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  • Katie Spragg’s studio. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Katie Spragg’s clay wildflowers grow through the cracks at London’s Garden Museum

The British ceramicist explains how the seeds for her intervention were planted

Spragg's installation at the Garden Museum

‘For a long time, I’ve been hoping to make a piece directly inspired by working with other people and collecting their stories. My Arts Council-funded commission for the Garden Museum allowed me to do just that. Its title, Lambeth Wilds, connects to my interest in wild plants and weeds: plants that appear uninvited. What we consider to be “nature” is having to change because our world is so urbanised – dandelions coming up out of the pavement might be the only greenery in sight.

‘I began with a short research residency, looking at the ways wild plants are represented within the museum’s collection. I focused on albums of pressed flowers: it has an amazing one created by a teenager just after the Second World War, when there was a great flourishing of wildflowers on bombsites across London. This research turned into an engagement project with Lambeth Young Carers (a group of children aged five to 18 who are helping to care for family members with disabilities or illnesses) that explores wild plants as metaphors. I asked everyone I worked with to fill out a card with a story or memory related to a wild plant. I wanted to build a People’s Catalogue of the Wild Plants of Lambeth, created with help from museum visitors and people who live here. These plants are featured in my final piece.

Katie Spragg. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Lambeth Wilds is a pair of concrete blocks with life-size porcelain plants growing from the top and roots coming through beneath – roots are something I’ve never made before. The piece is quite large (one block is over two metres long) and is suspended a few metres from the ground. Working from my Bermondsey studio, I sculpted my way through the People’s Catalogue, hand-modelling the plants out of white porcelain or a stoneware blend, which I leave unglazed.

‘Clay comes from the earth, like plants, and I’m interested in the connection between medium and form. The species include nettles, dog roses, dandelions, poppies, daisies, hart’s tongue fern, wild strawberries, granny’s bonnet, violets, cleavers and lots of different grasses. One person wrote a card saying that they enjoyed seeing bluebells among nettles, as a reminder that there’s always good mixed in with bad. I liked this, so I included bluebells.

‘The Garden Museum is in an old church; my piece will be in front of the nave windows. It’s an amazing space, and the curators gave me the freedom to do what I wanted in it. There’s wonderful light that moves across throughout the day and changes over the year, which I’m hoping will bring the work to life. I’ve designed it so the shadier plants such as ferns are in the darker area, and sun-loving ones like daisies are near the window. My relationship with the museum began in 2016, when I invited its curator to visit my MA graduate show at the Royal College of Art. There was an obvious connection between what they were doing and what I was doing, and the idea of a commission was born.

A work from Spragg's degree show at the RCA, a concept she has expanded for her Garden Museum installation. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

‘Public engagement is a key part of my work. My Clay for Dementia programme at the museum involves orchestrating six weeks of garden-related activities for people with dementia. I love doing it, and seeing people remembering ceramic skills when their memories are in the process of deteriorating is so rewarding.

‘I do a similar programme with Lambeth Young Carers, where we’ve explored parallels between young carers and wild plants in terms of resilience and determination. The wildflowers are a symbol of hope, and can be used as a metaphor for these overlooked communities in the area around the Garden Museum. There’s all this money along the riverside due to its proximity to Westminster and Lambeth Palace – which has the biggest private garden in London – but normal communities living here are often forgotten.’

Lambeth Wilds is on permanent display at the Garden Museum, London

This article appears in the November/December issue of Crafts – available to buy now

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