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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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:

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

Your Perfect High Street

15 Sep

As part of last weekend’s Heritage Open Day events, I was delighted to be invited to run a workshop at the Unitarian Church on Shrewsbury’s High Street.  According to the inscription on its frontage,  the Unitarian Church was built in 1662 and was where Charles Darwin came to worship.  And I had a beautiful old room with stained glass windows above the street to work in.

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The suggested theme was designing a perfect High Street.  Arguably, Shrewsbury already has one, and so in preparation for the event I began to explore by taking a series of photos of details along the street.  Details that may go unnoticed unless you really slow down and look.

Participants helped create a collage of my photos as a grid during the workshop, and then people added their own thoughts, ideas and memories on sticky notes within the grid:

 

 

 

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My preparations also included a pen drawing of the elevations of both sides of the street, which became quite addictive.  I completed it in about three days, although certainly can’t vouch for its accuracy of detail.  It was interesting to see the differences in scale of the buildings and see them without the dominating colours and branding of the retailers. The Unitarian Church, which can seem quite an impressively large facade from street level, actually appears to be one of the smallest buildings along the whole street.

 

The workshop was aimed primarily at families with children aged 8 and over, but many adults dropped in and got involved too.  There were around 35 participants over the course of 3 hours.  Besides the photo collage, the activities began with thinking about the kind of activities that might take place in the High Street and which are more important.

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I made a few initial suggestions, and quickly realised just how many different activities already go on in our High Street.  Participants then added their own ideas, moved activities between “important” and “not important” and voted with red dots for the ideas they agreed with.  I deliberately missed out quite a few activities like shopping and gambling to see if there was any reaction, and surprisingly only one person added “ice cream shop”… and this was in the “not important” zone.  Someone else added “independent businesses” as important.  Hear hear!

The activities ranked in the highest zone of importance/votes were (approximately):

  • Homes for living,
  • green space,
  • learning,
  • seating,
  • street art,
  • a litter free environment,
  • having a strong community,
  • independent businesses,
  • walking/strolling/wandering,
  • healthcare,
  • theatre/street performance,
  • exercising democratic rights local political issues and public debates.

I think we can guess at the kind of social-demographic I was dealing with.  Other suggestions I really liked included:

  • Temporary closure of streets to create play/community areas,
  • interacting and co-operating,
  • installations and performance platform for local artists (obviously).

Most of the workshop activity revolved around building a scale model of a High Street using card boxes and hand drawn frontages.  Participants could use my pen drawings and a montage of architectural design considerations as inspiration.  There were some really lovely buildings.

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Finally, as an activity to take away, I produced a sheet of some of the architectural details to go and find somewhere in the High Street.  You can download a copy and have a go yourself by clicking this link:  Look Closely

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Darwin’s Childhood Garden

27 Dec

As if managing our own garden and an allotment, and various other projects wasn’t enough, I became involved with the restoration of part of Charles Darwin’s childhood garden earlier this year.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury in 1809, and he lived in the family home on the Mount until 1831.  Darwin spent much of his childhood in the garden, part of which was a woodland adjacent to the River Severn.  This was where Darwin’s interest in the natural world was kindled.

Much of the garden was built on in the 20th Century, but part of it remains as an overgrown woodland on the steep bank leading down to the river.  It is a beautiful location, and with a wealth of flora and fauna, it has an aura of its own.  Since I stopped walking to work at the Business Park in the Summer, it has become part of my new “walk to work” as I return from dropping my daughter at school and walk around the loop of the Severn from Doctor’s Field past the Darwin Garden via Frankwell and back home.  I had noticed the progress of initial works to restore the garden.  Its only five minutes from my house so it makes sense for the family to take part in the restoration.

The land was acquired by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust in 2013.

and further details of the plans for restoring the garden for public access can be found here: Darwin’s Childhood Garden and at a Facebook page.

Some work to begin clearance and install some timber steps had already been carried out by the Trust and a team of volunteers.  My first involvement was in answer to a general invitation by Sara Lanyon to help clear a larger area and to create an artwork on the somewhat functional fencing along the perimeter adjacent to the river path.

The plan for the artwork was to construct an interpretation of a sketch of the “tree of life” taken from one of Darwin’s notebooks using branches found on the site, and in the nearby area known as Doctor’s Field.

This work took place on 15th August 2015 and was completed by a small group, including my wife, Julie, and daughter Eliza.  In fact, there was a small opening ceremony in which Eliza and another girl cut a ribbon into the garden.

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The branches were painted:

before fixing onto the fence:

There is scope to add plant specimens and other artefacts from the garden into jars fixed to the “tree of life” over a period of time.  Here is an image of the full length of the art work as we left it.

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A bug hotel was added:

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I participated in both the art work and clearing of vegetation.  It was good to be part of a long term community project, which will hopefully engage with a wide range of people.  I don’t expect to contribute a huge amount of artistic input or even engineering/environmental knowledge but I’m sure I can play a useful role.

Here are a few more photos taken on the day, including some shots of the overgrown ice house.

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In a later work day on 10th October 2015, a different group gathered to clear another area of the garden in preparation for the construction of some additional timber steps.  The steep, sandy bank is quite treacherous.  It will be quite a challenge to stabilise this, and then to create paths and planted areas of the garden.

Here are a few photos from that day: