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Art with soul

Words by Martin Holman

The purpose of Lucy Willow’s work is to understand grief, giving it presence and approaching it from any angle.

A couple of years ago, artist Lucy Willow discovered a well in a garden in Lamorna. No one knew how long it had been there and an ash tree had grown nearby to obscure its entrance. The only trace of its existence had been the wet soil encouraging moss to grow, and the ash to flourish. Cutting away the overgrowth of roots revealed the opening and the glassy surface of the water a little distance beneath it.

Willow was immediately captivated by the discovery, not by the access it gave to a water source but by its appearance. The well was black and cold. There was no easy way of telling its depth nor what might lie at the bottom, however far down that was. The possibilities, however, stimulated her artistic imagination. She was fascinated most by what she could not see and by the prospect percolating out of its void of a mysterious underworld below.

Her response emerged over the following months in dense, black charcoal drawings. Some were so large they threatened to engulf the viewer, as if their blackness could be walked into. The surface of the water acted like a mirror reflecting imperfectly the immediate vicinity of the well – its mossy rim, overhanging trees and plants, and the sky beyond. She found her starting point, therefore, in these reflections and the transient traces of insects and weather that appear as fluid, diaphanous, almost spectral white marks in the midst of black discs framing the image.

Installation views of Lucy Willow, Drawn from the Well exhibition at Grays Wharf, Penryn Photograph by Oliver Udy

As she looked into that darkness and drew, so her imagination turned from what she saw into what she sensed – the pull of the perceived chasm beneath the viscous water level, where light could not penetrate. There was no way of knowing what lay beyond.

Her mindset was already focused on the possibilities. For Willow, the depth and mystery of the well had become a metaphor for emotions. Our emotional life can feel like a separate being, awkward and detached, yet influencing our interactions with the world. Perhaps the strongest is grief: it occupies a profound, sequestered space that never goes away, a presence that is accommodated like an unwelcome interloper.

Willow knows the fathomless depth of that sensation. In 2006 her teenage son Jack died. His absence informs the work she has made since; her practice has developed channels to give death its place in our lives. In ‘The Last Portrait’ (2006), Willow created an artwork that resembles a celestial body, an apparent orb with the variegated surface familiar from photographs taken by space probes despatched into the farthest universe. There are innumerable stars there and Willow was able to name one after Jack. She did not need to see it to portray it as the image of her son.

With a microscope photographing Jack’s ashes, she gave it shape with his identity in a truly resonant and poetic fashion. If planets orbiting within infinite dimensions of time are composed of matter once living that falls as asteroids into our own atmosphere, then her son’s star exists eternally, as does her grief.

'Drawn From the Well', 2022, and 'Vessel', 2022

So how to understand grief, to give it presence and approach it from any angle? That purpose is the energy in Willow’s work. Grief, she says, “is the vehicle through which contact with the dead creates a space. My work comes from this space. I’m addressing the longing, filling the void, stitching with grief: stitching meaning back into life.” And not for herself alone; she collaborates and shares. In 2020 she set up DUST as a meeting place in Penzance. It occupied a former shop that also served as her studio. For more than two years DUST opened on Saturday mornings when 20 or 30 people would often visit, even though Willow only occasionally promoted the venue on social media. Word of mouth did the rest. DUST no longer operates that way: Willow needed more time for her own work and so modified its focus on to specific sessions. Conversations still take place over tea and around death, starting from a visual perspective.

Rather than providing support for bereavement, DUST has been an arts space examining its subject openly and constructively through the experiences of artists who have known death and have lived with grief. The setting remains intimate and extraordinary. Part Victorian parlour and part Wunderkammer museum, the room is lined with objects in cabinets and on the walls: figurines, pictures, sculptures, books. A glass-topped case contains a disjointed collection of animal bones with mixed origins. No object has overt monetary value. All, however, prompt memories and elicit stories. At DUST, people talk, look and learn. After all, the value of mementoes lies in the physical form they give to intangible memories.

Interestingly, many of the objects are broken in some way. That detail represents one entry point into the potency of metaphor; grief comes from brokenness. Willow describes the collection as “objects with soul” that have their own existence. Into this arena other artists have been invited to exhibit their work. Kieran Welford, a recent Falmouth graduate, assumed a shaman-like persona speaking a proto-Celtic language to connect with his ancestors, while among the objects made by painter Andrew Bryant was a ball of plasticine that has grown in girth over time to gain considerable proportions. As Bryant works through the memories and hopes attached to a lost loved one, more material is added.

The origin, however, of dust as a material in Willow’s art predates Jack’s death. It relates to travelling in India with her son, then aged ten. She was already interested in alternative cultures to western conventions, which in part she attributes to the pagan legacy she discovered in West Cornwall when, as a young mother, she arrived in St Ives to join her father, a marine biologist. She says she was “drawn to people for whom ritual was considered the norm.” For three months she and Jack took trains and buses across Rajasthan and into the Himalayas. They spent precious time with Tibetan monks. Jack taught them English and chess, and the monks introduced him and his mother to Zen Buddhism. The visitors also observed the tradition of creating mandalas with coloured sand that, once complete, were ritualistically dismantled to symbolise Buddhist belief in the transitory nature and futility of material life.

'The Last Portrait', 2006

Willow began her degree course at Falmouth School of Art soon after her return. The significance of the sand mandalas had grown in relevance to her outlook so she developed her own interpretation, the ‘dust carpet’. Although non-secular, it was just as much about immateriality and impermanence as the monks’ creations. Each carpet’s making involved discipline and labour, bringing into the artwork domestic references that art has traditionally disdained (although marble dust was used rather than the less consistent texture of house dust). Willow had loved drawing since schooldays in Kent, where she grew up in a family committed to peace causes. The art room was the calm centre of an otherwise unruly adolescence in pursuit of feisty, female role models. After school, she studied graphic design and naturally gravitated to life drawing, a knowledge that still feeds her creative activity.

She made her last carpet in 2019 in Finland, as part of the ANTIfestival in the city of Kuopio. By then, her material had taken on a deeper personal meaning and the carpet’s making became part of a public performance called ‘The Mourner - Lamentation in Dust’. Then, as before, shapes (in the past, these have spanned figures, birds and ornamental elements) were masked out with latex into a stencil straight onto the ground. Then dust was sieved on top, in varying densities like a woven pile, by the artist dressed in theatrical black funeral attire and veil.

'The Mourner, Lamentation in Dust', 2019, performance at ANTIfestival, Finland Photography by Kim Saarinen

Her designs were always reminiscent of rugs for prayer or the household, with dimensions dictated by the space available at host locations, such as Tate St Ives in 2007. In Finland, a factory floor was stage and exhibition. The finished work’s surface was inevitably fragile, a condition with meaning. Particles of dust could be casually dispersed by air and movement, and outlines gently altered by draughts. Preserving these delicate compositions was not impossible but rarely done; mostly she followed her original concept, borrowed from the monks, of sweeping the entire work away once the exhibition was over, leaving no trace. “Nothing is forever,” she has said, “apart from our memories.”

Art resists temporariness; longevity is its presumed state. But Willow embraces ephemerality. At Kestle Barton in 2014 she filled the tall gallery walls with a continuous drawing. Her visual inspiration was Frenchman’s Creek, in secluded water and woodland, while the technique she used was indebted to studying, on a recent trip to China, large-scale ink drawings by local artists. A kind of narrative emerged as visitors followed the fluid brushstrokes around the room, watching as motifs weaved in and through sections, vanished and reappeared. The work, called ‘Fallen’, imaginatively travelled the riverscape Willow had seen west of Helford where fallen trees had been caught in the low tide silt. The project arose from a strange gift of two goldfinches that crashed into the windows at Kestle Barton and died. The combination of sources underwent the transformation characteristic of her approach and became a metaphorical expression of transitoriness and loss. When the show ended, the wall work was painted out.

Willow loves the dark. That helps to explain her attachment to working almost exclusively in black and white. Visiting Iceland some years ago, she observed how snow obliterated detail to leave the essence of a location, its dips and rises. In a latitude where the sun makes only rare appearances for many months in the year, she was impressed by how so much is not visible, requiring other senses to become acute. Her discovery of the well hidden under the ash in Lamorna brought that recollection to mind as she probed the unseen depths of the watercourse with her imagination in search of imagery.

The well drawings were exhibited last year at Grays Wharf in Penryn. Images on paper, some small and others wall-sized, lined the gallery like holes pushing into an unknowable deep space. Juxtaposed with the flat drawings were objects. Some were broken shards of porcelain, like shattered empty vessels. Others resembled tendrils, visceral forms that seemed set to pull viewers into those deep voids. The room was imbued with ideas beyond the visual that belonged to feeling, so that any person’s response would be split between resistance and yielding. The tendrils were wrapped in words that turned out to be text culled from Jack’s schoolbooks. The unquestionable power of Lucy Willow’s excavation of grief lies in precisely that integration of every element she uses to give shape to impenetrable absence – through material, form and meaning.

Lucy Willow is based at CAST, Helston.


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