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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. 

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