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The Wytham Studio

From Birds to Bowls and Baubles: An Aviary of Art this Autumn

As the minds of Oxfordshire artists and designer-makers turn to winter, and Christmas, the beady eyes and bright beaks of garden birds are very much in evidence
Sue Side

"Eleanor’s art is an expression of serendipitous moments of freedom that spark happy childhood feelings, and bring back those playful moments and memories."

Esther Lafferty


As the leaves fall from the trees and the landscape becomes increasingly desolate, birds seem to reappear in our collective conscience, and as the minds of Oxfordshire artists and designer-makers turn to winter, and Christmas, the beady eyes and bright beaks of garden birds are very much in evidence.

And with Christmas on the horizon, amongst the many varied delights of Artweeks – from jewellery and glass to metal and mosaic – you can expect birds in every shape and size, from those leaping from the lyrics of the Twelve Days of Christmas, to those destined for the Christmas feast – each on beautiful bowls and platters crafted from ceramics or turned from local wood.

Over at the Sylva Wood Centre (venue 45; 18th and 19th November), alongside fine furniture you’ll find small wooden gifts, including a series of painted birds on wood by artist Nandi Abblett (venue 46), some framed, others freestanding.

Deborah Williams


“The first drawings I ever did were of birds,” she says. “I drew them on notepaper, and when that was used up I drew on paper soap wrappers. I even drew on the walls behind the curtains where my mother would not find them! One day she gave me a roll of lining paper, which kept me quiet for some time, and then the day came when I was given pocket money so I could buy a 6p drawing book every week!”

Nandi then began painting her birds onto wood when she found a piece of driftwood on a beach. “Then I began to notice more and more interesting bits of wood around that I could paint on, whether it was from wood yards, destined for the fire or left over from wood-turning. And wood is just right for birds – with all the beautiful grain and swirls they seem to complement and blend so well together: the knots fit so well with the shape of birds.”

You can also find birds at the Handmade Christmas Market, now in its fifth year, at the West Oxford Community Centre on the Botley Road (venue 58; 25th and 26th November) where talented artists and makers show their wares: pictures, prints, ceramics, sculpture, jewellery, striking handmade books, papier-mache sculpture, baskets, decorations, cards, and much more from a dozen local makers. These include Deborah Williams, who produces a West Oxford art calendar each year for sale at the market, painting a different place or group of people each month. This might be the flooding along the Botley Road, workers demolishing the Westgate shopping centre, or repairing the railway line next to my morning cycle route. People are probably her favourite subject, but expect birds too; you can see a goose peering from her painting ‘January at the Allotments’. Alongside, ceramicist Vicky Hirsch provide a striking contrast – her recent work has been inspired by a story of a rescued crow, and includes a series of dishes made of black Spanish clay combined with white stoneware, to be used or to be hung on the wall.

Clay birds abound too, at Steventon Green Pottery, where potters Jo Bosley and Lyn Harrison open their doors for a Christmas event (venue 20; 17th-19th November). Using a type of clay called stoneware crank (which is great for handmodelling), their salt pots, garden pots, and bird bowls have an earthy, rustic and tactile finish.

In the Didcot Girls’ School-located Freeborn Gallery from 6th November until 15th December, you can see a rare snow peacock captured in vintage textiles on the wall, hanging above colourful cushions, bags, purses, cards, and Christmas stockings made by designer-maker Yvette Phillips, from the characterful fabrics she has lovingly gathered over many years. Also, the whimsical fairytale birds’ tea party and other charming paintings by Eleanor Wong are directly inspired by the thoughts, drawings and imaginations of her children. Eleanor takes and explores the free-thinking nature of childhood and children’s loose and beautiful ways of seeing and imagining the world which makes a Christmas with children so magical, and finds a balance between staying true to these inspirations and incorporating her own style. Avoiding grownup rules, with no fixed realities, Eleanor’s art is an expression of serendipitous moments of freedom that spark happy childhood feelings, and bring back those playful moments and memories.

And in a light-filled studio in a hidden Cumnor garden (venue 38; 18th and 19th November), alongside delicate botanical textile art, murmurations of starlings in exquisite pen and ink hang on the walls and you can find tactile limestone owls by local sculptor David Williams in the garden, some that fit snugly in your hand. Indoors, the striking eyes of a night owl gaze upon you. “I had the privilege to meet this cared-for owl on a recent visit to The Lakes,” explains the artist Sue Side. “Quite an old soul, his eyes were nevertheless bright and penetrating. He seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. The meeting stayed with me and influenced artistic choices I made over the coming months. This etching is an homage to that owl and I hope I’ve captured that same questioning and slightly fierce look.”

Sue is, she says, at her happiest in Oxfordshire’s forests and wooded copses or windswept Otmoor, looking up through the branches of Besselsleigh Wood or wandering deep into the heart of Wytham Woods. And Wytham Woods is also hosting a Christmas Artweeks event on 18th, 19th and 26th November – The Wytham Studio, a wood-built studio in its heart, is inviting you in to see original linocut prints and learn about the process in which they are created.

For birds to hang on the Christmas tree, maker Jane Ellison is showing a range of mosaic Christmas Birds as part of a multi-artist Christmas event at the canal-side Holy Cross Church in Shipton-on-Cherwell (venue 61; 1st-3rd December). Jane Ellison is a surface designer creating textile and paper based prints for the home, working predominantly with abstract repeat pattern, and is particularly inspired by Art Deco, Bauhaus and Modernism. Transferring her pattern-based printmaking skills into the medium of mosaic she has created these richly coloured, decorative and playful birds which will shine and glitter in the lights of Christmas. You’ll find larger bird mosaics at the Otmoor Collective Christmas Event in Beckley Village Hall (venue 65; 2nd-3rd December).


For more information on these exhibitions and craft fairs, and the dozens of other events taking place during Oxfordshire Artweeks’ Christmas Season which runs throughout November and December, visit artweeks.org.


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