Get to know the artist behind our hero owl

Date published: 28 May 2023

It is a sunny April afternoon in Hove, and artist Judith Berrill is sharing her living room with a rather imposing visitor. Standing at almost six feet and clad in sumptuous robes, helmet and armour, this majestic figure regards her surroundings with a steady, wide-eyed gaze.

Judith’s companion is an owl statue – one she is currently decorating in preparation for The Big Hoot, a public art trail taking place in Chichester and Arundel in 2024, in aid of children’s hospice Chestnut Tree House.

Remarkably, this will be the 16th art trail sculpture Judith has painted. “At one point during lockdown, there was a bit of a bottleneck, and we had a hare, a lighthouse, and a BookBench in here. I also had an enormous ram in a workshop down the road. I couldn’t get him in the living room – his bottom wouldn’t fit through the doors!”

Fledgling ideas

Although the sculptures have been something of an artistic departure for Judith, there are similarities with previous work. Alongside her career in HR, she has continued to paint, illustrate books, and design theatre sets – a useful grounding in working at scale.

Previously, her most significant artistic project has been topographical renderings of her walks through the South Downs, pinpointing routes with personal significance. “I am a farmer’s daughter and I find the whole idea of boundaries, field edges and the patterns in landscape very interesting,” she says. “I think that interest in patterns probably comes out in some of the art trail sculptures too.”

Judith’s first Wild in Art commissions were for Snowdogs by the Sea and Snail Trail, both in Brighton. “Looking back, I remember how nervous I was doing those,” she says. “I don’t just start painting them, I like to have a bit of a story. So, for the Snowdog called Patch, he was based on a quilt that my mum had started to make, but she never finished it. I still have the fragment that she’d made using pieces of her old clothes. I painted a snail for the Theatre Royal based on Ellen Nye-Chart who was a successful woman manager there – most unusual for Victorian times.

“I like to do my research into where the piece is going, so for the owl I wanted to explore the Roman theme and the Minerva stone that was found in Chichester. Minerva was the goddess of art and in representations she is often accompanied by an owl,” says Judith. She has also included the crests of Chichester and Arundel as part of Minerva’s belt, and there will be tiny owls around the sculpture for children to find.

Taking flight

The painting process is quite laborious, as Judith’s design has a lot of detail: “I’ve done hundreds of hours!” says Judith. “At this point, I’ve probably done two weeks of seven or eight-hour days and there is still a lot more to do. But my experience of being an artist on the trails has been entirely positive. I have met lots of other artists and sponsors, shown my work to a wider audience and been a part of raising a lot of money through auctions and other events for brilliant charities such as Chestnut Tree House. I would encourage other artists to get involved. There’s lots of help available for anyone new to the process and the owl sculpture is a very lovely figure to paint. I shall miss her when she flies off to Chichester.”

We’ll have to wait until summer 2024 to see Minerva in her full glory – standing resplendent somewhere in Chichester, one of dozens of brightly decorated owls keeping watch over this city of art. Until then, follow The Big Hoot on social media for all the latest news and announcements as we see the artists’ ideas take flight.

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