Memory and ceremony

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Don’t think

Yourself nobody

Ceremony for the spirit

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

The extent of the death toll attributed to Covid 19 is not yet clear and is being determined by various, differing methods of registering and collecting the data. But on this day as I write, it is 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

But what do the shockingly anonymous numbers and data visualisation charts communicated to us via the media, actually mean? How do we begin to fully understand their impact, to move towards sense-making and acceptance. How will we gauge what changes or adaptions will be needed to our individual and communal ways of life?

How can the emptiness of numbers assist us to do that?

Since the outset of the pandemic I have experienced the clinical rationality of statistics to be relentlessly reductive: a limiting, narrowed measure of human experience. The constant data collection and modeling disregards the reality of emotions: of fear, grief and loss; anger, helplessness. Seen only in stark isolation, the obsessive counting forms 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 ceremony to acknowledge grief for lives lost. So many loved ones suddenly gone. I wanted to try to assimilate, to make sense of what has happened in order to begin to assess its significance.

Leaves

‘Co(i)mmunity’.  May 2020

Through my work as a teacher and researcher, I have become increasingly 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. 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.

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 (in addition to the Winckley Square collaborative activity, see earlier post), to make a series of ‘ephemeral memorials’ in the open spaces of Preston’s city centre parks. In each of these simple interventions (see examples below), I measured and marked out a two metre diameter circle in the centre of the densest area of leaf fall, under a particularly beautiful tree. Then I removed the fallen leaves that made up the random pattern of overlapping layers, from within the circle. The two meter diameter was my reference to the ‘safe’ space afforded to a person, by Covid science.

2 metres 1 smallFor me, this simple action was more than just symbolic. It brought the shock and sense of absence that follow loss, out into the open, by making these emotions visible, tangible and material.

I sat a while each time, tuning in to the 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. And I saw people passing by, living their lives.

2 metres Winckley small

Beech tree two meters cleaned

2 metres 4 Avenham smallOver following days I returned to the sites during walks, to see how the shapes had covered over, or blurred. On some days the circles even re-appeared slightly, because the wind had moved some of 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.

IMG_5773I found it comforting and insightful to witness this lessening of the presence of absence. I felt I’d made a connection to the Earth’s living system, through my simple ceremony. This seemed a more meaningful way to pay my respects in response to loss, than having to contend with 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.

And in my mind, the circles will always be there, in the parks, marked by each beautiful tree.

I believe that the incessant intrusion of science, politics, quantitative data and the 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 to find balance, recover, to accept change and continue to grow. There is still so much to learn from the Earth’s know-how, and many ways to do so.

 

*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, Jack and Irene, who survived many difficult times and experiences, with resilience and optimism.

Outdoor Artschool, Autumn 2020

garland 2 small

More information about the Peel Monument here

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.

IMG_5905Responding 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.

Tree of life smallAbove/below: Tree of Life 20.10.20.

Tree of life 2In this subtle intervention we removed leaves from a two x metre diameter circle location in the Square and placed them in another – mixing leaf colours and tree species, to emphasise bio-diversity, vibrance and energy.

IMG_9827Work in progress captured from inside The Artistry House, 16 Winckley Square. (Thanks to Andy Walmsley for photograph) 23.10.20

IMG_5665Above:  Glennis circling in the Square. 21.10.20

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 …

IMG_6088Above: Lisa in the treetops, working fast to trace the ash tree’s moving shadow into the carpet of fallen leaves.  Evidencing the Earth’s rotation and creating a kind of time-lapse ‘photogram’ in the process.

shadow tree photo 1Photograph courtesy of Lisa Brown. 25.10.20

Video: Claire made this lyrical, ‘stitched’ intervention at the circumference of the willow tree. 25.10.20.

P1003558Photograph above: courtesy of Lisa Brown. 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.

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cropped-IMG_6610.jpgOne of a series of colour palettes developed during the project.

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

Thanks to @glennishulme, @clairenorcross, and @lisabrownphotos for their time and creative input.

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.

Circle 1

 

Making Presence Felt

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

Sweepings

Face 6

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 …

A way to loosen up, experiment with texture, explore gestural mark making and trial the possibilities of new paint or drawing techniques…

face 1

Face 2See more about this and other projects at AA2A here

Lockdown Discipline

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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 the impact of Covid 19.

C snake‘Corona, covid, contagion…’

Normal copy‘Normal’

I limited myself to a lockdown discipline of using found 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 feelings via the material qualities of random finds, I aimed to process shock, loss and sadness and to try to make some sense out of crisis.

Rv2 ‘R naught’

spike diamond‘Graph’

I have found this craft  based 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, vulnerability, frailty and the social impact of health and illness.

Working outdoors brought opportunities to observe and integrate evidence of time passing and to record the earthly ephemerality of weather, light and shadow in the photographs.

front line

 

care 3

 

Leaves‘Co(i)mmunity’

There is so much we don’t understand and have little control over.

I aimed that a contemplative practice, working with my hands, combining text (in this case) 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.

 

‘leaping greenly’

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

Run rabbit run3Our 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.

rabbit overhead with tailBackground:

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 garden of magical possibilities: channeling intuition.

IMG_2871The 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.

Candy - park view

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 paradise, 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.

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 12.06.33 pmScreenshot 2020-04-28 at 10.08.09 am

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.”

C.G. Jung.

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)

Candy_Creative Lancs comp

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.

 

Blog post written for Creative Lancashire series:  ‘Creatives in Residence #02′ 01.05.2020