Jess Wheeler is a British artist and set designer who finds inspiration in the beauty of the natural world. Her varied mediums span from watercolour and drawings to ceramics and floristry, and most recently metalwork. Since graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 2015, Jess has worked with the likes of Alex Eagle, Selfridges and Jimmy Choo on various projects.
We visited Jess on a sunny Monday morning (pre-social distancing) to chat about her work, her projects and the inspiring beauty of the natural world.
Can you tell us a bit about your education and career path so far?
I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2015 having had the best time studying illustration. I was lucky in that I started working as an illustrator/designer whilst still at university, which made the transition of working freelance a lot less daunting. I soon learnt after a few months of solitary drawing that I needed to also work with people. This is how I got into set design and working with flowers. I assisted a few fashion set designers and florists – learning about both worlds meant that I could combine the two. I now make sets for photoshoots, shop windows, events and fashion shows for brands such as Alex Eagle, Rixo and Aesop. I love the prop-making side of things, learning new crafts and working out new materials, this fascination has lead me to turn my drawings into objects. Metal is my most recent obsession! I’m currently working on a collection of handmade objects for the home, which will be launched in October 2020.
The natural world is your main subject for your work – what about it continues to inspire you?
All of my varied mediums of working aim to remind the viewer of the beauty and fragility of our natural world. I’m obsessed with flowers and try to incorporate them into all aspects of my work. I make sculptures from them and of them, collect them, grow them and paint them. Unlike everything else, the natural world is constantly changing with season, weather and scenery. There are endless things to learn all the time.
What items on your desk could you not live without?
A pot of tea – I also have monthly notebooks full of lists and drawings, they’re a total mess and totally illegible to anyone but me. Finally, my radio – I love BBC Radio Wales!
Do you have any favourite colour combinations?
Mustard yellow & sky blue.
What is something you’re most proud of?
I’m proud that I’ve managed to work out a way to do exactly what I want and make it my job.
Is there a specific place in the world that inspires you most?
I spend a lot of time in North Wales – I find being there very inspiring. No distractions, rolling hills, forests, wild flowers and wild swimming. Having space there means that I’m more ambitious with my ideas. I’m working on an exciting collection of objects made from metal at the moment – coming soon!
Are you reading anything at the moment?
I’m currently re-reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree. It’s an inspiring book about a pioneering re-wilding project in West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife which has lead to extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, and rare butterflies to start breeding. I read it last year but am re-reading it, as I needed a reminder – in these bleak times – of the beauty and strength of the natural world when we give it freedom to do its thing.
Is there a place for sustainability within your work?
Definitely! I’m trying to use British flower suppliers when possible and also growing my own. I also never use floral foam, which is a petrochemical and it not biodegradable. All of my packaging is recyclable (I’ve started using popcorn instead of bubble wrap when posting my ceramics!).
It’s important to me that my art and homewares transcend seasonality and have a conscience. My most recent collection of ceramics was made in North Wales in collaboration with members of the social enterprise art studio ‘Designs in Mind‘ supporting members with mental illness. My ‘Pebble Bowls’, are made using pebbles from the river Tanat in North Wales, each piece is individually pressed into a pebble, acting as a mould. All bowls present natural irregularities and no one is the same. Hopefully this ethos of making challenges mass consumption, buying totally unique objects, really treasuring them and viewing everyday object as pieces of art should push people to buy consciously.