Symondsbury Spotlight: Jo Sadler, Willow Sculptor

Based just over the Dorset border in Somerset, sculptor Jo Sadler is no stranger to Symondsbury Estate, having done willow sculpting courses for us before. Due to their popularity, we’re excited to have booked her in for a new series of workshops between now and November, when she’ll be teaching people how to make a number of different animal sculptures.

Ahead of her workshop on Thursday 20th July when she’ll be teaching how to make Willow Sheep, we interviewed Jo about her journey into willow sculpting and got a fascinating insight into why, when taking part in one of her workshops, you will leave with so much more than a unique work of art.

How did you first get into sculpting with willow?

It was serendipity. I went on a day out to Coates English Willow in Somerset with my sister-in-law. Willow artist and basket weaver, Sarah Le Breton, was running a willow workshop on the day and I popped my head round the door to see what she was doing. It was like a light bulb going off – I just had to give it a go.

I was a gardener at the time and the workshop cost me more than a day’s wages. I made a Deer and Sarah asked me to come back the following week to make a leaping hare out of white willow. On reflection I think she was testing me as white willow is difficult to use and none of the rest of the class was using it! But she gave me a water mister and I just thought I’d give it a go.

I still have that leaping hare – it’s in my kitchen and is about four foot long. At the time I thought, wow, that was an epic make, but it felt great to have risen to the challenge. Sarah then asked me to come back to make a peacock and that was it. A new passion, and a new career, had begun.

Why do you think willow sculpting drew you in, in the way that it did?

I’ve always appreciated being outdoors. With willow, you take a bit and then it grows back – it’s the circle of life and it means you can make something wonderful with minimal footprint on the land.

I also feel that I had a grey cloud following me, but willow weaving has pushed it away. I’ve been so fortunate to find it as a vocation and I would literally do it all day every day if I could! It has a real impact on my mental wellbeing and I wonder if this is why I’m so keen to share it.

I’m really interested in working with people, such as veterans, to use willow sculpting in rehabilitation too. It feels like it can have such a positive impact on people’s health.

It’s a very freeing activity – I guide people on how to create and keep to the silhouette, but how they build up the shape is unique to each individual. There are no rules! People get so involved in making their sculpture, what I call being ‘in the zone’, and this is such a mindful experience which makes anxieties just disappear in that moment.

Is willow difficult to work with?

When you work with willow, it works with you. It’s a wonderful, natural medium – the ultimate eco material with which to sculpt. Before a class I pre-soak it for a week so it’s not too wet or too dry – just the right amount of pliable. Then during the day it dries and we learn how that feels and how it affects working with it. It’s all part of the process.

How the weather has influenced the willow over a year and when it is picked can even make a difference and I’m still learning about it all the time. I buy most of my willow from two families on the Somerset Levels, but I also have my own withy (willow) beds where I’ve been growing it myself for the past eight or nine years.

The main willow I use is Black Maul, but there are other ones with amazing names, such as Britney Green which is really fine and flexible, Dicky Meadows, Flanders Red whose colour lives up to its name, and there are some old varieties being brought back, such as Old French. Each type varies in thickness and has different qualities.

What can people expect from the workshop?

Depending on which one we’re using, everyone will get a bundle of willow in different lengths – you can use up to 15 for each leg of a willow deer, for example. I start by getting people to make a simple hoop so people can get a feel for working with willow, how much it bends and how to start intertwining it.

Then, although everyone is making their own unique animal, it’s a real group activity, but each individual has one-on-one time with me too. Everyone supports each other throughout the day and the togetherness of it all helps build more creativity and confidence in everyone. I feel sad at the end of the day when everyone leaves after getting to know each other in such a short time – but it’s also wonderful seeing the animals they’ve made going off in a herd!

I push people out of their comfort zone but keep it comfortable too. I encourage people to get messy and to play. Participants are often surprised with how much they learn in one day and, even more, that they take away with them a substantial, sustainable and unique artwork. I have a lot of people come back again and again as it can be quite addictive.

Why do you enjoy doing your workshops at Symondsbury Estate?

I’ve known Symondsbury Estate for years. I used to visit with my godparents when I was a child, and it’s wonderful to see it develop over time. It’s such an inviting place that makes me feel calm and relaxed. And, there’s free parking and a lovely café!

So, it feels like the perfect place to do my willow workshops as you’re in nature and it’s a stress-free environment. We do the workshops in Symondsbury’s historic Tithe Barn which couldn’t be a more perfect venue – it’s such an inspiring place to spend time. I can’t wait to get started!

Upcoming Willow Workshops with Jo

Willow Hare Workshop -Tuesday 19th March, Wednesday 20th March & Wednesday 23rd October

Willow Chicken Workshop – Wednesday 10th April & Wednesday 24th July

Willow Pig Workshop – Tuesday 14th May & Tuesday 22nd October

Willow Deer Workshop – Wednesday 15th May, Tuesday 12th November & Wednesday 13th November

Willow Dragonfly Workshop – Tuesday 23rd July

Willow Pheasant Workshop – Tuesday 24th September

Willow Owl Workshop – Wednesday 25th September

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