An Introduction to Living Sculpture

As part of our new Ecoarts project in Dumfries and Galloway, we would very much like to explore the idea of living sculpture. For anyone not familiar with the concept, living sculpture is created with living, growing grasses, vines, plants or trees. It is usually for decorative purposes but can also be functional. Popular techniques include topiary and tree shaping. An interest in gardening would seem to be an advantage but skills such as grafting or pruning can easily be acquired.

sleepingmudmaidSleeping Mud Maid by Sue and Pete Hill

The appeal of Living Sculpture is obvious for a project such as ours but it will be a radical change from anything that I’ve done before. Any sculpture that I have been involved in has been of the more traditional media such as clay, plaster or wood. Using plants for sculpting dates back centuries to the earliest bonsai or topiary but it has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years. Inspired by the green theme, artists have been inspired to make stunning new living creations in the landscape.

Whereas most art forms can be a solitary effort, creating a living sculpture can often involve a team effort to achieve the desired results. Topiary is probably the best known form of living sculpture, previously regarded as something you may only find in the more expansive gardens of English stately homes. It involves the art of growing dense, leafy plants or hedges and training them over a frame or pruning them into three-dimensional shapes. They can also be grown to fill a framework. Believe it or not, the earliest records of topiary date back as far as 23-79 AD! The Romans used cypress trees quite extensively for this purpose.

topiaryteapotTopiary teapot in the Malham village National Park, North Yorkshire.

Perhaps the most familiar use of topiary is animal forms. This is something that was popular with the Dutch in the 15th century, spreading to England in the 17th century. It fell out of favour until Victorian times and eventually spread as far afield as North America. Bonsai trees are a form of indoor topiary where miniature trees are cultivated for decorative purposes.

Another form of Living Sculpture are Turf Works, created from grass or moss and soil. This type of art dates back to the Land Art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The original artworks were usually created well away from local communities and given the opportunity to develop under natural conditions. The first such pieces were created in the deserts of Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were not intended to last forever and many of them now exist only in old photographs.

willowhorseWillow sculpture by Kim Creswell

There are all sorts of ways in which the artist can work with living media in the landscape to create labyrinths, mazes or recognisable shapes with which we can identify. Willow is another increasingly popular source of material for creating living sculptures. This is now harvested and sold in kit form so that others can learn to be creative in their gardens and open spaces. There really is no limit to it other than the human imagination.



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