‘Wow’ was my first response when I first saw UK installation artist, Lee Borthwick’s Mirrored Tapestries. My second was: ‘I wouldn’t mind one of them but failing that I’d better track her down for an interview’! So here we are. Hailing from the Scottish Borders, Lee has made a name for herself with her mirror installations and sculptural pieces in wood. Now based in London, she uses organic, natural and reclaimed materials to form the basis of her creations. ‘Each piece of wood I collect has a narrative and a past, each piece of work, therefore, rendered unique,’ she says.
In the four years since completing her Masters she has been busy making pieces for public installations, private commissions, off-the-peg and made-to-order interior artwork and tableware. Her stunning Mirrored Tapestries transform two simple materials, wood and mirror, into something that is both other-worldly yet inherently natural and organic, embodying her love of ‘untamed open spaces’ and ‘the notion of reflecting the sky down to the ground’ and ‘creating a bucket full of trees’. I reckon you could spend hours staring at them, watching nature change around you. Sigh.
Now, onto the interview …
Tell me about your background. What did you study and how have you ended up where you are today?
I’m originally from Scotland and studied textile and surface design in Aberdeen. I then moved to London to do an MA in Textile Design at the Royal College of Art. I tackled weaving, screen printing, dyeing, embroidery and later took courses in basketry skills; learning traditional crafts like knotting and looping. At the same time I was very interested in exploring landscapes, understanding ideas about place, environments, home and architecture. Two things set me on the path I’m on today: a lecture I attended called ‘sense of place’ and my Erasmus trip to Finland in 2005 that set the underlying theme and aesthetic that is evident in my work still today.
After completing my MA in 2008 I first travelled on a scholarship to Nepal and then I took a studio in south-east London. With some assistance I was able to do IMM Cologne (International Furniture Show) in 2009 and shortly after received my first commission. Four and half years on, I’ve recently moved to a larger studio with a more industrial set-up and, as I like to say, still hanging in there.
Tell me about your love of working with wood. When and why did you begin exploring with the material and where do you get your wood from?
Wood in all its forms fulfils the experience I look to achieve in my work. I see it as an evolving textile; it carries a warmth, a comforting weight and is natural and enduring. It also has nostalgic properties, memories of landscapes visited, woodlands walked and trees climbed. My love for wood really started after being in Finland and being immersed in a country with such endless forests and it was in the second year of my MA that it became cemented in my practice. I found myself interested in defining an experience and wood provided a voice for me (plus a slight reputation as a log lady!).
The material allows me to work in a variety of contexts. I have always loved the notion of ‘bringing the outside inside and taking the inside outside’ and it is a material that allows me to experiment with different environments and different settings.
The wood is sourced in a variety of manners, often from tree surgeons, forestry management projects, family and friends. I collect driftwood from beach trips and the odd felled branch when out walking. I also work with seasoned and kiln dried wood from sawmills in Somerset, England. [You can read more about the wood she uses here].
I believe Anthropologie EU now stocks your mirrored wood tapestries! Tell me more about them, their creation and how the idea came about.
The idea of fusing pieces of tree to mirror was triggered from a day spent in Richmond Park, London back in 2008 where I was experimenting with a variety of materials that would become new surfaces on tree stumps. I was developing a collection of outdoor seating for my MA collection at the time and it was the sheen on a piece of black rubber that made me crave something more reflective. Suddenly the notion of ‘reflecting the sky down to the ground’ and creating ‘a bucket full of trees’ was born. It was actually only after I had a mirror laser cut to fit a log that I realised how much scope the concept could have and the poetic and philosophical qualities that it brought to the work. From there I experimented with scales and created the tiny mirrored logs which I threaded together to form the first tapestry. I exhibited it at the IMM Cologne in 2009.
I met Anthropologie in 2011 when I was exhibiting ‘In with the Tide’ and my Mirror Tapestry for the first time in London. They commissioned a series of the Mirror Tapestries for some of their American and EU stores.
You say on your website that you’re inspired by ‘untamed open spaces’. Tell me why they attract you. What’s been the best open space you’ve been in?
I think it’s a little bit inherent in all of us to enjoy being amongst nature in whatever form it is available; it can be the sense of space it offers, the time for reflection it provides and, of course, the feeling of escapism. It has a different way of distracting you from the urban environment. That said, the urban environment plays a vital role in my work too. I think being based in the city has always fuelled me to find ways to bring nature into that space; the urban landscape gives me friction to work up against. I’m not sure what would happen if I actually lived and worked in a rural landscape. I’d probably start working with concrete.
The best open space would have to be walking across the frozen sea in Turku, Finland. The endless white landscape and piercing blue sky is quite spectacular and so pure.
What else inspires you?
I’ve just finished reading about St Kilda, a remote Scottish island, and how the community survived there until the late 1920s. I am fascinated by situations of extreme rural living and the materials and methods by which they lived.
Great land artists like Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury, Dalziel and Scullion and Christo who understand the appropriateness of materials and the significance materials can have once placed in a landscape. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s amazing garden ‘Little Sparta’ astounded me when I visited in 2008. I also love the writing of Lucy Lippard and her books such as ‘Lure of the Local’. In my everyday life, it is the people around me, in both my old and new studio, that greatly inspire me in how they bring their ideas to life.
What would be your dream creation or commission or have you already made it? Explain.
A dream commission would be to create a beautiful mirror installation for a log cabin by a lake in Canada using locally sourced timber.
I have had some wonderful experiences so far from creating and installing a client’s commission in their contemporary home in Cyprus to being invited to work with Grizedale Arts in the Lake District back in 2009. Staying at Lawson Park Farm was incredibly special and I was introduced to some amazing artists who had really established careers. I was just starting out and felt very nervous yet delighted to be involved in such a creative environment. I got to work with rush [a marsh plant used to make matting, furniture, baskets] which is a gorgeous organic material and loved that, for a time, the installation would be a beautiful feature of the main living space.
What challenges, if any, have you along the way?
Naturally there are many challenges: financing the making of new work and maintaining a studio is extremely difficult at times. In the early stages of running a business you can’t pay yourself as you reinvest everything back into growing the business. You constantly make mistakes which are, of course, the only way to learn but it can wear you down. I am now on a business development program with the Crafts Council UK. I receive mentoring, business guidance and intensive training which, after four years of working alone, has proved a lifeline. It’s important to ask for help but it’s not always easy to find the right way through.
Keeping your motivation strong is a challenge but actually when you move in artistic circles you can seek great inspiration and advice from the people around you; you need a network to keep you going.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought?’ moment? Explain.
All the time. When retailers started stocking my grain and hairy boards, I had a ‘who’d have thought I could design and handcraft a commercial product’ moment. I’m the last person from my MA that I imagined would be doing that (as I am haunted by memories of being surrounded by piles of random materials, saying I don’t know what I’m doing!).
A few weeks ago I found out I had been shortlisted for a public installation project without having to apply for it! The fact people are discussing me and offering me a project without me being aware of it is definitely a ‘who’d have thought’ moment.
What do the next ten years hold?
More travel please and perhaps some time out on a residency! But seriously, I do aim to see my studio more established and have a small team working with me. I would love to be involved in more collaborative projects with architects/landscape architects and continuing to create beautiful installations for a range of clients. I would hope that I am still maintaining my ‘On the table’ series and that it would have moved forward in unexpected and wonderful ways.
I do believe I will move the studio out of London. I often talk about having a rural studio with more space, close to the coast but hopefully with other artists and makers around. Having a community around you is so vital to maintaining networks, skill sharing and bouncing ideas.