Jeni Cairns is an artist, designer and maker of all things beautiful. Living in the heart of the Fens, Jeni celebrates the local area in her work and is a great ambassador for Fenland.
Business is blooming for Jeni Cairns, an award-winning artist and garden designer living in rural Cambridgeshire. Her work covers a wide variety of mediums and disciplines, including metal work, painting, collage, sculpture, drawing, garden design and planting. Her career has taken off and has seen Jeni exhibit at the prestigious Fresh Air 2017, as well as having three one-man shows in Peterborough and Wisbech. Her garden design has seen the multi-talented artist winning awards for her show gardens at Harrogate in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Jeni has also won Gold and Best Summer Garden at RHS Hampton Court in 2014, and Gold and Best in Show in the RHS Hampton 2016 show.
You’re an artist and an award-winning garden designer. Which came first?
Ever since I was a small child, I’ve loved to draw and make things. I was obsessed with getting a picture just like the thing I was trying to capture and remember getting frustrated and trying harder. I was also bought up on a farm, so nature and being outside definitely had a big influence on me too.
I trained at college and uni, doing general art and design and specialising in fine art. It was later on when we moved into my grandparents’ house and started working on the garden that I wanted to explore garden design.
How does living in rural Cambridgeshire inspire your work?
Massively! I feel like the seasons are surrounding me, and the weather, big skies, and nature all inspire me.
Did your childhood have an impact on your future career?
Yes, definitely; I had wide open farmland to explore, dens to make, and treasures to dig for. I loved collecting and making things in the garden. We would make rose perfume and mud pies encrusted with flowers. We had various animals too: goats, chickens, a bullock called Bruno, and pigs.
You are known to use metal in your commissions. Is it difficult to work with?
I’m really drawn to metal working; it’s a sort of alchemy I guess, turning an oil drum into a work of art. I like the way metal has a strength, and when I cut it out a sort of fragility appears too, just like nature.
Which is your favourite medium?
I love to mix up what I do, so at certain times it’s all about plants, and then the next week, it’s all sculpture. I’m a bit all-or-nothing and never switch off from my ideas or from collecting inspiration. I would like to do some painting again, as I’ve missed it. But drawing is an integral part of all my work and helps me to develop an idea or a plan.
You mentioned that with Open Studios not opening this year, you spent a lot of time in your own garden. Tell us more.
I love working on my garden and developing it, whether it be a new border or something big like a pond. Gardens are constantly changing and developing over the year, and over time too, so there’s always something to notice and enjoy. I quite like just sitting and watching the wildlife going about its day – preferably with a cup of tea in hand!
What did the lockdown teach you?
To take time, relax, and enjoy what I have. That things are never perfect, and that’s okay. I learned about having time to play with new ideas, and that a garden will carry on with or without you.
You have had numerous exhibitions and won awards for your garden shows. What would you put your success down to? And do you find it stressful?
It’s like nothing else! There are major highs and lows; battles with the weather; budgets and plants (will they come out too early or late?); and a camaraderie with the other exhibitors. I know it’s a competition, but it doesn’t feel like one. The last show garden was the most challenging, as I was away from home for a whole month and have never worked so hard, but it was a joy too. It is very stressful, but also exciting, and you get a great high when the public loves your garden or when Monty Don compliments it.
There are quite a few pieces of your work in the area. Do you have a favourite piece?
I have a piece at Ferry Meadows that I really like, as it seems to show what I do best. In Boston Park I made a sculpture of seagulls, which was very challenging but really satisfying by the end. I like to challenge myself, develop my work and not stand still.
What sort of commissioned work do you take on?
I take on garden and small commissions mainly, with an emphasis on nature.
Jeni’s garden tips
It’s always lovely to bring nature into a garden, so try adding something simple like a bird bath. For low maintenance, grasses are great, and they also add sound, texture and movement. Just trim them back in late winter, and they’ll take care of themselves.
WORDS Natasha Shiels
This article has been reproduced courtesy of The Fens magazine. Click here to view more of their articles.