Lizzie Farey, Scottish Basketmaker logo
  The Herald, Friday, 23rd July ... 2010  


Lizzie Farey talks to Catriona Black about her
largest scale project to date.

"I wish you could come and see the willow when
it's growing. Its just beautiful"


The scaffolding is four metres high, the willow another three metres above that. Two men in hard hats are fixing the fragile lattice to the newly-painted wall, while artist Lizzie Farey watches from below.

"I'm twitching to get up there," she tells me, as the five separate panels of her work are assembled above us for the first time. This is Aerie, Farey's largest work of art to date, commissioned by Edinburgh's City Art Centre for its reopening a week tomorrow.

The two remaining sections of the willow circle rest on the gallery floor, awaiting their turn. If their edges didn't form a precise geometrical shape, they would resemble an i abandoned game of pick-up-sticks, an apparently random scattering of twigs of differing length and thickness.

The comparison is out of my mouth before good manners can stop me, but fortunately Farey is not insulted. Creating calm out of chaos is what she does: she was celebrated until recently for her huge woven spheres in hazel, willow, dogwood and ling, messy riots of material which nevertheless came together as solid, reassuring objects.

"We're all made up of so much chaos inside us," Farey explains, "and as you're working you do have to go through a process of difficulty, which I see as life, and you get to a calmer place at the end of it."

Looking at the small detail of Aerie, she says, "could do your head in", but it's all about calming effect of the finished result.

Farey channels her own emotions into her work, and the end result is widely acknowledged to be therapeutic. "It doesn't shout at you," she says, "it's not got loads of messages like a painting; it's very natural so it just harmonises, hopefully, with your environment."

Three years ago, after a visit to Japan, Farey began to make abstract, two-dimensional wall-pieces such as Aerie, which are not woven, but more "akin to drawing".

Some, with curved lengths of willow, look like gestural sketches, capturing, for instance, swallows in flight. Others, like Aerie, are meticulous accumulations of pattern more reminiscent of minimalist paintings. This one, in homage to the scale of the City Art Centre building, represents an eagle's nest.

Farey's new commission, which for the next year will dominate the gallery's escalator space, is a forerunner to her solo show this November. Spirit Of Air is a touring exhibition which originated at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, but the artist has plans to make works specifically for the Edinburgh gallery. "I would really like to make some bigger, more detailed pieces," she says, "to do justice to this lovely space."

Farey has used three different colours of willow in Aerie, to create a subtle pattern. "I wish you could come and see the willow when it's growing," she says. "It's just beautiful. The colours do all fade, and although I call it green and red, a friend of mine said 'Lizzie, it's all brown!'

"I was thinking, 'I can see gold, I can see red, I can see green, I can see purple', but of course I'd seen it when it was fresh."

The artist grows her own willow in Dumfries and Galloway, harvesting it, drying it, soaking it in a cattle trough and selecting it for each individual work. "I'm quite a small person," she says, "and it is quite physical, but it also connects you to your materials. There's not a lot of crafts which grow their own material. This craft, you've got control of it right from the start."

The story of the willow in Farey's new commission is remarkable. While most of the colours are home-grown, the artist bought several bundles of darker coloured Flanders Red from Somerset for its superior quality. Knowing that it sells out quickly, she got it in January, putting it in the private studio where she keeps her special things.

In May, a fire started in her neighbour's garden, spreading quickly to her own. Farey rescued her tools, but realised too late that she had left her special willows behind. "I had to get the firemen to go in and rescue the Flanders Red", she laughs, "and it was so funny seeing these great big firemen with all their kit on, gingerly carrying out my willow and my little pussy willow, through the smoke!"

We look again at the pattern of precious red wood on the wall, which momentarily takes on the appearance of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

"This is that Flanders Red," Farey confirms. "They saved it, so I do have to thank Dumfries and Galloway Fire Brigade."

The photographer arrives, and Farey jumps at the chance to climb to the top of the scaffolding. One of the remaining sections of willow is handed up to her and she slides it through the bars. I can barely watch, as the fragile panel is eased into place. "It's sturdy up to a point," she had told me earlier, "and then it's quite fragile, so if you carry it the wrong way, like a pane of glass, it just shatters."

Each stick is pinned to the next with a tiny nail, shot from Farey's nail gun in the studio. On occasion, when she originally made the piece, she accidentally pinned the sticks to the floor; sometimes the whole arrangement jumped out of align-ment; and in many cases the nails split the dry willow apart.

And now, as I watch the artist manoeuvre the panel seven metres above me, I fervently hope she's not carrying it "the wrong way".

Fortunately, the panel suffers nothing more than a dislodged stick. Farey removes it with barely a frown, and sticks it behind her ear. She has brought a bundle of spares for finishing off the work, which, being too big for her studio wall, she has yet to see in its final form. I leave before the nail gun comes out; here's hoping Aerie survived, all in one piece.