Meet the artist – Lizzie Farey

An interview with Lizzie Farey by Grace Whowell

Curator Grace Whowell visited Make it Slow exhibitor Lizzie Farey in her studio in Kirkudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. Surrounded by willow and serenaded by seagulls, Grace asked her about her life and work as a willow artist.


11. LizzieFarey-199 - photo by Paul HarrisYou started off as a stained glass artist.  Willow is very different, organic and more intuitive perhaps, did you instinctively know it was the right material for you when you tried it?

I had been working with glass for a while but I took to willow immediately. Willow is the complete opposite, it’s flexible, it smells wonderful, it’s generally natural in hue, it doesn’t cut you, it’s easy to use, though it has its challenges too.  I was working with leaded glass so a piece could take two or three weeks to complete, whereas I made my first basket in an afternoon.  I was attracted to the immediacy of it, not that you can become very good in such a short time!  I also lived in a very rural cottage in Scotland; it made sense to use the materials that grew around me. So I went on to working with different local materials, larch, heather.  They all feel different, smell different.

 I remember going on tour with one of your large willow and catkin pieces in the Travelling Gallery.  Every time you opened the bus in the morning you got a wonderful smell, a sweet organic smell that always reminds me of that tour. 

Yes, the whole thing about working with these materials is that it is very grounding, it can bring you back to a very calm, safe place, personally speaking anyway. It’s the feel of them; I like the idea of people being able to touch the work in the gallery, to bring them back to earth.

So, what are the challenges of working with willow?

I think learning to use it just at the right time.  I grow all my materials and there’s a time to cut it, a time to dry it, then you soak it underwater.  That kind of knowledge, in the end I just trust my hands to know.  You can’t time it, in summer the water is warm and in winter icy cold so it takes longer.  An old tradition is soak for a week use within a week.  It’s frustrating if you leave it longer and you start to use it, your hands immediately know it’s not going to behave!

What about using other materials such as ash?

It’s very different again, it’s stubborn, it pings back and hits you in the face.  Heather is very different, and contorted hazel; I love to experiment with new woods because I know willow so well.  I like the challenges of using new materials.  I want to move into new areas.

Lizzie Farey - When I Think of You Photo: Shannon Tofts

Lizzie Farey – When I Think of You
Photo: Shannon Tofts

How soon did you start to make the transition to more sculptural works and why?

It came quite naturally, pretty quickly. I’d done fine art training and gave it up but that expressive side of me was always there.  A practical reason was that in this area there were two very good male basket makers, making stunning, hefty practical pieces.  I didn’t want to compete in this area so I started to make more expressive pieces that gave me infinitely more contentment than just repeating things.  I can still make a good basket!  But the thought of expressing myself personally was more appealing, it led me on and on.

Landscape is a huge influence on your work, obviously your locality impacts on what you make.  Here you have sea, hills, pasture, forest, lochs, everything!

I find it incredibly calming, I was drawn here because of the space around me, the space around each person to expand mentally and physically into that landscape.  It did impact upon my work.

Do you see your work (apart from site specific commissions) as being made for domestic spaces?

Yes, I do more and more. In the past people have compared my work to Andy Goldsworthy’s but that’s not quite what I’m about because I’m not making things that are ephemeral.  I’m interested in making forms that people can relate to on a personal level, have in their own houses for a sense of calm or beauty.  Some of the pieces I make are almost similar to a coracle or boat; I’m interested in making forms that people can relate to, say the ‘essence’ of a boat, a reminder, to take people back to that spot in nature where they have experienced something.  If I can do that for people, that’s one small thing I can do!

You are virtually self-sufficient in the materials you use, is that process of growing and harvesting the willow important to you?

Definitely, it’s knowing the entire process from the beginning.  I chose the varieties that I want to grow, I know what they look like at different times of the year.  For me the crème-de-la-crème is salix purpurea, which grows deep purple and dries out to a pewter grey.  It’s slender at the butt, slender at the tip, just the most beautiful willow.  So if you’re getting a bit lost, you can just walk amongst the willow, reconnect, it makes sense to know the things (you use). The other advantage is it’s free!  I used to buy it in and get so possessive about it and anxious if I had soaked it and not used it.  Now I have a freedom with my materials, I just cut some more.

Apart from potters who dig up their own clay perhaps, it’s quite unique to have such a deep connection with your raw materials.

Yes, I’m married to it!

Has the work of other international artists influenced your work, particularly after your visit to Japan?

Yes, the whole Japanese ethic of simplicity, paring things down to the bare essentials.  Certainly with Ueno Masao, even with the way he spoke, he would say things like ‘As is it above, so it is below’.  We get so caught up even with the words we use, if we can just simplify them as well.  I think that is probably my aim for the rest of my life, to get back to the essence of something.  So yes, he has been an influence.  In the earlier days, Hisako Sekijima, the way she works, more and more I am drawn to the East.

Do you feel your gender influences your work?

Yes, I suppose women are maybe drawn to my work more than men.  Perhaps the emotion… I’m not saying men don’t have that too, but there is a drive that I have, that I think is female, an enjoyment, but a striving, a working through of things.  With the spheres they go through this terrible chaotic feel, like they are all going to spring apart, like they are never going to become this round sphere.  Pretty much like my own life!  They feel like they are all going to fall apart, then you stay with it, stay with it and it becomes this incredible thing.

Were you aware of the Slow Movement before approached to do this exhibition?   How do you feel it relates to your work or indeed other areas of your life?

Yes, we were brought up that way. I’m the youngest of five; we always, always grew our own vegetables. My mother refused to have a freezer because everything had to be eaten in season, fresh, or she’d do a lot of bottling; proper food at the right time of year.  So when fast food came in, this whole thing of instant gratification that we are seduced into thinking is the right thing, we remembered our mother’s words.  She always cooked on a Raeburn or an Aga, the kettle took so long to boil but it was just one of those things, you waited, you had a cup of tea at the right time.  That always stayed with me, and that integrity of materials, like chefs who use beautiful ingredients, I think I’m a little bit like that.  I’ll choose the willow that will suit the piece and the space in a house, choose the colours, the textures.  It’s that whole thing about integrity.

How do you see your work developing in the future, are there any new directions you see yourself pursuing?

I’d like to get more into public buildings.  The piece I made for the London law firm was 4 metres in diameter.  It made sense to me among all that concrete and steel to have some proper twigs!  I imagine it would have a very subtle impact on those working there in that environment.  As I’m getting older, I like the thought of doing a bit of teaching, not too much.

To pass on your skills?

To bring out people’s own enjoyment, maybe when you sit at a computer all day, once you start having contact with this wood and you are making something that can be beautiful or practical, I think it can have an impact on your life.

I think if you have that time when your brain and your hands are working together, everything else can just go out of the window.  It gives you time to focus, like a meditation, switching off from everyday life.  It’s such a valuable thing to do and to teach.

And it’s not instant either, you have to work at it!  So we shall see.


Lizzie Farey’s work will be shown as part of Make it Slow, opening at Woodend on 15 November and then touring until October 2014.

This is an edited version of the full interview. A complete transcript can be found here.