Mary Butcher at the Guild at 51

'Floating Vessel' Willow Pairing & Assembly Embassy of Japan 2011 Photography by Jonathan Lynch
‘Floating Vessel’
Pairing & Assembly
Embassy of Japan 2011
Photography by Jonathan Lynch

SIT’s Maker in Focus programme continues at the Guild at 51 with a showcase of work by mixed media sculptor Mary Butcher MBE, one of the foremost willow specialists in the country. ( Here she reveals why she makes, why basket making matters and the endless appeal of willow.

Why do you make?

Making as an activity absorbs me completely, both in hand and mind. There is a pleasure in making movements of the hands. They are usually rhythmic, often precise and small, though with willow they can also be powerful movements with serious intentions. They are often repetitive, which in no way means that you have no need to think. If it is a traditional object being woven the thought passes to the back of the mind and the front is free to drift while being aware of the processes in progress. If it is something more experimental, all thought concentrates on the actions and on the very many small decisions which the mind takes as the making continues. These, which are responses to the questions ’Does the work satisfy me? Do I like it?’ keep the making processes constantly interesting and mentally stimulating. Each answer to a silent question is a challenge.

Of course, I also make because I am asked to and have deadlines.

And where? Please describe your studio

I have a Studio, although I call it a workshop, that I can walk into from the house and which, when clear enough of materials, is a calm place in which I find and sort materials, pin up experiments on a wall-long board, make large and small works, pack it up, listen to the radio, watch the road, hear the birds outside and the students and cars passing.

It is small, I suppose, but for many years I had to work in the small rooms of my house so it feels luxurious and with enjoyable light. It is longer and narrow, with shelves at each end packed tight with boxes of silks, wires, tools for separate skills, stones, linen threads, leather off cuts and the weights, water spray bottles, scales, sack ties and large scale tools that are a part of my willow life.

Along one wall are stacked banana boxes, on trolleys made for me in the West Dean workshop, with carefully sorted stuff for projects: many sorts of wires, plastic covered washing lines in many colours, leaves of all sorts, the trunk of a date palm, materials gathered on a Tuscan Residency, from another week on Shetland, from three weeks in Chile. They are the travel boxes, possible sources of inspiration.

It is far from tidy a lot of the time but that is because I am too busy and taking tools and materials in and out for teaching and talks. I am at home with sweeping things aside rapidly and clearing space.

What are your favourite materials and why?

I am still fascinated and passionate about willow in almost all its uses, for traditional work and for things contemporary. It can be huge and strong, delicate for fine work, split for skeined work. All have a sheen, a scent, a strength that is unique to this, one of the great plants of the world. The knowledge of the limitations of each rod, its tensile strength and flexibility, comes with frequent long-term willow weaving and is a delight. For many years willow was all I used for basketmaking (though chair seating repairs had a different palette) but I have come to be enthralled with other materials too. While at the V & A I started using vellum and now have used the skins in a variety of ways. Its surface and translucence are unique but combine well with a willow framework and allow me to do something different.

When did your fascination with baskets begin?

I am not sure, but it seems significant now that when I came back to the UK from being a graduate researcher and teacher in an American university zoology department I brought back a Native American coiled basket which had caught my eye in a junk shop. Some years later, on the first outing free of tiny children, I went to a Shaker exhibition and was transfixed by five open hexagonal plaited baskets grouped on a table. They were the exhibition highlight for me. Then I met a woman with a distinctive shopper bought from a basketmaker, Alwyne Hawkins, outside Canterbury and arranged to visit. He thought I wanted to learn so had everything ready and I felt I could not refuse. I enjoyed every moment of that first afternoon. He was a most generous man with his time and knowledge so I went once a week for several years. He was a wise man too so I was doubly lucky.

Why is the transmission of basket knowledge important?

I feel we may need these simple technologies again. Willow is a sustainable material, although rarely grown organically now. It is cut every year, an annual coppice system, and a willow bed will continue to supply materials for about fifty years if the conditions are good. Basketmaking does not use up other valuable resources.

And although life has changed and we do not need the same forms of basket that we needed previously we can adapt and invent if we keep some knowledge of the basketmaking processes alive. Baskets are cheap, durable, resilient, elegant containers, pleasing in use and quickly replaced when necessary. They are part of our heritage and essential to our history.

What are you showing at the Maker in Focus showcase?

I was asked to make a large free standing piece and a group of smaller objects. ‘Skeleton: Necessary Elements’ is tall and open, with a structure of red dogwood with white willow rods attached, a true skeleton, but each rod, a necessary element, sustains the form. It took several days and there are still parts I could tackle again but it has some satisfying rhythms.

I also made a set of bowls, red paper tape woven with finest silk threads, which also took some days, to my surprise. Another has splints of machine cut chestnut woven with willow bark and threads, a third involved knotted vellum strips, so with a dusty translucence.

A willow bark bag stitched with skeins pleases me with its austerity and texture. Finally there is ‘Floating Vessel” which I made earlier and which was shown in the publicity in Crafts magazine.  There is a close connection in the works in my mind, all about line and balance.

 Mary Butcher Maker in Focus  runs from 7th January at the Guild at 51, 51 Clarence Street, Cheltenham, GL50 3JT

Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10am – 5pm (closed Mondays)

Maker in Focus is a partnership with Stroud International Textiles ( and curated by Lizzi Walton.

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