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Curating Exhibitions: Walking, Talking, & Trees

by Charlotte Call

Charlotte Call is the Founder of Sapling, a gallery in Mayfair exploring the connection between art and nature.

When I decided to open Sapling seven months ago, I wanted to create an exhibition space that could positively enhance the lives of its audience. As an art historian, visual art had enabled me to connect to nature in a way that had improved my outlook, and I wanted to share that feeling.  Looking at and thinking about art taught me how to look at the rest of the world, how to unpick the structure of an object, to notice colour, shape, and find meaning. This facility to look allowed me to see the living world more vividly. In this way, something as simple as a walk could become a visual feast of light on leaves, birds and branches, wonder in the everyday.

During the gallery closures over the pandemic, I felt pain from being separated from art, that I realised served so many functions in my life. Art gave me ideas and advice, pleasure and solace. On my daily walk, searching for something to fill my eyes, I found myself drawn to a stand of old trees on the western edge of the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park.

I would run my hands on the bark, enjoying the thick furrows and always find a smile. When summer arrived, I leant against their trunks with my face in the sun, reading about artworks still locked away in darkened rooms. I’d feel recharged after these encounters and started learning how to name the trees. The friendly and oh-so-English rounded leaves of a pendunculate oak. The plaited patterns on a horse chestnut's bark. The dappled light under a London plane. That summer, when asked how I spent those months, I responded saying I learned to love trees.

Old trees and great works of art have more in common than it seems. They are both independent objects that predate and likely outlive us. They store knowledge which we can discover if we take the time to look, and allow ourselves to feel.

Asking myself how to build an exhibition program, I realised nature had to be a part of it. I wanted to explore all the ways that art can mediate our relationship with nature. To make sure the artists retained total freedom, I expressed the mission as an open thought.

Developing an exhibition is a fluid process based on a series of conversations. My dialogue with artist Orfeo Tagiuri and curator Caspar Williams turned into the first exhibition and the artist’s first solo show. Orfeo is polymath animator, painter, sculptor, and performer. We had worked together on a performance art show called 33 Bridges that explored our place in London as a city. We also happen to be childhood friends growing up with access to the same garden. It felt right to do something as mad as open a gallery with a someone I had built treehouses with. At his studio surrounded by his etchings onto wood, I expressed my recently enhanced appreciation for nature. He felt the same way. The conversation led to new works. The artist cut scenes of creative struggle, released into the varnished surface of beech panels.

One day, I passed my usual spot near the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park and saw a huge fallen red oak. I called Orfeo. We thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could use the wood from the park to etch an artwork? This turned into two carvings over the rings of two round slabs of wood donated by Hyde Park which we will release soon.

Six months and seven exhibitions on, each of the shows approach nature in a way that is unique to the artist. Jessie Stevenson returned to her home in Norfolk to create romantic landscapes. She recalled Wordsworth while using colours from our digital century. Angus McCrum explored allotments called “Schrebergarten” in his hometown of Berlin. He composed paintings over objects salvaged from these gardens.

The program is built on a series of collaborations with talented curators who introduced me to artists and produced shows. Curators face the simple yet daunting hurdle of finding space. For a curator, a place to display is the like an artist’s blank canvas onto which we can turn ideas into reality, and I relish that Sapling can be a launchpad for them.

So far, this internal mission for Sapling has given me structure and focus to search for new work. The nature thread has even led me to include historical works for my current show. Currently, we have prints by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer alongside a VR simulating the overview effect.

A five hundred year old artwork can fit in a program with contemporary artists when fresh ideas lead the eyes we use to look. Dürer is the ultimate artist who teaches us how to see. You can rove over one of his engravings for hours one day, and still find an element that speaks to a new part of your mind the next time you do.

Photography by Alice Lubbock