Welcome to Travelling Stories, our online exhibition of artist commissions responding to some particular museum collections. Did you get chance to see part one and part two?

Over a series of blogs, we are sharing newly made work with you – you might not like every piece. That’s OK – you looked and thought about. But you might like the next one…

In 2018, the Derbyshire Schools Library Service closed. The collections had been assembled since the 1930s and needed new homes. With the help of the Esmee Fairburn Collections Fund and the Museums Association, staff at Buxton Museum have been finding their custodians.

More than 2,000 items have been allocated to nearly 100 museums, libraries and publicly accessible collections from across Britain and some items have been restituted to communities in North America. Some items were kept by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, including the Arctic and Sami material.

Helen’s starting point: Sami ladle with antler inlay.

Lockdown meant that we were unable to engage with new communities in these museums quite as we planned. Instead were able to offer a number of commissions including one to Helen Leaf, a Derbyshire artist who works in natural materials.

Arctic and Sami material

For the indigenous peoples of the frozen areas of the North, utilising material around them, and ensuring that nothing is wasted, is a matter of life and death in this harsh environment.

For the Inuit, the animals of the oceans have been their source of food, clothing, shelter, tools and objects of spiritual significance; indeed the phrase by one Inuit hunter “The sea is our garden” sums up the importance of this environment. Bone and ivory have been worked into animals that play an important role in their everyday life, as well as creatures of the otherworld, such as the Tupilak. These carvings reveal cultural complexity and sophistication, as well as a necessity to survive against the odds.

For the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, reindeer play a central role to their lives. Again, nothing is wasted and their lives are dictated by the seasonal migration of the animals. A Sami’s wealth is measured by how many reindeer they own, and it is of the utmost importance to respect the animals and treat them well. To mistreat these animals would bring shame on an individual, and often the displeasure of the gods.

Central to the beliefs of both the Inuit and the Sami was the shaman and an animistic world view. Over the centuries, this was steadily eroded by Western values and ideologies, but in the emergence of renewed cultural identity and pride, these beliefs are forming the central pillar of their worlds once again.

Helen Leaf Forest Bowl

Materials used: antler, pine-needles, oak twigs and acorn cups, bark tanned deer leather

Techniques used: carving, coiling, twining, knotting


I make things using antler, combining it with a range of natural materials to create sculptural forms, wall art, containers and jewellery. I love working with antler as it’s unlike any other material – the tools and techniques are borrowed from wood engraving, metalworking and jewellery making. In the distant past, the work would have been done with flint tools. Mainly, I use red deer antler from Scotland and England, but I also use reindeer antler from Lapland, and sometimes other types of antler and bone. I look to the carving cultures of Northern Canada, Sápmi and New Zealand, but try and find my own style of expression to make something unique and beautiful. I like simple lines that bring elegance to something that’s very earthy.

Weaving, basket making and braiding are also techniques that I work with. The sensory experience of what could be called ‘ancestral skills’ allows for a connection back through time, generations, lands and roots. I believe that we’re all connected, and that working with natural materials and timeless techniques, making things that are beautiful and of integrity, honours that connection.

My inspiration here comes from a carved Sami bowl, and the traditions and qualities embodied within it. I have made something that relates to and is made from our forests and woodlands.

There are themes running through this piece about how we see the world around us, how we relate to natural materials and resources (or not), and what is used or discarded.

Each aspect of the piece has a story. The pine needles are from discarded tops of pine trees after pine plantation harvesting for timber. The twigs and acorn cups are naturally shed by the tree or are from discarded branches cut during forest work. The carved base is from antler naturally shed by the deer. The deer leather was tanned from a hide that would normally be thrown away, tanned naturally using bark. The pine trees grow where once was ancient woodland, and where, in time, native woodland will be regenerated. As the pine needles were collected, deer passed through the forest and brought their presence to the experience.

In many ways, the relationship we have with our natural resources and traditions is out of balance, perhaps mirrored to us when we see the values and traditions embodied in objects where a culture has deep traditions (though there are many difficulties in the recent past associated with this, within those cultures). In looking to values we relate to elsewhere; we must be careful of cultural appropriation – not making a replica of an object but finding our own roots and expression of a connection that is universal. Choosing a bowl as the piece to make is to offer a prayer for wholeness, for a change in how we relate to our land and natural resources.


Website: https://helenleafdesigns.com/

Instagram: helenleafdesigns/