Meet the Artist – Charlotte Smithson

23rd August 2021

Charlotte Smithson talks about her upcoming commission for the Oak Project, Great Oaks from little Acorns grow. The piece will be exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London from 21st to 26th September 2021.

Tell us about Great Oaks from little Acorns grow

Great Oaks from little Acorns grow examines plants as our life support system. Plants and nature provide us with the food we eat, clothes we wear and even the air we breathe, and what astounds me is how easily we take that for granted.

Our disconnection from nature has resulted in three of the most significant crises of our time – the climate emergency, wildlife loss and the mental health crisis. A huge collective effort is needed to restore balance on earth and that’s what the title references. The piece will present different ways that nature provides for us and invites people to reflect on that and play an active part in protecting it. It is a call to action.

What’s your inspiration?

Experiencing nature constantly inspires me. Whether a walk lifts my spirits or presents interesting colours and textures, these fleeting glimpses feature heavily in my photo streams and I use them as reference material. As I’ve learnt more about plant science, nature’s instincts and biological processes have become increasingly important to my work.

This year for example, all of my work has explored the reciprocal relationship we have with plants. Symbiosis and the idea that living organisms rely upon one another to survive fascinates me. I’ve become especially aware of the breathing exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that humans have with plants, trees and even oceanic plankton. It seems ludicrous for us to destroy these living plant organisms, when we need one another to breathe! It’s these fundamentals that are so easily overlooked. There are visual references to photosynthesis in the design which reflect on this specifically.

What can visitors expect to see?

I will be working with laboratory equipment to suspend living plant material. The piece will contain cut and hydroponic specimens, which are known to be beneficial to us as apothecary herbs, plants that provide fibre or dye, edibles and species that have symbolic meaning somehow. I’m asking people to look at them in a new way though, not just for their uses but for their beauty and meaning too. It is a very multi-layered piece, which I hope will really draw the eye and mind in.

How do you source your materials?

The piece has taken almost a year to develop. Naturally ideas evolve and develop with time, and because living plants are integral to my work, there is an element of unpredictability.

I grow some of the materials myself. I have an allotment where I grow a lot of flowers and wild things. I also have a huge plant collection at home and in my studio, which I study and observe. I sustainably forage for materials and work with local organic growers who have interesting plant collections.

The piece is a ‘circular design’. That means the environmental impact of each component has been examined and minimised. Rather than reaching for new materials to use in each of my installations, I am finding ways to reuse, recycle and repair components to keep them in circulation before being disposed of.

The structure has been manufactured in my partner’s factory, powered by green energy and exceptionally efficient CAD/CAM processes to minimise waste. The installation also includes retired laboratory glassware, recycled monofilament thread, repurposed wood and metal, and all the biomaterials and plant content is compostable, although usually I press my leftover flowers.

During the lockdowns I began experimenting with making bioplastics and compostable substrates to replace less sustainable materials in my practice. For this piece I’ve made biocomposites from plant-based materials like nettles, mint, brewery waste and deadheaded flower petals, all of which were sourced within a short walk from my home or studio.

Why did you want to work with the Oak Project?

I became aware of the Oak Project through Professor Miles Richardson who leads the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. I’ve followed their research for several years and I refer to it regularly in each of my projects. My creative practice is rooted in connecting people with nature and their research is a great resource for exploring how this can be done.

I strongly believe in the Oak Project’s vision so it’s a real honour to be their second commission. Producing the installation has been a very collaborative process that draws from each of the different partners in the project team. It has been inspiring to work in this way and have access to the incredible knowledge amongst the group.

RHS Chelsea coincides with the Climate Coalition’s Great Big Green Week, which Great Oaks from little Acorns grow is a part of. I hope the piece helps to inspire action and we’ll be directing people at Chelsea to resources where they can find ways to respond.

The University of Derby will also be undertaking research during and after RHS Chelsea, exploring the effect of the piece. In that respect, I’m pleased the installation is being useful. I don’t feel I can justify expending valuable natural resources unless there is good purpose.

What’s next for you?

The Sustainable Darkroom initiative has recently commissioned me to take part in a research residency at the Northern Sustainable Darkroom in Leeds. They are creating a garden, which I will be using to experiment with medicinal plants to develop photographic film.

I’m also working on a project which documents a landscape close to my home that is on the proposed route of the HS2. With a local charity I’m developing ways to involve the community with these processes and hope to use creativity to connect people with the land, it’s habitats and history. Hopefully HS2’s plans can be stopped though, we’ll certainly be using the artwork we create to campaign for that.

If you could only have one plant or flower – what would it be?

An oak tree of course! I currently have 40 hydroponic oak saplings growing in my studio and they fascinate me. I love their leaves and seeing how their roots develop. I’ve read somewhere that mature oak trees release enough oxygen for 4 humans for a year. Just amazing…

Great Oaks from little Acorns grow opens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show on the 21st September 2021.