I first met Trevor Leat in his studio-workshop, on a Spring Fling event, several years ago. He was sharing the space with Natalie Vardey at the time and the contrast between his willow work and her jewellery showed off the remarkable skill and invention of both. Over the years I have made a collection of Trevor’s smaller works and also given away some pieces as gifts. There have been trugs and baskets of various kinds, most recently a beautiful apple picker, elegantly shaped and providing the perfect blend of beauty and practicality. We also have a decorative swirling circular piece that sits above a doorway in the house and which I look at every morning as the day begins.
I don’t know Trevor very well but always enjoy my conversations with him when we bump into one another at some event, in a gallery, or most likely at a concert. He and I share an enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band and the subsequent work of Robin Williamson. I see Trevor at my Kirkmahoe Concerts, where, until the pandemic, Robin performed annually from 2010. When we meet between times Trevor and I always seem to fall into some arcane conversation about our shared love of that strange and eclectic music.
Trevor epitomises aspects of the artistic and artisanal work that flourishes in Dumfries and Galloway. He always seems to be busy, whether near or far. He values a sense of place. His work is a paradigm of sustainability. He is unfailingly unflustered, with time to talk and to share his thoughts. His work has a seasonal rhythmn that is reflected in the things he creates.
So I was delighted when Trevor agreed to this interview in my series about inspiring people living in south west Scotland. Characteristically, he answered my questions between bursts of activity and travels to other places, and told a fascinating story. I hope you enjoy this encounter with a Galloway artist and maker who through the medium of willow has unleashed not only a remarkable skill, but through the work of imagination, has also become a weaver of dreams.
Where did you grow up and when did you first discover an interest in making things with your hands?
I grew up alongside the River Thames and remember as a young boy collecting wooden lolly sticks from the bins and pavements, these I used to crudely weave little rafts to float down the river. My family relocated to Hertfordshire where the open countryside and woodlands became my playground to build dens and tree houses and live a kind of feral life in the summertime.
What sort of education did you have and did it influence your future pathway in any particular way?
My secondary school education was mostly geared around sport. Then I took up sociology and literature at college but dropped out when music and art and the ‘back to the land’ movement became my passion. This was the early seventies, so just after the hippie revolution of which I was just too young to be a part, but it certainly was an influence on the direction I was to take.
What was the pivotal time and place where you discovered an interest in and a talent for working with willow?
I moved to Galloway to form a small commune with friends in 1975. We were trying to be self sufficient in a naïve way. Basketmaking seemed like an interesting craft to learn and needed very little initial finance once some willow had been planted. I made contact with a retiring basket-maker in Brampton who taught me the basic techniques. The commune lasted only a couple of years and for one reason or another we returned to the south. Some years later I moved to the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Initially it was to be a part of the crafts team that the owner had assembled. I stayed on the Island 10 years, mostly working as the estate manager for the Laird. But I did make some baskets and taught others how to! My experience of living on Eigg among Gaelic speaking crofters, the never ending summer sunsets, the wild storms of winter, the white sandy beaches and the sound of the rolling Atlantic waves stays with me.
You occupy a fascinating space between making functional things and creating sculptural works of art. How does one influence the other?
Returning to Galloway I focused on developing my craft, making traditional baskets and garden structures. I began planting willow beds on a few farms. I play the fiddle and joined a ceilidh band. This led to meeting Alex Rigg, who joined too as a percussionist. However Alex is much more than that. He is a physical performance artist and designer and we began a series of collaboration projects making furniture and large scale willow and steel sculptures for festival and performance events including Edinburgh Hogmanay and locally, The Wickerman Festival. We made work in France Germany and and Austria. We still work together occasionally.
I continue to make figurative work which is sometimes large scale. I start with building a strong armature using steel to increase strength and durability. Then using a mixture of willows, I begin the process of weaving the body. I use some basketry techniques but the overall effect is more random. It is like drawing in 3D, each willow rod acts like a pencil line and so slowly the form is developed, woven layer upon layer, allowing the flexible long rods to flow and create a feeling of movement.
Your work must be very physical. What are the specific challenges of working with tough materials with your hands and do you use any special equipment?
On larger sculptures I am working from scaffolding so the working process becomes slower. Working so close it’s sometimes hard to see what is shaping, so a return to ground level is necessary to view the whole work and the different perspective it offers. All the materials have to be carried up ladders to the working platform form and secured from being blow off by the winds, so it becomes quite physically demanding. The reward is always the moment that I take the scaffold down and the sculpture stands free for the first time.
Where do you source the materials for your work and what are the processes of gathering and preparing them?
I have around 1000 willow stools that I’ve planted using cuttings. I have several varieties that I have chosen for colour or length of growth. These I coppice every year usually in February. I cut them down almost to ground level and carry and bundle them for transporting back to my workshop. Here they are stacked outside to dry and season before being stored inside. The drying process usually takes two or three months depending on the weather conditions. The willow will then need to be soaked before use to make it flexible again. In its freshly cut state, willow is not good for weaving baskets as the rods will shrink as the sap dries causing the basket to become loose. It would also make the basket heavy at first. But for sculpture this isn’t an issue particularly if the work is to be located outdoors so it can be used ‘green’. Growing and harvesting the willow is another arduous and physical process but I enjoy the cyclic nature of it and the connection with the seasons. It’s also sustainable and I like being able to work with material that I can grow.
As you mentioned, you are fiddle player too and a lover of music. What are your musical influences and do they shape what you do in any way?
‘Seasons they change’. I still play fiddle and banjo with The Roving Pedlars, a ceilidh band. We play mostly for weddings and community events. I learnt the fiddle while I lived on Eigg, again playing at ceilidhs on the island. I had learnt to pick out tunes on the mandolin years before with a group in the south modelled on The Incredible String Band. In fact it was the fascination with the ISB that originally drew us to Scotland to form the commune like them! (they lived together in Innerleithen). Other influences are from traditional music from around the world but particularly Scotland and Ireland. I also listen to Nick Cave, Brian Eno, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Leonard, Bob. So quite a mix!
Of the many works you have created, which are the most memorable for you and why?
It’s hard to pick a favourite sculpture of my own. The early Wickerman sculptures made with Alex were particularly fun and impressive. It was a new challenge to us to make nine metres high work, so that brought a sense of achievement and pleasure. My favourite solo piece was for the National Trust at Bodnant Garden in Wales. It was to commemorate the Suffrage Movement, and is called ‘Unbinding the Wing’. My design was of a strong and tall, (7metres) swirling women with arms outstretched releasing some white doves. I enjoyed the making experience at Bodnant. Situated near an oval pond, the sculpture was captured in the reflection upon it. It was a beautiful location to be invited to work.
What is the greatest satisfaction you derive from your work?
As I mentioned earlier, the special moment for me is when I take down the scaffolding and see a large sculpture standing free and alone for the first time. It is like taking the chains away and letting the figure loose!
To learn more about Trevor and his work, please go to his website:
Or contact him at:
Trevor Leat, Minnoch, Main Street, Auchencairn, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway, SW Scotland DG7 1QU
tel: +44 (0) 1556 640161 | email: firstname.lastname@example.org