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Painting with Beetroot – Promoting Art as an Everyday Practice

by James on February 24th, 2016

baby crawling through natural pigmentsAlthough I started back at work in October, attending events, getting on with admin etc, its really since the beginning of this year that I’ve been getting back ‘out there’ and running regular project sessions.

A constant thread which runs through my work is noticing what is special, beautiful, magical in the everyday, and how art making can become an everyday practice that enriches our lives and reconnects us, both within and to the rest of our world.

In February I worked again with First Steps Nursery in Salisbury on a Big Draw project postponed from October when my father died. The thinking behind this project was that I would offer children, staff and parents a chance to be playful with everyday materials from the home and garden, with a loose indoor/outdoor theme. We began the project with a staff and parents session, and I set up two areas within the nursery for everyone to interact with and change, through making marks. The first was a long table with white paper tablecloth, paper plates and cups, cotton wool buds, doilies, and various pigments from turmeric and coffee, to berries and beetroot. The second was an area on the floor where rolls of black and brown paper were laid out near to chalk, dried beans, compost, paint and flower pots, amongst other things.

White Table

First Steps table

Mark making with outdoor materials

arrangement of beans

When the time came for me to work with the children, ranging in age from a few months to four years, I offered similar materials, but liquidised the beetroot and spinach, creating ‘paints’ that could be eaten without ill effect, and pigments that could be smeared, scratched and walked through (see my Kitchen Sketchbook posts for early research into food and mark-making). We wanted to give everyone an opportunity to experiment, to be playful, and see what happens when you don’t need access to art materials, when wallpaper, food, and things found in the shed or garden are used to make marks and provide rich, sensory experiences.

feet and spinach

berries on a plate


grphite drawing on beetroot

wider view of spinach and beetroot

Since my time at First Steps I have begun a residency for Art and Health charity Artliftt, setting up and running weekly sessions for patients referred to me at a doctors surgery in Tidworth. In the group I aim to create an atmosphere that enables people to explore materials, memories and ideas without judgement (see the project’s Tumblr blog for artwork/updates).

objects and images for inspirationMany haven’t made artwork since school, or have put aside an interest in art earlier in their lives due to health issues, and now at a later stage in their lives require support to take what can feel like a risk in sharing their creative expressions with others. The contrast with the young children who have immediate access to their innate creative curiosity, and haven’t been taught to feel ashamed of their abilities or compare them unfavourably with others, is huge. In our Artlift group we take small, supportive steps, with regular reminders that there is no right or wrong, we are all creative, just differently so.

Another residency that I have recently begun is with the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. The Green Town Group residency (#GreenTownGrp on Facebook and Twitter), is an opportunity for me to use contemporary arts practice to enable others to learn about and within the green spaces of Milton Keynes. I am working with families during the school holidays, and four local schools during term time.

So far I have run one session, a family ‘Collaborate’ workshop at the gallery in the February Half Term holiday. In this ‘Map Your MK’ workshop I invited local people to create artwork from a wide choice of materials to remember a favourite time spent outdoors in the Milton Keynes area, and to link their artwork with the place that the event/experience took place on a map. As more people made work, conversations were sparked and memories shared amongst families, and connections made between them.

girl making a sunny memory

boy joining artwork to map

MK artwork and map

family looking at map

As the project develops I want to give local people real ownership of the project, to give them time, space and permission to notice what they notice about their local patch, to record, interpret and then share their learning with others. Each school will be resident at one of two sites – Howe Park Wood or Campbell Park. Each session I will meet them there and offer resources/opportunities that respond to the ideas they have shared previously.

Campbell Park

large scale den at Howe Park WoodThe two sites are pretty different to each other, and I’m excited to see what emerges and what relationship the work of the different schools and sites develop. Together we will use art as a way of noticing and celebrating the green spaces and wildlife of Milton Keynes, and help the MK Gallery to develop a new strand of work in to the future that does the same.

And alongside all this I continue to record and reflect on what is changing and showing itself to me on walks around my own local area. It is a constant cycle of sensing, recording, making and collaborating.

frozen bootprint

Time is a lot tighter since our little boy joined us, with school runs and holidays, and its been tough trying to find a new working pattern/rhythm within these new constraints, but I’m getting there now, and exploring opportunities to embed my practice within a stronger contextual framework… more to follow on that as I begin to seek out that home for my research.

early blossom

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