As I began sweeping up, I saw another way of working: aided by my broom, Pareidolia, the spirit of Guiseppe Archimboldo and the serendipity of a windless, sunny day …
In this series of practical trials, I’ve been responding to the emotional affect of isolation and the shock of changes to normality caused by Covid 19. I limited myself to a lockdown discipline of using organic materials that came readily to hand, and to referencing words or text that became intensely familiar, imprinted on my mind by the news media. This was in part a personal challenge to try out new methods, and by interpreting meaning, metaphor and feeling via the material qualities of random, natural finds, I aimed to process loss and sadness, and to try to make some sense out of crisis.
I have found the method mindful and soothing and it has helped isolation feel almost purposeful: a creative practice in its own right. Outcomes are also taking the form of more abstract, symbolic representations of contagion, vulnerabiity, frailty and the social impact of health and illness.
There is so much we don’t understand and have little control over. I hoped that a contemplative practice, working with my hands, combining text and found, organic materials would reveal deeper, more universal or emotionally sensitive insights than those communicated by quantitative data, the clinical aesthetic of medical science, or the superficiality of media soundbites.
One of Outdoor Art School’s activities that got away! Cancelled due to the lockdown.
A temporary land art project, timed to celebrate the energy of spring in April 2020, in Winckley Square Gardens, Preston. UK
Our plan was to create a large scale ‘cut grass’ drawing in the central area of Winckley Square. Two visuals from the project’s initial proposal, shown here. The overhead view, gives an impression of the intended scale of the ‘drawing’.
Many thanks to Tony Lewis, Park Warden, for his input and encouragement.
Throughout the arts of the world, this animal’s spirit has been widely interpreted to symbolise resurrection, rebirth, creativity, hope, good luck, nature’s abundance, fertility, motion, optimism and imagination. This includes the ‘Easter Bunny’, a familiar folkloric figure and symbol of Easter, who brings gifts of multi-coloured Easter eggs to children. As a spatial artwork in the outdoors, the leaping rabbit will be visible from many angles, heights and locations in and around the Square, at different times of the day, in sunlight and in shadow, as though ‘alive’ and moving across the undulating ground.
We wanted it to act as a playful yet thought provoking reminder of seasonal sentiments, and also that humans share the earth with many other creatures and forms of life. The silhouette would gradually disappear as the grass regrows and re-greens, just as the earth’s seasons change imperceptibly over time.
The project’s title is a reference to a lyrical description celebrating life, written by the innovative poet, painter and playwright, E. E. Cummings, (1894 – 1962).
We will develop another, even better idea for next Easter!
The global pandemic is bringing our attention to how much we are part of nature and that we ignore this at our peril.
The shock of the coronavirus lockdown hasn’t involved a change of office or studio location for me, as I’ve been working from home for several years. But of course, it has changed so much else.
Social distancing has radically altered the logistics of organising group art workshops, at least for the foreseeable future. Projects I’d already planned, have been cancelled or postponed. To stay positive in adversity, I saw that the lockdown could provide Outdoor Art School with opportunities for R&D: to review, revise and re-invent. So I decided to use the current restrictions as my ‘creative brief’.
I am very lucky to live in walking distance of Preston’s beautiful Avenham and Miller Parks, and I’ve been going there on my own most days for a brief interlude, to get some fresh air and exercise in the ephemeral qualities of the open space, alongside the river Ribble.
The weather has been so amazing the last couple of weeks, blue skies, trees bursting into leaf, spring flowers and blossom all around, sunlight sparkling on the water, birds singing their hearts out. I saw people walking alone and together, or running, cycling, pushing buggies, and exercising their dogs. From a distance, the scene had the appearance of a utopian panorama, where people seemed almost gliding, carefree, looking around and soaking up the atmosphere, with myriad shades of green surrounding them.
As I move through the park, I try to empty my mind of distracting worries, and see what catches my attention. I’ve been using my phone’s camera as a tool, to compose and capture a frame: an interpretation. Then a theme develops, and I make a series of images, as I go along.
The knack is simply ‘to ask’ and be open to what presents itself. It’s one of the techniques I’ve developed for channeling intuition: to bring ideas into awareness via the unconscious. It’s very soothing, grounding, a way to feel connected to the surrounding landscape. I’ve found it can reveal answers to questions, or open up new areas of expression. Imaginative interpretation and metaphor are influential with in the translation process.
In this particular lockdown exercise, I am using the hybrid, human-nature environment of the park and the sensory experience of being there, as materials to think with and learn from.
Intuition gives outlook and insight; it revels in the garden of magical possibilities, as if they were real.”
A couple of weeks back, I mostly saw divisions, isolation, grills and locks, seeming to convey tensions between safety and freedom. (Some examples in the first line of the composite below.)
On a later visit I picked up on traces of past events, like last winter’s floods, and how these have merged into the landscape to become memories: still present, but slowly eroding. I was reminded that the landscaping of the park created work for unemployed cotton workers during the Lancashire Cotton Famine. This deep sense of continuity and recovery was comforting; it helped me to re-calibrate and begin to accept the loss of normality. (Second line of images)
At the weekend the mood of the park/my mood, had changed again. This time I saw radiating plant structures, the connectivity of leaf veins and tree shadows reaching out, visible yet intangible. Shadows are good to think with as they reveal another side of life, just as real but so often ignored. Afterwards, looking at the images again, back indoors, I thought the shadows were directing me to explore tactility and alternative ways to connect and be together. I wondered about the ways that communication technology/web design could be made more tactile, comforting and sustaining, reaching out to the senses via audio and texture that can be felt, as well as imagery, colour and text. More of what the Danes call ‘hygge’.
I aim that my lockdown insights will be influential in the development of Outdoor Art School’s future activities, learning from nature together and apart, by encouraging ways to look at things differently.
Literally in touch with nature.
Started out as digging, weeding in the garden and then my green fingers took over and made it into something else. The plant life showed me the way to go.
Good to feel connected to the earth through craft, making my Easter bonnets! Enjoyable, soothing, mindful, and making lockdown more bearable and a creative time.
Smiling is part of the neural mechanism that enables us to feel happy.
In addition to the drawing activities at The Artistry House, I devised and led a series of group walking activities for The Big Draw and Preston Arts Festivals, in association with The Friends of Winckley Square. These walks meandered through Avenham and Miller Parks in the centre of Preston, during October 2019. On each walk a sequence of perceptual exercises took place at different locations and introduced creative techniques to tune in to and be inspired by the surroundings, particularly ephemeral atmosphere and sensory qualities.
Slowing down and getting into the right state of mind and body…
Perceiving connections, sensing and ‘drawing’ lines…
The haiku writing exercise continued at different locations: at the cut grass circle, along the river, around the fountain and in the bandstand.
Above: distilling the essence of moments. Examples of our draft haiku descriptive writing, pegged in situ ( click on images to expand them and click back to return).
Bringing awareness to the present moment has been shown to improve mental health and physical wellbeing. It can be especially helpful for those feeling weighed down by the past, or fearful of the future. Becoming more in touch with surroundings can aid feelings of calm, connection and balance.
On each walk we made collaborative artworks and placed them midway across the old railway bridge over the river Ribble, as material reminders of the benefits to mind and body of creativity and being fully present in the moment.
We interpreted the perpetually flowing river as a metaphor for time passing and the midway crossing point on the bridge as neither past or future: a site at which to celebrate our communal NOW moment.
We then compiled all the drawings using magnets onto the side of the old iron bridge:
As an ancient symbol of holism and unity, our circle seemed both enduring and ephemeral.
Thank you to all the walkers for their generous creative participation and also to Manda Johnson-Holme and Glennis Hulme for their encouragement and support.
And a special thanks to Tony Lewis, Park Warden for Avenham and Miller Parks and Friend of Winckley Square, for his support and creative input to The Big Draw activities.
At the end of one of the walks, I recorded this synchronistic moment, from the middle of the old iron railway bridge.
See our event on The Big Draw’s website here
Some touchstones in the development of these creative walks have been
Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) Klee’s highly individual art style was influenced by Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. He was a natural draftsman who also deeply explored colour theory. He taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. https://www.paulklee.net
Hannah Tuuliki is a Finnish/Scottish contemporary artist working in the landscape, with voice, drawing and gesture. https://www.hannatuulikki.org
Richard Long – one of Britain’s best-known land artists. http://www.richardlong.org
Nancy Holt (1938-2014) An american artist who pioneered a unique aesthetic of perception, as a key member of the Earth, Land and Conceptual art movements. http://www.nancyholt.com
Hamish Fulton – English artist who translates his walking into a variety of media. http://www.hamish-fulton.com
Andy Goldsworthy OBE is a British artist known for his site-specific installations involving natural materials and the passage of time. Andy studied art at Preston Polytechnic. Watch a recent film about his work here: https://www.leaningintothewind.com
C.G. Jung (1875 –1961) Swiss born founder of analytical psychology, Jung was also an artist, craftsman and builder as well as a prolific writer. He cited an intense period of art making as hugely influential in the development of his theories of the unconscious. Suggest his last book, an autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ as a starting point.
‘The Spell of the Sensuous. perception and language in a more-than-human-world.’ David Abram. Vintage Books. David Abram is an American philosopher, cultural ecologist, and performance artist, best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues. https://wildethics.org
‘Presence’ is a leading British Haiku journal. www.haikupresence.org
Schumacher College is an internationally renowned learning community in Devon, offering ecology-centred masters programmes and short courses. https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk