By Megan Murray
'I've always been caught between the city and countryside,' says artist and designer Jess Wheeler, who moved to rural Wales at the beginning of the pandemic after six years in London.
'Nature has been a theme running through my life and work,' she explains. 'As a set designer, I'd work with fashion brands and create botanical displays for catwalk shows. London is so fast-paced, but even when I was dealing with stressful situations, I felt a craving for nature that came out in the work I was producing.'
While at art school in Edinburgh, this inner conflict would see Wheeler escaping to Princes Street Gardens every morning to roam its 37 acres. 'It became a daily ritual, whatever the weather. I needed an hour immersed in greenery before facing the world,' she recalls. 'When you walk through the same space every morning, you gain an intimate knowledge of it. I'd know what was flowering and how the colours were changing; I loved being in step with the seasons.'
Wheeler's morning walk is now just one of many ways that the artist has attuned herself to the seasonality of her surroundings.
'Botanicals have always been my muse, but living in this incredibly beautiful place in Wales, it's changed everything. Through foraging for food and picking flowers to draw, I feel part of nature's cycle,' she says.
While morning walks previously offered a small sanctuary in a 'concrete jungle', they now hold the opportunity to experience a kind of magic that impacts her creative process. Recently, after waking at 4am, Wheeler trusted in her body's instinct to get up, so she walked one of her favourite routes down by a river near her home. 'As dawn was breaking, I saw a kingfisher, which is rare. Beautiful things put me in a really good headspace,' she says. 'A morning like that can transform how I create.'
Put simply, nothing powers Wheeler's creativity like nature. 'There is no purer inspiration than something that grows outside,' she confirms. 'I often return home with a pocketful of foraged things. I love the symmetry of a leaf, so I'll press it and keep the shape as a reference for future designs. I'm fascinated by the fleeting beauty of flowers - one heavy rainstorm and they could be gone tomorrow,' she says.
Unlike flicking through a book or looking at a photo, Wheeler plucks living inspiration from around her and is fascinated by its ephemerality. The hand-crafted brass sconces she sells through Oxfordshire store Cutter Brooks, for example, are shaped into delicate oak leaf shapes. 'A garden is like a piece of art that you have to appreciate in that moment, because it doesn't last forever,' she says.
This almost spiritual connection to the landscape has helped Wheeler find balance in the everyday. 'I work all the time; I don't ever stop. But being here has helped me carve out moments of calm,' she explains.
Scent is one of the ways that Wheeler brings a sense of tranquillity to her workshop. 'I always burn candles and oils in my home, and I pick the scents depending on the season. In the summer, I'll choose something fresh, but in winter I'm drawn to oud and woody fragrances.'
Afternoons see her stop and take a break, heading to the local woodland to pick elderflower, wild garlic, nettles, and sloes. With these she'll make soups, as well as her own sloe gin. Then, no evening is complete without a long, hot soak. 'I have a bath that sits in front of a window with views out over the valley. In the summer it's lovely, because you can watch the sunset with a glass of red wine,' she describes.
So, what has this change in location taught Wheeler? 'Nature has taught me everything. Observing the ever-changing flora and fauna, realising that what you do affects the insects, animals and plant life around you. Seeing the cycle of life and the physicality of being connected to it, it's grounding for me as a person and an artist.'