British sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon makes large-scale work by weaving willow. Her dynamic forms, which emphasize the process of making, emerge from a detailed and, to some extent, meditative, almost spiritual approach. In her current exhibition—“Chaque Fibre de Mon Être” (“Every fiber of my being”), at L’Abbaye de Maubuisson in the town of Saint-Ouen L’Aumône, just northwest of Paris—her sensitivity to materials is paired with attention to an evocative site. Two installations, Breathe and The Feeling Remains, interpret and transform spaces formerly occupied by nuns, one space for speaking and the other for silence and working.
Robert Preece: How did you come to be interested in weaving willow?
Laura Ellen Bacon: When I realized, over 20 years ago, that I wanted to work with sticks, it was a simple desire to want to enmesh, to enclose, and to draw in a three-dimensional way. The roots for these instinctive ideas grew in childhood, when I was always to be found burrowing into hedgerows and assembling treehouses in my parents’ fruit farm. I recently watched a profoundly beautiful film called Petite Maman (2021, directed by Céline Sciamma), in which a young girl explores dens in the woods, and it brought home the preciousness of these formative experiences. Serendipitously, I watched the movie while making my work at L’Abbaye de Maubuisson and then found out that it was filmed close by.
It was difficult for me to find a large supply of hedgerow or sapling-sized sticks, so I turned to willow because there are hundreds of willow sticks in a bundle. I was never formally trained in willow; instead, I discovered my own ways to use it. Immediacy and spontaneity fueled my work, but I also relished the chance to construct forms around myself that required an element of honed instinct combined with a measure of chaos.
My work developed in two ways that still apply today: first, forms that relate directly to their site and may feel like entities in their own right, and second, what I call “woven spaces”—spaces that people can enter. Accumulation and layering of materials en masse play a big part in my work, and I use a variety of materials to achieve those things, including stone—employing a method of dry stone walling—and my next project involves thatch. Willow remains a principal part of my work, however, and I use a self-taught technique that is very personal to me.
RP: What kinds of forms have you explored over the years? Have you hit any limitations?
LEB: All of my forms are abstract. I’ve created them on buildings such as the Artist’s House at Roche Court (Split Forms, 2012) and on the façade of the Holburne Museum in Bath (Murmuration, 2015). I’ve also worked in interior spaces, such as a gorgeous new headquarters building in Denmark, and outside in response to the landscape—at Chatsworth Garden (in 2009 and 2020) and at Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts House in Cumbria, in 2012. I’ve even worked in my waders in rivers, including the River Cray, which is a chalk stream, for Course (2015).
I’ve never encountered limitations in a negative sense, but the size and shape of my work is dictated by my reach and size—the literal reach of my arms and my height. That’s not to say that I don’t use scaffolding and specialist equipment to gain height for the work, but I still enjoy the notion that it is all woven and built at my fingertips. I can be found lying underneath my work, bent over it, and standing within the weave, engaged in sustained, repetitious labor to create every inch of it, which I love.
One of the limitations of my outdoor willow work is that nature will reclaim it after several years, although it lives on in other ways—for instance, the symphony Woven Space by composer Helen Grime, which was inspired by my work of the same name. In contrast, my work in stone is welcomed into the natural world with layers of lichen and moss and lived in by small creatures. Natural Course (2020), for example, is a permanent part of a landscape at Chatsworth.
RP: Are there still things you are learning about willow after 20 years?
LEB: I’m not at all an expert in conventional willow skills, and I never will be because I use such a personal technique. I’ve never made a basket, for example. I continue to be fascinated with how the willow is grown and produced and am pleased to be working with a sustainable material. I’m still hungry to work with new sites and new approaches. It excites me enormously.
RP: You spent six weeks at Abbaye de Maubuisson. What did you do while you were there?
LEB: After taking some time to reacquaint myself with the spaces, my first task was to check on my materials. Willow needs to be soaked before working with it, and I had arranged for my supply to be placed in a large pool outside the Abbaye prior to my arrival. Within the first couple of days, enough soaked willow had been hauled out of the water to assemble part of the framework for the first work I made, The Feeling Remains, which is in a large, 23-meter-long space called the Salle des Religieuses. I spent just over three weeks creating that work; it was a very intense but wonderful time. There is a time-lapse film of The Feeling Remains being made, and it strikes me how the sunlight from the high windows turns over the work day in, day out, illuminating the increasing density of the developing weave. Portions of the work seem to emerge like hatching lines in an etching; some steadily, some surprisingly swiftly.
The meditative repetition of making—and the pleasure I find in that—is integral to all my work, and in this case I “warmed up” by creating a series of large willow charcoal drawings beforehand. The drawings relate to a smaller space alongside the Salle des Religieuses, called the Latrines, where the visible flow of water beneath your feet and repeated marks in the stone walls influenced my drawings. They have many small repeated lines, which sounded like breathing when the charcoal rhythmically touched the paper. The drawings were works within themselves, but certainly also a preparation for the larger, woven works.
RP: Breathe occupies the only space where the nuns were allowed to speak. How did you deal with that conceptually, as well as in terms of planning and presentation of the work?
LEB: That context is historical. The space now is a smoothly run art gallery, but I was keen to try to tap into the feelings in the space and the walls for some kind of echo or hidden layers of speech. Breathe was the second of the installations that I worked on, and it was quite a contrast from the first piece. It’s very light and airy in construction and uses white willow, which catches the morning sunlight through the old windows. The design began after a first visit months before, although the final plans were refined and shaped on site.
In contrast to The Feeling Remains, which is very dense, the light knotted interior of Breathe is as important as the visual outline. As a viewer, you see the outline first, but the thousands of hand-tied knots and curls run all the way through the work, like the fibers in a lung; every strand, every fiber, of willow can be seen. The title relates to my attempt to breathe in the feeling of the space, and it also implies the sense of relief and freedom when we speak and are understood.
RP: What were your thoughts about the site for The Feeling Remains? How did that setting influence the work?
LEB: In essence, this work is about presence. Historically, this space was used by the nuns for a variety of manual tasks, including sewing, I believe, and they remained silent in their work. This magnificent space is empty now—and echoes beautifully. For me, the nuns’ work and enduring presence are palpable there. I feel that when you use your hands to make things and you have focus in your work, you leave a part of yourself in the work and in the place. The Feeling Remains hopes to demonstrate that.
It’s a fabulous space, with height and detail, and theoretically I could have created something high up in the architecture, but I felt drawn to rooting the work to the floor. Although the work is very large, it was important to adopt a human scale so visitors can feel a physical relationship to the work and, in turn, find an enhanced relationship to the space. A large pair of forms, which can be walked around completely, expose a raw, stick-filled core when the visitor enters between them, a gesture toward the physical nature of the work. It is no coincidence that the stick-filled, natural interior pulls toward the daylight and the trees outside.
RP: What do you consider your artistic influences?
LEB: Film and music remain my primary influences. The ambition of communication in both of them inspires me profoundly.
RP: Would you describe your making as almost spiritual?
LEB: To some extent, yes. Once the weaving or knotting begins, it is a very absorbing process. The prelude to the absorbing repetition, however, is creating the willow framework, which requires much concentration and often lots of change. In the same way that my energies seem centered when I’m weaving and assembling, the same is true for the generation of ideas through drawing.
“Chaque Fibre de Mon Être” remains on view at L’Abbaye de Maubuisson through August 28, 2022.