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  • Writer's pictureSue Pickering

News, Muse & Inspiration 22: Why I love drain covers and weeds

Drain covers (or manhole covers) and weeds may not be the most obvious things for an artist to be inspired by. But I love to find the extraordinary in the ordinary - the beauty in the mundane, and when I walk around, my eye is constantly drawn to many of the things that are usually ignored. And I will be giving a massive 'shout out' to these, and many other, little-noticed features of our world in an exhibition at the Dog & Bone Gallery in Brighton during July 2024.

I'm not sure when I first started noticing the patterns on drain covers and other utility access structures. But once I did, I began to see how interesting they were. These patterns were added to make them safer to walk over, as smooth covers were found to be slippery and dangerous. The metal covers also bear information about their function and where they were made.

Apparently, drain and manhole covers are often described as 'street jewellery' and I am not the only one who admires them. Manhole Covers of the World is a fabulous book by designer Bjoern Altmann that features manhole covers from 80 countries, uniformly presented as black and white graphics. And graphic designer Marina Willer has also created a celebration of the manhole cover called The Overlooked Beauty of London's Manhole Covers. Willer carried out a small survey of London’s covers and then transformed the functional metal pieces into stunning Day-Glo graphic designs. Click on the links above to find out more about these two projects.

And now we move on to weeds. For most of my life, plants have been broadly divided into 'proper plants' and 'weeds'. However, the shift in our understanding of the CONNECTEDNESS of the natural world is leading to a change in our understanding of weeds. In an excellent article about weeds in the Guardian newspaper from 2022, Alys Fowler writes:

“Weed” is a vague term. It comes from the Old English weod and means a plant, a grass, a herb or a tree – anything that grows abundantly around us. That is to say, a plant that exploits our growing conditions, be that in an agricultural field, a back garden, a pavement edge or a park. Weeds are plants, often wildflowers – until they come a little too close and take advantage.

My love of weeds has developed over recent years, during the walks that I take around my local area. Plants that have grown, unplanned, in pavements, gutters, and other fairly harsh environments fascinate me. They have interesting flowers and foliage and they brighten up the grey of the build landscape. A nearby unused building is currently smothered in the flowers of the common valerian and blackberry plants that have seeded themselves in the holes in the tarmac. Insects benefit from the availability of the flowers. And I will benefit from the blackberries that I can pick later in the summer!

The plants that I grew up calling weeds are some of the most important contributors to the survival of our precious pollinating insects (such as dandelions for early bees). Nettles are an important food source for butterflies and moths. Getting rid of all weeds significantly reduces the food and habitat availability for wildlife, so a change in approach is definitely needed.

One of my favourite pieces of art is The Great Piece of Turf - a watercolour painting created by Albrecht Dürer in 1503. When I saw it many years ago I was blown away by the juxtaposition of the fineness of the piece and the mundaneness of the subject matter. In my own work I like to create juxtapositions too. In my exhibition at the Dog & Bone Gallery I will be inviting viewers to explore the juxtaposition of bright abstract shapes with some of the drain covers and weeds that I value so much.

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