Sitting in the garden studio at the rear of her little cottage in Stoughton, Leicestershire, Shauna Richardson is busy crocheting. But Shauna isn’t making scarves or bootees; she is producing some of the most unusual, examples of craft you’re ever likely to come across. Her ‘crochetdermy’, as she has dubbed it, is an extraordinary mix of crochet and taxidermy that sees her apply her needlework skills to produce lifelike replicas of hares, monkeys, wild boar and even lions.
Tactile, lifelike and with an eerie power, her mohair creations are easy to love – which, it turns out, is something of a sticking point. ‘They make me feel uncomfortable,’ Shauna says, referring not to their palpable sense of presence but their obvious mainstream appeal. Her fine art degree was spent avoiding the creation of physical things in favour of trying to answer the eternal question, ‘what is art?’ by means of conceptual pieces –from empty spaces to declaring her van a work of art (partly, it must be said, so she could park on campus). But from that, she says, ‘I started looking in the opposite direction – at things that aren’t normally used to look at those theories, like traditional craft, really accessible things that everybody can understand.’
Then, about seven years ago, she entered the first crochetdermy piece she ever made – a 7ft-foot-tall standing brown bear – in the handicraft section of Burnham Market Flower Show, where it dwarfed an assortment of jumpers, cuddly toys and crocheted doilies. It wasn’t to poke fun but to see how people would react: ‘It backfired because it won best in category and then best in show; and I had to get out quick because so-and-so had won that category for the last 25 years and it was all a bit embarrassing, them getting beaten by a massive bear.’ The bear went on to become one of the most iconic pieces of 2011’s ‘Power of Making’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Hook, line and sinker
Shauna has been able to crochet from when she was a girl and, although she uses a normal 3mm crochet hook and the most common stitch (double stitch), her technique is not traditional. Her animals look like they might have been made like a big pullover that slips over a mould but, in fact, they are crocheted tightly around a form in situ. ‘I definitely break lots of the “rules” of crochet,’ she says. Remarkably, she doesn’t follow a sketch or pattern but works from her head (‘I just start somewhere and get stuck in, freestyle’) using the crochet to emphasise anatomy – making big circular areas for expansive bellies, for example, or placing the seams to emphasise muscle contour.
Although her work must be pleasing to anyone squeamish about real taxidermy, Shauna says that she’s not coming at it from that perspective. ‘I don’t really have any views on taxidermy, apart from the fact that places like the Natural History Museum give me a real feeling of nostalgia. When people went first went to those museums they were seeing something they had never seen before and I want people to feel the same thing with my work.’
That feeling is sure to arise when people see her latest piece, three 2ft-long lions, every stitch of them created by Shauna, which are travelling the country in an enormous glass case on the back of a lorry (‘It’s as big as it can be without needing a police escort,’ she says). The Lionheart Project, as it is known, is one of 12 regional public art pieces commissioned by the Arts Council as part of last year’s Cultural Olympiad. The three lions (a motif taken from Richard the Lionheart’s crest and made using wool from Derbyshire sheep) were seen by 500,000 people and are sure to put Shauna firmly on the map.
Shauna had to decamp from her garden studio to a warehouse on an industrial estate for the 18 months it took to complete the lions, and she had to look beyond her usual taxidermy suppliers for the enormous eyes, teeth and claws she needed, as well as using a 10mm hook to cope with the larger scale. In the end, the glass eyes were sourced locally – it took three tries to get them right – and the moulds underneath were made from polystyrene. ‘I had the complete lions sculpted, then they were chopped up and brought to the warehouse and then stuck back together. Then I filleted each piece in such a way that it followed the contours of the body, and crocheted them piece by piece – legs, body, tail, and finally, the head.’ The lions’ toes proved one of the trickiest parts. ‘There were so many,’ Shauna groans. ‘The small bits are always the most fiddly. It was a real “toe countdown” in the end, I just wanted to get them finished.’
Thirty-six miles of wool were used and all the work was completed by Shauna, who restricted herself to six hours crocheting a day to stave off RSI. ‘If people asked me whether they could do just one stitch, I would say no – it would be like running a marathon and getting a lift for the first four feet,’ she says. Having finally emerged from the warehouse, Shauna is clearly a bit shell-shocked at the completion of a project that has taken over the last three years of her life. ‘I haven’t been able to have a break for quite a long time,’ she says. ‘But I’m not complaining. It’s extraordinary and I’m very aware that this is a unique period of my life. It’ll get back to normal soon.’
Roadshow expert Katherine Higgins on collecting Shauna Richardson
‘Shauna’s “crochetdermy” begs to be stroked and touched – it’s that wonderful blend of something that’s impressive on a large scale but it’s very homely too. Because she’s using a traditional crafting method, it’s not remote or distant in the way that some contemporary art can be, and there’s a real sense of joy about the fact that someone has given us something so grand but using humble tools.
‘Shauna’s work shows several signs of being collectable: she has already been spotted by the V&A and this enormous commission for the Cultural Olympiad is a further boon. Craft is having a huge resurgence and there’s a lot of large-scale conceptual crafting that the public seems to absolutely love. The Lionheart Project is one of those events that will really bring people together – it’ll cut through generations and social barriers. She’s taking us on a journey of our times.’
This feature first appeared in Homes & Antiques September 2012