It’s spring time. The sun is shining, the birds are out and people are busy making plans for the merry month of May. Bliss. But just how long will this last? Let’s face facts, it’s lovely now but it could be snowing by June. So it’s just as well that this spring the Shipley Art Gallery will be exhibiting a garden that blooms all year round.
Blooming Marvellous is the knitted garden phenomenon that has been springing up all over the country and for the next six months it will be in Gateshead. A knitted garden? Yes, you heard me correctly. Blooming Marvellous is a life-size garden complete with plants, flowers, hanging baskets, animals and a potting shed that is made entirely out of wool. Created by volunteers and community groups from across the country, the exhibition was the brainchild of artist and designer Pauline Stanley.
The seeds for the project were sown way back in 2009 when Pauline visited Top Gear presenter James May’s plasticine garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. But it was not until a couple of years later that the idea took off. After meeting lots of skilled knitters who had been reduced to knitting squares for blankets as the fashion for knitted clothing had died out, Pauline decided to step in.
‘At that point it seemed like knitting had skipped a generation and wasn’t being handed down,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to stretch people’s imaginations to see what they could do with knitting.’
So in 2011 Pauline launched the Blooming Marvellous knitting project, encouraging local community groups to contribute floral-themed items to a mass exhibition that was hosted at Bournemouth Library. Climbing up pillars, sprawling over balconies and blossoming over bookcases, once the garden took roots it continued to grow.
‘It was only going to be a small project,’ Pauline assures us. ‘But once people’s imaginations got fired up, it just took off.’
People started sending in items from all over the country, including scarecrows from Portsmouth, a picnic blanket (adorned with bottles of champagne, cans of Coke and sausages with flies on) from Bridport and a molehill from a vicar in Sunderland. To date around 3,500 people, aged between two and 99, have contributed to the project. It’s attracted thousands of visitors and toured galleries and art centres nationwide. It’s something Pauline is very proud of.
‘Most galleries quadruple their normal figures of attendance during the exhibition,’ she tells us. ‘We get amazing feedback and the most popular comment in the visitor book is that it really made me smile.’
It is easy to see why. The exhibition is bright and colourful and filled with amazing knitted items, including cats, dogs, birds, ladybirds (which are no bigger than the size of a fingernail), trowels, forks, wheelbarrows, a garden hose with water coming out... The list goes on. Perhaps one of the biggest merits of the project is its all-inclusive attitude. Everybody is welcome to contribute.
‘I work with mixed abilities, people who are visually impaired, those with learning difficulties, those who suffer from mental health problems and those with physical disabilities,’ Pauline explains. ‘I wanted to design a project where everybody could contribute something, no matter how big or small.’
Amazingly, all contributions are included in the exhibition regardless of the standard of the knitting. The organisers are completely non-judgemental. This is something that Pauline feels very strongly about. When questioned by the Arts Council (her main funding provider) about how she would maintain the quality she told them in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t about that.
‘I think everybody is a creative being, even if they don’t believe it,’ she says. ‘A project like this means that most people can find a way into it and find a way to unlock that creativity.’
To get the creative juices flowing Pauline works with each venue that the exhibition visits to create a programme of craft workshops. While Blooming Marvellous is at the Shipley Art Gallery visitors can join a local artist to design and make a piece of jewellery inspired by the garden. Or if you fancy adding your own contribution to the garden, sign up for one of the Knitted Gardeners classes that run every Wednesday until June. Suitable for all levels of experience, The Workers’ Education Association will give you the tips and tools you need to make your own knitted flora or fauna. And if you are stuck for ideas, Pauline tells us that she’d love to see a life-size fox or badger.
Blooming Marvellous really has to be seen to be believed. It’s eccentric, entertaining and inspiring. With new pieces being added every day it won’t be long until there’s a full forest, so go along to see it in Gatehead while it still fits in one room.
Until 5th September
The Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead