, this wasn’t an option.
‘I actually spoke to Phil Bews, who built the horses (The Arrivall) on the roundabout approaching Tewkesbury, for ideas,’ says Natasha, ‘and he was fantastic. We had a Zoom meeting, and he suggested lots of ideas. Initially, I was going to use a one-metre steel collar with buttresses, so there was a good couple of months researching on how on earth we were going to do it.’
As with Natasha’s Archivist piece, the Water Lily incorporates other elements that you would find on the site it’s to be located, and so you can see a shield bug, ladybird, butterfly, caterpillar, lily moth, emperor moth chrysalis, and other species native to that part of Yorkshire. Colour is added by scorching the wood, so adding contrast to the golden oiled finish elsewhere.
Another element Natasha used to great effect with The Archivist, and has incorporated into this work, is the addition of small drilled holes in the sculpture which people from the local community are encouraged to insert items that mean something to them and the area. These are then filled with handmade pegs of wood, so preserving them within the piece as a kind of time capsule.
Yorkshire’s gain is our loss, though, as the Water Lily will be heading up the motorway on a low-loader any time now, but I for one will be visiting it in its new home when I can... and in the meantime, there are Natasha's other pieces to enjoy locally, including, of course, the one sited in the Gloucestershire Archives gardens. She's also produced a series of sculptures as part of the Gloucester Culture Trust Award, which can be seen dotted around the city, and has many other projects in the pipeline, including working with ash recovered from ash dieback.
‘As an outside sculptor,’ she says, ‘the last year or so has been incredible; it’s been one project after another.
‘Even when I’m teaching,’ she continues, ‘I’m outside and socially-distanced from others.
‘It’s also good for my mental health to be carving,’ she concludes. ‘To be able to do this project here, in this fantastic place, has been really good.’
Nature in Art has now reopened to the public, and can be found at Wallsworth Hall, Sandhurst, Gloucester, GL2 9PA.
The Wildlife Art Society International Annual Exhibition runs every day from May 29 until June 6, 2021, 10am-5pm. Free admission.
Visit natureinart.org.uk for news of events and current opening hours.
Visit natasha-houseago.co.uk for news of Natasha's sculptural work.