West Dean: new growth using wood in jewellery

Heather McDermott was a DJG New Designer in our Barbican Winter 2013 show. Here she updates us on her continuing professional development and reviews a training course at West Dean College.

In February I received a Creative Scotland Artist’s bursary to develop my artwork, jewellery and creative workshops based on forestries across the Highlands. I am particularly interested in how to use wood within creative environments and I was drawn to the ‘Wood and Trees week’ at West Dean College. I had been introduced to the college when I was studying in Edinburgh College of Art but never got the chance to go. The week featured courses such as woodcutting, bowl turning and painting. I chose a course run by renowned jeweller Beth Legg where we could explore how to use wood creatively within jewellery.

I arrived at West Dean late so didn’t realise how beautiful the surrounding countryside is. Within the grounds there is an Arboretum and since I had time on the Sunday I explored the forest admiring the well kept grounds and the new born lambs!

West Dean College 1

I met the group and Beth that evening where we got introduced to the workshop, the itinerary for the week and health and safety considerations.

West Dean College 2

Beth also showed images that explored different areas which we could look at during the week – mark making, contrast, tone etc. The approach to the course was to be driven by creativity rather than technique.

Monday: We headed up to the Arboretum to explore the woodland, draw and gather fallen wood to use throughout the week.

Returning to the studio we started to test different tools and techniques available for us to use. I started by testing the Pyrograph which burnt into the wood beautifully and gave a lovely hand-drawn quality.

Heather McDermott 5

I used a series of doweling rods to experiment with burning and carving, rubbing back and staining. One of the points Beth made clear was process and it was wonderful to have time to go through different processes and see the effects.

Heather McDermott 6

We had the opportunity to hear Tutor talks in the evening. These were fascinating and highlighted the diversity of how artists use wood. I was particularly drawn to the wood cutting tutors, Merlyn Chesterman and Rod Kelly whose work was amazing! We also had the opportunity to do a ‘swap over’ where we would spend 1 hour and a half in another subject. I had made my mind up that evening!

Tuesday: I spent the day carving a piece of wood I had found with a beautiful natural curve – perfect for a large statement necklace. The wood was pine and carved like butter. One of the main aims that I wanted to get out of the course was to explore mark making and working on a more solid structure as I usually use wire within my work.

Heather McDermott 7

A shape I had been drawn to was a fallen conifer branch which had the most amazing fern like leaves. This was another shape I wanted to explore so I cut the shape slightly exaggerated onto a flat sheet of Hornbeam, plywood and a Lime. The Hornbeam was a beautifully bleached wood but was difficult to cut.

I tried more staining, burning and waxing into scraps of carved wood to develop what sort of finish I wanted on the larger piece. I had a wonderful bright orange with me so I wanted to incorporate that into the piece mimicking some of the colours found in the ferns.

Heather McDermott 8

Wednesday: The first part of the morning was spent in our ‘swap over’. I had chosen to do the woodcutting course which meant we had just over an hour to carve and the rest to ink up and get our first prints printed. We were encouraged to make as many marks as possible and create as much contrast as we could which was a great comparison to what I was doing in jewellery. I drew inspiration from a group of trees from the hillside at West Dean and began to carve.

Here is the print I made:

Heather McDermott 9

In the afternoon I continued carving my necklace, stopping to lay out the other components to go alongside it. I really enjoyed being able to apply colour and then rub back and then reapply another colour to create layers on the wood which could then be exposed. Burning was another lovely technique to use with colour.

Beth showed us how to inlay into metal which was a technique I had never done before so was really interesting to watch. We also had the chance to make a wooden ring – I ran out of time but this is something I will pursue at home.

Beth Legg 10
Beth Legg

Thursday & Friday: Now I had finished my main components I had to decide how I wanted to connect them and finish them off. The two days were spent using more technical skills and learning from Beth the best way of completing the pieces.

I also really wanted to use one of the pieces I had already carved and burnt so alongside the larger piece I created a hollow form out of silver, textured it to look like Silver Birch bark and set the wood and silver together.

Heather McDermott 11

I also got to use a blow torch where I had to physically blow to get a hotter flame. This was a new experience for me and maybe one I wouldn’t use again, there were lots of loud breaths being taken between soldering!

Heather McDermott 13

It was a fabulous week where I returned home feeling inspired. Beth was an excellent teacher and enabled us to create freely but with really helpful guidance and direction throughout the week. Regarding my own jewellery, I have taken away techniques that I will definitely use in the future, artwork inspiration and ideas of how I could translate the structure of the week into possible bite-size workshops.

Heather is currently exhibiting in Edinburgh and Bilston, and will be at Cluster in Craft Central, Clerkenwell, London from 3rd – 7th  June. Further details of her stockists and shows can be found on her website.

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