“I’ve always felt the need to make something with my hands,” says the artist Lisa Atkin. Brought up on the edge of Grimsby, a port town in north east Lincolnshire, she spent her childhood down at the fishing docks with her dad collecting bits of rope and husks of metal. “I’d make what I called boats – which weren’t really boats at all – and try to sail them down the stream. They always tipped upside down, but still I was pleased with them.”
It’s fitting, then, that we’re surrounded by braided rope. Not just rope, but oak that’s been stripped of its bark, whittled ivy roots, and gently twisted willow. Amid the neutral shades are glimmers of oyster shells, pearly white. It’s December and we’re chatting at Cockpit Arts, a destination for makers in London’s Bloomsbury, in the studio awarded to Lisa after she won the Cockpit & Worshipful Company of Basketmakers Award 2021. She’s been here for two years and is heading to a space closer to home in east London in just a few days.
“It all started when I went to The Green Gathering festival in 2016,” says Lisa, who had been working with stained glass for almost 20 years before shifting to basketry. For a change from making windows and light boxes, at the festival she carved a wooden spear and created a small woven spiral. “Then I went back and made a basket, and it amazed me that I’d created something functional out of sticks,” she adds.
Lisa signed up for a six-week course at City Lit, London, and after seeing the final show of the more intensive two-year course – the only one of its kind in the UK – enrolled on that, too. She learned everything from Neolithic weaving techniques to working with modern materials; a tutor encouraged her to take inspiration from contemporary architecture, replicating the patterns of buildings with woven rope and wood. “It’s our oldest technology, basketry. For thousands of years we’ve been making these movements with our hands. I love that when I’m making, my own hands are echoing the movements of my ancestors. It’s as if time stands still.”
Another thing Lisa likes about basketry is that it encourages her to let the materials lead. Whereas with stained glass, she had to plan and be precise, her wooden works develop organically. Take willow. “It will kink where it wants to kink, and it will or won’t bend,” she says. “If you go with it, it might work out better than if you try to force it.”
The majority of her materials are sourced from Epping Forest, not far from where she lives. Bylaws stipulate the amount of fallen wood and driftwood you’re allowed to forage a day, and when she’s out walking, Lisa often carries with her a little Japanese folding saw and a knife, just in case. “I think basketry taps into the more hippy, spiritual side of me,” she says smiling. “I slow down when I’m in the forest, and I go wherever it pulls me.”
She points out two sculptural standing baskets comprising braided jute, twisted cane, and Y-shaped oak legs that have been left untreated to encourage the kind of natural changes that come with age. “The oak was from a tree that had come down in a patch of the forest I wouldn’t normally go to, but that day I felt I should,” she says. “I came across a massive freshly fallen oak tree, and these branches were sticking out like this.” Instantly, a picture formed in her mind, and she sat down on the forest floor and began to realise it. It was late spring, the time of year when the sap is rising, so the bark peeled away easily. “I often work that way, barefoot, trying to ignore the sound of planes overhead, listening to the birds.”
This month, both baskets will be on display in the window of TOAST London, Mayfair to mark the seasonal launch of Open Water. Alongside them will be a crooked branch hung with what look like eel baskets, or even jellyfish, moving firmly yet fluidly through the sea. Lisa will be present one day weaving a large piece of rope. “I’m picturing a wide-open beach after the tide has gone out and left those little ripples in the sand,” she says, hoping to echo such ripples in her own woven works. “I can flow with them. I just have to listen to the materials.”
Interview by Chloë Ashby.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.
Lisa wears our Ticking Stripe Linen Dress.