Best known for her international installation artwork created with natural materials – flowers – Rebecca Louise Law’s most intricate large-scale artwork to date, Life in Death, is currently showing at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She talks about her art, her influences – and her time spent at McQueens.
Rebecca, you grew up surrounded by the combined influences of art and nature, didn’t you?
My Nana made art by pressing flowers from her garden, my aunt is a painter who has always painted flowers, my uncle is a painter and he would paint all kinds of different things including nature. But my mum is just passionate about flowers and wildflowers especially. If we were on a walk or on holiday, she’d be so enthusiastic about anything she spotted. She always encouraged us – I’m one of five kids – to draw or play in the garden; it was always about nature.
Tip! Scroll down to find out how you could win a copy of Life in Death: Rebecca Louise Law, the accompanying book to Rebecca’s current exhibition at Kew.
Your father was head gardener at Anglesey Abbey, the National Trust property in Cambridgeshire, while you were at college and university. Was that an influence?
I had absolutely no interest in gardening – I just didn’t care about it at all! I only cared about art and doing art. Looking back, I can appreciate what I was surrounded by and how much of an influence it has had on my work. And the amount of knowledge he has – I’m always asking his advice.
There was also a period of working at McQueens after you graduated. How do you remember that time?
In 2005, I got married and moved to London and was looking for an artist’s studio. But I was also applying for any role that was artistic and creative. I sent a postcard to Kally [Ellis at McQueens] and said ‘I’d love to work for you’ and about two months later she called me in for an interview. At that point, I was really sick of floristry! I thought I’d done enough and was desperate to get back into my artwork. My attitude was terrible – I was just so desperate to get into the art studio. I told Kally, ‘I’m only going to work for you if I can be an artist,’ and she said that was exactly what she wanted. Immediately she put me in charge of anything artistic – the responsibility was immense. They threw me into the deep end and really challenged me: they were good days, actually.
Did your stint at McQueens influence your work?
Definitely. I think in terms of understanding the flower industry, the foundation I learned through being at McQueens was solid. The relationship with the suppliers was invaluable, and those relationships were built through my time at McQueens. And it had an impact on the speed of my work; at art school, it took me six months to make an installation. But by the time I’d finished at McQueens, I could do one in a night!
How did you first discover that flowers were your ‘paint’?
I started out with painting and printmaking at art school. When I first arrived at university I went straight into painting flowers. I was obsessed with colour. From here, I moved into creating huge canvasses – about 8 foot by six foot – of seascapes and it all became about colour. I felt like none of what I was creating was enough. How could you physically experience nature? Every flower I was painting you could never get close enough and every seascape was too distant – even the size of the canvas was never big enough!
I spent a year experimenting with materials and I worked with plastic, metals, beads, wool, even toys – I was trying to find a palette with a material that wasn’t paint. It was becoming really difficult and every single material I found just looked naff or cheap, and when I put it together in an installation it just looked super kitsch – not really me, and not about what I was trying to make happen. So then I had to rethink – well what am I going to do?
I wanted people to have a natural experience of colour. So within those installations, there were a few flowers as well; I’d put them in fresh and they’d dry in the artwork. It was kind of frustrating because the colours they were changing into weren’t the bright colours that I wanted. So I went home from university after my third year and my Dad had a nursery garden full of dahlias. It had been there, all my life, every summer. And I suddenly just saw a palette; I thought, oh my goodness, that’s it. It’s flowers: I have to use flowers.
Human interaction with the flowers is all-important, isn’t it? It’s all part of the experience?
There was the moment when people were in the installation and experiencing it and that made me suddenly realise it’s not about colour, it’s about nature and about the human relationship with nature. And then it was about preservation because I wasn’t allowing this material to die.
Your installations are often on a huge scale. Do you always know what it’s going to look like before you start?
With the installations, it’s very mathematical. I do a rough sketch but everything is worked out mathematically. So with the latest piece I’ve done – if I show you the sketch, it looks really simplistic, but for me, I know exactly how I’m going to do, it’s already in my head. This one has lots of different elements, about 150,000 elements that I will need to create this. I’ll also need 50 people over 10 days – or 25 people over 20 days – but it’s not here in the UK so I’d rather do it in 10 days!
I’ve heard you say ‘no petal is lost’ about your art. What do you mean by that?
Because I see each flower as paint, for me flowers are materials. It’s not necessarily the stems – they still go into waste – it’s always about the head of the flower. I’ve collected ever single petal over at least the last four years and I want to make an installation with petals eventually.
Rebecca Louise Law: Life in Death is currently showing at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew until 11 March 2018 and we have a copy of the accompanying book to giveaway!
The book, featuring the most comprehensive record of her art to date, is published by Kew Publishing with a RRP of £20.
The lucky winner will be chosen and contacted by December 20th, 2017 — good luck!
The giveaway is open to residents of the United Kingdom only. All entrants will be signed up to the McQueens mailing list.