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Kate Rattray - Mosaics, Glastonbury Abbey & Robert Plant!

Updated: May 15, 2018

Got a cuppa? Sitting comfortably? Ready to join us on a journey through Glastonbury legend and mystery, all wrapped up in some beautiful art? OK - let’s do this! Before we start though, those three things in the title might sound like a random list that’s just popped in to my head, but trust me – by the end of this blog, it’ll all make perfect sense ;).

A little while ago, I met up with Somerset mosaic artist Kate Rattray. Well actually, I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with her in her very cool garden studio… cool because it’s packed full to the brim with treasure. Jars of sparkling glass and bowls full of colourful ceramic pieces collected from all over the world are tucked in to every available nook and cranny.

Kate uses these precious shapes to create her beautiful mosaics and it was like stepping into a human-sized treasure chest - the undiscovered shards that will one day make up a bird, a garden sculpture or something Kate hasn’t even imagined yet, all glinting in the afternoon sunshine.

Kate’s made many awesome artworks already, during her 23 years as an artist… from Odile the Black Swan (who had his home in Wells Market Square as part of a public art project and was then auctioned for charity)…

…to Zillion, the stunning lion (part of the Lions of Bath art project)…

…and the many commissions she creates, like this beautiful kingfisher (we want one!).

Anyway, when Kate and I had our afternoon in the studio, I’d come to get a sneaky glimpse of the pieces she was working on for ‘Traces Revealed’ - a new exhibition, now on at Glastonbury Abbey. Kate, alongside quilt artist Alicia Merrett and ceramic artist Hiro Takahashi, are showing work that’s been inspired by the Abbey - work that has traces of the Abbey’s history very much at the heart of it.

The exhibition was still about a month away from launch when I first met Kate, so she was in the throws of imagining, creating and meticulously making. We had a good old chat about what inspires her - and the special pieces that were soon to be transported to the Abbey!

Kate’s work is always rooted in nature or myth and her inspiration for Traces Revealed came from the Abbey’s legends (King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, three saints and a rock star!) and from medieval relics. I’ll admit that all this is brand spanking new to me and something a little bit different for the blog, so it was fascinating finding out about some hidden Glasto treasures. As Kate puts it:

“Apart from the Abbey’s own saints and the Saxon kings who are buried there, the monks acquired relics and treasures from other places to make the site more attractive to visiting pilgrims. Strangely, there’s little evidence of these relics and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if they’d been hidden by the Abbey monks to keep them safe... perhaps in tunnels under the Tor! I love creating my own stories inspired by myths and medieval tales, mixing truth with fantasy, blending old and new... so I decided to focus my work on creating mythical guardians for these ‘lost’ Abbey relics. I made the relics themselves as well, which are pretty playful and compare our culture of souvenir gifts with the catholic tradition of respect for relics ”.

Basically... move over Guardians of the Galaxy! ;) The Guardians of Glastonbury’s Lost Relics have been imagined - and what brilliant guardians they would’ve been too! Motifs on medieval terracotta tiles sparked Kate’s idea of creating six, double-headed, magical eagles as the protectors of six precious relics.

In fact, Kate created them so beautifully that when visitors first saw them at the launch of Traces Revealed, the birds looked as though they were ready to fly off their wall if anyone so much as looked at their relics in the wrong way ;).

The eagles are all handmade by Kate, from a cement structure with gilded edges and wing-backs, and they contain some of the many jewels and shards I’d seen packed on to Kate’s shelves when I visited her. It was actually pretty emotional seeing the completed Guardian Birds for the first time. They looked so majestic at the heart of the Abbey exhibition, after my first glimpse of them in the busy garden workshop. My eyes might’ve leaked a bit! ;)

It was such an awesome moment for Kate, after months of intense work and immersing herself in the legends that shaped her mosaics and relics.

So, let’s introduce you properly to the birds she’s created, the relics they’re protecting and the stories behind them.

Guardian Bird Number One (I can’t help but say that in a ‘Blind Date’ announcer voice in my head ;)).

It’s King Arthur’s Guardian Bird - and his heart shows the sword hilt of Excalibur, in case you were in any doubt.

I don’t know about you, but when I was little the legend of King Arthur felt completely magical and mysterious... making me wide-eyed with awe. When Kate told me how the monks discovered Arthur and Guinevere’s skeletons buried in the ancient cemetery within Glastonbury Abbey and that his bones were huge like a giant’s, that legend became even more awesome!

Apparently, the monks noticed King Arthur’s name written on the end of his thigh bone,  just like on a massive stick of seaside rock - so that became the relic King Arthur’s Guardian Bird is holding on to. Arthur’s name is right on the end of it, as though it could easily be found in a seaside souvenir shop! ;) That definitely made us smile.

If we’ve got a guardian for King Arthur, we must have a Guardian Bird for Queen Guinevere too!

If you look closely, you’ll see the heart of this particular eagle has a crown in the middle of it, to symbolise Queen Guinevere. The bird’s also protecting a lock of her hair as the relic. It's such an intricate piece and we love the way the acrylic and glass gemstones and the stained glass catches the light.

Now.. say hello to the bird guarding the relic of Saint Jospeh of Arimathea.

This beauty sold on the exhibition launch night, but never fear! You can still see it in the Abbey exhibition. I have to admit we knew nothing about Saint Joseph, so this story really opened our eyes. 

As Kate tells it,

Saint Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury to spread the Christian faith, with two cruets full of Christ’s blood and sweat. When he arrived, he walked up Wearyall (now Wirral) hill and on reaching the top, he stopped and said something like “Since we be weary all here we will rest”. He then thrust his staff into the ground there, it took root and formed a hawthorn tree. The tree flowered twice a year - once in Spring and once at Christmas. It suffered hundreds of years of people cutting off branches and carving names in to the trunk, but it still flowered every year. During the Civil War it was considered a superstitious relic and burnt by the Roundheads, but many cuttings were taken and another tree was planted in 1951. The 1951 tree still stands, but it was vandalised in 2010. In true Glastonbury style though, spiritual ideas live on by the continual ritual of tying prayer ribbons to it.”

That’s what we call a cool story – and the heart of Kate’s eagle has a hawthorn leaf in the centre of it, as a reminder.

Guardian Bird Number Four (there’s that 'Blind Date' voice again ;)) is Saint Bridgid (of Kildare’s) protector.

We love this one because the relic it’s carrying is a little bag that, as legend has it, was left behind by the saint when she visited Beckery Chapel, just outside Glastonbury. It’s got some Somerset cool cows hanging on the bag so of course we love it, but they’re there for good reason! As well being known as the original Celtic goddess who held the eternal flame as Earth Mother, Bridgid is actually the patron saint of milkmaids! :) 

When we saw Kate making this relic in her studio, we loved the fact that she stained it with tea to make it look old (dread to think how old our insides look with all the tea we get through ;)). The eagle’s heart has the Saint Bridgid cross on it too . A Celtic symbol originally made of straw and symbolising the sun, the cross was hung above people’s doors to warn away evil.

Taking of evil, ready for something a bit creepy? Well, let’s meet the Saint Dunstan Guardian Bird then! ;) 

As beautiful as the eagle is, he’s guarding a relic that no-one would want in their kitchen cupboard!

After being accused of witchcraft, contracting and recovering from leprosy and then building himself a small cell in Glastonbury Abbey (yep he went through a lot!!), Saint Dunstan was tempted by the devil himself! He wasn’t having any of it though, so with his blacksmith tongs (Saint Dusntan was a Blacksmith, Goldsmith and Metalworker) he whipped off the devil’s nose and kept it in a cage... as you do! 

I did have a little touch of the nose when Kate was making it in her studio and Kate says she saw it move one night when she was working, so if you go and see it, don’t be fooled by it’s comedy hairy nostrils. That thing has a strange power!! ;)

Anyway, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering when Robert Plant’s going to make an entrance! Well, the final Guardian Bird created by Kate is… drum roll please… the eagle of Robert Plant, who in Kate’s eyes is definitely a living saint as well as a rock legend.

As Kate says:

“I thought it would be great to have someone who’s still alive as inspiration for a Guardian Bird. I chose Robert Plant because of his connections with Glastonbury and the Abbey itself. In 2014, I got to see him play live at the Abbey with his new band - after many years of worshipping him as the front man of Led Zepplin. His most iconic song 'Stairway to Heaven' just had to be created as a precious relic to be guarded, because the first time I really listened to the lyrics of the song I was blown away. A friend handed me a piece of paper with them on and it was like a magical script  to me - as if each word was made of gold and silver. I had treasure in my pocket and could also sing along!”

Kate created Stairway to Heaven as a globe and as with all the Guardian Birds, the symbol on the heart links back to the saint. Here, the feather you see is Robert Plant’s symbol, designed by him for the Four Symbols album. And guess which song the album features? Yep! Stairway to Heaven, of course.

As well as the Guardian Birds and relics, Kate’s also brought a bit of fun to the exhibition, linking themes back to the modern day and our obsession with celebrity! She’s selling ‘essence of saint’ that you can wear around your neck or have as a key ring and for us, it conjurs up images of whispering breathy voices on Christmas perfume ad’s, encouraging you to buy essence of plant… Robert plant! ;)

Anyway, since seeing the exhibition at the Abbey and getting to know Kate, a few things have really stood out for me... her quiet determination, huge imagination and the sheer body of truly beautiful work she’s created over the years. From taking Creative Arts at college, she pretty much taught herself the art of mosaic by agreeing to help kids at a Devon school make a mosaic wall. She chatted to some builders down a nearby street to find out how to mix cement, got hold of some good books on mosaic making and the rest is history!. It’s that take-on-anything spirit, combined with pure talent, that’s led to years of commissions, exhibitions and now, her awesome work with the Abbey.

Kate’s a truly lovely lady - warm, funny and unassuming and we can’t wait to see what she creates next.

To find out more about Kate’s work there are lots of stories on her own blog, including some more detail behind the legends that’ve inspired Traces Revealed. If her work has inspired you and you fancy having a go yourself (or honing an existing skill), Kate runs mosaic workshops. She's running one on Sunday 22nd October at Heritage Courtyard Studios in Wells and stay tuned to her Instagram feed for more dates in the future.

The Traces Revealed exhibition at Glastonbury Abbey continues until January 28th, 2018.


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