Somerset, Willow Woman, Serena De La Hey talks to Robert Hesketh

Best known for her 40ft-high sculpture 'Willow Man', which stands out boldly against wide skies beside the M5 near Bridgwater, sculptor Serena de la Hey has made willow her medium and the Somerset Levels her home. This August she talks about worki...

Somerset, Willow Woman, Serena De La Hey talks to Robert Hesketh

Adapting traditional willow-weaving techniques for figurative sculptures of humans and animals, as well as abstract pieces, Serena de la Hey has explored the scope of her material for more than 20 years. She has found it both versatile and a joy to work with, but it is also important to her that willow is intrinsic to Somerset. Grown on the Levels for centuries, it is both integral to the landscape and the local craft material par excellence.

"All my willow is locally produced. The Somerset willow industry has been established for centuries and local growers produce the best"

Serena first worked with willow as a student at Falmouth Art College. She picked up the material again when she moved back to the Levels to set up her own business. Although she taught herself willow weaving, she has benefited from living and working on the Levels, with its long-established willowcraft traditions. In particular, she has gained from having her workshop at English Hurdle in Curload, a working willow farm owned by the Hector family near Stoke St Gregory.

The Hectors are fourth generation willow growers, who have recently diversified into planting willows and making willow revetments to protect riverbanks. Hurdles and baskets are made on site and Serena enjoys a stimulating interchange of ideas and information with other craftspeople such as basket weaver Chris Beck, who has his workshop next to hers.

"Willow is a local material and a fully sustainable resource," explains Serena. "All my willow is locally produced. The Somerset willow industry has been established for centuries and local growers produce the best - all sorted to size and type, it's incomparable.

"There are hundreds of willow varieties, grown for different purposes. I use the barked withies straight from the fields rather than the buff willow basketmakers use. As for varieties, I use what's available, which seems very appropriate at present with our sustainability concerns."

Serena's sculptures are perforce built on metal frameworks. She first learnt metal-working at college and later trained with a blacksmith. Her workshop is equipped with all the essential metal-working tools, including grinding and welding equipment.

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"Metalwork is only the starting point for a free-standing sculpture," she says. "If I could get away without a metal frame I would, but it gives me a way of working that is possibly unique. I make everything I can myself, but something as big as 'Willow Man' demands industrial-scale fabrication. But this is all part of working with other people and I enjoy that interaction.

"Quite a variety of sources inspire my sculptures," she says. "For instance, 'Willow Man' was an evolution of several ideas over several years. I'm largely a commission-based artist, so my starting point is often a client's brief.

"The human figure has always been central to my work because it's a vehicle for exploring materials and expressing thoughts"

"I've always been interested in material and process - often more so than the final product. I weave everything by hand, using only a pair of secateurs to cut the withies. Your hands are your best tools and I enjoy that physical contact with the material.

"Using willow is like drawing in 3D. Indeed, my sculptures usually start off as brief sketches or preparatory drawings which often prove very close to the finished sculpture. With very large sculptures I build a maquette, which is then scaled up and delivered as a series of engineering instructions. A fabricator can translate these into nuts, bolts and bars, but even then some work is done by eye."

'Willow Man' was Serena's largest sculpture and took nine months from conception to completion. Its true gestation was longer, as it evolved naturally from the previous 10 years Serena had spent working with her material, experimenting and developing her techniques.

"The human figure has always been central to my work because it's a vehicle for exploring materials and expressing thoughts. 'Willow Man' came at the right time and is very much a product of that time in my life. The opportunity was there and the resources were available to build the sculpture locally, entirely of local materials, with the help of local fabricators and contractors.

"Willow weathers and evolves beautifully outdoors. Outdoor willow sculptures are inevitably transitory because withies, like any organic material, deteriorate."

Willow also burns. In May 2001, only a year after he had first been commissioned by South West Arts, vandals senselessly burned 'Willow Man' leaving only his steel structure. Happily, a campaign was launched almost immediately to raise funds and enable Serena to rebuild him, this time marking a new departure by interweaving steel wire with the willow.

Serena completed the rebuild in the autumn of 2001. In conjunction with English Nature, she also built a moat around the sculpture, both to deter another attack and to add something characteristic of the Levels landscape. Since then, the moat has been colonised by reeds and birds, as Serena found when she patched the 'Willow Man' in 2006 to extend his life.

"I enjoy working on large-scale sculptures, the excitement of designing and fabricating," says Serena, who has also sculpted 'Burnley Man', a 16ft-high Lancashire counterpart to 'Willow Man', but definitely a different sculpture. It stands by the M65. In Cornwall, the public can also see three of her figures by a boating lake in Newquay, and another in woods near Boscastle.

Teaching is another part of Serena's life. She has taught both adults and children in a wide variety of settings at home and abroad. A visiting artist at nearby Burrowbridge School, she helped a group of 16 children produce a willow eel snake for Taunton Carnival. The children drew the original designs; Serena made the metal framework and helped the children weave the willow body.

"It's great to be involved in a local project. I enjoy working with other people, and teaching is a pleasant way to do that. I've built a variety of things with students over the years, including willow seats, horses and dragons.

"However, I'm an artist who teaches, not a teacher who practises art. It's part of what I do, but I like to keep it in proportion. I enjoy teaching very much and I've learnt a lot from it.

"I'm working on a sculpture for a private garden in London, plus an environmental art piece. And I've recently finished 'Willow Knot', which is destined for Bow Wharf at Langport." BY ROBERT HESKETH