Listening to the birds: recorded on a balmy evening at the end of May.
These six lines of Mr Blackbird’s poem seem to evidence what linguists call prosody: variations in pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm.
Many believe that birdsong may be one of the precursors of human language.
In April 2020, during lockdown, I made a photographic record of the growth patterns of 20 oak saplings, just as they began to burst into leaf. All the saplings were grown from acorns planted in October 2015, and had reached between approximately 50 cms and 200 cms in height.
I photographed each one from directly overhead, using a mask of white card to block out unwanted details, and isolate each sapling’s spatial form. I aimed to capture a range of radiating growth structures.
The process allowed me to document some of the infinite permutations of branch patterns produced as young trees grow, reach up and out, positioning their leaves to capture the light. I saw how each individual sapling’s sensate nature, caused them to respond to their situation/environment, and grow completely unique structures.
Reduced to two-dimensions, the sapling growth patterns appeared poised, animate, energised and characterful. I began to see their geometry as an expressive, nonverbal ‘script’.
Later, I began a process of translation by marking connections and geometries that I perceived, using simple digital technique. I responded intuitively, without preconception, to the saplings’ communicative aesthetic, allowing the branching structures to direct the compositions.
The extent of the death toll attributed to Covid 19 is being determined by various methods of registering and collecting data. On this day as I write, it’s been calculated that there have been between 50,000 and 65,000 Covid related deaths in the UK alone. Global deaths to date, are thought to be in excess of 1,300,000.
What do the numbers and data visualisation charts communicated to us via the media, actually mean? How do we begin to fully understand their impact, to make sense of tragedy. How will we gauge what changes or adaptions will be needed to our individual and communal ways of life? How do we make sense of the pandemic?
Since the outset, I’ve experienced the clinical rationality of statistics as a limiting, narrow measure of human experience. Data disregards the reality of emotions: fear, grief, anger, helplessness. Seen only in stark isolation, and by non-scientists, the numbers can form a block, a cul-de-sac, rather than a bridge to understanding. So to aid my own progress in this, I felt the need for an expressive act – a personal ceremony with potential to acknowledge communal tragedy. So many loved ones suddenly gone.
A view of Avenham Park and the river Ribble.
Through my work as an art and design practitioner, teacher and researcher, I am aware of art and craft practice as methods not just of making artworks or objects, for sale or reproduction, but as contemplative, embodied practices in their own right. In particular, I see their potential as viable methods of communing with the ‘more-than-human world’. David Abram* coined this phrase in his book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ to contend with the false dichotomy he sees between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and to describe the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural world.
Anthropological studies of indigenous peoples have used the term ‘animism’ to encompass beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, in plants, rocks, landscape features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, shadows – and trees. By taking up this focus, I’ve been able to learn of the growing understanding throughout the world that ecological renewal and sustainability depend upon spiritual awareness and an attitude of respect and responsibility towards the Earth.
During a visit to Japan, I saw ancient temples and their beautiful garden settings. These introduced me to aspects of Japanese belief systems and relationships with nature. I learnt of the art of impermanence, ‘wabi sabi’, a concept from Japanese aesthetics, which sees beauty in imperfection and simplicity and accepts the transient nature of all things. Other sources of inspiration have been the works of UK artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long.
My tools: leaf rake and circle measure.
Over the last 6 years or so, I’ve been exploring methods that can stimulate and channel authentic sensory experiences, to rediscover a symbiotic relationship with animate nature. For myself, as well as for others.
In late October and early November 2020, I worked alone (seperately to the Winckley Square collaborative activity, see earlier post), to make a series of ‘ephemeral memorials’ throughout the public, open spaces of Preston’s city centre parks.
In these simple interventions (see images of 4 examples below), I measured and marked out a two metre diameter circle in the centre of the densest area of leaf fall, under particularly beautiful trees. Then I removed the fallen leaves that made up the random pattern of overlapping layers, from within each circle.
The two metre diameter was my reference to the ‘safe’ space afforded to a person, by Covid science.
After the physical exertion of making, I sat a while each time, tuning in to the mournful autumnal atmosphere, making connections to my surroundings. I felt the river flowing through, the lyrical shifts of light and shadow, listened to the voices of birds, saw their flight across clouds, and the dark soil of molehills. I sensed the metaphorical connections to pathways winding away into the distance, heard the wind rustling through the branches of trees, smelt the earthy scent of fallen leaves. And I saw people passing by, living their lives.
Two Metres, site 2, Winckley Square
For me, this simple action was more than only symbolic. It brought the shock and sense of absence that follow loss, out into the open. By using the actions of my body and its senses, I made these emotions visible, tangible and material.
Later, I returned to the sites to see how the shapes had covered over, or blurred. On some days the circles even re-appeared slightly, because the wind had moved the top layer of most recently fallen leaves. Intriguingly, the circles were often more visible from a distance: the subtle disruption to the texture of leaf fall, more detectable from afar.
I found it insightful to witness this lessening of the presence of absence. I felt I’d made a connection to the Earth’s living system, to the more-than-human-world, through my simple ceremony. This seemed a more meaningful way to pay my respects in response to loss, than the bewildering reductionism of statistics. Although it might appear a contradiction to link remembrance with the ephemeral, I found the paradox echoed the fleeting qualities of memory, and the role played by the passage of time in the interplay between remembering and forgetting. Of acceptance and healing.
Two Metres, site 4, Avenham Park
And in my mind, the circles will always be there, marked by each beautiful tree.
The constant intrusion of science, politics, quantitative data and the news media into every aspect of contemporary life, is inevitably unsatisfying and serves to highlight the extent of our disconnection from the natural world and how much this puts at risk. Covid is showing us that for all our technology, we humans understand so little and remain as vulnerable as ever.
But there are ways derived from art and craft practice, through which to find balance, recover, to accept change and continue to grow,
There is still much to learn from the Earth’s know-how, and many ways to do so.
Ceremony for the spirit
*See more about David Abram and others, at the Alliance for Wild Ethics here
I also used the memorial making process to remember and celebrate the lives of my parents, who survived many difficult times and experiences, with resilience and optimism.
Circling the Square
Outdoor Artschool has been celebrating the changing season, in the heart of the city in Winckley Square Gardens, Preston, Oct 19th – Nov 1st, 2020
Contributors: Glennis Hulme, Claire Norcross, Lisa Brown and Fiona Candy
As the sunlight grows weaker, shadows lengthen and leaves turn to shades of red and gold and fall, we know winter is fast approaching. The clocks change, darkness extends and the days and nights turn cold. Now is a good time to look back over the past year, to reflect and plan new futures, as the circle of life continues to turn.
‘Squaring the circle’ is a familiar idiom often used to describe an impossible task. As a play on words, flipping it to ‘circling the square’ feels more optimistic, as well as relevant to our Winckley location, in these topsy-turvy times.
Outdoor Artschool contributors have been working with the circle to express themes of presence, personal space, community and protection. Plus, on a more universal scale, the revolutions of the Earth around the sun, the rhythms of the seasons, wholeness and the infinite, are conveyed via the circle’s powerful symbolism. In circling the square, the circle can be interpreted to represent the universe, and the square is the Earth.
Responding to our surroundings through craft and direct, physical activity, can open up ways of understanding life that are ancient and powerfully emotive: far older than medical science, statistical data or politics. By working with colour, form, line and texture, we intended to access and draw attention to nature’s wondrous paintbox; to tap into sensations of mood and atmosphere, of shifting light and shade, as well as the grounding, soothing affect of being outdoors, in this case in the centre of the city.
Through our making we wanted to get closer to nature, to learn from the Earth’s living system, by crafting what it has made ready to hand.
Then release it to time…
Winckley Square is a one of the finest examples of a Georgian square in the North West of England. It’s located in the city of Preston, with a small and beautiful public park at its centre: Winckley Square Gardens. (Below: a video view, from the south east corner, panning to south west.)
Our interventions have been dependent on the leaf fall/ twigs/seeds of the various trees; on sensing connections in the landscaping and pattern of pathways, the presence of other people and of course, the weather. Opportunities have been different every time, with lots to learn and try out. Our aim was to be fully present in the moment, to be free to just respond: interpret the influences in a spontaneous, unplanned way, by making what feels right.
Big influences on our circle making were the works of UK artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Another influence came from Zen, where ensō is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. So, at this difficult time in our collective history, when the Covid pandemic is challenging normality and undermining everyday confidence, there seemed to me to be many reasons why the circle would be a powerful symbol to work with.
We didn’t judge the things we made in terms of ‘Art’ and we weren’t at all precious about the results. We simply relished the contemplative process, and the sense of embodied equilibrium, new ideas and possibilities we gained, through doing it.
Our activities had a performative aspect too: people working in the buildings around the Square and passers-by were able to observe us at work and what we made, perhaps try out techniques themselves later. We wanted to show that we were being creative, enjoying ourselves safely, in spite of the Covid pandemic. The mood of the season influenced us all and visitors to the Gardens were curious and asked questions. We had some great conversations for example: about “acting goat” and the links between creativity and having fun; we chatted gently together around themes of health, illness, loss, happiness, continuity, and about our relationships with light …
Video: Claire made this lyrical, ‘stitched’ intervention at the circumference of the willow tree. 25.10.20.
This very short video sequence of windblown, fallen ash leaves (above) connects to the ash tree’s particular significance to our times, not just because of its ancient connections with magic and medicine, but because it is thought to be currently under threat from Chalara die back disease, in UK. Die back is caused by a fungus named Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (H. fraxineus), which is of eastern Asian origin.
This autumn has been so gloriously spectacular, the leaf colours unusually intense, as though the trees have been signaling: “look at us – remember why we are here!”
Outdoor Art School is intended for anyone interested in nature and/or the arts. No prior arts’ experience is required and activities are designed to be stimulating and insightful, to encourage curiosity and the acquisition of new skills and ideas. Simple, creative exercises enable participants to learn together outdoors, by reconnecting to nature’s know-how.
NOTE: Because of Covid19 and social distancing measures we did not advertise this activity as we might have done in different circumstances. It’s been intentionally small, flexible and informal. We see it as a pilot project, to grow new opportunities for arts and nature engagement in Preston’s parks and open spaces, and to keep the momentum going during the pandemic, for the future.
Keep in touch with Outdoor Artschool activities via this blog and at Instagram: @outdoor_artschool and @instinct_thrives
Special thanks to Tony Lewis, Park Warden and to Fiona Porter, Preston Parks Manager for their support and to all the Parks staff, for their effort and constant inspiration.
Winds blowing in from the southwest, end ofJune 2020. A short video with an animistic theme.
A short film about a museum gallery project I undertook in Northampton. An area of the UK with a long tradition of shoe making.
It’s an audio detective story – a series of haptic, acoustic encounters designed to stimulate imagination and heighten awareness of the body in motion.
Listen, see what you hear…
For technical reasons unknown, I can’t seem to embed the full stereo version – it’s at Vimeo here
And you can see more projects from my archive here