Installation artist, Lee Borthwick, applies an ancient technique to strengthen our connection with the naturally inherent beauty in an everyday household item.
When I first saw Lee’s work at Handmade At Kew I thought it was striking. I loved the repetition of pattern and the way she traced the life the wood had lived as a tree. The labour intensive mark making draws attention to the wood’s grain encouraging us to contemplate the role a tree has fulfilled facilitating biodiversity and maintaining a balanced ecosystem.
Here, Lee shares how a passion for achieving a sustainable practice and love of the landscape led to her creating beautifully made chopping boards.
What first sparked your interest in working with wood?
I took an Erasmus exchange to Finland whilst I was doing my bachelors degree at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen. Though I was studying weaving I took immense inspiration from the surrounding landscape, architecture and handicraft. Finland left an incredibly deep impression on me, I drew so much inspiration from the simplest of things, stacks of fire wood, endless silver birch forests, sauna constructions, barns, wooden walkways… Many of the people I met had such inherent practical skills for surviving the everyday, I was in awe of their connection to their environment. When I returned to Scotland it was my aim to instill the impression of simplicity and purity both in my materials and methods of making. Wood seemed the natural choice going forward.
Tell me about the origins of your chopping boards?
Back in 2011 I had some kiln dried Ash left over from my first residential commission. My fellow studio mates made the comment that the timber would make great chopping boards. I agreed, there was something charming about the weight and warmth of the wood. I felt however something could be done to make them really special. After I established the two designs “Grain and Hairy” through pyrography I set about researching how to bring the boards to market and testing their appeal.
How did you arrive at using the pyrography technique?
I was attracted to the striking grain of the ash wood I had and wanted to find a natural way of highlighting its beauty. I was keen to find a contemporary approach that didn’t involve machinery or chemicals, that would allow me to insert a unique and humorous slant on the timber. Burning the wood seemed like the obvious choice. My earliest attempts involved a soldering iron, from which I quickly moved on from! Shortly after I discovered Beech wood had a wonderful flecked surface which I decided also to highlight and suddenly the hairy chopping board was born. It sat so well alongside the Grain Ash design. I felt my approach set my boards apart from more traditional chopping boards and allowed each individual piece to be unique, in the same manner that my mirror artworks are.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Asides from many return trips to Finland, travelling and walking through wild landscapes certainly plays a part. Green spaces in the city, gardens and parks and land art all feed my passion. I have followed the work of many land artists over the years and am fascinated with the way the environment can interact with art positioned outside. Writers like Lucy Lippard, Sue Clifford and Roger Deakin are important to me. Recycling and upcycling, projects that encourage sustainability and innovation in connection to the land and people are all hugely inspiring. And of course handling materials provides powerful stimulus – new pieces of wood in the studio always gets the creativity flowing.
What is the greatest appeal in working with wood?
Its appeal is that it has so many appeals. It is sustainable for starters. Wood constantly evolves, there is so much to learn from it and so much I don’t know or understand about trees, it’s a rolling education. No two pieces are ever the same. The particular pieces I love to work with, the smaller branches, are often considered valueless. I love that I give value and place back to an understated material. I often view it as a textile, it carries a warmth and a flexibility, it’s constructed of fibres. It allows you to make mistakes. And importantly you can always trace its provenance.
What are you passionate about and how does that help you with what you do?
Being low impact, both in my everyday where possible and within my studio practice. I love solving problems. I spend a lot of time thinking how can I reuse that, recycle this, avoid placing things in landfill. I’ve always been passionate about recycling and sourcing everything second hand, learning to repair my tools rather than replace them. In the long term, these ideals have helped me to keep going when things have been difficult with the business. I’ve learnt to be thrifty and extremely practical and also a bit more self-reliant.
Did you experience an “aha” moment when everything clicked and you knew what you had been working towards had finally manifested into something special? Can you describe this?
I think I did have a moment like this on my MA back in 2008. I remember testing various unsuccessful materials on tree stumps outside and suddenly realised if I integrated mirror into my work I might just get that poetic experience I was looking for. The idea of reflecting the sky into wood was born and I have continued to challenge it everyday since.
What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?
One of the greatest rewards is infusing value into materials where there was very little before. I love seeing how people find so much pleasure and curiosity from works crafted from such humble materials.
Sometimes I have to take a step back to realise how much I have achieved myself just through using my hands and a huge amount of determination. Opening up the door to your own studio everyday where you are your own boss is a wonderful feeling and one I often forget to reflect on (I’m usually too busy fretting about what’s next).
Describe your big break and how this helped you move forward?
Very early on I received support from the BEDG (British European Design Group) in exhibiting abroad. I took my work including my first ever Mirror Tapestry to the IMM Cologne Furniture fair. At the time it didn’t feel like a very successful show but unbeknownst to me design blog Moco Loco picked up on my work. A few months later I received my first private commission, a client in Cyprus who found my work from their website. The commission gave me a professional job for my portfolio, tested my fabrication skills and my ability to work big. Around the same time I was approached by Grizedale Arts to do a wall installation up at Lawson Park Farm, United Kingdom. Two very different commissions, both of which I loved and both providing the much needed confidence boost to bolster me on.
In the new year I will be working on my first outdoor sculptures to be sited at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Gardens in Surrey, United Kingdom. Though I have delivered temporary outdoor commissions before this is a new direction for me to create outdoor sculptural works for a commercial gallery. I am thrilled to have such a wonderful opportunity. The Gallery has gifted me some sustainably felled Catapla which I can’t wait to work with.
Image credits – Top: Grain and Hairy boards in Ash and Beech, © Image Copyright Matthew Booth. Bottom row (left to right): 11 inch Grain ash board, © Image Copyright Lee Borthwick; and 10 inch Hairy board, © Image Copyright Lee Borthwick.