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“Lichen is a metaphor for how we should be living with the earth.” Corinne Julius explores how silversmith Abigail Brown captures a deep and intimate connection with the natural world.

Many silversmiths claim to be inspired by Nature, but for Abigail Brown, her relationship with nature, the land and place are fundamental to her whole approach to life and to her silversmithing. Yet it’s only recently that she has felt able to share her beliefs with her collectors and the public at large. “They are very personal, but deeply held and I thought that it might be off-putting,” she explains. However during Covid many people have experienced a renewed bond with nature and are consequently more open to her thoughts and to pursuing a greater connection to the land.

Abigail’s current work involves two major strands which are often combined; a concentration on re-interpreting lichen in metal and enamel and her love of standing stones. Her lichen pieces have evolved from small growths on vessels to significant wall pieces, whilst her interest in the stones and what they represent from past cultures finds its way into vessels.

Abigail lives on a boat near Falmouth in Cornwall which means she is always aware of her connection to Nature. At one level that is popping her head up to turn on the gas in the morning and seeing a kingfisher dive into the water. (She’s currently developing a water jug design with kingfishers as the theme.) Less romantically there is the necessity to be aware of changing weather conditions. “The mooring is tidal so I am constantly aware of the tides and the rhythms of nature. I’m very aware of the rain beating on the18mm of plywood and fibreglass above my head. In winter it often defines my working day because if there is a gale and the tide is coming in I may leave work early or late in order to avoid using the dinghy in a storm.”

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From an early age Abigail was fascinated by the Bronze Age, early humans and their relationship to place. The first stone circle she visited was in Derbyshire, but as soon as she could drive she was off touring the country to inspect ancient sites and contemplate their meaning. “I find it hard to put into words, I can feel something in the land, something of the significance of the place, of the people and the mystery of why they are there. We can’t know really ever know why (the stones were erected,) but I believe they were put there for ritual purpose and to celebrate the land. When I visit I can feel the footsteps of the people who have passed before. They may not have been built for spiritual reasons, but because so many people believe they were, they now have a spiritual presence.”

Her early work in the form of platter shaped pieces was to do with the female form, expressed as raised ridge shapes in squarish frames rather like 3D photographs. “It was my way of illustrating the abundance of femininity and the how certain areas are sensual but aren’t necessarily conventionally thought of that way. It’s about the sensuality of the land and the intimacy you can have with it if you really look.”

Really looking at details within the landscape and within the natural world are crucial to Abigail’s world view as an animist and ultimately to her practice. “By really looking at details within the natural landscape and observing and spending time in those places you do create a relationship with that place. I think it’s about intensity. Sometimes you are looking with your eyes shut.” By that Abigail means using all your senses, smelling, feeling and really experiencing a place, which she then expresses in her work.  Her design process involves a deep study of the place, its standing stones and the lichen, which she absorbs as a feeling, then meditating before drawing and photographing it. These then form the basis of her designs.

In conversation with the metal I might have a plan, but as I’m working the silver will show me something different. That’s when the work is at its strongest, when I’m responding to what the silver is saying to me. Tweet this

Her feelings about the relationship of humans to the land and the land’s relationship to humans, has increased in importance since she started to meditate in 2014. “That released a need to look deeper into my spiritual beliefs and then even more so in the last couple of years I believe that the planet has a spiritual presence and everything that comes from it has that presence. I feel that if you work with metal (and I think that others do too) there is an animus about it.” She is, she says, “in conversation with the metal I might have a plan, but as I’m working the silver will show me something different. That’s when the work is at its strongest, when I’m responding to what the silver is saying to me.”

Her making day starts with lighting a candle “offering herbs to the fire. I use sage or mugwort and a feather to clear the energy. It gives me mental energy and the spirit is more likely to be present. I give tobacco to the torch as a way of thanking the metal for being there and me asking for its help in making something beautiful.” Then she works like any other silversmith. “I love the fact that working with silver means that you get to use all the elements. This metal has come from the earth and you use fire and air to heat it and water to quench it. It encompasses those four things within the process of making. It’s quite an honour to hold these (silversmithing) techniques. I use raising and chasing, but also texturing and piercing. These techniques are mostly unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years, right back to the Bronze Age. Silver has a quality and feeling that pulls me in. It’s like drawing in three dimensions.”

A seminal moment in her making development was the Boscawen-Un vessel she made for the Contemporary British Silversmiths’ exhibition ‘Silver Speaks: Idea to Object’ at the V&A in 2016. The large, hammered, matt silver vessel has a serenity and sense of place. Growing from it are small patches of (enamel) lichen. Indeed Abigail has had it photographed against the standing stones of Boscawen in the background, where the vessel seems like an extra standing stone. “The idea of lichen and the idea for standing stones was there for quite a while and I just hadn’t got to it yet. So having the exhibition was a good platform to explore it.”

 

i Lichen Lidded Pot, Abigail Brown

Abigail’s work has changed considerably over the 23 years of her silversmithing career, which she thinks is unusual. “Over the years I have made a transition in my work from very clean forms to quite a textured finish. Mark making using tools or techniques have become a fundamental addition to the flowing forms I perfected in the earlier pieces.” She divides her work into four categories of evolution. Firstly there was Landscape as Body, whose open shapes made her good at understanding form and creating continuous curves. “I was able to run my fingers over a piece and find every single imperfection in the flowing line,” she explains. After a residency in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska in 2011, she moved on to Plant Medicine, a vegetal based series examining the tiny tundra plants surviving under huge skies, mountains and weather,-  a subject she still pursues. With her folded hammer work she couldn’t make very enclosed shapes, but following a residency with silversmith Rod Kelly at the Silver House Workshop in Shetland in 2014, she was able to achieve more upright forms like the Boscawen piece from her The Elemental Landscape series. She is now preoccupied with the Lichen Collection.

These new lichen works are cut from 100% recycled flat sheet. Abigail regrets that not all the metals she uses, such as Britannia, can be recycled but she aims to be as sustainable in her practice as possible. For the lichen she perforates the sheet by hand with a saw, a very delicate and time-consuming process, before hammering around the outside to stretch and move the metal. She then reticulates (melts) the silver slightly so where it is thin it makes the edges curl over as lichen does. She also fuses silver dust to the surface to give the matt, dusty texture that lichen has. Individual pieces of her lichens are enamelled and she ‘curates’ them as a group, before riveting them in place. “They are supposed to look as if the medium they grew on has disappeared or rotted away as we will. I’d like people to think about their relationship to the land their legacy after they’ve gone”.

i Boscawen Un Vessel, Abigail Brown

The lichen initially became a preoccupation because Cornwall is literally covered in it, particularly on standing stones. Abigail wanted to explore colour as she had previously worked a lot with textiles, but she also wanted to challenge herself “to make metal really look like a plant.” The lichen she creates in metal is based on pieces of the common greenshield lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata that she finds on the ground when walking. Although the Lichen Collection was originally about colour, it has become more conceptual. Lichen is symbiotic, an algae and a fungus living together that work in unison, which for Abigail symbolises the people who built the standing stones who were living in harmony with the land in a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship with it. They built the stone circles to honour that place, looking after the land as well as taking from it. “They didn’t believe that they were better than the land or the animals. They realised that they were part of that web that connects us all. They never took more than they gave back. Lichen is a metaphor for me about how we should be living with the earth.”

Abigail is currently mounting the lichen as wall pieces rather than on vessels and is looking at expanding her work into patinated bronze and copper rather than enamel to make much larger lichen wall pieces. Whilst she is contemplating using water-cutting to cut the metal for the lichen, she also wants to explore the solid form more, to reference the standing stones- an interesting bifurcation.

“It’s important to me that the pieces I create are objects of beauty that inspire the mind and feed the spirit’, she says. ‘It’s also important what I do with and how I use the materials that I have the privilege to work with. By producing hand-made, intricate and delivered sculptural forms that are often based on plants and ancient artefacts, my work questions what we will carry forward into the future and what we hold precious.”


Author: Corinne Julius | Photography: Abigail Brown

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