In today’s world, with advanced technology at our fingertips, weather prediction is taken for granted; yet thousands of years ago weathervanes served a fundamental role. Residents of Ancient Greece and Rome, Vikings and medieval lords in turn would all gaze up at these rudimentary yet ingenious devices revolving in the wind.
In Britain, the biblically symbolic cockerels, spinning on their axes and glistening from atop church steeples, are a familiar sight. In America’s Cape Cod, however, where husband and wife artisans Gordon and Karen Green first began handcraft ing their collaborative sculptural creations nearly 20 years ago, weathervanes have graced homes for centuries, with 18th and 19th century folk art woven into the designs. ‘In the US, wealthy homeowners wanting grand designs on their rooftops, created a market for them, whereas in England, from the 16th century the rules for domestic vanes were more restrictive regarding the level of ornamentation, so as a result they tended to be one off, quirky designs,’ Karen explains. ‘In this country you think of the flat steel silhouettes, mass produced by the Victorians, whereas in America the ornate three-dimensional copper vanes predominate.’
Originating from Washington DC, Karen trained as a fine art sculptor before serving an apprenticeship with renowned coppersmith Travis Tuck. ‘When I left university I didn’t really understand where fine art sculpture fitted into the scheme of things,’ she admits. ‘I was interested in how Travis’s sculpture, albeit whimsical, had a function. I liked the idea that as soon as something has a function, it has a right to be.’
The pieces created by Karen and her English husband Gordon, whose background was as a painter, do combine the eye for detail of a fi ne art sculptor, with more traditional, craftsmen’s skills. Manipulating and teasing copper into shapes and forms with heat and cold, and by complementary repoussé – from the reverse – and chasing methods creating the relief designs, the technique is entirely freehand, so each model is unique and every hammer blow part of the creative process.
The couple met on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, but relocated to the UK in 1996, working from a home studio on Dartmoor for years before they moved to their current home and workshop in Herefordshire in 2008. A sprawling Duchy of Cornwall property, their ancient beamed workshop is attached to the Georgian house that they share with their four children and various pets, while across the courtyard they have converted a cobble-stoned stable into a gallery space.
Theirs is an unusual market: ‘People don’t realise that they want a weathervane until they see one!’ Gordon admits. With much of the work commission based, they will first spend hours in discussion with clients, or researching details, before Karen begins the intricate process of committing draft designs to paper. Once finalised, the individual complex components of the pattern are then transferred to copper, ready for shaping. ‘That’s probably the toughest part, to get the shapes with the least blows possible, as the more you hammer the copper, the weaker it becomes,’ says Gordon. The definition of ruffled feathers, coarse fur or shimmering scales is then carefully chiselled into the metal. ‘It is like a vocabulary of marks. We have a few tools but use them in a slightly different way each time to produce the designs, keeping it interesting,’ adds Karen.
The couple work side by side, with every vane taking between two to five weeks to complete. ‘Ideally we will be working on a few pieces at a time, so if you become unstuck with one design, you can come back to it with fresh eyes the next day,’ says Karen. ‘I’ll do a drawing in pure profile, but can sometimes inadvertently add a little perspective into it without realising, for instance one leg of a fox may be shorter than the other. So sometimes the pattern may be wrong, even though we have worked for days cutting and fusing the pieces of copper. It can be frustrating, but you are always learning,’ she adds.
The weighting of a piece is also crucial. The surface area is unequally divided, so that the pointer is blown into the wind, ‘but sometimes you have to design an extra bit on the forward element, just to get it to balance,’ Karen explains.
It is like watching a painter at work as she fuses together components of a toad sculpture, melting a brazing rod with a blue hot welding torch, so that the molten metal sculpts to the pieces. The heating and cooling of the copper produces a beautiful wash of colours across its surface, with swirls of fiery red and brown interspersed with iridescent orange and pink marbling.
Karen finds inspiration for the designs from children’s fairy tales, folk art ‘and things I’ve just always wanted to make from drawings I’ve done over 20 years of working.’ Alongside the commissions, they will craft four or five speculative pieces a year, be that a figurative piece, a bird in flight, or something more unusual, plucked from her imagination. ‘We will never replace the exact same design again,’ she adds. ‘I like to take things that shouldn’t work, and make them work.’
To find out more about Kate and Gordon’s work visit greensvanes.co.uk.