Taking artistic inspiration from the late-Winter landscape and Hedgerows of Northern Ireland

Artist Blog Celtic heritage Ireland Irish Art Irish Folklore

Regular walks throughout the Winter are for me, like many others, a way of keeping connected to the landscape and the transitions of the seasons.

Come January and February I eagerly await the smallest signs of spring; buds starting to form, green shoots appearing, snow drops, the slight lengthening of days, and, of course, the bright and vibrant yellow of the whin/gorse blossom providing a burst of hopeful colour even on the greyest days.

Although the different varieties of gorse bushes mean there can be blossom almost all year long, the beautifully vibrant, scented blossoms seem, to me, a signal that the winter months will eventually draw to a close. As January became February I began to see more and more beautifully bright Gorse blossom appearing amidst the greys, browns and greens of the Winter hedgerows. It seemed to be more abundant than in previous years…or perhaps it caught my eye specifically this year. The hedgerows of my daily walks are a continual source of inspiration- brimming with pattern, colour and folklore. So I naturally began to wonder about gorse- what was its traditional uses and did it have any symbolism attached to it?

My memories of it are primarily, the scent of coconut from the blossom, those spiky thorns if you get too close, and, dyeing the shells of hard boiled eggs with the petals at Easter time.

Gorse blossoming at Gibb's Island, County Down, in February 

One of the sources I find that offers a succinct insight into some of the symbolism, historic uses and heritage of the flora and fauna of Irish hedgerows is Tales of the Irish Hedgerows by Tony Locke

It has a section dedicated to Gorse (also known as Whin or Furze in Ireland). And a few few points caught my eye:

  • As one of the first spring flowering plants, the furze provides a plentiful supply of pollen for bees when they first come out of hibernation. The product of the bees labour, honey, is the Celtic symbol of wisdom, achieved through hard work and dedication. The furze tells us that if we apply ourselves and keep faith in the future, we will be rewarded. However bleak things may appear there is always the possibility of periods of fertility, creativity and well being. Whilst its thorns remind us that there is protection from unwanted ideas or influences.

  • A sprig of Furze was kept in the thatch, over the door or under the rafters to bring luck into the home and in some places it was wrapped around the milk churn or butter at May time to protect it from the faeries. In Ireland if you wear a piece of gorse/furze in your lapel you will never stumble. The presence of furze on waste ground raises its value.  In Irish law furze was considered one of the Losa fédo or Bushes of the wood.

  • Furze is closely associated with the sun god Lugh, the Celtic god of light and genius and with the Spring Equinox, at which time it’s one of the only plants in full flower. However folklore attaches it to festivals throughout the spring and summer months as a symbol of the power of the sun.

Although gorse appears to have had greater links to the Celtic Festival of Bealtaine, the idea of the Gorse holding the energy of the sun in Winter, to my mind, seems to bear significance and relevance to the Celtic Festival of Imbolc, which marked the turning Winter towards Spring, the lengthening of light and the warming of the earth. Light and life held within seeds, buds, the soil and waiting to be warmed.

And so, the next question was could I incorporate Gorse’s imagery, colour, and its historical use into my work somehow? It certainly would provide a connection with the land and the seasons that I am always striving to achieve with my work. But…. Nature printing, a core part of my process, would be a challenge with gorse. Perhaps using the blossoms to dye Irish Linen (my surface of choice to create on) would honour both the historical use of gorse as a dye plant and falls in line with my interest in exploring and furthering my use of earth-made materials.

The Process- dyeing Irish Linencloth with Gorse blossom

I know that often the dye process is a fine balance of precision, science, art and chance. But as a disclaimer, I have to be honest, I let chance preside, and didn’t give too much thought to weight and measure.

I gathered blossoms from around the bushes along my daily walk route. Being careful not to over-pick is crucial. You can find lots of information online regarding foraging guidelines. The Woodland Trust is a useful place to start: 

Back at home, I added the blossom to a clean pan, added water and brought to the boil. Then left the petals to simmer on a medium heat for 90 minutes before leaving to cool. A beautiful golden, translucent liquid emerged. After simmering, I left the blossoms to soak in the water overnight.

The next day I strained the petals and poured the liquid into a clean dye pot. At this point I probably should have calculated the weight of fabric my liquid would dye! But I took a chance and submerged a pre-mordanted piece of Irish Linen into the water. Brought to the boil and then simmered for 90 minutes.

The fabric began to change colour within minutes and after 90 minutes the soft off-white cloth was a rich yet vibrant yellow. It was rinsed in cold water and then hung out to dry.

And by a lovely coincidence, I dyed the Linen on the 1st February- the date of Imbolc, which felt like a lovely connection to the symbolism of the Celtic Festival.

The Artwork

In truth yellow is a difficult colour to work with- what colours would complement? How could I capture something of the season? As always, turning to the colours of nature yielded the best ideas and results.

I decided to create a wreath design on the fabric (the circle symbolic of the cycle of the seasons). To create the design I used a palette if green, brown, grey and yellow- the palette of my daily walks, evocative of the late-Winter hedgerows and with a nod the hopefulness and energy of the yellow gorse flower. In the wreath I incorporated the imagery of gorse, bracken, and skeletal cow parsley in a layered and tangled composition- again evocative of the Winter Hedgerows themsleves.

My aim was to capture the energy, symbolism of gorse and to honour the season as it transitions from the last of the Winter to the first tentative signs of Spring.

I am delighted the culmination of this process. Gorse is certainly a plant I will be returning to and working with again in the future. For now, the next challenge is to make some decisions on framing!

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