In the light-filled attic studio at her north London home, the artist Rachel Dein gently peels back a clay mold to reveal a plaster cast of flowers in amazing details and extraordinary beauty. The representation of nature has been the province of artists since the late Minoan painters and potters decorated palace walls and pottery with lilies, saffron, and other flowers thousands of years ago. Rachel’s work evolved from the old tradition of nature printing, the technique of using the surface of a natural object to make a print. Leonardo da Vinci described the process in his Codice Atlantico of 1508, illustrating with a singular print of a sage leaf, its stem, mid-rib, veins, and curved edge standing out in vivid details. Early botanists used nature printing to record the plants they collected and to share information about new discoveries in faraway places. In the nineteenth century a young British printer named Henry Bradbury, borrowing techniques developed by the Austrian printer Alois Auer, published his most famous book, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland. Auer’s innovative technique involved pressing the plants onto a thin, soft lead plate to make an intaglio impression. The fine grooves in the lead hold the ink, which is then transferred onto paper through a press. In the resulting images, fine botanical details are meticulously rendered with a slightly raised texture, bringing them alive on the page.
In a similar vein, Rachel Dein makes plaster casts of plants and flowers that record all their texture, pattern, and delicacy in exquisite details. Her composition can be as simple as a single stem or as complex as a field of wildflowers, leaves, and grasses. Pendulous bleeding hearts, curly fiddleheads of ferns, and wispy poppies are some of her favorite flowers to cast. There is a memorial as well as a celebratory quality to these simple tiles and panels, for they preserve a fleeting moment of glory long after the plants have faded and died. They reflect Rachel’s interest in nature, its transience and tenacity. At art school, Rachel found her voice when she drew on a childhood memory of throwing a handful of melon seeds down the bathroom sink, only to discover, some weeks later, plants growing up through the overflow. “It seemed to encapsulate everything I wanted to express. It showed me how tough and tenacious nature is, which I found comforting,” she says. It was a lesson that she applied to her life as well as her art, helping her cope with the serious illness of a loved one.
Combining her fascination with plants and sculpture—the works of Rodin and Andy Goldsworthy are her favorites—Rachel’s floral castings are tactile and sculptural. Her method, adapted from a glass-casting technique learned in college, is deceptively simple. Flowers and foliage are arranged and pressed onto wet clay. A wooden frame is then placed on the clay and the plaster is poured in and allowed to set. The magical moment comes when Rachel lifts the clay mold to reveal the plants in their plaster incarnation. It is as if the real plants are enfolded within the plaster casting. The movement of a stem, the fragile fold of a petal, the veins on a leaf—every detail is caught and held in poetic suspension. The physicality of the plants is transferred onto the plaster, every graceful line of a stem or curve of a petal inviting the impulse to touch as much as to look at them.
Whether in small tiles with a single flower portrait or large panels that suggest an entire garden full of blooms, Rachel’s botanical castings reflect her desire to capture the ephemeral. They track the progress of the seasons, marking the plants at the moment when they are most alive. Leeched of all colors and their flesh rendered in white plaster, the flowers are transformed, lending their gracefulness to something entirely new, at once a faithful imprint and an abstraction of themselves. With a tinge of sepia, the castings recall the slightly out-of-this-world look of platinum photographic prints brought into the third dimension. As light casts shadows on the relief, the plants take on an ethereal form, a haunting memory of their natural selves that have withered and vanished. Like a fossil of long forgotten plants, each plaque is a ghostly vestige of time, an act of remembering: a summer day in the garden, a perfect magnolia at its peak, or the first daffodils in spring. Relieved of their perishable forms and given permanence in white plaster, the floral castings carry with them forever the emotional impact of beauty. It is as if Rachel has distilled the flowers’ essence into her tiles, each one the memory of nature itself.
By Ngoc Minh Ngo
Rachel studied Fine Art at Middlesex University, followed by a propmaking apprenticeship at the English National Opera.
has worked as a propmaker for…
The Royal Opera House
English National Opera
The Globe Theatre
West End Theatres
London Transport Museum
Selfridges Christmas windows
Rothschild Villa, Corfu
Artist Gavin Turk
The Cambridge Darkroom Gallery
Ben Uri Gallery
Raymond’s Revue Bar
St Pancras Chambers
Garden Suburb Gallery
Hampstead School of Art
“Sometimes literal recordings of life are the most elegant and honest of all depictions….which is not to say that the art and craft of embellishment is inferior (or worse, irrelevant) because it’s not. It’s why Rachel Dein’s minimal plaster casts of mundane objects are so charming. Dresses, grasses, flowers – all reflected in relief – take on a preciousness found in old lockets, holding sepia toned photos or locks of hair. These items are not spectacular by any means, but are meaningful. And meaning, by the way is something you simply can’t fake.” ‘Life Cast’, Furniturea, October 2012
“About a year ago I had been in to Moyses Stevens, the very elegant long-established flower shop that had recently opened a branch at the bottom of our road. I wanted to buy the same type of flowers that I’d had in my wedding bouquet 10 years earlier.
At the counter I told the manager that I was an artist, and I planned to cast the flowers. She was intrigued, and asked if I could come in once I’d made the tile, to show her senior manager. Once completed, I went back with the tile, and mentioned that I’d love to be able to cast the bouquets for brides. They both said there had been many times when brides-to-be had asked about preserving their wedding bouquet. Since then, largely through word of mouth, I’ve been commissioned to make wedding flower tiles.
When I was at art college I came across this very basic form of reproduction (casting) when doing a class in glass blowing. We were told to press shapes into wet sand into which we then poured the molten glass. I went back to our college studio and started experimenting with pressing things into clay and then pouring plaster onto the clay to make pieces of sculpture. I was amazed and fascinated at the detail achieved yet the simplicity of the process. After college I rented a space in Spitalfields Market for a few months to carry on making artwork, and then I was lucky enough to get a prop making apprenticeship at the English National Opera. This was the beginning of my prop making career, which I loved, and it developed my knowledge of casting, mould making and other techniques.
When my youngest child started school, having turned our loft in North London into a studio, I began to make small tiles from home and established Tactile Studio. The local church put a call out for creative people in the area to show their work. A gallery saw my tiles there, and invited me to exhibit with them. That Summer I’d taken a stall at London’s Dandy Lion Market where I met a lady who bought a small tile. She commissioned me to make four large tiles using the favourite things that she and her husband and their children had chosen.
Since then, I’ve worked to various commissions, and I’ve been making new pieces, experimenting with different compositions of plants and flowers, and different combinations of plaster and concrete.”
Rachel Dein, 2017