Art and Culture England Have a Go Isles of Scilly

Scilly Art from Nature with Oriel Hicks

Written by Kirstie Pelling

Scilly Art from Nature with Oriel Hicks

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On the Isles of Scilly, the blend of art and nature is an arresting combination. Small galleries and workshops punctuate each of the inhabited islands. Flower farming is a vital industry to the island economy and tourists can also get creative. A walk with Oriel Hicks, one of the local artists, prompts us to make art from the beach..

Beachcombing on Isles of Scilly

Beachcombing on St Mary’s Minack Beach, stage one of our morning of artistic endeavour.

Beach combing for art’s sake

Never has beach combing been a more satisfying activity. The flotsam and jetsam on St Mary’s Minack Beach isn’t torn plastic bags and discarded wine bottles. It is pieces of ceramic tile. It is glass, polished and buffed by the sea. It is coin and slate buffed up into the perfect skimming stone.

“In the past people used to come here to dump their china and crockery. They just drove onto the beach and threw it away,” Oriel Hicks explains, picking up a stone with a perfect hole in. “That one is a nice pendant shape. No need to drill a hole.” she says, pocketing it to work on later.

Sea glass on Minack Beach, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

This is not rubbish but art materials – sea glass, pebbles, and fragments of old china on Minack Beach, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

Nature is inspiration

Everything in nature is inspiration for Oriel who is part of the arts collective Pheonix Craft Workshops. Oriel opened the first of the studios at Porthmellon (just a short walk out of Hugh Town on the Isle of St Mary’s) in 1991.  Seven artists now work at the business park and it is a hub for tourists coming for courses and experience days or dropping in to buy art or visit the upstairs gallery.

I pick up a very odd looking stone and examine it.

Collecting sea glass and pebbles on a beach in the Scilly Isles

We collect materials, ideas and inspiration among the sea glass, pebbles and driftwood.

Learning by osmosis

“I think that was glass but it has melted and has all sorts of stuff in it,” says Oriel. “It’s translucent but you can see that it’s blue.”

We stomp back to her studio through a nature park, learning that the smell of wild garlic is coming from the three cornered leek.

“The Romans introduced it. We can’t get rid of it.”

We watch a Redwing (the bird not the boat) furrow around in the grass.

“They come here for winter. Other rarer birds get lost here on their way to Spain,” Oriel smiles.

We are learning about nature through osmosis.

Oriel Hicks of Phoenix Arts, Isles of Scilly

Oriel Hicks of Phoenix Arts, leads us on our artistic scavenger hunt.

Creating a masterpiece

The kids tip out the contents of their plastic bags on the bench and assess the options for art. They could drill holes in their shells and make bracelets. The could wire wrap the glass. They could stick their treasures around a glass dish. But they have already made up their minds what they will create; being on that beach seems to have had a meditative effect on us all.

Hannah wants to create a recycled bottle out of pieces of sea glass, mounting them on an old slate. Cam is making a mosaic of the beach on a white bathroom tile. Matthew is undertaking the small project of reproducing the solar system on driftwood. Or is it discarded MDF? Stuart decides to create a miniature version of the piles of stones that people are so fond of creating around here. None of our ideas involve anything man made. After a few days on Scilly and a half hour walk on the outer edge of Hugh Town we are in the nature zone.

Art class with Oriel Hicks at Phoenix Arts, St Mary's Isles of S

Our art class progresses as we assess materials, develop ideas and begin to shape the products of our beach inspired imaginations.

Taking nature to work

The Phoenix Craft artists all take inspiration from the wild identity of these islands. That’s not to say they spend their time rummaging about in the sand. Or taking people like us onto the beach salvaging for materials. Oriel’s beachcombing tour is a preview of the quirky one-off tour she plans to run for the Isles of Scilly Walking Festival.

Art doesn’t make itself and the artists spend much more time at the workbench than at the tide line. Also, Oriel is more fine art than beach art. An expert in fused glass, her best selling pieces are splash dishes that look like they’ve just come straight from the tide line, pebble coasters made out of glass and fused glass sea horses. For her workshops, she teaches kids the art of tiffany glass and helps them make roundels. For us she opens her kiln to show some freshly fused creations.

Fresh from the kiln, Oriel Hicks inspects her latest creations.

Fresh from the kiln, Oriel Hicks inspects her latest fused glass creations.

Inspiration from the water

A quick scout around the studios and you see natural themes reoccurring again and again. Oriel’s most recent commission, a stained glass window for the church on the island of St Agnes, shows boatmen crossing to the island.

“I get inspiration from the colours of the water. Because glass is transparent it is very like water, so you get stronger light coming through it than more opaque materials.” Oriel explains.

Oriel Hicks with a  stained glass commission for St Agnes church

Oriel Hicks shows her latest commission, stained glass panels for the church on St Agnes

Nature inspired scarves, beads, cushions…

In a nearby room Liz Askins show me her delicately painted silk Scilly Scarves. And she describes the moment she captured a heron on a rock and transformed it into one of her best-selling cards. Next door Victoria Carter uses the colours of nature to influence her designs of beaded and silver jewellery laid out on driftwood and draped over an old china tea service inherited from her grandparents. The artists here transform their impressions of nature into coasters and mugs. They paint cushions and sun catchers with the signs of spring and summer, and with the colours and smells of island life.

Beadwork at Pretty Little Things, Phoenix Arts, Isles of Scilly

Pretty little things – handmade beads made by Victoria Carter in one of the Phoenix Arts workshop units.

One man’s rubbish..

Matthew scrapes the inside of a shell to make stardust for his planets. Stuart uses a piece of slate that has been tossed and polished by the sea for the top of his cairn. Hannah’s recycled bottle stopper is the smashed rim of an old glass bottle. We all see how mesmerising nature can be when you touch it and feel it and work with it. We shape it with our hands. We take one idea and make another.

Apart from the odd “can you pass the glue” no one talks. Indoors, out of the wind, we are all absorbed in nature. We make art from rubbish while around us the artists make art from fine materials, beads and glass. Meanwhile outside the workshop, the sea smashes small fragments of pottery into even smaller fragments. Pebbles are smoothed and carved and rounded. The wind blows shells onto seaweed. The sand grates against shards of glass. Nature is creating itself while we recreate nature. It is a golden circle. Perhaps I should make a picture of it out of shells and stones?

Nature's solar system

Artistic inspiration leads us in different directions. For some a new planetary system emerges.

Taking the art into nature

We bid goodbye to Oriel. But our work is not yet done. We nip onto Town Beach and collect a pile of shells. We work with sand and shell to make a heart. We form our own beach art collective. To show everyone how much we love the wild canvas that is the Isles of Scilly, and to demonstrate how addictive making art out of nature can be.

A heart of shells on the beach

We end the day leaving a heart of shells on the beach, ready to be washed away on the next tide.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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