British jewellery designer Phoebe Walsh has created a series of five miniature flower pressing books in recycled sterling silver, each containing a single war flower from the new frontlines in Kyiv. The project began in March when a brave Kyivan artist Olga Morozova agreed to go searching for flowers as her city fell ablaze. We spoke with Phoebe to find out more about the project:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
My name is Phoebe and I’m a jeweller from London. I like to explore the connection between people and nature, and work with locally foraged botanicals and wildflowers cast into finely textured silver and gold. I make everything myself by hand from my SE London studio, and work exclusively with small family-run businesses here in the UK. Sustainability, working with recycled materials and supporting environmental charities are but a few ways in which I try to support a healthy relationship to nature through my work.
What was the inspiration behind this project?
Eight months ago I found myself looking through the Garden Museum collection just two days after Russia officially declared war on Ukraine. Philip Norman, Garden Museum volunteer and real beacon of knowledge, had shown me several pieces which had conversations between wildflowers and war. Looking through the beautiful wildflower pressings made by Jane Lindsay in 1956, collected in the rubble of London’s WWII bomb sites, along with the flowers picked from the Eastern Front on the battlefields by WWI soldier George Marr, I felt strongly about making a series working with wildflowers from the new frontlines in Ukraine. In these objects are flickers of beauty, the stories of real people and humanity in a time of destruction. I saw the power of using a flower to talk about war – something almost all people can relate to- so I set about to create my own project.
How did you find someone to collect the flowers for you?
I searched for artists and gardeners that had been recently active on social media accounts, posting from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. Most did not respond. Philip had had the idea to involve artists and I am incredibly grateful to that, as Olga Morozova has changed the course of this project and my life in many respects. She is an incredibly generous and open minded individual, who saw value in a project of this nature. She kindly agreed to search for flowers in her city despite the frequent shelling and air raids. It would have been all too easy for her to ignore the message, but she chose to embark on the project anyway.
What were some of the challenges?
I felt trepidation to start this project knowing full well I was an outsider with no relationship to Ukraine, other than what I read on the news. It required a delicate hand to ask victims of war to help search for something, but I felt strongly about the powerful message it could have in helping talk about the Ukraine war over here – and I hoped the focus on seasons, blossom and change could be a source of some form of optimism. Maxim Dondy, War Photographer and journalist, responded “I cannot imagine driving through a war-torn city in the search of flowers…” But I felt driven to keep at it. And then I met Olga…
Olga agreed to collaborate on this project in March, but then the ground was still frozen and no blossom yet to be seen. Once Olga picked the flowers, we improvised a flower press with books, and then the challenge was how to get them out from Kyiv, Ukraine to London, England. The first herbarium arrived via a friend travelling to Warsaw, Poland, who posted it from there as their postal system. Whilst the second, which was posted a little later, in August went through the central Ukrainian postal system Ukrposhka as it was operating fairly regularly.
What were some of the flowers and plants that Olga sent you?
There is a real myriad of leaves and plants in the Herbariums, with few I recognised. It reflects the variety of botanicals available in Popudrenka Park. Olga sent some beautiful small yellow tree blossom which was a nice surprise as we had been sharing recipes for blossom jam earlier in the season. The idea was sadly parked for a ‘peacetime’ activity, as the air pollution from the shelling had settled on the petals and marked the park, echoing the recently claim of it being one of the most polluted parks in the city at that time.
Another surprise arrived when I opened the Herbarium in my studio -a cat hair caught off the pages and floated towards me. It had travelled from Olga’s beloved cat, from her home to mine. I am allergic and the whole experience had me laughing and sneezing!
Can you tell us about the concept of the jewellery designs you then made?
The series is made up of five miniature flower books in silver, with a single rotating flower page. I came across several Edwardian antique book charms that were taken on pilgrimages and I really liked the movement of opening a secret that is worn close to the body. I wanted a single rotating page that had a war flower inside a clear page and after experiments, working with clear resin seemed the best way forward to capture them. The engravings are based on drawings I made of the wildflowers, and I added the trident and sunflower element to connect the flowers to their home. Thanks to the patience of Serhii Ovcharenko, the books came about after five rounds of revisions – the clasp in particular was a fiddly one to fine tune with its double lever, but I am so happy with them.
Do you have a favourite piece in the collection?
I do, book number 5 is a perfectly formed little leaf, with delicate spikelets. I love the shape and its bright green vitality. To me, it looks like a constant moment of blossoming. I also love the engravings for this book with wheatsheaves on the front cover.
Have you learned anything interesting or surprising from this project?
I didn’t expect to form a friendship through this project. I speak with Olga most days, and it’s given me an intimate glimpse into what life is like in a city besieged by war. The whole process has really made me see how art and nature have an endless healing ability that can suspend us from even the most challenging of circumstances.
How will this project live on?
This feels like the beginning of the journey in many ways. I would like to tour the series and exhibit internationally to share the project, to continue the conversation of the Ukraine war. After, the series will be auctioned to raise money for artists in Ukraine. Filmmaker Carmela Corbett is currently working on a documentary covering the Flowers from the Frontline which is in motion to launch in January. It focuses on the power of art in a time of war. I have found it incredible to witness the journey taking a life of its own. I am also working on a new collection, ‘Loveletter to Kyiv,’ that will be made with some of the flowers from Olga’s Herbarium. The pieces will be a little more in keeping with my aesthetic, more abstract and dreamlike, and will continue to help raise money for artists in Ukraine from the sales.
Outside of this series, there is a part of me that would like to expand the project to make Flowers from the Frontline for other conflicts around the world, but we will see..!
Artist Olga Morozova, painting in Popudrenko Park, Kyiv. September 2022.
“Kyiv is immersed in the greenery of parks in the summer. I have a lot of favourite parks, depending on my mood, but the parks on the slopes of the Dnieper, the Fomin Botanical Garden and a small park near the house are the parks named after Popudrenko. In it, I walked with the children, created a huge number of sketches and paintings, ran in the mornings and practiced qigong.. Trenches began to be dug in our park at the beginning of April. The enemy was 20 minutes away from us. Tension hung in the air. Divergents often broke through. We live today, without plans but with hope” Olga Morozova.
Currently, Olga is working on a new series of paintings inspired by jazz and making pastel paintings full of colour as a response to life in Kyiv which is often seen now by torchlight. The ever-changing circumstances, which might challenge most, has only fuelled Olga’s creativity. To see more of her art here in London, she is currently exhibiting on the Young Masters Art program at the Exhibitionist Hotel.
Phoebe Walsh: Flowers from the Frontline is on display until 22 December