Edinburgh Botanics backdrop for art exhibition

Origami orchids, textiles dyed with plants and sculptures from storm­-felled trees all feature in a new exhibition of work by artists with learning difficulties opening at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh today.

Picture: submitted
Picture: submitted
Picture: submitted

The artworks, inspired by the changing seasons at the Botanics, were created by members of the Edinburgh-­based charity Garvald which offers creative opportunities and support for adults with learning difficulties.

They were given open access to the gardens by head of exhibitions and events Dr Ian Edwards after the RBGE hosted their previous exhibition done in partnership with the Scottish Court Service.

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“We were very impressed by what we saw and we wanted to do something similar with a residency at the Botanics,” he says. “I am happy to have this as part of our exhibition programme. It stands alongside the work of every artist we have had and we have had some pretty big names in the art world here in the past. This work is of a very high standard.”

Garvald offers arts and crafts and food production workshops for 150 adults with learning disabilities, such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, and epilepsy, at three sites in Dalry and Gorgie.

The workshops include glass-making, woodworking, pottery, puppetry, weaving and art as well as baking, gardening or tools refurbishment. In addition the charity, set up in 1969, supports around 40 people in their own homes and has a community house where eight people live together.

As part of the two ­year collaboration between Garvald and the RBGE, the artists were able to talk to archivists, botanists, arborists and horticulturalists as well as being given access to the garden’s archives and its living collection.

Morven Macrae, exhibition co-ordinator and art and design studio leader at Garvald, says: “Every workshop got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Botanics, going to the library and archives, going to the herbarium and getting to see the gardens and glass houses.”

Artists working on individual projects were then encouraged to make return visits, allowing them to study how the gardens change over the seasons.

“It was nice to have that time to let ideas develop because it’s about the response to the gardens,” says Macrae. “It’s been nice to go back time after time and season after season to see how the Botanics changes and to see and feel what an incredible space it is.”

Some of the artists are already seasoned exhibitors with their work having been shown in previous shows at the Filmhouse, Traverse Theatre and even the Scottish Parliament, as well as the RBGE.

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For others though, it will be the first time their work has gone on public show. “I try to work it so each new show has people who have not had that opportunity yet,” says Macrae.

For her first exhibition Elizabeth Halliday, who only took up painting two years ago, has produced a series of large watercolours from sketches and photographs done of the plants in the glass houses, and in particular of the cacti.

“I do big paintings properly and I think what colours I put on,” she says. “I think about the colours. Colours makes me happy.”

Artist Kwok Kin Chan, who is visually impaired, spent an afternoon at the orchid nursery with horticulturalist Bruce Robertson where he was allowed to handle some of the plants to get an idea of the shape and size of them. He then translated his paper origami skills into fabric and clay to create a field of hybrid flowers.

Pottery workshop leader Donald Ker worked with Nico Anderson to create a series of 12 large mounted plates which tell the story of the Botanic Garden. The decorated plates depict the founders Doctors Sibbald and Balfour, the Laird of Livingston who brought back over 1,000 plants from his travels in Europe, medicinal plants including the foxglove and other elements of the Botanic Garden.

“The origin of this treasure for Scotland is filled with extraordinary adventurous characters,” says Ker. “Their initial impulse was to create a physic garden to grow plants for medicinal use. What we now have is a garden for the soul.”

Meanwhile the weaving workshop chose botanical dyeing for their theme, collecting oak and cherry bark in winter, daffodils, docken, gorse and hawthorn in spring, dandelions and blackcurrants in summer and blackberries and damsons in the autumn to make plant dyes.

These dyes were then used to colour small squares of material which had been knitted or crocheted from spun wool and fleece. Fleece balls were also dyed to make a large hanging mobile for the exhibition.

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Another group artwork was designed in the glass workshop where members studied leaves, plants and examples of the Green Man – a pagan fertility or nature figure represented by a face surrounded by or made from 
leaves – before making their own Green Woman.

One of the artists, Christopher Cobb, says: “I have looked at different leaves. I have painted on glass leaves. I have learned about the Green Man, it’s a sort of spirit of leaves.”

Finally a woodwork installation Fallen Tree was created by woodworkers James Bennett and Michael McLellan who stripped, shaved and sanded the limbs of tree felled in a storm in 2012.

“We place great emphasis on displaying art and quality craft in a professional, contemporary manner as we aim to continue challenging preconceptions about the capabilities of artists with learning disabilities,” says Macrae. “It’s quite phenomenal what’s come out of it.”

Dr Edwards adds: “Garvald is an amazing organisation; what they can achieve with people who would not be given the opportunity to be this creative and express themselves in this way in the mainstream. I think the way they are giving back to society is just astonishing. I’m genuinely impressed and quite excited by it.”

Naturally – Garvald Artists at the Botanics opens today and runs until 23 March at the John Hope Gateway. Admission is free and a selection of artwork will be available to purchase with the proceeds going towards the continuation of the Garvald Edinburgh exhibition programme.

• For more information about Garvald Edinburgh visit www.garvald edinburgh.org.uk