Laura Ellen Bacon
TDE speaks to the sculptor as she finishes weaving two large willow installations for the Abbaye de Maubuisson, near Paris.
‘Chaque Fibre de Mon Être’
L’Abbaye de Maubuisson, 95310 Saint-Ouen-l’Aumone, France
2nd May-28th August 2022
LAURA ELLEN BACON looks exhausted. The sculptor has been working on two new pieces for an exhibition in a former Cistercian abbey turned art centre in Val d’Oise, just north of Paris. She’s been in situ for the best part of a month and she has another two and a half weeks of work to go.
We’ve known each other for a number of years and I’ve long had the sense that her creative processes is utterly immersive, both physically and mentally. It takes a toll. This is compounded by being away from home and her two young children.
Laura Ellen Bacon, ‘Natural Course’, 2022
COURTESY: Laura Ellen Bacon
When Laura landed the project a year ago, her plan was to fabricate elements of the two willow pieces she’s creating at her home in Derbyshire and assemble them when she arrived in France. However, new Brexit regulations added complications. “I just wasn’t convinced they would get here,” she explains to me over Zoom. “There are so many more biological clearances.” Once shipping and fumigation costs were added in, it made sense to build the pieces at the Abbaye de Maubuisson. “When I’m on site the philosophy is you hold back time. You don’t wish it forward … but privately I do miss home.”
In recent years, the artist has experimented with materials such as thatch and stone (at Chatsworth Garden for instance). Here, however, she is back using her more familiar material of willow. The choice was completely intuitive, she tells me. “Willow just felt right for the space.”
And, as ever, her vast, sinuous forms, which often ooze out of buildings, or subsume entire rooms with an almost alien-like beauty, respond to the site. Once the commission for the exhibition ‘Chaque Fibre de Mon Être’ (‘Every Fibre of My Being’) was confirmed, she immediately started examining photographs of all the abbey’s rooms online, before making a visit last autumn.
“It’s an amazing building,” she enthuses. “It’s gorgeous and the spaces are big. The brief really is to respond to the abbey.” She elected to work in two different sites: the parlour and the nun’s hall. “It needed to respond to the way the building has been used, the architecture and history. My take on it was to look at the use of the spaces historically.”
The parlour, for instance, was a room where the nuns were allowed to talk. “I think that their meetings and discussions were not particularly free. My suspicion was they were able to discuss their orders.” She hesitates for a moment, attempting to choose her words carefully (and possibly aware that journalists can be a cynical bunch). “The way I’m going to describe it makes it feel ghostly but it has nothing to do with that,” she says, a little cautiously. “You know you get a feeling that whispers and speech are in the walls somehow? That idea of presence and how space has been used, the traces that are left? That has led me to create something in white willow. It’s knotted and not woven at all. I felt the white willow was sympathetic to the idea of speech dissolving into the wall. Also, I wanted the forms to feel quite lung-like, like a pleasant exhale when you can finally be more yourself.” Hence the title, ‘Breathe’.
In the other space, the nuns weren’t allowed to talk and, instead, would do activities such as needlework. As a result, ‘The Feeling Remains’, contains tightly woven branches and stems. “The two pieces will feel completely different,” says Bacon, before adding rather lyrically. “I have a feeling with any piece that I make – and this is purely personal – that when you have made something in a place, you remain there for a bit … that part of you is there. All the things that I’m thinking about, I know that they’re left in the work. No one can see them but they’re in there.”
Our conversation is drawing to a close and Bacon needs to get back to work. Before she ends the call, I’m keen to know how she feels when she’s making a piece. “Completely united with the space,” she replies in a heartbeat. “Getting the shape right isn’t easy. I wish it was because I’m sort of at my happiest when I’m weaving. It’s quite repetitive and I really enjoy that. Thinking around the forms is really enjoyable but it’s the most difficult.”
And what about the physicality required to create these pieces – over the years, for instance, Bacon has found herself chest-high in cold river water while weaving? “I have to get down on the ground a lot to weave,” she confirms. “It’s physically taxing but I seem to have enormous stamina for it. I enjoy it. I really enjoy it.”
‘Chaque Fibre de Mon Être’ at L’Abbaye de Maubuisson runs until 28th August.