Avon Meadows – the creative process begins

19 Jan

After returning with various materials gathered from Avon Meadows (see earlier post from Dec 2020), I was excited to begin the process leading to the creation of an artwork responding to the landscape on the theme of beauty and utility. It would require quite a number of stages.

With the enforcement of further Covid restrictions, Meadow Arts and I reluctantly took the decision to delay public engagement workshops until March and to deliver them online – further details to be announced shortly. We also decided to proceed with making the artwork through December/January so rather than working collaboratively with community groups to help make the paper we needed, I made all the paper myself.

Making paper with reed and scrap paper pulp

I had gathered bundles of reeds and some birch twigs and leaves for making paper in two separate batches. The reeds were already mostly brown and dry, and the pulp I could make from both these types of material would not bind well on their own, so I combined it with pulp made with scrap paper. As Winter is also one of the themes, scrap Christmas card white envelopes came in handy.

Before making the pulp, I boiled the reeds and birch twigs/leaves for a couple of hours with a small amount of soda ash which helps degrade the organic matter leaving cellulose fibre. Take care if using soda ash (washing soda) as it is highly alkaline. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is a safer, lower alkaline alternative.

This is then rinsed several times with cold water to remove the alkali, before pulverising it to break up the fibres. Finally it is blended in an old kitchen blender to a watery pulp.

I made about 20 sheets of paper in each batch using A4 size mould and deckle. Each sheet is transferred to a couching cloth, pressed in a stack to drain and then allowed to dry. Its a slow enjoyable process – but messy with water sloshing about. Normally, I’d be doing this outdoors but it was far too cold! So thankfully I have a lino floor in the studio.

Here are some close up images of the finished paper sheets:

In the meantime, I processed some of the other materials to create a series of coloured dyes. I had quite an array of berries, leaves and other materials like alder cones and birch bark.

For each item, I cleaned and then simmered them gently in a small amount of water for 15 mins to an hour to release pigment into the water. In case of using materials that could be mildly toxic, I use only old pans, stirrers and other utensils that are not used for preparing food.

You can dye fabrics in this way, but I was going to be using the dyes for staining the paper I had made. So once the liquid and mulched berries had cooled enough, I poured it out into a jar, strained through a piece of muslin cloth.

When dyeing fabrics, it is necessary to fix the colour to control fading by using a mordant. There are various types of mordant, such as alum, ferrous sulphate or salt, each of which has a different effect on the dye colour and effectiveness of colouration. For my paper, I opted to try using milk – oat milk, in this case, but other milk will work because the protein helps to bind the dye to the paper fibres.

So first of all, I brushed all of the paper with oat milk, allowed them to dry and then brushed them with the dyes. The only dye colour which did not work so well was the meadow grass. Rather than simmer the grass, I simply added some water to the grass in a blender. This came out a beautiful vivid green but the day after it faded to a brown, and mordants didn’t seem to have any effect on this. Green is never an easy colour to prepare as a natural dye, despite the abundance of green plants, and somehow it didn’t really fit with the winter theme.

There was an amazing palette of colours, which, of course, seem to find a natural harmony without me having to try. The berries produced colours similar to their visual appearance whereas materials like the birch (red brown) and alder cones (amber/gold) produced more surprising colours.

It was also interesting to see how certain dyes reacted to changes in pH – ivy berry changed from a pinky purple through to blue and blue/green as conditions went from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Something else to play around with to widen the range of colours. Natural dyes will usually grow mould after several days, so in order to help preserve them you can use a clove, vinegar (which may change the colour) or isopropyl alcohol (“rubbing alcohol”).

A natural palette of dyed papers created from Avon Meadows materials

Now I had all the prepared materials ready to commence construction of my artwork … but more about that in the next post.

As an aside and continuing the wintry theme, we had a snow fall just after Christmas. I gathered some to experiment with melting ice dye patterns. This works best on fabric because the melt water can drain through leaving fabulous dye patterns. I used some thick water colour paper sheets and once the ice had melted, puddled and dried, I found lovely intricate marks left by the dye. Worth experimenting again…

Avon Meadows – Beauty and Utility

21 Dec

I’m thrilled to be one of three creative practitioners commissioned by Meadow Arts to make an artwork and to work with community groups and or schools responding to the seasons and changing environment at Avon Meadows in Pershore.

View of Pershore Abbey

Meadow Arts is working with the Floodplain Meadows Partnership which represents a number of key organisations and is hosted by the Open University, School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences.

Historically, floodplains have been significant for food production provision of hay for feeding animals n winter and as grazing for animals. They are highly fertile due to being nourished by river silts during seasonal floods. And by managing the floodplains, the meadows evolve into wildflower grasslands. The wetlands are also important sites for birds, amphibians, and other wildlife. It is this combination of beauty and utility that is an overall theme for the art project.

There is an excellent website about the site run by the Friends of Avon Meadows, a charity who support the management of the Meadows, which are owned by Pershore Town Council and Wychavon District Council.

My project will cover the Winter months from December through to February, although the public workshops are likely to take place later due to the current Covid restrictions. 

The artwork I am planning to make relates to the themes of flooding and the meadow’s role in natural flood attenuation or “breathing space” of the river, alleviating peak flows downstream.  It will also touch on biodiversity which is boosted by the seasonal flooding and distribution of nutrients.  I will be using plant materials to make paper for my artwork, and I will use dyes and pigments derived from plants, berries, soil and other materials gathered from the Avon Meadows.

I’m looking forward to working with the community on papermaking and dyeing/printing paper using gathered plant materials, and have had some initial discussions with local schools and The Friends of Avon Meadows. 

After an initial visit to Avon Meadows in October to survey what plants I might be able to use, I made my first project visit this week to gather reeds from which to make paper sheets. The reeds (phragmites australis) provide a valuable role in improving water quality in the surface run off from nearby built up areas flowing into the river. I saw that some of the reeds were being harvested to ensure they maintain healthy growth next year. 

I also gathered sloes, rosehips, hawthorn berries, grass, alder cones, ivy berries and some of the rich silty clay from the wetlands.  I left plenty of berries for the birds. I plan to start producing the paper and create a range of dyes/pigments over the next week or so and begin trying out some different options for constructing the final artwork.

The weather was kind, so I could enjoy the fabulous winter colours in the landscape.

Dramatic skies. On this and during my previous visit, I caught glimpses of herons flying, willow warblers, redwings and snipe.

And already the water was rising across most of the land:

Very appropriately there was plenty of mistletoe in the trees. I’ll continue to post progress updates as the artwork develops. Merry Christmas!

Post-Covid Utopia

14 Nov

As I described in my last post, I was invited to take part in Living Maps Mapping the Pandemic projects during the Summer and my work features in two articles in the November Issue 9 of the Living Maps Review. Read the first article here.

For their Dreaming of a Post-Covid Utopia part of the project, artist/curators Kimbal Quist Bumstead and Sol Perez-Martinez invited me, and a number of other artists from around the world, to create a map of my utopia. They then convened an online event for all the artists to present their work to an international audience, and there is a recording of this fascinating event here:

You can read Kimbal and Sol’s article: Dreaming of a Post-Covid World: Drawing Maps, Imagined Places and Pandemic Storytelling here

After only a little thought, I decided that I didn’t need to invent an imaginary place, but that my utopia was already close at hand.  Interested in the minutiae of my local area of Frankwell, I had mapped my walks and the unfolding of Spring through drawings, tracings, surface rubbings, photographs, sound and video.  Elements of my work are incorporated into a utopian map comprising an A1 size collaged grid of prints, photos, and rubbings from the landscape.  But why Frankwell? And how can it be a utopia?

Frankwell Utopia Map

Frankwell sits within a loop of the River Severn, connected to Shrewsbury by the Welsh Bridge (on the LH side of the map).  It developed in Norman times by free traders outside the jurisdiction of the Lord of the Castle, and later became known as the “Little Borough” – exempt from Borough taxes.  It grew as a river port and a busy community of trade and industry.  Much of its historic past is evident in the buildings that remain, but in recent times modern buildings like the Theatre Severn and the University Centre Shrewsbury (formerly the Guildhall) are creating a new identity.

Detail of a Frankwell Utopia

Shropshire Council and Shrewsbury Business Improvement District have been developing a Big Town Plan involving public consultation for the last couple of years.  I have been involved in this as a resident and through my membership of the Shrewsbury Civic Society planning committee.  Until recently the Big Town Plan had not really addressed the fact that the Frankwell area, shown in my map is, perhaps, the key gateway to the town and in need of care and attention.  To the right of the map and in front of the University is a large car park, and visitors to Shrewsbury must then navigate over the river and busy road by footbridge into a now near empty and neglected concrete shopping centre in order to reach the main part of the town. 

It seemed to me that with relatively little investment in new infrastructure and a more radical change in attitude to sustainability, the riverside area situated between the University and Theatre could be a vibrant, cultural centre.  At the centre of this, the two buildings, the Stew and Glen Maltings are empty and derelict yet both are evidence of the area’s history with great potential for new uses.  The Stew dates back to the 15th Century but its recent planning history is complicated and controversial.   There are some practical engineering matters, like river flooding, that will require some imagination to deal with but not insurmountable. 

Detail from a Frankwell Utopia

My utopia includes a mix of cultural and sustainable uses building on what already exists.  The only new building would be a pavilion for public meeting place for performance events, music recording studios, cafes and street food.  Elsewhere car parks could be converted to community allotments, orchards and green spaces to connect with surrounding flood meadows.  A new lower level footbridge would replace the old concrete one allowing people to reach a traffic calmed boulevard along the river bank.   It would be a place for community sharing and learning with a library of things, repair café, flexible office and workshop spaces, artist studios, contemporary art gallery, free public transport and a place where natural landscape is nurtured and allowed breathing room.

Detail from a Frankwell Utopia

This is my utopia, but I think it reflects what I hear from many people about their hopes for a green recovery.  Having shared the map with my local councillor and spoken with Council officers tasked with implementing the Big Town Plan, I hope the map might provoke public debate with the community about how they might shape the place we live in. It may take some years to come about, and may be not all the detail will happen, but positive discussions are ongoing… and a utopia is worth the wait.

Found in Frankwell – Part 2

7 Nov

The uncertainty I expressed as the first Covid lockdown came to an end has not become any clearer in the world, although with the emerging possibility of a new Democratic US president, some sanity might begin to return. Whilst not becoming immune to the uncertain future, we are learning to live with it, sustaining hope and making plans cautiously, but with plenty of contingency.

And so we return this week to a second lockdown, albeit with slightly more reasonable restrictions. The walking I did during the Spring and Summer (see my last post) was a huge source of creativity. It resulted in a series of books, collaborations with other local artists, collaborative walks, a collage for community consultation and various writings.

Some of the books are on sale with all profits being donated to the Shrewsbury Food Hub. Four of the books were also donated to the artist books archive established by Sarah Bodman at the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University for the West of England in Bristol.

All of this work is discussed in an article I was invited to write for the Living Maps Review (see Walking Territory: In and Out of Lockdown in issue 9 of the Journal) as part of their Mapping the Pandemic projects.

A mapping of all of the walks I did during the first 10 weeks of lockdown

The Walking Territory artist book is a single edition comprising a series of route maps for ten weeks of Covid walks restricted to within 2km of my house and text responses to the choreography of social distancing entangled with the unfolding of Spring. The book is made with paper made from plant materials gathered from my garden and from walks, and using ink made from oak galls from my garden.

Ordinarily, I do not use an automated GPS tracking of my walks, preferring instead the ritual of tracing the route on a map after the event, which helps to fix the walk in my memory. Seeing the shape of the routes, set against mapped topography gave the walks a tangible presence linked to sensory encounters. As I reflected on this, the shape of the walk took on greater importance to me than the scale accuracy. I recorded the shapes of the walks expressively using Chinese calligraphy brushes so that each bend and twist triggered memory links with moments from each walk. Ingold talks about the difference between threads and traces, wayfaring and transport and so it is important that these maps express this as walking through the territory not merely across it.

As I overlaid tracings of my routes, the grain of the town revealed itself with the sinuous loops of the river, first around Frankwell, then the isle of the town centre being a dominating influence on the walked terrain. 

With the onset of Winter, another lockdown, and a mix of busyness, personal setbacks and general confusion, my enthusiasm is waning for revisiting these Frankwell walks I now know in such detail. This seems to be reflected in the numbers of people I see trying to carry on, not showing the same fear or wonder I observed first time around. There is no strange awed silence this time. But I never regret a walk … so I will be exploring the darkness, reveling in the contradictory sense of cosy intimacy and separateness one gets, pacing the streets at dusk and dawn.

Found in Frankwell – Part One

2 Jul

Now at the beginning of July, in a chaotic time of uncertainty, rage and hope, I look back at those first few weeks of lockdown with a mix of wistfulness and incredulity.  Still too close to make objective sense of it, yet it already feels distant as many people return to pre-Covid activities.  Despite superficial familiarity, there is no doubt that both the atmosphere and physical environment have changed.  The restrictions imposed a simplicity to life, which could be relaxing in the moments when I could submit to that.  As the environment became busier again, an air of tension built up – there is now a nagging drive to be productive, to return to something, only to find that it is still not possible to make much progress on projects, without difficult adaptations.  And there is very little funding available.

What of those weeks,  those strange times in which I walked?  In the first 2-3 weeks of lockdown in March and early April, I did not go far.  Partly out of obedience following Government instructions to stay at home, and partly because I was focused on spending time with family and homeschooling.

In that early stage, my daughter, Eliza and I looked at old maps of Frankwell, the place on our doorstep, and we researched as much as we could find in books and on the internet about our local history as we couldn’t get into the library any more.  Then, inspired by Common Ground’s local distinctiveness projects, we created a Frankwell alphabet using images of letters taken from local signage.

I began to think about whether I could create an A to Z Book of Frankwell with drawings of places for each letter.  These are some of the drawings in ink made from oak galls from the tree in our garden.  Some of the drawings refer to old photographs of places, since demolished.

This seed of an idea developed into plans for more artist books to be made in response to my walks during lockdown.  At the latest count, I have five of my own books, a collaborative book and two maps on the go.  These comprise a set of black and white prints exploring distinctive lines and patterns found in Frankwell, and two series of photographs inspired by some of Robert Rauschenberg’s image sequences and screenprints.  I got in contact with some of the artists I know living in or connected with Frankwell and we developed an idea to create a collaborative book which could help rejuvenate community interest and, perhaps, raise  some money for charity.  I’ll post about these books as I/we complete them.

20200607_103945

Linocut and relief test prints of structures, lines and patterns distinctive to Frankwell

When I did walk it was usually early in the morning when very few people were around.  Those weeks of Spring will be remembered for seemingly endless days of perfectly warm sunshine and crystal clear blue skies, not an aircraft trail in sight.  Few people failed to notice the Spring this year, as so much time could be spent outdoors, listening to bird song and watching the emergence of seedlings and flowers.  Through regular walks, it was possible to pinpoint the day swifts arrived, or when hawthorn came into flower.

In about the fourth week, I began to record my walks a little more formally beyond taking photographs to making notes of observations and experiences.

20200514_081615

Inspection cover cast at the Atlas Foundry, originally located in Frankwell, where Theatre Severn now stands

I collected wax crayon rubbings of surfaces, and occasionally some found artefacts, like fragments of pottery I found in the River Severn both upstream and downstream of the town.  Someone later advised that some of the fragments were likely 17th or 18th Century slipware.  Other pieces, like the earthenware fragments, looked like they could be even older.  Each fragment must have its own story.  It was fascinating to think of the journey of the clay, from its formation thousands, if not millions of years ago, to its extraction, processing and making into utensils which were somehow lost and broken, transported and eroded in the river to be collected once again from the shore.

20200427_101924

Ceramic fragments collected from the River Severn

The government had tried to clarify guidance about where and when people could exercise.  There wasn’t any definitive distance set, but at that stage, we were not supposed to drive anywhere to walk.  So, I restricted my walks to within a 2km radius of my house, and I also restricted myself to not walking everyday.  The imposed conditions increased my anticipation of each walk, and exploring within the local boundary became a highlight of the week.

Ordinarily, I don’t use an automated GPS tracking of my walks, preferring instead the ritual of tracing the route on a map after the event, which helps to fix the walk in my memory.  Seeing the shape of the routes, set against mapped topography gave the walks a tangible presence linked to sensory encounters.

Having lived in Frankwell for over 22 years, there are few if any places I haven’t walked in before, but the heightened awareness, the disrupted sense of time and space, meant that I did see details with fresh eyes.  The urban environment is a gallery of contemporary art.

As I went slightly further afield beyond Frankwell, I did occasionally find a new pathway or a road that I had never previously visited.  I was conscious that I might be viewed as an intruder, as being a potential asymptomatic virus threat, in the quiet residential streets.    What was the purpose of my walks?  Was I staking some kind of psychological claim over territory, was I the self-indulgent flâneur, was it just exercise?  I don’t think it was any of these particularly, although it was certainly as much a mental exercise as physical, a chance to let my mind breathe in the open air and escape the confines of domesticity.  I was curious to experience directly how the world was reacting to this new situation, to record and reflect on how we can find positive routes out of this.

That said, I couldn’t help feeling pangs of selfishness when hearing about or seeing for myself how people were discovering local paths that were completely new to them, paths I had walked many times, talked about, made artwork about, and which had generally been met with disinterest.  Rightly or wrongly, these are places where I felt some kind of ownership.  Really though, it was great that there was a surge of interest in our surroundings and slowing down, which offers renewed optimism about future attitudes.  It is what this blog and much of my artist practice is about encouraging after all.

Against all this familiarity, I was noticing the differences – changes in the natural and built environment, and changes in people’s behaviour.  Children were making the best of the sunny weather and chalked pavement drawings and upbeat, hopeful messages were much in evidence.  Trees became decorated with bunting, ribbons and curious paraphernalia, boxes and piles of junk appeared at the end of driveways as people found time to sort out their house.  Desire paths were worn across verges and patches of grass, sometimes a parallel line appeared 2m from the main path.

As the weeks passed, the choreography of encounters with other pedestrians evolved.  After the initial awkwardness of crossing the road or stopping and standing well aside to avoid passing close to someone walking in the opposite direction, there was a period in which there was the briefest of eye contact, smiles and gracious thank yous and careful, elegant swerves to maintain 2 metres’ separation.  These actions became more unconscious then from around the ninth week, it was noticeable that a small number of people were not only intent on ignoring social distancing, there was an element of aggression in the way they steadfastly maintained a line along the middle of the footpath.

Once it was announced that lockdown restrictions would be eased and some non-keyworker school children would be able to return to school, I detected a renewed sense of purpose in the people I saw during my walks, traffic had been getting busier again, and my walks began to lose their charm.  I stopped recording the walks after Week 10, a suitably round number, and suddenly my interest waned.  The sense of community cohesion that had grown during the lockdown began to dissipate, but there continues to be many voices calling for a more sustainable recovery and hope remains that whatever world we return to, it will shed some of the old baggage and head in a socially just direction.

Walking on the spot

27 Apr

During the last few weeks of the Covid lockdown, projects I’ve been working towards over 2-3 years have been halted in their tracks, maybe irretrievably, and my walking artist practice has been curtailed somewhat.  Having come to terms with that, for the time being at least, I began to refocus on my local walks in and around Frankwell in Shrewsbury.

Very soon I found myself working on ideas for three or more artist books (more on that in a future post or two) and developing some areas of my practice that I had planned to use in a couple of projects.  These involved using plant materials and found objects to make and adapt paper or fabric for further use in drawings, collage, painting or printmaking.  I began to create a process of making work about the landscape using materials from the landscape.

In addition, with schools being closed, I was able to spend more time working with my 11 year old daughter, Eliza.  We experimented with materials and learnt some new techniques together.

Eliza assisted in making a couple of short videos demonstrating paper making with plant materials and scrap paper.  These videos can be used by anyone as a resource to try this out for themselves.

Here’s the first in which we prepare pulp from garden plants:

Here’s the second explaining how we then made paper with plant and scrap paper pulp using some simple equipment:

After this, we did some sketches and paintings of some garden flowers.

We tried printing on our paper using flowers and leaves gathered from around the garden – I’ve enjoyed doing this with groups following walks in the past.  Here is a brief downloadable guide to dyeing/printing paper or fabric using plants and rust:

Plant dyeing

A small selection of examples of our prints:

Just to add a durational aspect to our work, we planted some woad seeds, and hopefully by the Autumn we will have a good batch of leaves so that we can make some beautiful indigo dye to add to our dyes using madder root and weld.

 

Acts of Resistance

24 Mar

Choosing to walk is invariably an act of resistance:  resisting threats to our mental and physical wellbeing and resisting trauma caused by natural or malign forces – forces that may not be in our control.  But this is not now a call for civil disobedience, quite the reverse.  As we face an uncertain future with personal restrictions imposed to maintain public safety, we must consider how even walking in the open can impact on others.  This is a call for community and inner resilience.

20200323_134617

There is much to feel positive about in the response of the local community to the coronavirus.  There are also other more worrying reports of selfish and exploitative actions.  In the moment that lockdown measures were imposed, I used my solo walking exercise and made small interventions to support the reserves of community resilience, if it should falter in the weeks ahead.

 

I’m without symptoms and barely been in contact with anyone outside close family for over two weeks, yet in making these boxes and taking them outside, I was conscious of the need for cleanliness.  They are fully recyclable and no batteries required!

I last made similar interventions as part of the Act of Resistance event that I led with a group of about 20 participants in Dewsbury at last September’s Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography.  That event took place at the time when a “no deal” Brexit loomed, and it felt as if an emergency was imminent.  Seems a lifetime away.   I asserted that actively challenging the control of space and place is an important part of psychogeography.  Participants made small interventions in the urban landscape to foster community kindness, before gathering for a short performance walk as a demonstration of unity.

Read more here: Act of Resistance_ahowe_4wcop

Walking is a political act.  But also important to recognise when control of space is necessary for our own survival.

The experience of walking is a dynamic balance between sensory perception, memory and imagination.  Taking away the physical experience does not prevent walking taking place in our imagination, so amply demonstrated in Phil Smith’s “Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage”.  From your room, you can travel anywhere your imagination takes you.

 

 

Scour – the museum in the landscape

13 Dec

Over the Summer I was delighted to be invited by artists Elizabeth Turner and Keith Ashford to lead two art walks and workshops in the River Arrow valley in Redditch as part of their Scour 2 project, funded by Arts Council England and funding partners.  This follows their successful Scour project which was inspired by the Forge Mill Needle Museum collections and the relationship between the needle industry and the surrounding landscape of the River Arrow valley and Bordesley Abbey.

For the Scour 2 project, the two lead artists have taken the art work into the landscape of the Arrow Valley, making sculptural work including a grass cut map of the river and immersive sound and video projections in the space below concrete highway structures.  A performance entitled Machine in the Park is scheduled for 7th March 2020, details here.

The series of public workshops also included events with Nicky Ashford (botanical drawings) and Hanny Newton, contemporary embroidery artist, who exhibited work in the Follow the River exhibition at the Bernie Crewe Gallery, Palace Theatre, Redditch.

I led group walks in May and August in the north and south of the Arrow Valley Country Park followed by collage and mapping workshops at the Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre.  For the first of the walks I was accompanied by local historian Tony Green.  He explained about the fascinating layers of history along the river associated with the medieval Abbey and the various mills, when Redditch was the centre of the world’s needlemaking industry.

The groups were lovely to work with, and we enjoyed making work using materials and imagery found on the walks.  During the walks, we had tried to awaken all senses, and a few of the participants used visual responses to sounds in their work.  Here are some examples:

There were two fantastic outcomes from the workshops.  The first were two collaborative poems turned into songs by Kate Allan.  She collected phrases and responses to the walks from members of the group and combined these with some recordings of ambient sound from the walks to create song performances whilst everyone worked on their collage maps.

20191019_105135

One of the poems turned into song by Kate Allan

The second outcome was a collaborative zine that I was asked to put together using the artwork and poems made in the workshops, and photography of the landscape.  It was quite a technical challenge to convert the colour images digitally into separated colour layers in yellow, blue and black for risograph printing by the Footprint Workers Cooperative.  I was really pleased with the results:

 

20191019_105053

The Arrow zine is for sale for £3, or £4 including postage and packaging!  Email liz.sculpturelogic@gmail.com to order your copy.

Encounters 2019

19 Nov

I was very happy to take part in the return of Encounters this year.  This is a project, initiated by Ted Eames in 2017/18, in which artists are paired with poets to produce work for an exhibition.  For this second Encounters show, I was paired with Graham Attenborough.

The suggested approach is that each participant responds to work produced by the other.  Graham and I took a slightly different approach with our collaboration. We met at my studio, and whilst we got to know each other’s past work and felt inspired by it, we agreed at an early stage that it would be good for both to produce new work either jointly, or independently, on a similar subject.

Throughout the last 12 months, I have worked on projects with a number of different artists, writers and other practitioners, and I have no preconceptions about how a collaboration should be, although I am always hopeful that the partner will see the value in joining me on a walk.  Whether the project is about a specific place or not, walking creates a space for dialogue and sharing thoughts whilst moving through a stream of chance encounters and stimuli.  The rhythm of walking means it is very difficult to replicate the particular kind of conversation that results in any other way.

So I was delighted that Graham was open to starting off the process with a walk in the Rea Brook Valley in Shrewsbury.  I have already produced a series of small paintings and a short film in response to the Rea Brook Valley and its surrounding areas.  This is a place where considerable new development  is taking place and the rural or wooded landscape along the valley that extends into the heart of the town, is slowly becoming squeezed and degraded.  Graham walks his dog in part of the valley near his house, but had not previously visited the area we walked in.

In a true psychogeographical dérive, we had no defined route, so we meandered in and out of the valley pathways through new housing estates, across a golf course, building sites, retail parks and woodland, often encountering barriers and resistance.

 

We took guidance from our shared belief in that great spiritual leader, Mr Mark E Smith.  Graham recited from some of Smith’s lyrics including one song titled Dice Man, which shares its name with the somewhat controversial book by Luke Reinhart.

Our conversation on the walk also meandered around the connectedness of everything, the role of chance, determinacy, control and privatisation of space and the homogenising spectacle of neoliberalism.  The themes of our conversation weave into the work that we went on to make independently.  The views that presented themselves to us, were lit with such clarity in the bright summers morning, that there did not seem to be much room for abstraction, expressionism or impressionism.

 

 

I had initially considered making a filmpoem which could combine both mine and Graham’s work, but it was uncertain how long it may take for Graham to complete his writing for me to incorporate into the film.  I decided upon painting, rather than simply using the photographs I had taken.  The gravitas, the time and effort, of painting seemed necessary to highlight the depressing, absurdity of the scenery.

 

 

It also seemed that a single painting could not convey the experience of the walk. so I alighted on the idea of using a cube, its six sides allowing me to include six paintings to represent the walk.  I have seen other artists use 3D geometric shapes for paintings, but I wasn’t aware of anyone attempting to record a walk in this way.  The way in which we remember walks is not necessarily a chronological series of fixed images, so enabling the viewer to interact with the work and find their own route through my series of paintings made sense.

Roller (Rea Brook)

Art and poetry are usually successful when they spark the imagination in the viewer.  There is always a relationship between the creator and the viewer or reader, which has the potential to be diminished slightly when two collaborators become absorbed in responding to each other’s work.  There is also a risk of one “merely” describing or illustrating the other’s work, thus reducing the scope for the viewer or reader to use their imagination.  I was aware that photorealist paintings coupled with a descriptive poem could have closed off space for imagination to roam, so I made a conscious attempt to counteract this, and the use of cubes and interactivity was one way.

Graham and I kept in touch whilst making our responses, and only met one last time to see and hear the finished pieces.  It was remarkable how the poem and paintings captured the walk, whilst we had also both included other themes leading the mind off the literal content.

from non-place to another (extract)

“…

whatever once was

sleeps in shadows now

all industry grows back to wild

but even here strange signs and symbols testify

conurbation’s belt still widens

smearing green to brown …”

© Graham Attenborough 2019

I had intended the cube also to be suggestive of dice, which links to the two dice I included in the assemblage.  These have no fixed interpretation.  The dice that is accessible to all is all 1s, whereas the dice which is only accessible to those privileged or bold enough to open the box, is all 6s, but only 6s.

The dice could also be an obtuse allusion to the new Shrewsbury Monopoly board.  Something designed to celebrate the distinctiveness of our town, yet the landscape we see, the development we are forced to accept, is one of almost uniformly bland mediocrity.  But at least in this country, it is relatively easy to find and use public footpaths and green spaces, unlike many other countries I have visited.  We should do all we can to protect them.

The closing lines of Graham’s poem comment that it doesn’t really matter any more … there are worse problems.

 

 

 

 

A Journey with Mary Webb School

16 Jul

Earlier this month, it was my pleasure to lead a project under the Meadow Arts Inspires arts education programme with 14 Year 9 children and teachers at Mary Webb School and Science College in Pontesbury.  The project took place over four days from 2nd July to 5th July 2019 and supports Meadow Arts work towards the Arts Council’s goal 5 for children and young people.

The project explored the theme of Journey using found materials from a rural landscape.  I adopted a spiral as a symbol of a life journey in which a person keeps close to inner beliefs and experience but continuously moves outwards to new and wider horizons.  The work was also built around a quote from Rebecca Solit’s book ” A Field Guide to Getting Lost” after Plato’s “Meno”:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find and finding it is a matter of getting lost”

I hoped that the project might help the students develop ways of working so that they could find independent solutions to problems from uncertain situations in which there are many choices.

Aims

High level aims for the project were to:

  • Explore an artist practice using observation and findings from immediate surroundings
  • Experiment, improvise and take artistic risks

The students were also invited to take part in activities towards an Arts Award Discover certificate.

Activities

Day 1: Andrew Howe led the group of students on a walk from the school into the woodland surrounding Pontesford Hill.  Students were encouraged to pay attention to all their senses and to gather objects, photographs, tracings/texture rubbings and other materials for later use in artworks.

In the morning, the students split into 3 groups and spent an hour working with sticks, branches, leaves and other found materials to construct sculptural works based on a spiral.  The students were aware of Andy Goldsworthy’s work using natural materials.

After lunch, students had some time to make observational drawings from the landscape.

On return to the school, leaves and other plant matter were gathered and placed within stacks of watercolour paper for dyeing by boiling for an hour in two batches using iron and alum mordants. 

The resulting papers were later put together into a large spiral and stamped with the Solnit quote for mounting on a wall in the school reception area.

Day 2: The artist demonstrated a method for developing abstract designs based layers of tracings and drawings made directly from found objects and photographs.  The students learnt about the work of Joseph Cornell, Ingid Calame and Mark Bradford.

Students created initial studies from their found materials, using drawing, photo transfers and mixed media techniques.  Some of these studies and the found objects were developed further into 3D assemblages housed within wooden boxes.  The boxes were constructed by the school technician and displayed on a wall in a spiral formation.

Days 3 and 4: Students created work using one or more techniques including:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Photography and digital manipulation of images for photo transfers
  • Printing/stencilling (monoprinting using gelli plates and screenprinting); and
  • Collage

These works were incorporated into A5 size handmade concertina books for display alongside the box assemblages.

The students chose to interpret the theme of journey in different ways.  Some considered the artistic process exploring print technique and designs as a journey, some took a personal view of their own life journey, some took inspiration directly from their observations on the group walk, some worked with maps of the local area.

At the end of the project, all of the students worked in pairs to reflect on their own and their partner’s work.  They each then shared some positive comments to the whole group on what they enjoyed about their partner’s work and why.

Review

The two key aims of the project were met because:

  • After some initial hesitancy, all of the students took the opportunity to experiment with techniques that were new to them. There were good examples of students taking a simple design based on found objects or photos from the walk, and developing this through a series of drawings, prints and or collage to successful work which they could incorporate into a book.
    • This encouraged students to innovate and strive for excellence in their future work
    • This also enabled a personal progression as students became willing to try new techniques which they could see would be valuable in future
  • Most of the group commented in their art logs how they made the realisation that art work could be inspired by what they observe in their immediate surroundings. The walk forged new connections between the students and their surrounding landscape.
    • This provided a means for students to be authentic, making their own personal responses to what they experience around them
  • The dyeing with plants made a big impact with the group and with teachers, as everyone could see how beautiful results could be achieved simply and quickly using found and readily available materials
  • Everyone found that Gelli plate printing was an accessible method to experiment with designs, stencils, textures and paint and achieve effective, expressive results
  • The box assemblages and outdoor collaborative sculptures presented greater challenges for the group, although most people enjoyed these activities and made some successful work
  • The students engaged with the project with enthusiasm, and many expressed how much they enjoyed the experience in their art logs.
  • It was observed that the students worked well together in small groups, sharing ideas, helping each other with difficulties, all of which helped to create a positive and inclusive experience. As these students will all progress towards GCSE level in art, the project will help to build teamwork, belonging and ownership.

A couple of feedback comments:

“This week has linked with my everyday life because it is a journey.  I do many journeys a day.  This week has shown me that walks and journeys can teach you something…

“…I have enjoyed learning new processes, including the gelli plate printing, and I got to stamp the spiral with the quote.

I have enjoyed this experience greatly”  Student

 

“Students were encouraged to ponder on problems and develop their own ideas which was great and what we wanted throughout the workshop”

“Thank you again for all your efforts with our students, this was a really valuable experience for them.” Teacher