Alison Dickens makes organic, sculptural forms which call upon a rich and varied craft tradition. Her work is inspired by the curves and frisson of sparse open landscapes, such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, as well as the patterns made by water, wind and waves. Alison trained for two years on the City Lit Basketry Course and is now based at Cockpit Arts, London. She has also exhibited at Craft Central and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers' 450th Anniversary Fair.
Alison Dickens makes organic, sculptural forms which call upon a rich and varied craft tradition. Her work is inspired by the curves and frisson of sparse open landscapes, such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, as well as the patterns made by water, wind and waves. Alison trained for two years on the City Lit Basketry Course, completing in 2017. She won the Cockpit Arts/ The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers’ award in 2019 and in the same year her work was included in the major exhibition, ‘Basketry - function and ornament’ at Ruthin Craft Centre. She is now based at Cockpit Arts.
Alison creates her sculptural forms in willow sourced from Somerset, as well as delicate coiled and plaited vessels from bark and other materials harvested locally from gardens in Kent and Sussex. Her work is sculptural rather than functional but calls on a rich and varied craft tradition, elevating basketry to contemporary craft status.
1. What motivates you to make?
I found basketmaking after a career in urban regeneration and loved it instantly. I started learning the craft and over a few years it took me into the world of makers, which has been hugely exciting. It was a bit like moving to a new country where you know no-one and have to start again; but now feels like home. I’d never thought of myself as an artist or craftsperson, so it's been a big change and a challenge to analyse and articulate why I make what I make.
Basketry combines two loves. The first is the love of sculptural form, which for me echoes the high curves and low curves of spare, open landscapes: the Yorkshire Dales, Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, estuaries and tidal mudflats. The second is the challenge and physicality of making by hand: the relationship with the material; the striving to create form; the absorption and mind calm of repetition; the satisfaction of seeing something take shape under your hand.
2. What and/or who are you most inspired or influenced by?
My vessel forms and basketmaking technique seek to convey something from the landscape beyond my (normally) urban life, and the natural processes that form it. The wide-open spaces of dales and marshes are my landscape spiritual home – places high up or out on the edge – scoured by weather or swept by the sea. I am mesmerised by the forms and patterns made by water, wind and wave, in short time or over long age.
Those forces and physicality also drive my work. The visceral feel I get when I work with the willow and feel the tension in the rods as they bend, as I curve and stroke and coax them into shape with my hands; balancing what it is willing to give with where I would like it to go. A contest or a dance? Certainly, the material is alive, has its own properties and prohibitions. And working with that, I weave a form, a little different every time, a reflection of our material negotiation.
I’m inspired by the art and craft of so many contemporary basketmakers, wood artists, green wood workers, and ceramicists – whose work I have come to know since entering the world of makers; but to pick a few I knew and loved before and feel a thematic connection with: the writing of Robert Macfarlane; the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth and David Nash, the land art of Richard Long.
3. What is your unique approach to your craft, and how have you honed your skills?
My work is sculptural rather than functional but calls on a rich and varied craft tradition. I use a variety of willows bought mainly from growers on the Somerset levels and harvested locally in Kent and Sussex. My baskets are made using the rope-wale (or rope coil) technique, which involves adding a new rod at every stroke and weaving with a bundle of willow. The technique is slow and time-consuming and uses a lot of willow, but I love the sense of movement it creates and feel it best evokes the landscape forms and forces that guide me.
It was coming upon the marvellous baskets of Maggie Smith at a Christmas Open Studios a few years ago that opened my eyes (and heart) to basketmaking. I immediately started taking short courses and trained for two years on the City Lit Basketry Course, completing in 2017. Since then I have continued learning skills and technique from a number of well-known basketmakers and have benefited hugely from craft and business mentoring by Annemarie O’Sullivan and Cockpit Arts.
Finally I’m also passionate about basketmaking and interested in helping to raise its profile in contemporary craft.
4. What is your defining or proudest moment as a maker so far?
I have a cluster of early proudest moments from 2019, when the basketmaking really seemed to take off for me, which are all about acceptance and support in my new world of making: Getting an email from The New Craftsmen in Spring 2019 saying they would like to stock my baskets; seeing my basket on the poster for Bovey Tracy (my first) Craft Festival in June 2019; being invited to take part in a major exhibition of contemporary basketry; ‘Basketry – function and ornament’ at Ruthin Craft Centre, July – October 2019; alongside many of my basketry heroes; and winning the Cockpit Arts/ Worshipful Company of Basketmakers’ award 2019.
5. What is your dream project?
I’m excited by the variety of natural materials used in contemporary craft and opportunities for conversations and collaboration. Being a life-long lover of wood, my next dream project would be a collaboration and exhibition with wood artists.
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