Once a sought after set designer, Jess Wheeler has spent the past year living in a tiny cottage in the foothills of Snowdonia. The space prompted her to take up metalwork and she’s now creating beautiful works in brass that combine the delicacy of natural forms with the physicality of the medium. We spoke to her about life lockdown and her ‘frantic need’ to make things.
How did you begin your career?
I studied illustration for my degree at Edinburgh. I began working whilst still at uni, drawing mainly. After graduating I just did everything I could not to get a conventional job. Those first few years after uni are really hard. I said yes to everything and took so many crummy jobs but somehow they all led to more work. I began assisting at a fashion production company and for a time I managed a rare orchid shop called McBeans in Sussex. They were the first people to bring orchids into the country in Victorian times. A lot of what I do is inspired by flowers and nature. I then began to do art direction, rebranding, drawing and set design.
What kind of set design do you do?
All sorts. Mainly for photoshoots and fashion shows. People want you for your aesthetic so your work goes in many directions. One week I could be doing window displays at Aesop, and the next I’m designing a fashion set for RIXO. When lockdown arrived I moved to Wales and finally had space around me. I had an itch to learn metalwork so that’s what I do now. It feels nice to have finally found an answer to that question you’re asked at supper, ‘so what do you do?’…Before lockdown I did so many things I didn’t know what to say.
So what would you say now?
Depends who I’m sitting next to. If it’s a compos mentis person I’d say, I make things out of metal. I suppose technically I’m a designer and sculptor.
How did you learn the metalwork skills?
I went in pretty blind. Firstly I found a book in a charity shop about making things from brass. Then I went to a car boot sale and bought loads of tools and was hammering away trying to make stuff. It all looked pretty shoddy. In Wales there’s an amazing community of artists and makers – the art scene is so different to London as people can afford to live cheaply and everyone has space for a workshop or studio. Through that gang I found Stan, an amazing Welshman who makes brass dragons. I followed him around for about 4 months and it was the best education. I would just watch him at work. Now he teases me about my success, ‘I should’ve bloody made some wall sconces, Jess.’
What’s your process like?
I work with brass. I use a really hot torch flame, a bit like a Bunsen burner that you can move. My process is silver soldering, so I use a stick of pure silver and a torch and I heat up the two bits of brass and then I sort of glue it with silver. It gets incredibly hot and I’ve lost a lot of baby hair in the process! I’ve also ruined my hands but I love the physicality of the work.
What about the design?
It’s informed by nature. I made a paper model of a wall-mounted brass candlestick a year ago and I’ve basically spent the last year developing it and working out how to make it. The shape of the leaf comes from the leaves of an oak tree just outside my window. I tried to capture the movement, the nature-y-ness I suppose.
Which flowers are you drawn to?
I am drawn to really delicate crinkly petals. I am obsessed with Welsh poppies that grown near us in bright orange and bright yellow. They are really delicate and yet withstand the harsh environment. I love that thin paperiness. It’s the same with iris. For my watercolour iris I use a wooden stick with a pin on the end of it that is technically made for bookbinding. I scratch away at the surface of the paper – it gives it that papery look.
Do you have any new products in the pipeline?
Yes I am developing a candlestick, a candelabra and a chandelier. I want to move into bigger pieces and and now have the facilities in place to make that happen. I also make these hand-painted brass trays that seem to be popular, I think a lot of Dads got them for Christmas – they’re the sort of thing to give people who have everything. And I want to make beautiful waste paper bins.
How did you come to be stocked at Cutter Brooks?
I showed Amanda my sconces before Christmas and luckily she fell in love with them. Later, when she put them on her website they sold out in 3 hours. That was amazing. I have since been able to employ a full time assistant.
How did lockdown affect your work?
It was a bit of a panic at the beginning as loads of my work was cancelled, all the fashion shoots etc. I spent the first few months just walking and doing endless watercolours. Then I craved something physical that I could use my body and hands to make. That’s such a thing for me, I want to come home from work exhausted at the end of the day.
Where do you get your inspiration in London?
New Covent Garden – it’s the best. It’s the bit of London I really miss. The energy of the geezers at the market giving you digestive biscuits. I love it.
The V&A – I spend a lot of time in the V&A. I’m obsessed with their ceramics. I think their permanent collection is so overlooked – you could literally spend days amongst the different century furniture. It’s all so inspiring.
Hampstead Heath – I suppose it was written in the stars that I would end up in Wales! I spent a lot of time walking on the Heath.
Kensal Cemetery – We used to live overlooking it. It was quite funny because on the one hand you didn’t have anyone looking up at you, but on the other you did have hundreds of people looking up at you.
Country mouse or town mouse?
Country mouse. I just like space. But in my dream world I’d do half and half. I’d like to do set design work and art direction in London and then be able to return to my workshop in Wales.
What’s it been like living in Wales?
Where we live is amazing because it’s really far from everything. It’s in the foothills of Snowdonia and I walk up the Y Garn mountain just about every morning. Once you’re up there you can see England which is flat and Wales is such a physical border, it’s really hilly. I get up freakishly early and walk for a few hours, come home, have a bath and then get to work. I don’t sit still very well. I have a frantic need to be making things.
When will you return to London?
I’ve booked a week in London at the end of May when it’s my birthday. I haven’t eaten out in about a year – and there are no take away’s in Wales! So I have booked a restaurant for every night of the week: Ida, Rochelle Canteen, the Garden Museum Cafe and Morito in Exmouth Market.
What do you listen to in your workshop?
The most incredible musician you will ever hear is called Tiberius B. Their videos are amazing if you’re in need of some positive energy. For podcasts I love Fortunately with Fi and Jane.
What are your favourite accounts to follow on Instagram?
@thenewcraftsmen – I love seeing what other people are making.
But during the day I work in a windy barn with no WiFi. My computer doesn’t come with me and quite often my phone doesn’t. I have a radio. 5 hours can pass and it feels like half an hour. The only way of telling the time is that my tummy starts rumbling.