When artist Fiona Grady created 'Afternoon Ratio', her stunning window installation for 'Fractions' – our E17 Art Trail exhibition at Bühler and Co – it proved to be a genuine head-turner. Having seen Fiona's window in all of its glowing, iridescent glory, Waltham Forest Council commissioned her to create a new installation for a rather prestigious project…

When we launched Look Up, we wanted it be more than just another online print store. We sought to showcase a curated collection of limited edition prints by established and emerging artists, but we also wanted to build a promotional platform to help broaden their audience and, in doing so, improve the potential for new opportunities, collaborations and commissions. So, when Waltham Forest Council got in touch with Fiona we were over the moon. Having seen 'Afternoon Ratio', they commissioned a new artwork for the Visitor Centre and Cafe at the recently regenerated Walthamstow Wetlands, which opened to the public on October 20th. 

'Natural Triangulations', cafe window, Walthamstow Wetlands

To find out more about the commission's genesis, we swapped a few emails with Abigail Viner – Cultural Commissioner for Waltham Forest Council and Fiona's main point of contact on the project. "We were particularly interested in the way Fiona’s work uses natural light, creating shadows and reflections on walls and floors to animate otherwise unused or overlooked building spaces." Choosing Fiona to work on the Wetlands project proved to be an inspired choice; we caught up with her in between commissions and screenprinting sessions to discuss the project in more detail.

'Natural Triangulations', cafe window, Walthamstow Wetlands

Look Up Let's start by talking about 'Afternoon Ratio', which you created for 'Fractions', our E17 Art Trail exhibition at Bühler and Co. The window relates to 'Shards', the screenprint you made for the same exhibition, but can you tell me more about the ideas behind 'Afternoon Ratio’?

Fiona Grady My intention was to create a stained glass window using maths, that spoke to my print ‘Shards’. The triangles are created from various proportions of one number sequence, which can be expressed as a ratio. I designed the print first, then I enlarged the sizes and proportions of the triangles, so they'd cover the surface of the window. The print is composed from shades of blue, but I chose a brighter palette for the window as I wanted the room to feel fresh and filled with bright colours. It’s a sun trap, so the colours flood into the room throughout the day. The owners of Bühler and Co loved the work and asked if they could keep it longer term, which is great – many of my installations have a temporary lifespan and it’s always sad to remove them.

Fiona's 'Afternoon Ratio' installation at Buhler and Co, Walthamstow

LU The Wetlands project is quite a prestigious one. How did you react when Waltham Forest invited you to create a new artwork for the visitor centre?

FG I was really pleased, as my work lends itself to projects of this nature. I’ve created quite a few window installations for galleries and arts organisations, but it’s the first heritage project I’ve been involved with. It’s been a learning curve. Although the commission was organised by the council, the Wetlands has a variety of funding partners and architects who had to approve my design. They believed in my proposal and trusted that I could create an artwork that would help showcase the new visitor centre. It’s exciting to think how many people will visit the Wetlands and see my work, particularly as it has a wide audience that might not usually interact with art.

'Natural Triangulations', detail of reception window, Walthamstow Wetlands

LU How did the project get started? Did you respond to a specific brief, or was it more open-ended?

FG Planning the work was a gradual process. I met with Abigail Viner (Culture Commissioner for Waltham Forest) to discuss my work in context of the brief. I then had a ‘hard hat’ visit to the site – which was still under construction – to get a sense of the building and identify which windows would be suitable for the commission. I followed up with a proposal for my artwork, ‘Natural Triangulations’, with supporting diagrams. My work is abstract and geometric, so it was important to stay true to my artistic style, whilst finding a way to interpret the character of the venue.

LU What was it like working with Waltham Forest Council?

FG It was a very positive experience. I felt they took the time to understand my work and gave me a budget that enabled me to work on a larger scale. Abigail (Viner) was in regular contact and ensured that the installation of my work was a priority, despite the tight deadlines to open the centre. The budget also allowed me to hire an assistant, while still covering my time – which isn't always the case with commissions.

'Natural Triangulations', detail of reception window, Walthamstow Wetlands

LU How many windows did you create, and how does the installation differ from one window to the next?

FG I’ve created two installations: one in the reception near the main entrance and the other in the cafe. The reception windows have long panes of glass; for those I used a series of yellow, blue, turquoise and green triangles that reduce in size as they move down the glass. The reception faces railway arches, with a view of exposed brick. It's one of the few areas that doesn’t see much colour from the nature reserve, so I brought the colours of the grass and the water into the room. The cafe window is very different – it's arched and split into nine sections. I played with the symmetry of this window by mirroring the shapes within the design, creating a rhythm of colour that moves around the surface of the glass like petals of a flower. My overall concept for ‘Natural Triangulations’ is to explore the relationship between nature and architecture, by considering how they both use building blocks of repeated forms to shape complex structures. Each principle stems from an applied sequence of forms: such as bricks or florets that have a logical sequence or rhythm that enables them to exist. This is reflected in the rhythms I created with the triangular motifs and colour palette.

'Natural Triangulations', detail of reception window, Walthamstow Wetlands

LU Can you tell me a little about the materials? Is vinyl fairly easy to work with, or are there certain challenges you have to negotiate during the process?

FG The window drawings are made with laser cut adhesive vinyl, which is applied directly to the glass. It’s harder to apply than it looks! The material is very unforgiving – it's transparent, so any finger prints or specks of dirt caught under the surface will show up. Also, it’s easy to catch bubbles of air, so you have to carefully smooth the surface as you apply the vinyl. One of the biggest challenges was the scale of the windows. They're approximately 3 x 3 metres each, so I had to hire a scaffolding tower to install the work. I don’t mind working at height but it was quite physically demanding.

LU When did you first start using vinyls in this way? What do you like about the medium?

FG In 2015 I was invited to create a window installation for the Bowery in Leeds. It's a cafe, gallery and education space split across two floors, and they were keen to have an installation that acted as signage, promoting the different aspects of their business. I used translucent coloured vinyls in yellow and blue which made a really strong impact and had a great graphic finish. I started working with transparent colours for the coloured shadows they created. I enjoy working with vinyl as it’s such an immediate medium; you literally cut it and stick it up. However, it does require a lot of careful planning, as drawing directly onto large windows isn’t as straightforward as working with a completely flat surface.

Fiona's window installation at The Bowery, Leeds

LU How did the installation go? Are you pleased with the windows?

FG The installation went really well. I’d carefully planned the work, so I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to look and was pleased to be able to achieve it. I had a recent graduate, artist Ellie Hawkes, assisting me with the installation; it was definitely a two person job and an enjoyable process with her enthusiastic help. We installed the work over three days to gradually build up the layers of colour, and at that stage the space was still a building site so there was a lot of activity around us. I love the new artworks, particularly the cafe window. I think they work really well in the space. It’s a beautifully restored building with quite a minimalist, stripped back design, so it was important to introduce colour into the space. I’m excited to visit over the next few months to see how the windows look with the changing colours of the seasons.

LU Are you keen to take on more commissions of this nature?

FG Definitely. My work is best suited to spaces with character. I’ve always had an interest in architecture and the heritage of buildings, so it's great to have an opportunity to learn the history of a site, and to find methods that illuminate or highlight its features. I have a few ideas for new projects… I'm currently researching a particular building movement – watch this space. I’m always looking for opportunities to present my work in new or challenging environments. I hope to continue creating commissions on this scale, and I welcome invitations and commissions. I'd love to work on smaller windows too, as I think the vinyls would look great in a domestic environment.

'Natural Triangulations', cafe window, Walthamstow Wetlands

Like 'Afternoon Ratio' at Bühler and Co, 'Natural Triangulations' is a wonderful example of Fiona's aesthetic focus and her ongoing fascination with light. The rhythmic compositions, the carefully selected colour palettes, and the iridescent glow of the layered transparent vinyls combine to great effect.

Abigail Viner agrees, describing 'Natural Triangulations' as "ideal for the Wetlands. Fiona was able to create a site specific proposal, responding to the shapes and colours of the outdoor Wetlands site and the amazing architectural space of the visitor centre. Through colour and shape, her work provides visitors with a taste of what lies beyond the visitor centre." And how are visitors responding to Fiona's windows? "Really positive. There's a genuine feeling that they enhance the building. I personally feel that each window animates the spaces in a way that is beautiful in its own right, while remaining respectful to the architecture and responding thoughtfully to the site’s main focus as a nature reserve."

'Natural Triangulations' is further evidence of Fiona's ability to create site specific installations that perfectly suit – and in many ways amplify – the environment for which they were created. Like Fiona, we look forward to seeing how the atmospheric effects of 'Natural Triangulations' shift and change with the passing of the seasons. 

The Walthamstow Wetlands Visitor Centre and Cafe is open daily 9.30am to 4pm (October to March), and 9.30am to 5pm (April to September). For more info visit the website.

To find out more about Fiona Grady's creative practice, and to see her exclusive editions for Look Up, click here.