In The Field: Living Sculpture

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Photo by Marcus and Sue.

In the cool wet days of early spring, when soil thaws but tree limbs still sway naked in a biting wind and the natural world has yet to break the browns and grays of dormancy, English weavers know it is the perfect time to craft young willows into works of art.

Willow weavers have been coppicing—the routine of cutting dormant young trees down to the ground, from which they sprout anew each spring—since Roman times. With the cut willow, they traditionally crafted functional items like baskets, portable livestock pens, traveling trunks and furniture. The past several decades though, a corner has been turned, and humble willow craft is approaching the level of fine art as it has been adopted by visionary sculptors and landscape architects. Across England, sweeping abstract sculptures loom over picnickers in public parks and gardens, ornate woven fairy tale ships and castles are popping up in schoolyards, and striding mythological willow giants preside over festivals.

Willow possesses characteristics that render it utterly unique as a sculpting medium; most notably its inclination to sprout roots wherever it lands and grow, literally bringing sculptures to life. As sculptures grow leaves and branch out, the extra willow can either be woven into the sculpture or trimmed off and planted to make more material for later projects. It may be one of the few art supplies that is free and readily creates more of itself.

Living willow sculptures, structures, and fences blur the lines between art, landscape architecture, and wildlife habitat. Especially when allowed to go a little bushy, they provide excellent shelter for small mammals, nesting sites for birds, and nectar sources for pollinators. In fact, 450 invertebrates are known to use willow—more than any other living tree—and definitely more than the traditional sculpting mediums of metal, clay, wood or stone.

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