Shelley Castle is clearly in the minority in the environment around her studio. ‘I am massively outnumbered by other species, but especially birds; I am literally surrounded by them,’ she says with a smile. Whether swooping swallows, intimidating crows, or song thrushes with their sweet melodies, these fluttering neighbours are all her muses and the focus of her art – be that in the form of feather sculptures, painting or collage.
Sitting at a desk in her heptagonal workspace, a former Victorian game larder on a country estate in Devon, Shelley pores over a collection of old books that she sources from charity shops, and a collection of vintage cards and illustrations; with seven windows surrounding her, there is plenty of light to work with. She is choosing images for the large giclée print that she’s had made from one of her original bird oil paintings and which she’ll transform into a collage. Skilfully slicing around the edges of an illustration, she adds to a small mountain of moths, cherubs and fungi pictures on the desk beside her. ‘The bird will be the focal point, from which I’ll develop another narrative; sometimes the collage will fall into place instinctively, other times it can take days,’ she says.
On the tiled floor around her bare feet are containers filled with pheasant feathers; in front of her, small sets of drawers brim with those from ducks and pigeons, as well as lumps of locally sourced beeswax, all of which she uses to create her three-dimensional works. ‘The materials and subject matter of my work are naturally dictated by where I am and what is around me,’ Shelley confirms. Her pieces have explored the influence of bird song in the development of early human language, how they are portrayed in mythology as divine and, more recently, how we are losing touch with the diminishing wildlife around us, particularly beautiful birds that are critically endangered, possibly already lost to us forever.
Shelley moved from Hackney in London, where she worked as an artist and a script editor for the Film Council, to south Devon six years ago to study an MA in Arts and Ecology at Dartington College of Arts. ‘I’ve always been interested in art, science and nature, so finding a course that assimilated all three was amazing. Now more than ever I feel it is important to combine disciplines, with the environmental challenges that we are faced with,’ she explains.
She had not planned to settle down in Devon, but having completed the Masters four years ago, she came across the Flete Estate: 5,000 acres of varied countryside running either side of the beautiful River Erme and home to several farms, ancient woodland, two beaches and a saltmarsh – all of it teeming with wildlife. ‘I had been wondering about this atmospheric-looking woodland I could see when I dropped my children off at school nearby in Ermington each morning, when someone told me it belonged to the Flete Estate.’ She rang on a whim to speak to the owner, Anthony Mildmay-White, and subsequently became the estate’s artist in residence.
In return for documenting the various and ever-changing landscapes, she was given use of the game larder as a studio. Originally built to house the pheasants and other game from the estate, it was hidden underneath encroaching brambles and weeds, but on first sight of ‘this fantastical building with a pheasant weathervane on top,’ Shelley was immediately smitten. ‘The building had been left unused for some time, but there was a relatively new wooden conical ceiling and the structure was sound. I have invested in a wood-burning stove, however, because in winter there used to be ice on the inside of the windows,’ she adds.
The hooks that line the inside of the building, which were originally used to hang game, are now used to display her paintings. Adamant that as far as possible she will only make work using natural, biodegradable material, Shelley prepares the base for her paintings using an age-old technique of rabbit skin glue and whiting to create homemade gesso, with which she covers reclaimed plywood boards. ‘Despite having been trained in fine art painting at Central St. Martins in London, it took her a year as a lamp maker’s assistant to discover ‘the joys of working in oil on gesso,’ she says. ‘It creates the most fantastic porcelain-like surface, and a luminosity which allows for more texture.’
Birds of many descriptions feature in her work, from striking paintings of jackdaws and crows, captured mid flight or perched on branches, to beautiful, pink-breasted male bullfinches ‘singing in colour’, or an exotic, possibly extinct, turquoise throated puffleg hummingbird.
As if the space has imbued some of its Victorian Gothic magic into her work, large glass domes filled with feather sculptures adorn a second work table. Here she makes her ‘messy work’. Lichen-covered branches – ‘a branch is obviously an important part of a bird’s life; it feels like there’s the shadow of a bird on every one’ – feathers of all shapes and sizes, and melting beeswax spill over the surface. Shelley uses the wax to form a base of a headdresses and other sculptural pieces. ‘I have to be careful when I’m heating the beeswax because I get it from an apiary nearby and I think because it’s so local, the bees around here have to come in to investigate,’ she says. The smell is divine, as if someone has been melting honeycomb for hours on her single electric ring.
There is a ready supply of bird feathers for her artworks, which Shelley finds from walking around the estate, ‘and I also have a friend who is a vet who may give me birds that have sadly been killed. I am using materials that would otherwise go into landfill and putting them into a new context,’ she explains. ‘When I do workshops with primary school children and show them the barn owl headdress, they can’t believe how amazingly soft the feathers are – these magical feats of engineering and beauty. It is incredibly important to respect this sort of natural material; we are suff ering from such a decline in bird numbers, with the RSPB red list getting longer and longer, that I feel that if at least people are reminded of these beautiful creatures, they will be inspired to do something about it.’ For this reason, her feather sculptures are not for sale, but Shelley will ‘exchange them’ in return for a donation to a bird conservation charity.
Visitors will have the opportunity to experience her creative environment first hand, when Shelley opens her studio as part of Devon Open Studios. ‘I am grateful on a daily basis for where I work,’ she says. ‘It’s like working in nature’s playground, and sometimes I feel like I’m trespassing’.
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