Hayley Saunders | Artist | Studio | The Leigh, Gloucester

Hayley Saunders | Artist | Studio | The Leigh, Gloucester

Curious to find out more about the story behind The Rust Bucket Workshop, we set off on a rainy Wednesday morning to meet with Hayley in her secluded and tranquil corner of the world.

Leaving the car behind, our uneasy footsteps broke the humid silence as we approached what appeared to be a very large and colourful vehicle hidden behind the protective branches of a spruce tree. We found Hayley lighting the fire inside The Rusty Alexander, her double decker bus that used to act as a travelling art gallery, now transformed into a most unusual workspace.

Using discarded, unwanted and dysfunctional objects and materials and inspired by the assemblage works of Joseph Cornell, stop motion animation, puppeteering and gothic fiction, Hayley brings to life peculiarly sympathetic creatures that whisper melancholy tales of love and loneliness.

Surrounded by the myriad of strange items that make up her collection, we talked about her adventures with The Rusty Alexander, the stories behind the old photographs that she is passionately collecting and her ambition to finish writing her first book.

For people who don’t know you – who is Hayley behind Rust Bucket Workshop?

I am many things… a mother, a collector, a maker, an avid reader. Enthusiastic over the eclectic and an explorer at car boot sales and flea markets. I have always found solace in being creative ever since I was a little girl. I was always quite insular and much preferred being quiet, drawing pictures and making up stories. Now as an adult, Rust Bucket Workshop is my make believe world.


"I’d like my creatures to whisper words of pure nonsense."


What is your most vivid childhood memory?

When I look back to my early years I mainly get brief still images but my most fluid memory was from when I was 3 years old when we were on holiday in the Isle of Wight. There was a white room with a large chest freezer in the middle. I lifted the lid and an even brighter blinding white light poured out. Creepy Sesame Street Characters reached out for me and dragged me in. The depth of the freezer went far beyond where it should and I remember that horrible falling sensation in my stomach. Grover was the most terrifying puppet with his blue gangly limbs all over me. My first nightmare.

Do you remember the first object that you made?

In the 1980’s my mum made reproduction antique porcelain dolls and teddy bears. She would go to fairs in London and Europe selling them and taking part in competitions. The dolls and bears were exquisite – there are a few pieces in a museum in Japan. When I was 8 years old my mum helped me make a porcelain baby doll in a long white gown. I remember painting the eyebrows with a very fine brush and my mum wiped each attempt off before I got it right. I got hot and bothered and very frustrated but in the end I had a huge amount of pride for the work we had done together. It was a long process from pouring the mould to hand stitching the gown but we finished it and entered it into one of the competitions in London. I recall waiting for her in anticipation to return home on a Sunday night to see how well the baby doll did. We won first prize and had a little cup and I had a yellow sash.

What are your major sources of inspiration? Is there an artist or artistic movement that influenced you the most throughout your existential explorations and artistic experiments?

Major sources of inspiration include stop motion animation from 1930’s onwards, puppeteering from all over the world, unusual dolls and toy making and creatives such as Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin just to name a few. I recently looked back at the TV programmes of the 1970’s/80’s that I watched when I was a child. I was surprised to see a few similarities! The subconscious mind is a wonderful thing, how the things that captivated me as a child come out creatively as an adult. I take inspiration from everywhere, you just have to be open to it. From the beginning I have been particularly drawn to the work of Joseph Cornell. I was in awe of his assemblages set into boxes using discarded objects.

Tell us about the Rust Bucket Workshop. Why Rust Bucket? And what was the driving force that initiated this project?

When I left art college as a mature student I decided not to pursue a degree for a number of reasons. I had just touched upon making things out of found materials and felt I had discovered what my ‘thing’ was – I had been searching for a number of years. I felt determined not to be left behind creatively so I decided to use Rust Bucket Workshop as an umbrella for the things I make to come under, my own personal project. Initially I couldn’t think of a name so I asked friends on social media for their ideas and Rust Bucket Workshop was suggested and duly grabbed and cherished! My workshop is now on board the late ‘Rusty Alexander’ double decker bus. It’s a wonderful space to be inventive and it allows me to be me. If I didn’t have this creative outlet I would be a very unhappy human indeed.

What is it that fascinates you about discarded, forgotten and dysfunctional objects?

I think that it is the endless potential these objects have. A funnel can be a hat for a robot, a snout for a creature or a top off a rocket! I like looking at things in terms of shapes and colours rather than seeing the original use of the item and being able to vision anything beyond that. I am one of those people who put emotions on inanimate objects, so to make a creature full of sentiment is a fantastic feeling.

What stories would you like your creatures to whisper?

I’d like my creatures to whisper words of pure nonsense. I think that would make me smile and help with my storytelling.

How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?

My work breathes new life to the forgotten and discarded objects. A type of recycling to make something desirable from what would otherwise end up on a scrap heap. To give these unwanted inanimate objects feeling and emotion is what I strive to do. I would say my work sits on the outside of contemporary art. But that is how I generally feel about myself so that may cloud my judgement. It seems to speak to people of all ages and making stuff out of found materials has been around for many years and shall continue to do so, especially in the throwaway society we continue to live in.

How do you go about developing your ideas for your art? Do you make any preparatory sketched or studies?

I try not to plan too much as I feel it restricts the creativity but I always carry a sketchbook to jot down ideas that I have or write down random things I hear. I am very much led by the materials I use so I have to allow the pieces to speak for themselves and try not to force an idea. I often have a ‘feeling’ I’d like to portray in the make and will work until I achieve it. I tend to sketch midway through the project to work out the best way to fix a sculpture together.

Tell us a bit about the Rusty Alexander project. Where did you find the bus and how did you decide to turn it into a travelling art gallery?

The bus was definitely a whim of an idea that we ran with. My partner and I saw it for sale in Gloucester on the way back from visiting an exhibition in Bristol one night about 4 years ago. We went back the next day to have a look and decided there and then to convert it into a travelling art gallery. If we knew what was involved I’m not sure if I would have gone ahead with it! My artist friends painted the bus and a group of us converted the internal space. We represented about 50 artists selling their work on board on a commission basis touring round the UK attending music, art and community festivals. Although I was having a few personal issues at the time it did me the world of good in the long run. I try to do something that scares me once in a while or at least give it a go. Now when a challenge arises I always say to myself ‘I did the bus, I can do this!’ We ran the project during the summer of 2014 but mainly due to financial reasons the project couldn’t continue. Now I use the space as my workshop.

Are you interested in doing more curation in the future?

Yes, it is something that interests me. I enjoy transforming spaces be it my living space or for an exhibition. In 2019 I shall be curating a group show consisting purely of scrap artist’s creations. I am very much looking forward to working on this project.

Where do you find the objects that you use in your art?

Mainly car boot sales, flea markets and auctions. At auctions they often have lots of miscellaneous small items you can bid on by the box. I like to have a brief rummage to see if there are any bits that would be good for my making. It’s a bit like a lucky dip really and I enjoy going through it piece by piece when I get home.

Are there any objects in your collection that you regard as artworks per se?

Some objects I have bought have been too good of an object to rip apart or use in a make so I use them in my interior decoration. I found a tiny pair of copper shoes at a car boot sale, probably an apprentice piece. I instantly fell in love with them with the intention of putting them on the feet of a future creation. I have tried the shoes on many little feet but have always taken them back off. The copper shoes are so beautiful and tactile in their own right, displayed with anything else takes the attention away from them which they so very much deserve.

Tell us about your photograph collection. When did you start collecting them and what are some of the most unusual finds?

I was given a few old black and white family photographs which I framed and hold dear to me. They have a story which I am part of. A few years back whilst trawling the flea fairs I was drawn to the random spread of old photographs that had no connection to the seller. These people in the picture had their own stories but had been lost along the way. I started collecting without even realising it at first. I thought I was saving them, looking after them in a way. I wanted to show them I cared enough to look after them. I was mainly drawn to photographs of families and children with their toys. I found a wonderful picture of a girl, probably about 12 years old with her porcelain doll. I love looking at the details, the things in the background, anything that would give me more clues about their lives. My most unusual find was an old framed portrait of a man in his 60’s. He had an intriguing look to him. I walked away twice before I bought him because he was different to what I usually buy but I was drawn to him. I got him home and was compelled to take the picture out of the fragile frame. I don’t normally do that, I’m a firm believer that old frames should be kept intact but I wondered if there were any clues as to who this man was. Behind the photograph was an envelope with a name and address! I knew I was meant to find him. With a bit of research, I found that Mr George Meadows was in the first world war. Through my search I stumbled upon an online forum and found Mr Meadows’ Great Grandson and Granddaughter who were looking for further information. I got in contact with them and explained I found his photograph at a car boot sale. I very much felt that the photograph didn’t belong to me. I sent it back to where he did belong. It was fascinating to find out George’s story from his Great Grandchildren and what was documented. It seems that George made up some stories of his own.

Do you collaborate with other artists? If so, could you tell us about your most recent collaboration?

I have collaborated with a few artists. The last one was with a fabulous expressive artist called Ziggy Hill. We made a working lamp. It was a wooden robot with a bulb on top of his head. My part was the robot and then I had to hand it over to Ziggy for him to do his part of painting it up and to give up my control on the piece. That is the hardest thing to do but with collaborations it is best not to be too precious about it. The other participant will never approach the project in the same way as you would and that is the whole point of the concept – to have an object that is an amalgamation of both artists, something different from what I could produce working on my own. It is always a surprise to see the finished piece.

Who are your favourite contemporary artists?

My most favourite is textile and mixed media artist Julie Arkell. I have been a huge follower of her work for many years. I first saw Julie and her work at a knitting and stitching show and was immediately in awe of her work. I studied each and every piece loving the way she captured so much personality in her quirky figures. I admire how she can make charming characters with slightly dark undertones.

Where do you go to unwind and get inspired?

When I need to escape it’s off to the coast with my dog in the campervan driftwood collecting. By gathering what the ocean has left behind I can dream of things I’d like to make when I get back to the workshop. My other favourite place is Hay-on-Wye – bookshop heaven! I love occupying the second hand book and antique shops looking for unusual finds to add to my collection.

Do you believe in any superstitions?

I do have a fascination with superstitions and folklore and the history behind it but I have to say I don’t put any into practice or believe something bad will happen if I walk under a ladder. Mind you if there is a way round that ladder I would probably take that route instead of going under.

Do you have any fetish objects or obsessions for certain things, imaginary or not?

I have an obsession for old puppets much to my sons’ disgust! I’m afraid Pelham Puppets are too mainstream for me. The weirder and more unusual the better! I have a strange hippo, a devil and a very large old Burmese puppet amongst others in my collection. I’d love a vintage wooden Punch and Judy set one day.


"Rust Bucket Workshop is very much a part of me and I need the creative escapism in order to function in everyday life."


What poem or novel inspired you the most?

A book I read when I was about 13 years old called ‘The Monster Garden’ by Vivien Alcock. I still have the book now albeit rather dog-eared. It was the first book which I was captivated by and started me writing little stories of my own and thinking more of an imaginary world.

What book can we find on your bedside table?

I am currently reading ‘The Small Hand’ by Susan Hill. I love a good ghost story especially those based around old abandoned houses.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I am just enjoying time in the workshop playing and seeing what happens. This is where I’m the happiest, intuitively making, trying not to put restrictions on myself. Allowing accidents to happen as they often lead to somewhere you never thought possible. I have started to do some writing - doing something different yet related to my characters is an enjoyable process and progression.

What are your dreams and ambitions for Rust Bucket Workshop?

For us to carry on growing together. Rust Bucket Workshop is very much a part of me and I need the creative escapism in order to function in everyday life. Every so often I set us challenging but achievable goals, something to work towards like an exhibition or a project as I like to have a purpose, something to focus the mind.

Can you recommend us:

A song: Day dreamer by Patrick Watson. I adore his music, it has the ability to draw me in and take me to another place. So many depths to his sound. This was the soundtrack song I used for my exhibition this year.

A book: See what I have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book is inspired by the Lizzie Borden murders of the 1890's. Instead of focusing on the criminal law aspect it concentrates on the family dynamics which lead to the murders of Lizzie and Emma's father and step mother.  I read a lot and although this one is a recent read it has now become one of my all time favourites.

A film: The Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. I have watched these so many times as a child and as an adult. I'm sure these films inspired me as a kid to do what I do now in my making. 

Thank you, Hayley for the insight into your creative and personal realm.

For more information, visit Hayley's website and follow her on Instagram and Facebook for latest updates.