NI craftsman weaves spell on the world with animal head willow sculptures

A willow weaver whose distinctive animal head sculptures hang in homes around the world now has a five-year waiting list for his work.

Monday, 27th December 2021, 8:30 pm
Willow weaver Bob Johnston from Bangor, Northern Ireland, whose distinctive animal head sculptures hang in homes around the world, now has a five-year waiting list for his work. Picture date: Monday December 6, 2021.

Despite the huge demand for his eco artworks, Bob Johnston insists he will not take short cuts on the painstaking creative process that sees him invest up to 100 hours on each piece.

Mr Johnston, who crafted woven props for the TV fantasy drama ‘Game of Thrones’, is gradually working his way through commissions from the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, producing about two of the willow heads each month.

The married father of two, who weaves the sculptures in a small wooden workshop behind his house in Bangor, Co Down, says his shaggy-haired Highland cows are by far his best seller.

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The 52-year-old grows most of his own willow on his father’s farm in nearby Moneyreagh, but also imports different varieties from Somerset and Belgium.

With two decades’ experience as a hand weaver, the Belfast-born craftsman got into wall-hung animal sculptures almost by chance when someone who liked masks he had made for a traditional folk theatre group – the Armagh Rhymers – asked him to create one they could display at home.

“Somebody saw one of my animal masks and wanted a wall-hung version as opposed to something that you would wear, and really all the sculptural work spiralled from that,” he said.

“So, it does have its roots in a tradition but it’s obviously just a more modern use of a traditional weaving material and traditional weaving techniques.”

Each sculpture is unique, with Mr Johnston often working from photos of real animals sent to him by his customers. He gives each its own name. The Highland cow in his workshop this month, which is destined for a Swiss chalet, has been christened Hamish.

As well as his metre-wide Highland cows, which sell for £1,000, he also weaves stag heads and there have even been commissions from Canada for life-sized moose heads, which ended up spanning 1.5 metres from antler tip to antler tip.

On the other end of the size scale, he also gets requests to sculpt family pets.

Mr Johnston believes he has been a beneficiary of a societal push back against stuffing and hanging trophy heads of actual animals.

“Eco art has become more popular,” he said. “My work is environmentally friendly, it uses only one year growth of wood and no animals are harmed.”

He works from a seat in the middle of his workshop surrounded by baskets of willow of differing colours and textures – something he describes as “like sitting in my own palette”.

He steams the wood before using it to ensure it is soft and malleable enough to weave with.

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