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Home Lad Home: Making with Head, Heart and Hands

by James on November 7th, 2013

ron mud & grassI wrote in a previous post – Home Lad Home Commission – about my commission from St Barbe Museum to make work for an upcoming exhibition. At that stage I was researching statistics, finding out about the facts and the figures and starting to get a sense of the enormous part and massive price that horses played and paid within the First World War.

Since then I’ve been starting to explore the subject of human – horse relationships in general, and looking at the art and artefacts that exist from WW1, real objects made, carried and sent back to loved ones from soldiers at the front.

At the heart of the Home Lad Home story, the story of each horse sent to war, is heartbreak, brutal bloody violence and loss of human and equine life on an unimaginable scale. What I’ve realised through my research is that I want to concentrate on and learn about what horses can bring to our lives, and to make work which celebrates, values and commemorates those horses that died alongside servicemen and women in the First World War.

I want to get a sense of the experiences of individual horses and soldiers, rather than just see them as statistics, and have been looking at and buying photographs and postcards of horses and individual soldiers taken at that time. I can never know who they are, their names or personal histories, but I can allow these objects to speak and inform my work, together with the Trench Art made by soldiers from discarded shell casings, wood and bone, and the silk embroidered cards bought in France and Belgium to send home.

ebay photos

I’ve also been spending some time with horses and people who know them, particularly Liz Morrison of Kingsettle. I met with Liz at Kingsettle recently and spent time with her horses, in particular a horse called Ron. Never having spent any real time with horses, despite a lifelong love of animals and passionate interest in natural history, I was completely in Liz’s hands.

Liz has a wealth of experience in training horses and riders, of using NLP and applying her experience within horses and organisations in a kind of equine-assisted coaching. It was fascinating, and made complete sense to me, to hear from Liz about how horses and people can connect when people allow their pre-conceptions to fall away; how a horse’s judgement-free consciousness (and this is my interpretation) can enable interaction with people that causes them to reflect on their own behaviour, values and prejudices.


Liz described to me how a client may bring a particular situation at work, to a field containing horses, and assign roles from this situation to each horse, playing out different scenarios with them. My understanding of this was that you can bring what you like to a horse in terms of your own preconceptions and constructed ways of thinking and behaving, but a horse will tell it like it is, through their resulting behaviour. We also talked about how horses may sense that a woman is pregnant before she knows it herself. Essentially when connecting with horses we connect through our shared animality, masks and fronts don’t wash.

When I spent time alone with Ron in his stable, I was surprised that I didn’t feel anxious about standing within a confined space with such a large animal, his muscular bulk pressing out from within his shiny coat, his rhythmic chewing and grinding of teeth on hay like the pumping heartbeat. I stood, crouched down, stroked, felt, smelt and talked with him, listened to him.

big ron

Since meeting Ron, I have printed off some of my photos of him and taken them for a walk. I’m keen to explore the relationship of the home landscape, the farms and fields from where the horses were taken, and the shell ravaged landscape of the Front. As I walked with the printed photos in the fields around my own village, I stitched on hay, pieces of tree that had blown off in the storm, and binding twine caught on a barbed-wire fence. I dunked them in muddy puddles and smeared/scratched them with mud and stones. Its important to me that I keep this work connected to the land.

ron in puddle

I’m piecing together what it means to be a horse, and what it means to be a person connected with and working with horses. I can’t know what its like to be in a front-line trench in the middle of a muddy, bloody war, so I draw from poetry, photographs, artwork and stories, and bring some of the individual interpretations of the feelings of horses and humans at war to a subject that can often be overwhelming in scale.

The next thing for me is to start to bring this knowledge gained with my head and my heart, and to draw it together with my hands, through making. I’ve ordered some horse hair from a violin bow manufacturer, have been experimenting with hay and mud. I have my eye (and nose) on using leather fragments and army uniform material, and am particularly inspired and touched by the precious, finely detailed, sweetheart pincushions made by recuperating soldiers. As usual, as things progress I’ll update you here.

Photo: Imperial War Museum

Photo: Imperial War Museum

For more information on my mentoring of the students from Priestlands School in Lymington who are also making artwork as part of the Home Lad Home project, see the various posts from myself, the students themselves, museum learning and outreach coordinators, and exhibition curators on The Home Lad Home blog.

Ron on fence



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