Cacti and succulents are definitely having a moment. Whether it's something to do with the current Hockney retrospective, or we're just in love with LA, all things botanical are increasingly spilling into the art world. For sculptor Ben Russell, he's decided to create The Cactus House, an exhibition at Mayfair's Hignell Gallery of contemporary sculpture inspired by the "bold organic forms of cacti".
Coinciding with this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the event juxtaposes Ben's beautifully carved stone art pieces with a verdant display of plants created by botanical designers, Conservatory Archives. We spoke to Ben about The Cactus House and where he gets his inspiration.
Why the fascination with cacti?
I love the organic form and just find them really interesting. They are sculptures in themselves, like little explosions of life in a pot! I have a bit of a habit of imagining everyday things made in stone so got a bit over excited when that idea came into my head.
Succulents and cacti definitely seem to be in vogue. Why do you think that is?
Nature, in general, seems to be having a moment! Many of us don't get to spend nearly enough time in green surroundings, so perhaps we are trying to bring the outside world into our homes to reclaim a bit of that space. I guess the low maintenance nature of cacti and succulents also has its appeal and they do look stunning with their many colours, forms, shapes, and sizes.
Can people buy any of these sculptures?
Yes, the sculptures will be for sale throughout the exhibition at Hignell Gallery (11 May - 3 July) and will then be available by commission for about six months after that.
You work from your studio in Dorset. Is it important where you work? What's the scene like there?
I am actually moving back to Dorset in a couple of weeks to set up a new workshop and to get back to my roots. I’ve been living in South East London for about nine years now and the countryside and coastal life has been calling me home for some time. I think it's really important to be happy where you work. I have been extremely lucky in sharing a derelict factory with its own river and trees out the back for the past few years. Without that little slice of greenery, I may have gone mad by now.
In terms of the scene in Dorset, I'm moving to Bridport in West Dorset to set up shop. There is a great arts scene there, which I can't wait to be a part of again!
Describe your process – from idea to completion
For the cacti, I get a good idea of what I would like to achieve through researching in books and visits to greenhouses and gardens. I put a block of stone on the workbench, attack it with an angle grinder to get the bulk off then find my way in with a hammer and chisel. I then polish the piece if required.
I feel working in this manner without too strict an idea of what I want to carve is allowing the pieces to happen quite spontaneously. It’s quite different to how I have worked within the heritage industry and I feel it’s very good for my soul and creative progression to work with such freedom. Many of the stones I have chosen to use are in the form of rough boulders, to begin with, so wherever possible I have tried to let the form fill the stone.
The Cactus House is coinciding with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Was there added pressure working with such a heritage brand?
It's great to be showcasing my work at the same time as this brilliant established moment in the year for the floristry, gardening and landscaping community. I’m looking forward to showcasing my work at a time when people really start to look at nature and all things green.
How will you choose how to place your sculptures amongst the greenery – is there a science to it?
Like the sculptures, I plan to let this happen quite organically. We are having some beautiful plants lent to the gallery by Conservatory Archives so we will all work together to create a beautiful greenhouse vibe to really show off the sculptures.
Finally, what's next in the pipeline?
As I am currently halfway through my cacti pieces I will be focusing on those for a little while longer. In the pipeline I have stonework to produce for a shopfront on Portobello Road before long.
Also some interesting large scale carved pieces to make for a couple of more traditional heritage jobs in the near future. In terms of my own work I am looking forward to being immersed in the greenery that makes up the county of Dorset and seeing what I am inspired to make. I have ideas for a series of sculptures with a darker vibe but am keeping quiet on that for now.
Main image: Ben Russell, Cactus House, Alabaster, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Tanya Dolver