Simone Brewster embraces nature in a corking new project

By Sujata Burman

A new series of sculptural vessels explores the green potential of an underused material.

Simone Brewster has worked in many mediums. “I'm like a farmer; it’s like rotation cropping,” she says of her practice, encompassing jewellery, painting, furniture and objects. “I'm not stuck to one form of inspiration. I'm not stuck to one language. I can go and learn something and bring it back to a different medium. They’re all having a dialogue and it's cyclical.”

‘Spirit of Place’ – her LDF23 project, created in collaboration with the world's largest cork producer Amorim – is the first time the artist, designer, educator and cultural change-maker has worked with the material. “If you look at a lot of my work, I love volume,” she says. This was the ideal situation; creating something on a larger scale (2.5m height) that wasn’t extremely heavy. The installation will comprise a family of five sculptural vessels located on The Strand for the festival.

At first, Brewster had plenty of ideas for what she wanted to make – but these fell by the wayside when she visited a cork forest on the estate of Herdade de Rio Frio in Portugal. Amorim is a family-run business and in that vein, London-based Brewster travelled south with her six-month-old son (his first trip outside of the UK) and her husband (handily, a tree surgeon). Off they went, in search of what Amorim cork had to offer her multifaceted creative endeavours.

“We really learned what they're trying to achieve in preserving the forest for future generations,” Brewster explains of her eye-opening experience. Aside from the forest being physically picturesque, she discovered that the future of its cork oaks could be secured by four key traits: upright expression, drought resistance, regenerative growth and biodiversity conservation. After various tours of the grounds, Brewster came away understanding that, “if they don't do what they're doing, we might not have this industry in the future”.

Simone Brewster

The waste from this 'green' material was also being utilised in the Amorim facilities themselves. “Cork stoppers or cork dust are used to create new products or they’re burned to use as fuel to run the electricity for the buildings,” says Brewster. We are not, she continues, using cork to its full potential. “If we use it for more architectural purposes, we're essentially helping fight against some of the key issues of our generation, like global warming.”

Brewster left Portugal with a new feeling, of wanting “to make objects that give me an opportunity to talk about the important work Amorim are doing”. This was the starting point for her designs in ‘Spirit of Place’, taking the aforementioned four pillars of work in the forest, and translating them into physical edifices. “When the bark is just stripped back, there is a warmth of colours,” she says. “The shape of the trees respond to this stripping and you start to get this stepped edge.” These edges appear in the silhouettes of Brewster’s formations, and the green tints are an ode to the lichen growing on the stripped-back barks. “The colour story is coming from the forest,” she explains.

“If we use cork for more architectural purposes, we're helping fight against some of the key issues of our generation”

‘Spirit of Place’ remains in tune with Brewster’s own design language, too. “I'm interested in this idea of the woman and the vessel,” she says of the shapes she’s investigating in her work. The title derives from the translation of the architectural term genius loci or ‘genius of the place’. “It is about the uniqueness of a place, and I thought that was appropriate,” she continues, alluding to the positive environmental potential of Amorim’s cork forest.

Genius loci also relates to “the Greeks and this idea that there was a spirit or deity that took care of an environment, that gave it their spirit”. Besides having audiences enjoy the material in the heart of London, this family of powerfully representative sculptures, Brewster says, is essentially “pointing in the direction of what they're doing the Amorim”. High praise, indeed.