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Witnesses

25 Sep

As I wrote in an earlier post, for just over 12 months now,  I’ve been exploring ideas and working with many different people in and around Dawley, Telford, to begin running events to commemorate and raise awareness of the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821.  We’ve come a long way, generated a lot of interest and support, and begun to attract funding to support initial activities.

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I’ve helped set up a website for the community organisation Cinderloo1821, which will bring together historical information, contemporary responses, writings and artwork about the 1821 Uprising.  We await news of an initial application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant that will support plans for a range of different activities including intergenerational workshops, educational work with schools, walks, heritage skills workshops, local history and family history research.

Meanwhile, I’ve been walking and discovering the immense network of tracks, woodland and history which binds together the various communities across Telford; sometimes with new found friends interested in the project, and sometimes alone.  These walks have helped develop various ideas for art projects associated with Cinderloo.

The first of these, the Witnesses project, was inspired by a poem I wrote and read out at the inaugural public meeting of Cinderloo1821, back in February:

Do we have a witness?

Heavy boots pounded along woodland paths

From Dawley, Donnington and Horsehay

Long drawn faces grim and determined

Sharp voices called and with spirits rising

The miners found strength in their ranks

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

The coppiced and saplings

Saw all that passed by

Some still stand there now

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

Who were the leaders?

Who planned and plotted and schemed?

Or did long months of starving

And back breaking toil

Facing death from rock fall and coal damp

Light a fuse to inspire all into action

On those cinder hills

Where the trees were cut down

To fuel iron furnace and wealth

Only those that fought saw how it unfolded

When yeomanry executed arduous duties

And as men, women and children dispersed

With Tom Palin wounded among them

Was it fear and sorrow or pride and defiance

That continued to burn in their hearts?

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

© Andrew Howe 2018

Much of the history bound up in the old towns was swept away or obscured with the development of the new town of Telford (currently celebrating its 50th year).  Yet there is much remaining, and the history of the town is much more than that presented in the Ironbridge Gorge and Coalbrookdale.  But perhaps, some of the most interesting, enigmatic features which connect the landscape of today with the historical landscape of 1821 are trees.  I was drawn to the notion that some of those, that are now over 200 years old, may have witnessed the events of Cinderloo, for which we now only have newspaper reports to rely on.

I have been in conversation with Shropshire Wildlife Trust, the Small Woods Association and members of Severn Gorge Countryside Trust to trace and map trees which are thought to be over 200 years old.  A group of us are also tracing the old miners tracks, many of which still exist and which may have been used by protesters on that day in February 1821.

It would be great if other people wanted to walk these routes for themselves and find their own trees to add to the map.  We would also welcome any photographs or other artworks inspired by these trees.  Contact me directly or Cinderloo1821.

I have begun making drawings of some of the trees that I have found so far.  I am using materials that relate to this landscape and the historical events.  So I made my own oak gall ink, using the tannin from acorn galls and ferric sulphate from rusty nails.  This ink was used for centuries in historic documents, and has beautiful purply, brown hues, which darken as the ink oxidises.

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Beech, The Wrekin, ink on paper, 39cm x 57cm

Iron oxide pigment has a deep rich red colour, evocative of the blood shed and, along with charcoal, symbolic of the iron and coal industries which were at the root of the miners’ protest.

I have also made a couple of drawings using silver ink on dark grey paper.  Again suggestive of iron and coal.  I’m not so sure about these yet.  I liked how the drawing emerges as light reflects from the ink marks, but light conditions need to be considered very carefully since the drawing is near invisible in most situations.

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Oak bark, silver ink on paper

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Detail of oak bark

I’m also experimenting with mark-making using brushes hand made with sticks, birch twigs and plant fibres.  Look out for more drawings as we find more 200 year old trees.

 

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Poetic Encounters #3 Ursula Troche

29 Mar

My final “Encounter” was with writer/artist/performer/psychogeographer/life model Ursula Troche and our work began before Ted Eames launched the project.  I met Ursula briefly at the World Congress of Psychogeography at the University of Huddersfield last September, and started reading her blog shortly after.  I liked her wide-ranging perspective on experiences often derived from walking, and how she combined fresh instinctive responses with careful research to build interesting pieces on subjects ranging from mining and pit-closures to mapping to women’s rights to train journeys and so on.

We struck up a dialogue and began discussing a project on the theme of borders and boundaries.  Ursula grew up in Germany, and although she has lived in the UK for a long time, she is aware of an unseen “border” between herself and people she meets in this country, which perhaps allows her a slightly different, objective perspective on what she finds in the UK.  I was moved by her poem “Circular Ritual Insight” – simple ideas about migration/immigration and regretting a loss of humanity and kinship, but sincerely written with an insistent repetition that is hard to ignore.  This became a clear starting point for me to respond to once we began considering taking part in the Encounters project.

Meanwhile, Ursula was busy writing poems in response to some of the artwork she saw on my website.  This began with my Traces series from the In Parallel exhibition and she also responded to one of my mixed media collages from the In Parallel and Entwined book I made last year.  Circles and lines interest Ursula and she finds connections with these forms and subjects that she is investigating.  So for example, my works incorporating maps and landscape features of Shrewsbury, drew attention to the river loops around the town and adjacent Frankwell, and the line of flow of the River Severn.

“…

Sweet settlement behind the riverbank

Town in a circle, Frankwell in the other

River circles, flowing in a line

Town circles, lying side by side

…” (Extract from Severn Circles Traces © Ursula Troche 2017)

The poem Circle World takes a wider view considering what is needed for more harmonious global relationships.  There is a link back into Circle Ritual Insight too.

“Circle-World

Large point of ever-return

Held in its four corners, four

Directions, four hands, of

Time and continents

Hold it! Together!

Finger by finger, wind by earth

…” (Opening to Circle World © Ursula Troche 2018)

As my original collage was bound into a book, I produced a similar larger version for the exhibition:

Circumscribed, mixed media collage

I was running short of time before the exhibition, in order to produce another work in response to Circular Ritual Insight, but then by chance found a couple of images in a magazine of dancers from Gabon in Africa, and two mannequin hands touching.  They fitted the poem perfectly and were of just the right size, so they were destined for a collage.  I managed to obtain a suitable map of the globe and, with a bit of precise and intricate scalpel work, there was my collage:

Circular Ritual, paper collage

As a further reflection on the holding of hands, I recalled my series of works about the relations between successive family generations in my exhibition Imperfectly Natural.  This piece seemed to tie in with the poem, as it considers how despite strong parental bonds, we are all alone in the world and must forge new bonds and make friendships with our fellow humans.  Hands, of course, are how we begin to feel and explore the world from a young age.

Working with Ursula is very easy going, with lots of ideas flowing.  As with both Kate Innes and Paul Baines, it is great to find themes and beliefs in common that can feed into new art works.  I’m looking forward to continuing with our borders and boundaries work.

Poetic Encounters #2 Paul Baines

25 Mar

For the second of my Encounters, I was delighted to be paired up with Paul Baines, since I had enjoyed seeing his exhibition of paintings and artist books at Shrewsbury’s Gateway Gallery 3 a year or so ago, and I had been looking for an opportunity to make contact to discuss his work further.

Paul’s early work was inspired by Pop Art and work from the 1950s/60s, but in recent years he has turned to a fully abstract painting style.  He has developed a form of visual communication that is founded on ten Projects that express his own ideology and political beliefs.  His books combine poems with graphic designs, sketches and drawings.

“Empathy with society’s disadvantaged” is a primary driver behind his work.  I was intrigued by how such passionately held beliefs could be expressed using pure abstract forms.  Paul quickly explained how he has developed a visual language that is inspired by whichever of the ten projects he is focusing on, and after some closer looking at the work, I began to be able to read some of the “vocabulary”.

I reflected on how abstract concepts are defined, often with very precise definitions that society takes on as a consensus.  So for example, the dictionary defines “empathy” as:

“the power of imaginatively entering into and understanding another person’s feelings”

Everyone has their own experience, memories and thoughts about what this means to them.  We also have an understanding of what terms are by what they are not.  These references are in constant flux as experiences change and things redefine themselves, which I guess is a post-structuralist way of looking at things.  So I saw Paul’s paintings as a way of taking definitions back to that moment when inchoate thoughts emerge in response to perceptions from the world, and when, thereafter, terms become defined within our mind.

The poem I wrote first was in direct response to Paul’s Project 1 “to promote empathy and compassion” which he was able to translate into a painting.

Detail

Detail

My poem was inspired by a train journey back from a day out in Birmingham just before Christmas last December 2017:

Evening Train

Stuffed together on the evening train

Feverish with festive banter

Bodies lurch at each juddering halt

And others gently check the sway

In silent kindness

 

In the cold clammy air along the station platform

Legs crumple in slow collapse

Anxious faces offer help

As a young daughter looks on bewildered, mute

A calm lady relays questions from

The ambulance approaching

Her assurance brings relief

To all, as we wait

© Andrew Howe, January 2018

The second poem proved more difficult.  Although, both Paul and I had existing work to respond to, all of our work for the exhibition was created afresh in collaboration.  We met just once but maintained a conversation by various messages.  I saw digital images of the paintings not quite realising just how textural they were.  My attempts to write something in response to one of the other Projects that Paul has defined did not flow well, and so instead I drafted something which described observations from an urban walk, and which tried to capture a spirit of being in tune with the Projects.

Its about acceptance; acceptance of the passing of time and experiences.  Nothing matters and everything matters. And before we, as individuals and as societies, attribute values to things influenced by memory and abstractions, there is a beginning.  The beginning is the moment. In that moment, she, he, this or they merit the same attention and respect as her, him, that or them.  It is up to us, then, to defer, delay, suspend or change the process of valuation to allow for alternative meanings and interpretation.

All and Nothing

Step on

Swish of tyres, glistening wet tarmac

Bass thump, door slam

Dachsund shivering

Two women laugh

As one holds the other’s arm

I’m not the fairy, I’m not

Step on

Ahead of the flow

Sweeping through

Erasing, smoothing

Double yellow slinking by the kerbside

Becoming silver ribbons catching low sunlight

Step ahead

Hooded man hunched over phone

No mate, there’s only one pack left

We sent all the others back last night

Plastic fragment quivers on hawthorn branch

Bent signpost, and a scattering of cable ties

Step on

Its all here, these are the facts

Streaming onwards in all directions

Leaves and sweet wrappers spiral in the breeze

Cardboard boxes trampled into mulch

Pigeons clap flapping

Coos echo in dank empty building

Windows blinded by OSB and ply

Webs of shattered glass, and a half peeled sticker

Electric drill screams, and a second starts up

Pulsing, phasing around one note

Step on

Dirt-blue sleeping bag rucked into door way

Upturned beer cans, and two copper coins

Step ahead

The flow washes over

Golden reflections shimmering on cracked paving

Long shadows flicker across railings

Black man in parka coat

Grinning and laughing

At me or with me?

I wave in salute

We’re alright

Step on

© Andrew Howe March 2018

Paul was able to create a painting in response.  These are the finished works in the gallery:

The paintings are powerful and work extremely well in this gallery setting.  It was a delight to meet Paul and I hope to maintain our conversations in the future.

Poetic encounters #1 Kate Innes

20 Mar

In my post about collaborations, I mentioned that I have been working with three other writers/artists to make work for an exhibition called Encounters that opened this week at the VAN Street Gallery in Shoplatch, Shrewsbury.

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The project was the idea of Ted Eames, and it brings together over 20 pairings of visual artists and writers, one artist making work in response to the other’s work.  There have been similar such collaborations in the past, but rarely in such numbers I suspect.  Having been involved in the installation of the exhibition, I had a chance for a brief preview.  I am fascinated by the diversity of work produced, and can’t wait to go back to spend more time absorbing it.

My own work comprises six paintings and collages with Kate Innes and Ursula Troche, and two poems with Paul Baines.  Perhaps on first viewing it appears quite diverse/eclectic, but there is a common theme which links everything, although this may not be immediately obvious.

In this first of three posts, I will discuss the work made with Kate Innes.

Of the three pairings, the work with Kate involved the most discussion and interaction in the development of each piece of work.  We found many common interests and a similar sensitivity to the landscape and the human history within it.

Kate is a published poet (Flock of Words) and novelist (The Errant Hours).  She writes beautifully about the rural landscape, with a knowledgeable eye for the detail of flora, fauna, and geology.  There is also a historical/mythical content to her work which clearly links with her background in archaeology and in museum education.

My drawings of abandoned dwellings/cabins were an initial starting point of interest, and in particular, the curious dilapidated structure which I had found whilst walking near Shelton on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

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Kate, too went on foot to visit the place, and like me was drawn to the atmosphere of this small patch of woodland high above the River Severn which can be glimpsed through the trees.  A group of people have been using the area as a gathering place and trees are marked with paint, bits of fabric and plastic, like totems.  It felt tribal or ceremonial, like an ancient sacred site.

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Ceremonial Trees / Bound with fluttering string / Tokens of faint hope (Andrew Howe 2017)

 

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High vantage over / River Severn’s lush meadows / Buzzard soars above (Andrew Howe 2017)

Kate’s poem “The Other Land”  captured some of the thoughts that come to my mind in these edgeland places:

…at the edge of places we don’t belong

even the twist of a rope that won’t tie
Or the path that unwinds in a wood
It gathers its strength on a threshold

…”

(Extract from “The Other Land”)

We discussed our responses to these enigmatic isolated and empty structures set in woodland, and explored some of the issues raised in my earlier post around Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”, the temptations of the “hermit’s hut”, refuge/retreat, and the negotiations that must take place when two people take up residence.  The titles of my trio of drawings “When Adam delved”, “And Eve Span” and “Who was then the Gentleman” struck a chord with Kate, referring to John Ball’s speeches that helped inspire the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.  These words relating to equality and social justice resonated.

I went on to develop studies for a painting of the shelter we had been to visit, which responded to “The Other Land” referencing certain features from the poem, like the coppiced trees.  These included ipad drawings, a charcoal study and two oil studies:

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“Shelter”charcoal study, 85cm x 115cm

I made two paintings, quite different in scale and in style.  The first was a small acrylic painting made in reverse on an acetate sheet, the second was a large oil painting on canvas:

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Shelter II, acrylic on acetate, 21cm x 21cm

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Detail from Shelter II

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Shelter, oil on canvas, 90cm x 120cm

I can see flaws that niggle, but in general I’m pleased with the brooding feel to the paintings.  There is just enough rawness, texture and painterliness in the markmaking.  The brief period for the collaboration (around 3 months) encouraged a disciplined approach and a need for some risk taking.

Kate crafted a poem entitled “Adam’s Return” which responds to Shelter, and also to the trio of drawings, referred to above.  To close this short narrative, she drafted a third poem specifically in response to “And Eve Span”.  The sparse, measured style and ambiguous timing or timelessness of the poems’ positioning is, for me, reminiscent of the novelist Jim Crace, or perhaps more distantly Cormac McCarthy.

“He found the gate unguarded – except by thorn –
the angel gone

The forgotten trees had dropped their fruit
and multiplied…” 

(the opening lines from “Adam’s Return”)

“And Eve Span”, pastel on paper

“...

Here they will live out their days
in a small and private place
intertwined as strands of wool
by twists of love and pain

…”

(Extract from “And Eve Span”)

It was a privilege to see how subtle changes in wording in the few iterative drafts enhanced the poems, shifting emphasis, refining rhythm, suggesting alternative perspectives, picking up on certain aspects of the paintings.  The three poems expand meaning and add greater depth to the paintings, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it.

 

In Search of Cinderloo

4 Mar

For some  months now, I’ve been working with Ted Eames, Pete Jackson, Jill Impey and a growing number of enthusiastic people in and around Dawley, Telford on the development of a community project to commemorate the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821.

This dramatic event took place on 2 February 1821 at the cinder hills in Old Park, adjacent to what was the ironworks of Thomas Botfield, now occupied by the Forge retail park at Telford town centre.  A confrontation between over 3,000 striking miners and the Shropshire Yeomanry left two men dead, many injuries on both sides and following arrests, one man, Thomas Palin, was hung in April 1821 for ‘felonious riot’. It has become known as ‘The Battle of Cinderloo’ or Cinderloo Riot.  Read more.

I was surprised to learn about the historic event only last year, but discovered that many local people were similarly unaware of it.  Following some research, I found the excellent Dawley Heritage website which did much work to bring this event and many other aspects of Dawley’s history to public attention.  There is a great opportunity to help start some activities to engage people and commemorate Cinderloo up to the 200th anniversary in 2021 so I began to get in contact with local historians and other interested groups.

Its been inspirational to meet so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who share a similar ambition to broaden recognition of this key event in Dawley and Telford’s history.

With my own artistic interest in how people interact with places, there are many aspects to be explored around mining and metals industrial heritage, physical changes in landscape and environment, political and social history, the influence of Non-Conformism and Methodism, social conditions, workers’ rights and social justice.  There are connections with contemporary issues, and it would be great to be able to use creative activities in intergenerational events, and in educational programmes with schools, colleges and community groups to build in work established by the Dawley Heritage project and the Heritage Schools programme set up with Historic England.

I have been making a few walks of the area to get a more detailed understanding of the geography, which has many layers of historical development revealing clues to its past.  It is hard to imagine how different the area would have looked 200 years ago when there were many mineworkings, spoil heaps, ironworks and other industries, and scatterings of dwellings and religious buildings.  The landscape today continues to evolve quite dramatically as brownfield land is reclaimed.  This combination of dynamism and link to the past must have an impact on the sense of place for people living here.

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Work starting on Lawley Common

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New development site on reclaimed land near Old Park

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Part of old cottage buildings near Lawley Bank

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One of only a few remaining workers’ cottages near Lawley Bank

There are over a dozen Methodist, Primitive or Wesleyan chapels in the area, mostly built after Cinderloo and some are now converted to residential homes.

 

I am now working with the newly constituted community group Cinderloo1821 to help plan and deliver a range of different initiatives, which will include art, poetry and music events.  I’ll post further news as things begin to happen or follow on Facebook

Working Together

29 Dec

Over the last 12 years or so, I’ve taken part in several artistic collaborations, which have tended to flow alongside what I viewed as my main solo art practice.  This year, and, as I look ahead into next year, most of my time seems to be working on new projects with a range of artists and other people.  So my practice is transforming.

Working in teams, large and small, is integral to my experience as engineer/environmental consultant, but it has been a fairly slow realisation that collaboration is something I thrive on in an artistic sense.

Most artists collaborate at some point in their career, and there are famous examples like Warhol/Basquiat, Rauschenberg/Johns, Rauschenberg/Cunningham, Krasner/Pollock, Bunuel/Dali, Richter/Palermo, Abramovic/Ulay, Kahlo/Rivera and so on.  The work of some artists like Gilbert and George or Jake and Dinos Chapman is almost entirely one of collaboration such that the individual practices are indistinguishable.  One of my favourite collaborative partnerships is that between Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, which has produced some fascinating, mysterious installations and audio-visual works.

The artists can define their own “rules” or guidelines.  Sometimes, each artist produces their own work in response to a common theme, and the results are shown together.  Other artists work progressively or iteratively, each producing their own pieces but in direct response to the other artist.  This might depend on whether the two artists work in similar media or whether they take entirely different approaches.  Collaborations in which both artists work together to produce works that combine both their inputs can be very interesting because this often means that both artists have to move out of their comfort zone, take risks and negotiate.

That negotiation can be challenging.  Each artist’s work is usually a very personal expression, and so the collaborator gets to know the other artist and gains a little understanding of how they operate. One or both might feel that they must compromise in aligning input towards common goals.

For me, this is a stimulating environment because sharing work is when your art comes alive, open to response, re-evaluation, new interpretation.  Sharing with a public audience is important too, but sharing in a supportive space with a “critical friend” enables me to investigate work within a constructive dialogue.  It gives the work a sense of purpose that is difficult to achieve working alone.

Two of the collaborations I have been involved with in the past included the Cloud Gallery collective and my joint commission with Mairi Turner to document the development of new allotments at Coton Hill.  I enjoyed both collaborations.

At the time with the Cloud Gallery, in 2007, I was probably the least experienced artist in a group of 6 artists/Cloud Gazers yet all “team members” played a key role in delivering projects which included an eco-architecture camping weekend, a sculpture/installation and artist walk as part of the Greenhouse Shropshire exhibition in 2008.  Individual inputs were often fairly indistinguishable within the final output.  And it felt to me, that the synergy of all the artists enabled us to produce work that we may never have made as individuals.

My work with Mairi Turner also had a valuable sharing of insight, experience and skills.  In this case, though, each of us documented the project using photography in our own individual way without meeting on the site itself.  Our work was then combined together  in a book and in an exhibition.

A paper I read earlier this year describes a collaboration between two artists beautifully, poignantly.  The paper was entitled: “Heavens Above” by Andrea Toth & Judy Thomas, First published in 2013 by Art Editions North.  You can find it in Essays from the “On–Walking Conference” The University of Sunderland (June 28 & 29, 2013)  Conference was organised by Heather H. Yeung of W.A.L.K. (Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge)—a Research Centre at the University of Sunderland

Here’s a sample quotation which is very close to my way of thinking about collaborations, especially involving walking:

“…a collaborative art practice of walking together, merging experiencing, making, presenting, and social engagement. Our walks have become a platform to share ideas and make new work, providing not only motivation but also a safe space to explore themes of memory, space and spirituality, while being inspired by weather, light and the landscape.

The value of this relationship is huge. To be an artist is a predominantly solitary activity; to be able to have support and be supported gives great strength. Our combined experiences, thoughts and connections enhance greatly what might have been done individually. The collaboration is pushing us both to be more courageous and move out of our comfort zones.

Through a process of painting, photography and film, we are in a research phase, responding directly to the physical world, bridging to an inner spiritual world, through visual representation. The act of walking and getting into the landscape also gives us a chance to pause and reflect on our individual and collaborative work, which is an important and integral step in the creative process. Our ongoing questioning dialogue along with walking with others opens up thoughts and possibilities at a greater and deeper level than if done individually.”

Over the last 5-6 months or so, I have been working with artist/poet Emily Wilkinson on a couple of different ventures.  The first of these, involving walking with a groups of people to gather inspiration for creative writing and making collages, led to some pilot workshops during the November (Read more here on walking/writing and  collage).

During this time we also partnered with artists Ted Eames and Jamila Walker to form a new collective, called we are Here Here! aiming at collaborative, socially-engaged and participatory projects about place and community.

A second project with Emily involved exploring creative responses to a privately owned “secret woodland” in Shrewsbury, or as we termed it: a dappled glade.  We made work individually and in response to each other’s work. The woodland itself was quite neglected with a fair amount of fly-tipped material, overgrown scrub and ivy.  We decided to start a clean up of the woodland to make a small but tangible positive impact on a place that we felt a connection with.  Neighbouring landowners are generally in support of what we started and we might, perhaps, achieve something with a sustainable future in that community.

It remains to be seen whether Emily and I can capture some of our creative responses and work in the woodland in some finished pieces of art.

So what else might I be collaborating on.  Quite a lot it seems:

  • Ted Eames and I are partnering with the Lawley and Overdale Local History Group and numerous enthusiastic supporters to initiate a series of art projects/walks to raise awareness of a significant historical event that happened in Old Park near Dawley in the early 19th Century;
  • I am participating in the Encounters event, organised by Ted Eames and hosted by the Shropshire Visual Art Network, which puts artists together with poets in order to create collaborative work for an exhibition in Spring 2018.  I am working as visual artist paired with author/poet Kate Innes, and as a writer paired with painter Paul Baines;

At the launch of Encounters at the VAN Gallery

  • I have formed a collaboration with Ursula Troche, a UK based German artist/psychogeographer.  Our work (Ursula’s poetry and my painting) will feature in the Encounters exhibition and we are also developing an outline scope for a collaborative project involving walking;
  • I have recently started developing ideas and a scope for a very exciting project with Gareth Jones, an artist/academic based in Osaka, Japan.  The project will research experiences of walking in virtual spaces and real walks in our respective locations.
  • I have been accepted onto an international arts collaboration exchange which could lead to some very interesting work about place, and opening out to new audiences.  I’m just awaiting to hear further details about that.

Its early days to predict what, if anything, might emerge from these collaborations.  But then that is the exciting part of it – we have to work together to make it happen.