Category: design

The art of scientific glassblowing


This article was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas SG Farnetti.

Meet Gayle Price, a glassblower whose work for chemists, physicists and medics shows that craft skills and creative thinking are essential to science.

Wearing a knee-length white lab coat and wraparound shades, her long hair clipped back, Gayle Price adjusts the amount of gas and oxygen flowing into her burner. It has the look of a blowtorch, but one fixed in place and with six different outlets. The wavering orange flame that’s shooting out of it becomes fierce blue and sharp as a pin, its dull roar now a hiss.

Holding a 1.5-metre-long glass rod in one hand – hollow, with a 7 mm diameter – and a much shorter, thicker solid metal rod in the other, she starts heating the glass in the flame. As it glows and softens, she begins coiling it evenly around the metal. Her movements are quick but rhythmic. She works by eye alone.


Gayle hasn’t always worked with glass for a living, but she now can’t see herself doing anything else. She studied photography at school, then trained as a painter and decorator. After that she worked as a bouncer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but found night shifts increasingly tough.

Wondering what to do with her life one day, she saw an advert in the paper for an apprentice scientific glassblower, a scheme run jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She was intrigued, so applied and got the job, which was based in East Kilbride.

Under the direction of William McCormack – a glassblower who appreciated the importance of passing on his knowledge, nurturing five apprentices before he retired – Gayle cut her teeth making spiral taps for filtering gases, while also studying applied science on day release at college. The instruments she was making reminded her of the ones that often featured in the old horror films she loved watching with her dad.

During her training, Gayle realised that she’d always wanted to work with her hands like this, and that the promise of having her own workshop one day was compelling.


Step into Gayle’s current workshop at the University of Leicester and the joy of having a room of one’s own in which to work is easy to see. Packed with glassware of all sorts, and the tools required to manipulate it into a multitude of shapes, she’s made this practical basement space immensely personal.

There are posters and postcards all over the walls, and stickers decorating the burners and lathes. Teardrops of glass have peacock feathers trapped inside, glitter-encrusted glass flasks have wings. It’s Gayle’s space, but she’s not in the least bit territorial. She’s more than happy for me to poke around.


As Gayle works at the burner, a spiral forms in the heat, each twist and turn symmetrical. In her hands, something I think of as rigid and fixed becomes elastic, amorphous. The coil complete, she removes the entwined metal and glass from the flame and places them on a rack to cool. In a few minutes the metal will contract, allowing the glass to slip off easily.

Gayle takes another 1.5-metre length of hollow glass rod. Using a stubby knife with a tungsten carbide blade, she slices into it, leaving a deep scratch in the surface. She snaps the glass along this groove. Slowly spinning a now shorter length of glass between forefinger and thumb, she inserts one end into the burner’s 1,220°C heat.

Surrounded by flame, the end brightens, becomes liquid-looking, and eventually seals off. Despite being far from the flame, the other, still-open end of the rod glows. Instinct tells Gayle when to pull the glass out of the flame and press that orange, open tip to her lips.

I gasp, anticipating seared flesh. She blows, gently at first, then harder. A beautiful bubble grows at the rod’s opposite, softened tip. A perfect sphere, swelling out evenly under her steady breath. The end she blew into was in fact cool; glass is a good insulator and that orange glow just a fibre-optic trick of the light. She places the finished bubble alongside the spiral on the rack.


Working mainly for the university’s chemistry department, but also for physics and medicine, Gayle makes a mixture of standard and bespoke glass instruments to order, as well as fixing broken glassware from the teaching labs. Glass is an excellent material for scientific equipment: it’s durable, transparent, non-reactive, and easy to sterilise in the oven.

Gayle also collaborates with artists, recently working with a ceramicist and a jewellery designer on two projects for British Science Week. One resulted in delicate fungi-like structures made from white porcelain and clear glass, the other a large sculpture of reindeer lichen, rendered in green and clear glass.

Gayle savoured the chance to work differently, although admits it did feel odd to deliberately introduce flaws. “I usually work to very exacting parameters,” she explains. “It was different to be asked to just explore, to not create something regular. And good to be reminded how beautiful and versatile glass can be.”


Watching Gayle work, it’s clear that to be a scientific glassblower you need to be a problem-solver, and a logical but creative thinker. You need to be patient, dexterous and able to control your breath. Gayle’s scientific job involves much artistry.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, so when she invites me to have a go, I can’t resist. Putting on her spare set of wraparound shades – these have a special coating that allows you to see the glass more clearly in the flame – I ready myself in front of the burner.

Gayle sets me five tasks: cutting a glass rod, softening a sharp edge, creating a test-tube end, blowing a sphere, and making a bend. All of it is far, far harder than she makes it look, especially the blowing. Getting the glass to bubble out seems impossible at first. Gayle eggs me on – “Blow harder! Harder!” – and eventually I squeeze out a tiny, lopsided sphere. It’s pathetic, but I’m proud.

Watching – but most of all feeling – the glass transform in the flame is fascinating. I now understand more clearly what Gayle means about this everyday material’s elasticity, versatility and beauty.


I ask Gayle about the places where art and science meet, and whether she would ever consider herself to be an artist or craftsperson. “The intersections between art and science are undeniable,” she says. “Both are about discovery, exploring the unknown, making something new. As a scientific glassblower, I like the freedom to be both a craftsperson and an engineer.”




Intimate and invasive: the art of ethical taxidermy

The Ethical Taxidermist

This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.

Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.

She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.

Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.

Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.

Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.

The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.

Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.

But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.

Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”

It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.

Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”

Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.

Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”

Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.

Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.

Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?

Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.

“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”

Making Nature: How we see animals was on at Wellcome Collection until 21 May. A museum of modern nature will open on 21 June. Find out more about Jazmine’s work at

Connect | spring 2016


The spring issue of Greenpeace UK’s Connect magazine has just been published, with a focus on forest fires in Indonesia and the devastating effect deforestation is having on orangutans. Our great ape cover star was photographed by Markus Mauthe. The pollution from the fire crisis has been disastrous for people too – the region has been cloaked in a choking haze that causes severe breathing problems.


Other features this issue include ‘Tainted tuna’ and ‘Fracking hypocrites’. One of the articles I’m most happy with is about the Arctic Ocean – it begins with this magnificent jellyfish double-page spread, inviting the reader into the fascinating underwater world beneath the sea ice. Magnificent creatures like this Scyphozoan jellyfish – photographed by Alexander Semenov – are threatened by industrial fishing fleets that are moving into the Norwegian Arctic, as climate change causes the ocean’s once-protective shield of ice to melt.

I edit and help project manage the production of Connect, which is sent to Greenpeace UK’s regular financial supporters.

Review | The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner_sun and sea

This review was written for Animations Online

Using Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to give them both a structure and a theme, The Tiger Lillies present their musical take on the epic poem. Never more than a band playing a gig, albeit an unusual one, it’s Mark Holthusen’s animated set that makes this an interesting piece of stagecraft. Using a screen behind the band and a very fine see-through one stretched in front of them, Holthusen’s projected Python-esque animations illuminate the band’s progress through a series of slow piano ballads and bawdier songs.

The potential for this to be a brilliant aural and visual treat is high but on the night The Tiger Lillies seem lack lustre, almost at odds with the animated wonders going on around them. The songs follow a predictable pattern of fast then slow, then fast, then slow, with little variety in between, and the actual story they are attempting to tell proves hard to decipher. There are some great turns on the accordion, saw and pheromone, which help create an eerie maritime atmosphere, but overall the band just don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves.

While it’s hard to say what Coleridge would think of the Tiger Lillies’ interpretation of his poem, he would surely be slack jawed at the projected set. A series of moving images, combining filmed live action and animation, fill the stage with life. Within the film, there’s circus style aerial work and acrobatics, rod and string puppets, and some great masks. Drunken sailors wrestle among barrels, mermaids swim through the air, a huge albatross puppet sweeps across the stage, sails billow and the flames of hell leap. The richly coloured suns, moons and clouds are especially striking, and recall Terry Gilliam’s paper cut out work for Monty Python.

While the animation is a highlight, the illusion isn’t complete. The fine screen in front of the band is hard to ignore, and creates a barrier between them and the audience that could help to explain why they feel so distant. There is no interaction at all between the band and the graphics around them. And some of the imagery is random, mere wallpaper, rather than supporting the story.

Aesthetically gorgeous, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is worth watching purely for the projections. But even that’s no ‘Animals and Children took to The Streets’ in terms of innovation, excitement and, perhaps most importantly, integration with the people on stage. That said, the Opera North project the band and the animator are collaborating on next sounds intriguing, and hopefully will see the music and visuals combine to much better effect.

Animating theatre | an interview with Mark Holthusen

Rime Ancient Mariner

This article was written for Animations Online

A prolific photographer and film maker, one of Mark Holthusen’s most striking projects is surely his recent venture into animation with The Tiger Lillies, an eccentric band with a talent for creating work that drips with atmosphere. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is their suitably epic take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem. Holthusen proved the perfect collaborator, able to design virtual sets that are as grandly imaginative in their vision as the musicians are with their sound. Ahead of the show’s London debut this September, San Francisco based Holthusen talks about animating for live theatre.

You’re a man of many talents – is animation something you’ve always played around with or is this project a new venture?

Over the years I’ve played around with animation but never seriously. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was the first project where I really digged into it. Being my first venture, there were lots of starts and stops, throwing things away and starting over. I’m lucky to have good friends who were able to give me advice, show me better ways of doing things and shepherd me along.

How does animation designed to be watched on a screen (small or large) differ from creating something for the theatre, to be witnessed alongside live action?

I always kept in mind that the audience is there to see the Tiger Lillies and not my animation. I kept in mind that the visual elements to this show needed to support the band and story they were telling. Even then, the first iterations of the show were so over the top, you didn’t know what to do – watch the band, watch the video, listen to the story – it was a mess!

In the end, cleaning it up and simplifying it became the challenge. I tried to put just enough visual storytelling in the animations to help move the poem forward. To answer your question, yes it’s very different. I’ve held screenings of the visuals for friends but without the band it’s really boring. It’s just a bunch of moving stuff, it really needs the live elements or it just falls flat.

How did you and the Tiger Lillies decide to work on this theatre project together?

Years ago the band were coming into town and I had sent an email to their manager asking to do a photo shoot with them as a portfolio project. The band loved the images and got a lot use out of them. I kept in touch and the next time they visited San Francisco we got in contact again. They had just finished ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ recordings and we decided to do a music video.

A few months later Martyn called and asked if I would be interested in working with them on a theatre piece. I had worked on one project like this before with Roger Waters, which was amazing, and I always had it in the back of my head to do another one, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at the chance.

What excites you most about the project and what was most challenging?

The thing that was most exciting is the thing I never expected – it’s live, it changes. On opening night, running the show was terrifying, there is no going back, you have to do this thing and you pray it works. To be honest that never crossed my mind when I agreed to take on the project, but it’s a scary wonderful feeling to have.

The hardest and most rewarding part was working in a new environment. You have to learn so much. Theatre has an amazing history and I wasn’t really familiar with it, it was challenging to learn everything I felt I needed to know to do this show properly.

What techniques did you use to create the animated set?

The show is a collage really. I did a little of everything – stop motion, live action, still images. I love building all these visual pieces and merging them into something new. I kept in my head an overall look I wanted to achieve, then pushed and pulled all these parts into place.

How did you decide on the aesthetic?

Well the Tiger Lillies have, over the years, already built an amazing style, so first I wanted to keep with that and not stray too far from the visual world they’ve already crafted. Their music is so visually strong that it really informs the visuals. I wanted to get away from the vaudeville/cabaret but keep the stage setting feel that their music invokes in me. In my research I fell in love with Baroque theatre, so decided to build one digitally and use it to tell the tale of the Ancient Mariner.

Is your work done or are you still tweaking the film?

I have a hard time letting things go, so each time we did the show I would change and fix things. Now most of the changes are programming things. I’m starting work on a new show with the Tiger Lillies and Opera North, it’s the Tiger Lillies take on ‘Lulu’. So about a month ago I took ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ hard drives out of my computer and put them away. There are always things you could fix or change, sometimes to make it better and sometimes worse. But at a certain point you have to let it go, let it be what it is, and move on to the next project.

You can see more images of Mark Holthusen’s animated sets on the Tiger Lillies’ website, and more film footage here on Vimeo.

Guardian | go grass free


The floral lawn at Avondale Park

This feature was written for the Guardian

Lionel Smith isn’t anti-grass, nor is he immune to the smell of it when freshly cut. But he believes it’s high time we rethought the lawn. The concept is more than 900 years old, and our modern take on it apparently lacks creativity. As lovingly well kept as it may be, your home turf has the potential to be so much more than a homogenous expanse of green blades. And let’s be honest: grass is often more patchy than perfect.

Standing by the grass-free lawn he has created for Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London, Smith can barely contain his excitement. It’s the first public outing for an idea he’s been nurturing at the University of Reading for four years. “Why do you need grass in the lawn when it can look as pretty as this?” he asks.

If we decide to take a leap with Smith and agree that grass isn’t its defining feature, what is a lawn? “It’s something very low-cut. Anything beyond here,” he says, pointing halfway up his shin, “is going towards meadow. The other thing is using a mower. It must be low and it must be mown. Do you mow your flowerbeds?”

Floral and grass lawns may have height and close cutting in common, but wildlife sets the floral lawn apart. “Other than the occasional blackbird pulling a worm, there’s not a lot that goes on. [A grass lawn’s] biodiversity value is highly limited,” Smith says. “However, when you have something like this, which is made up of over 65 cultivars and species, each with a different form and shape, there is so much opportunity. It’s a magnet for insect life. And it’s gorgeous! I wanted to create something beautiful.”

The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea invited Smith to create the floral lawn in a spot that previously hosted a pictorial meadow with varying success. The 200 sq m space is a textural patchwork of ground-hugging burgundy, pink and green foliage and flowers, with flashes of blue, yellow and white. Taller plants form clumps throughout – a sign that the first mow is due.

The mowing is crucial, but slicing away hundreds of flowers feels brutal. “The mower will shock everybody – it always does,” Smith says. “But the taller plants will dominate the smaller ones unless they’re attacked by the mower. If it’s not mown, this will not last – it will turn into a meadow.” This tough love does make sense. Smaller plants get the light and space they need to thrive, and the taller ones will start growing again within a few weeks. And a floral lawn requires far less cutting over a year than a grass one.

The perennial plants are a mixture of UK natives and their cultivars, plus more exotic species that extend the flowering period. Rather than being sown directly into the soil, they are cultivated from seed, plugs or cuttings in seed trays. When the plants have developed decent roots, Smith lays them in a mosaic over ground where the grass has been removed.

The key is that they can multiply with runners or roots, and that they’re allowed time to knit and blend before the first cut. Species include bronze-leaved bugle (Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’), unusual pink dandelions (Taraxacum pseudoroseum) and big, blowsy, red daisies. There’s also a smattering of Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), which releases its scent when crushed underfoot.

Walking on the lawn is encouraged, but not in excess. Light footfall is helpful, but the Avondale Park lawn is fenced off because it’s in a busy public space. I’m allowed a quick wander. It feels decidedly odd to walk over the flowers, and my stride is more cautious than confident. Apparently children have a much more animated response. And park users of all ages have welcomed its appearance.

“We’ve had lots of enquiries,” says Leanne Brisland, the borough’s ecology service manager. “Residents want to know if they can buy it, saying they’d like to put one in their own garden.” And that, of course, is the killer question: where can you get one? It’s a question Smith has been fending off with increasing regularity. He’s unwilling to commit to anything definitive until he finishes his PhD research, but he hopes to collaborate with garden centres to create an off‑the‑shelf version.

If you fancy trying your hand at a floral lawn, Smith proposes growing your chosen plants in seed trays on the space where you want the floral lawn to be. The trays will starve the grass of light and you’ll see what the floral version is going to look like in situ. Once your plants have good roots and the grass is dead, turn out the trays and establish your lawn (Smith has suggestions on his website). Then sit back, put that order for a new mower on hold and wait for the wildlife to arrive.

Interview | the directors # 3 | Joy Haynes

Joy_Haynes_02_jpg_695x390_crop_upscale_q100This feature was written for Animations Online

In the final interview in a series of three ahead of a Puppet Centre masterclass on directing for puppetry, Joy Haynes of Norwich Puppet Theatre discusses what being a director means.

How would you describe the role of the director in a theatre production?

The director is the central focus for developing the concept, and for bringing the team and all the elements together, and for disseminating ideas beyond that to outreach, education and marketing.

Does the buck for a show’s success or failure ultimately stop with you?

It’s my responsibility to ensure the collaboration is working and that everyone is happy. I don’t lead from the top, we develop things as a group. The job is heavy for a director but I allow others to take responsibility too.

When does the director’s job begin and end?

It depends. On some shows I’ve been involved all the way through but I can also be hands-off. Personally I like to keep developing things.

What made you first decide to work with puppetry as director? Did it feel like a radical or a natural thing to do?

It was natural. I was a puppeteer, then I started my own company and with that I started developing aspects of performances from the beginning. It’s not entirely unique to puppetry but puppeteers do often get to do everything, which can be challenging but it’s also quite liberating and empowering to be able to do your own work. As a performer I got interested in making and design, and I could do that as well as perform. In other types of theatre you may just be seen as a performer, the roles are more defined.


What kinds of stories appeal to you as a director of puppetry? And what kind of puppetry?

When I started out I was fascinated by the rich content of myths and fairy tales, with stories that can be adapted. Recently I’ve been moving away from more linear narratives to pieces that are much more visual – my current project is a sensory one that’s closer to installation art.

Do you direct the puppets/objects or the people who manipulate them, who then in turn direct the puppets? Or both?

I think I direct the people, exploring the relationship between them and the puppet, how their body and voice supports it. There are so many different levels of performance available in puppetry – from the performer being seen to them disappearing from sight. That spectrum is one of the things that’s fascinating about puppetry.

What the challenges that are unique to directing puppetry?

It can be a challenge to find puppeteers who are body aware. They are trained to shift their focus onto the puppet but can forget their body. Puppetry can also be quite technical at times and quite cluttered.

How involved are you as a director in the visual design of a production?

I like to be very involved! In devised work all the elements move together and there needs to be communication between them. I’ve recently found working with designers really interesting. I usually like at least a week of research and development very early on, where ideas can be explored before decisions are made.


Is scale something that interests you?

Yes! I like things that are really big and really small. Taking something out of its usual scale is what puppetry does really well.

Which of the productions you’ve directed are you most proud of and why?

I really enjoyed collaborating with the Polka Theatre on a production of ‘The Princess and the Pea’ where we were using handheld slide projectors from the 1960s. And I’m excited by our current project – ‘Three Colours of Light’, which opens in early June.

It’s an immersive piece that the audience walks into, featuring a dancer and a puppeteer. There’s a strong soundscape and no words. There’s a screen above the audience’s heads and behind them, and surround sound. I’m getting more confident with technology and find what’s available so interesting.

We’ve had two phases of research and development, which has included working with children and their parents both in schools and in the theatre. So we’ve had a strong awareness of our audience from early on.

Are there any puppetry productions that you’re excited about this year?

Wild Works are working in Norwich at the moment, developing a piece that will be performed in 2014, which I’m really excited about. So far this year I really liked ‘Les Hommes Vides’, where the puppeteers so completely realise the characters and are anti-technology, and ‘Schicklgruber… Alias Adolf Hitler’. I saw both during the Manipulate festival. I also found ‘Above Me the Wide Blue Sky’, a piece of visual theatre at the Young Vic, very moving.

Review | Children of the Sun

An experiment for the Londonist to investigate the theatrical properties of Children of the Sun

To find out whether the latest collaboration between director Howard Davies, writer Andrew Upton and designer Bunny Christie at the National Theatre is worth seeing.

After working together on Russian classics The Cherry Orchard, Philistines and The White Guard, we predict the trio will create something gripping, funny and sad.

– A new version of a play by Marxist playwright Maxim Gorky about the floundering middle classes
– A magnificently detailed and realistic set, complete with science lab

– An idealistic but hopeless would-be chemist, who’s a handkerchief of a man
– A misunderstood but stoic wife with artistic tendencies and a love interest
– A cynical but romantic Scot who expects less and dreams of small pigs
– A deeply sad and prescient sister; and a cringeworthy, slightly mad one
– A slutty, social climbing maid; and a nostalgic nanny, who knows her place
– Various peasants
– Lingering doubts
– Dry ice

1. Suck people in fast with a high impact, disorientating opening
2. Use a daily encounter between siblings and their nanny to set the scene for a play about chemistry, bourgeoisie preoccupations, liberal hypocrisy and crippling poverty
3. Make the dining room table the centre of the characters’ world, which the action can revolve around
4. Use a cast of strong actors to deliver a script that is bold, intelligent and very funny
5. Introduce humour and hopelessness via a churlish Scotsman and his melodramatic sister
6. Add jeopardy in the shape of a cracked vat and an experiment gone wrong
7. Drop in some abject poverty and a poisoning
8. Inject a splash of Romeo and Juliet style tragedy
9. Finish with a big bang


Children of the Sun is a fantastic production that any fan of dark comedy, intricate dialogue, political theatre and awesome set design should seek out.

Children of the Sun plays at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, until 14 July. Tickets are £12-£34.

Guardian | high rise gardening

bosco verticale_wordpress

This article was written for the Guardian

Forget London’s monolithic new Shard, all eyes will surely be on the Bosco Verticale when it opens in Milan at the end of this year. The new skyscraper promises to bring a hectare of forest into the central business district, as well as hundreds of new homes. Rather than cold steel and glass, the surface of this high-rise will ripple with organic life.

Made of two towers – one 80 metres high, the other 112 metres – Bosco Verticale is currently being planted with 730 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 groundcover plants and 5,000 shrubs. One of the principal architects, Stefano Boeri calls it both “radical” and an “experiment”; a reaction against the “high parallelepipeds, clad by glass, steel or ceramic” he’s witnessed in Dubai.

Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of Inhabitat and a follower of architecture trends, says proposals for buildings featuring copious vegetation are increasingly common. “I have yet to see very many of these ‘living building’ designs become reality, which is why the Bosco Verticale is such a big deal,” she says.

The interdisciplinary team working on the project includes botanists as well as engineers. Their research has ventured into testing the wind resistance of certain species of tree in wind tunnels, as well as finding a suitably lightweight substrate able to meet plants’ nutritional demands. The residents’ needs are also important – trees will be trimmed so foliage doesn’t interrupt their views.

Boeri explains that the Bosco Verticale “hands over to vegetation itself the task of absorbing the dust in the air and of creating an adequate micro-climate in order to filter out the sunlight. This is a kind of biological architecture, which refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.”

Already open, the Park Royal on Pickering hotel in Singapore is another example of a towering building-cum-garden in a dense urban area. WOHA, the architects, say it was inspired by headlands, promontories and planted terraces. Richard Hassell, the firm’s founding director, enjoys blurring the distinction between hard architecture and soft landscapes but admits that working with plants is a challenge.“For architects, it is quite a change in mindset to deal with living things,” he says.

“Normally an architect is trying to make things that are as static as possible, and resist wear and tear. But plants grow, and change, and drop leaves, and wilt and die if you forget about them.”

park royal hotel_wordpress

A ‘living building’ is never really finished. It will change over time and will require much more maintenance than one without plants. For both the Park Royal on Pickering and the Bosco Verticale, the upkeep will be centralised and carried out by specialist staff. Could such projects be called too labour and energy intensive? Jill Fehrenbacher doesn’t think so.

“Living plants…clean the air and produce oxygen, they help humidify indoor air, they reduce storm water runoff and the urban heat island effect, and they help insulate a building,” she argues. “Even though skyscrapers like the Bosco Verticale inherently use a tonne of resources and energy – simply by virtue of being a high-rise building – all of those trees and plants are going to be beneficial to the building occupants, neighbours and local environment.”

And perhaps ‘living buildings’ have worth based on aesthetics alone. “At the very worst, a garden is a delight to the users, so even if there is minimum environmental value, there is still immense value in having more green spaces in dense cities,” says Richard Hassell.

The visual impact of buildings like these certainly can’t be underestimated. Apparently Singapore’s taxi drivers now make detours to drive past the planted hotel, while Stefano Boeri talks about his structures being ‘ecology billboards’. Jill Fehrenbacher says such buildings will be everywhere in twenty years, as we “try to recreate some sort of primeval garden of paradise in our homes and workplaces.”More than mere gardens, planted high-rises have the potential to change our cityscapes.

“For sure this is an experiment but to have a sequence of Bosco Verticales, to reach a critical mass, this could be quite interesting,” says Boeri. “To deurbanise the urban environment is a radical alternative to expensive technology.”The proof of a building’s appeal is surely when the architect himself decides to move-in. And yes, Boeri has reserved himself a small apartment in Bosco Verticale, explaining he’s “extremely attracted” to the idea of living high up in these soon-to-be leafy towers of trees.

Guardian | plants are the new paint

Foraging spiral with base camp_Fritz Haeg

This feature was written for the Guardian

“My projects are never done, they send out ripples that continue, which can’t be anticipated or controlled. That’s how I like it,” says Fritz Haeg, who has made community gardening an art form that galleries find hard to resist. His Edible Estates series has taken him around America and Europe, including a commission to make an Edible Estate for Tate Modern back in 2007.

This year he created a ‘Foraging Spiral and Base Camp’ in a bowl shaped hollow of Everton Park for the Liverpool Biennial. The spiral is a wild and winding bed of tall native plants, many of which are edible or medicinal. The lawn of the hollow has been allowed to grow long. Throughout the art festival, a temporary encampment hosted conversations about the park’s future and its complicated past – it grows over an area where terraced homes and then tower blocks were levelled in the 1960s and 80s respectively.

Despite his love of working with plants, Haeg insists he is an artist not a landscape designer. “I have gradually become bored with things that are not alive – like paintings, buildings and sculptures. I like working with things that are always changing, that I am not always in complete control of,” he says.

“A landscape designer might be focused on solving problems. As an artist I might actually be looking for the problems, focusing on them, presenting them and not avoiding them… The work can be performance, political and activist, and many other things too, all at the same time.”


A hint of performance can also be found in the work of French artist Mathilde Roussel. Her ‘Lives of Grass’ sculptures are dynamic human forms – stuffed with soil and wheat seeds – that constantly change. When they are installed, the host gallery must become a plant nursery of sorts, complete with botanical lights. The living sculptures need watering daily. Their presence invites drama and ritual.

Choosing living plants over more reliable materials means opting for results that are not just unpredictable but that will ultimately die. The artwork – or its longevity – becomes less important than the process of creating it. Both Haeg and Roussel’s work has a special quality made possible by the use of plants, an ephemeral one that has something in common with performance art.

“Wheat grows very fast so you can really see the forms metamorphose through the exhibition,” explains Roussel. “After a few weeks, the wheat grass starts getting yellow and then slowly dries and dies. In this way the sculptures encapsulate the entire human and plant life cycle.” She describes time as “sculpting the forms.”

Roussel grew up on a farm in Normandy, where her family grow cereals, mainly wheat. Using wheat plants as a medium is a way of reflecting her heritage and also showing that “food has an impact on us beyond its taste.” But working with living things has huge implications for the final results.

“Because I work with organic materials, I can’t have a complete control… And this is precisely what I am interested in. Plants are a fascinating material to work with. There is something magical about the way they transform through time just like we do,” says Roussel.

Both continue to work with plants. Haeg will be planting the 13th and final of his Edible Estates for the Walker Art Center in 2013, in the suburbs of Minneapolis; while Roussel is currently working on an installation using mud and plants.