AT a time most of us are cooped up inside, it is irresistable to look for inspiration to the natural world.

Oxfordshire Artweeks – the country’s biggest open-studio event – does that with new art on show – safely online.

Festival director ESTHER LAFFERTY selects some of the animal and nature-inspired highlights from the scores of artists opening their studios and galleries online.

Among those getting involved in this virtual festival are sculptor Peter Murphy, from near Chipping Norton, who joins Artweeks for the first time.

Peter forges stylised animal sculpture from steel in a cowshed studio deep in the Cotswolds.

Marrying both traditional forging and the use of modern machinery to create his pieces, Peter draws inspiration from flora and fauna from across the globe, although his favourites are inspired by the smaller creatures in the British countryside such as frogs and dragonflies as well as cow parsley and poppies.

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His biggest reptile to date is a life-size skeletal monitor lizard forged in steel.

“I was fascinated by reptiles and insects from an early age, so they feature heavily in my sculpture, he says. “My early love of collecting and learning the names of flowers on childhood walks also plays a significant role in my art today.”

Peter’s sculpture is realistic and yet dramatic, and he particularly likes rust and uses the patina to enhance and bring his work to life: a giant hogweed based on one he observed along the banks of River Stour, towers three-metres tall over the grass below, with a sienna rust stem and leaves.

“Although I have never made a T-Rex, I would love to one day. I just need a bigger workshop!” he laughs.

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From common or garden to the more unusual, a wide array of species catch the eye of professional artist Melanie Charles, from Tysoe, near Banbury who takes a modern approach using bold blocks of colour to build her portraits.

She particularly enjoys painting different breeds of cattle, from Highlands to Friesians, in her garden studio to a backdrop of birdsong.

“Cows are my absolute favourite,” she explains. “They are very inquisitive and so when I am out with my camera, if I catch one’s eye, it will come over to say hello me, and usually the whole herd will follow. They are such gentle giants, although I do tend to stay the other side of the fence. Cows have adorable eyelashes and soft slobbery noses which are great to paint and I love how each one has different markings giving them their own character.

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“Most Friesians have black noses, so finding one with a pink nose is something special.”

With a rainbow of strikingly bright colours as her core palette, Melanie likes to play with both plain and patterned backgrounds and enjoys researching interiors and contemporary colour schemes that are trending each year, and adding animals to her painted ‘wallpaper’ on occasion.

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Although Melanie is best known for her farm animals, apparently screeching to a halt on journeys down country lanes if she spots an interesting character over the hedge, expect the occasional surprise – like sleek mackerel and tufted guinea pigs.

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Her Glittering Prawn Star is undeniably bonkers – on a sparkling blue background fit for a cocktail dress, and it must be the first time a shrimp has starred in an Artweeks exhibition.

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“I welcome the challenge of painting any quirky animal,” she laughs. “Make a suggestion!”

Many of Melanie’s paintings are large, with the impact of the subject itself, like that of a handsome Hereford bull called Alan who, on a canvas 5ft by 4ft, took up two easels. However, for Artweeks her new series of originals, nicknamed ‘diddy o’s’, are just 10cm square, so visitors can take a hare or a longhorn away in their handbag!”

For two very different interpretations of animals, both drawn in ink, artists Myrica Jones, from Chadlington, and Nic Vickery from Milton-under-Wychwood, present the delicate ephemeral beauty of local wildlife and their extraordinary power in strikingly opposite styles.

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Myrica’s large-scale, sculptural animals are themed around the tension between weight, constraint and power. They are drawn in ink, each in a single colour, and the strength of that colour where the lines are denser illustrates where there is tension and force in the figure’s musculature. In contract, Nic’s quirky animal portraits in soft pastels with characterful clothing, reveal delicate pen and ink hares and other wildlife, their shape formed from wild-flowers.

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“These pen and ink botanical beasties came about because I really enjoyed using the dip pen and ink method.

“I started experimenting with all the colours of the natural world and found this new way to bring my animal drawings to life. As I love gardening as well as animals, it seems a perfect way to bring fauna and flora together,” she explains.

Christopher Townsend is celebrating his 20th year in Artweeks, during which he has become well-known for his iron tree sculptures.

Christopher works in a charming rustic barn studio in Asthall, from which the beautiful lush Windrush valley drops away.

Populating his metal forest are iron leaping fish, giant dragonflies and huge Day of the Triffids-style seed heads 1m in diameter. Here too small characters roam like Borrowers. Made from horseshoe nails, these figures dance, spin, rock and even climb among the leaves that catch the light along the curling twisty branches of the hazel or the extraordinary corkscrew willow. The natural steel finish of an angle-ground tree almost glitters with life.

“Trees are forever present and so majestic,” he says. “They are here when we are born and will carry on long after all the people on earth have passed on. It’s as if they are watching over us, and so my sculpture reminds us to value what we hold dear. That’s especially important in times like this.”

His trees represent both the tree of life and the family tree so many of his creations are bespoke with the names of family members, for example, on the leaves. Some are wall-mounted, others freestanding, windswept, or even Daliesque. The shadows add a further dimension.

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“I’ve always loved to demonstrate my methods and talk about the materials I use and reasons my sculptures take the forms they do, whether they are organic or figurative or something else entirely,” he says.

“Although the physical exhibition is not open during Artweeks, because of coronavirus, I welcome people to the studio in normal circumstances and look forward to doing so again later in the year.”

Also presenting intriguing forest-inspired pieces is furniture-maker Ian Sanders, in Shipton under Wychwood. Ian carves unique tree-tables, his finished tables both a smooth and flowing tree sculpture and a piece of decorative furniture. Ian’s hand-carved pieces are inspired by, and grow out of, the trees from which they originate.

Ian’s wife Julia Sorrell focuses on careful observation, reducing the scenes she sees using warm and cool colours,, particularly on her haunting trees.

The ethereal woods of literature have inspired a new series of watercolours and mixed media paintings by Enstone artist Andrea Bates. Her semi-abstract paintings are inspired by parallel worlds and painted from memory and her imagination as she depicts scenes from The Hidden Life of Trees and from Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings


Artweeks festival continues until Monday - though the work remains online.

See to explore artists’ galleries and studios and buy your own piece of art.