This week sees in Britain’s most popular gardening event: the Chelsea Flower Show. In celebration, Mayfair’s Hignell Gallery is going green. Sculptor Ben Russell has collaborated with indoor garden specialists Conservatory Archives to create ‘The Cactus House’, a verdant plant-filled installation, as a blooming backdrop for Russell’s new series of marble, alabaster and onyx sculptures of cacti.
Russell – who recently relocated to a large new studio in Dorset – was inspired by his cacti collection. ‘The original, sculptural forms of cacti lend themselves to the texture and quality of stone,’ he explains. ‘I’ve found that the translucence of many of my pieces adds an extra level to the work – much like a house plant, they will look different depending on how much light is hitting them at any given moment.’
Russell’s marble, alabaster and onyx sculptures of cact
His process is ‘fluid and instinctive’, the artist says, which helps him form the organic shapes of the plants. He starts off by selected blocks and boulders of his chosen materials – alabaster, limestone, onyx and marble – though their rough form conceals hidden qualities only revealed through the carving process. ‘I love this aspect of working with stone as it’s always a revelation as the form emerges from the block itself,’ says Russell, who manipulates their surfaces with a mallet, claw, and punch chisels or angle grinder.
‘I have always loved carving directly from my imagination and feel that this is when my work has the most raw expression and energy,’ he adds. It was his heritage restoration that also taught him patience – the process ends with a laborious sanding and polishing techniques, before applying a layer of crystalline wax and buffing to a soft sheen. ‘It’s amazing how the veining reveals itself during this final process,’ he explains. ‘Stones which seem quite dull and featureless show off their inner veining which can be quite stunning.’
Tropical plants have become somewhat of a tired trope in contemporary art. How has Russell avoided the ‘cacti cliché’? He explains, ‘I feel I am creating expressive sculptural forms of cacti which capture the essence of the real thing without getting too weighed down in the detail.’