Naturally inspired...

A Graphic Nature exhibition being held at Millennium Gallery 'Exhibition curator Rowena Hamilton,  with some of the exhibits
A Graphic Nature exhibition being held at Millennium Gallery 'Exhibition curator Rowena Hamilton, with some of the exhibits

A new exhibition looks at artists’ relationships with nature and argues that there is still a strong link, reports Ian Soutar

THE natural world has long provided a rich source of inspiration for artists and designers but it has been suggested that the connection is being lost as people’s lives become increasingly urbanised.

With work now mechanised and digitised, are we losing touch with those aspects of nature which once provoked such awe and wonder?

The answer is no, according to the latest exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, Graphic Nature, which presents ways in which the natural environment continues to influence the most innovative design ideas, often in surprising ways.

With examples of lighting, ceramics, textiles, glass and metal, Graphic Nature brings together the work of a range of contemporary artists and designers who find their greatest inspiration in the environment.

“We are trying to get away from the idea that all contemporary work in striving to be edgy and abstract has moved away from that,” says curator Rowena Hamilton.

“We are also trying to draw out how these new ideas are connected to older ideas.”

Thus some artists are following in the footsteps of their predecessors at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement in studying the diversity of the natural world to create decorative, practical objects.

Others demonstrate a fascination with the underlying complexities of the natural world from its organic elegance to mathematical structure.

Aiming to represent a vibrant celebration of nature’s enduring influence, the exhibition features the work of leading designers from across Europe complemented by examples of their real inspiration from Museums Sheffield’s historic decorative arts and natural history collections.

Some have come from the Ruskin Collection which would otherwise be stored away while the Ruskin Gallery is closed for refurbishment until March.

There are samples of marble collected by John Ruskin while in Venice which ties in with long textile hanging by Bethan Wood prominent on the wall facing the entrance to the gallery.

During a residency in Venice the artist became fascinated by the marble interiors of many of the buildings and undertook a series of drawings reproducing the patterns.

“She has abstracted these into dynamic patterns just as William Morris did,” Hamilton says.

The textile artist has also created a series of scarves with patterned stripes which turn out to be replicating the fake marble created by using a paint technique.

“She is playing with things that look natural but are obviously fake and asking what is natural and what is imitation and whether one is better or worse than the other,” explains Hamilton.

A piece of ceramics by Peter Beard inspired by the nautilus shell is displayed near the real thing which represents a natural example of a logarithmic spiral.

Mathematics plays a significant role in several exhibits. The Fractal Table by Platform Wertel Oberfell follows fractal growth patterns.

A treelike stem sprouts into smaller branches which become intensely dense towards the top. It is based on a branching algorithm, the fractal mathematics behind the structure of trees or snowflakes or even cauliflowers.

“You don’t have to understand the mathematics to be able to appreciate the beauty of the objects on display,” insists the curator.

Other examples of interior design are a wooden seat by Harry Wells and a Romanesco Pendant fibreglass LED by Ulrika Jarl.

High up on the wall is the Vitra algae room divider on display above nouveau animal form printed textiles by Sheffield artist Sarah Haywood, who has created her own hybrid creatures by combining different species such as a giraffe and birds.

Graphic Nature will include contemporary metalwork from Sheffield’s Katey Felton and Hiroshi Suzuki, based at Welbeck.

There is also a display of beautifully coloured fused glassware inspired the study of natural patterns made by Y9 students of Park Academy at an after-school workshop with artist Alison Zwaard.

Graphic Nature is in the Craft and Design Gallery of the Millennium Gallery until July 3.