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Making Meaning In the Outdoors

by James on April 7th, 2011

I’ve been thinking about some of the projects I’ve been working on recently, which have become closely connected, weaving in and out of each other, sparking some fresh new thoughts and ideas within my practice.

In particular my work with student teachers from Bath Spa University at Bath Botanic Gardens, and with Reception age children in the garden at St Saviours Infants, both for 5x5x5=creativity.

Within each project I’ve been supporting groups and individuals to explore a place, and to use a range of materials to draw out those elements that are meaningful for them, by developing objects or images. They are each then supported to recall their experiences and to share them with others. In this way the process is a creative dialogue between artist, teacher, student, and the physical, ecological and cultural context of that place.

‘Projects created in collaboration with… communities tend to be characterised by a more reciprocal process of dialogue and mutual education, with the artist learning from the community… Active listening and intersubjective vulnerability play a more central role in these projects, as the artist does not always occupy a position of pedagogical or creative mastery.’

Grant H Kester – Conversation Pieces

I’ve talked about my work with the children quite a lot on here already, but I’ve only recently started to appreciate the significance for my own research interests as an artist and consultant. I’m fascinated by the way that the children have been making sense of the spaces by exploring, recording, dividing and defining them, making signs and trails to guide others and to make claim to specific parts. In other words, they have been exploring the garden with their bodies and imaginations, and making meaning through making artwork.

This has clear parallels with my work with heritage and environmental organisations, developing methods of interpretation that offer visitors to a particular site or reserve an opportunity to explore and reflect on that place, in a way that makes room for them and their own interests. Also with my individual work, creating two and three dimensional pieces that feed off of my experiences of certain environments.

I’ve never been keen on interpretation that is closed in its approach, which effectively says ‘this is what’s here, this is how old it is, this is what it does’ or ‘there are six rabbits in the room, find them and tick them off of the list’.

In the same way as my work in education aims to encourage a participant-led, or a least participant-centred way of working rather than a top-down didactic approach, my work in heritage and environmental interpretation is focused on how we can encourage others to ask questions, identify their own areas of interest, and give them the tools to explore those further.

Obviously no one’s perfect, and my practice is an ongoing investigation into the relationship of art, learning and interpretation (See my earlier post – Heritage & Environmental Interpretation: The Role of the Artist)

At the Botanical Gardens my brief was to share the ethos of 5x5x5=creativity with this group of PGCE students, and to offer them a similar experience, giving them a creative learning experience of their own, and hopefully a greater insight into the value of that for the children they’ll be working with.

‘Young children’s flexibility of thought and ideas seems to lead us towards something that our education system may not yet be prepared for. Learning is subjective, complex and cannot be mandated and needs us to reinterpret our role becoming ‘researchers in practice’ rather than all knowing teachers’

Andrea Sully – Researching Children Researching the World: 5x5x5=creativity

It’s not an easy balance as it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and there is an element of anxiety for those people not used to being asked to ‘be creative’, as well as for the person supporting them to find a way through it (i.e. me). It takes time to settle into a place – to familiarise yourself with your surroundings and to start to allow yourself to step away from the planning for a while and be playful.

I think one of the most interesting things for me was what each of these students brought to their experience, and the methods that they chose to document it, informed to an extent by their life before teaching, their past jobs and careers. As we talked about their life experiences, their ideas and their concerns, I aimed to help them find ways to build on existing interests, and start to empathise with a child who may be asked to do the same.

One of the key threads was the use of the labels on the trees as starting points, showing their common and latin names and country of origin, and the dedications to loved ones on the benches. As with the children, this marking of features and places with names, with words that add meaning in layers of geography, botany and personal histories, grabbed imaginations and led to the development of creative writing, rubbings, collections and archives.

Effectively the adults were deconstructing and reconstructing the available interpretation or creating their own, in order to create further meaning for themselves – to lead their own learning. The children in turn have been creating their own signs and pathways, but also remodelling and ordering their space to explore their ideas in quite a full-bodied, physical way.

The experience of the PGCE project was a powerful one for some, as they relived past experiences of being led to doubt their own creativity, or being caused to believe that they ‘can’t draw’. It’s really interesting to be in a position to be able to offer such similar experiences to adults and children, and to see the same issues addressed, the importance of being given permission to lead your own learning and apply your creativity to an investigation of the world around you.

‘What if such states of communion, such dissolution of boundaries, were as valued as rational consciousness? What if, from the beginning of life, nature were perceived as teacher, guide, source, as important to us as our families? How differently would we live?’

Anita Burroughs – The Ecopsychology of Child Development

What is central to this work is the chance for each person to use their senses and innate creativity to set up a dialogue with the world around them, and in doing so to make sense of that world (to learn about it) in a way that is meaningful to them. But it is also a chance to learn about oneself, to understand how we each work, what we can offer the world, and to experience oneself as an integral part of that world, with benefit both for us as individuals and a society, and for the ecological systems on which we depend, and into which we are woven.

‘There is a reciprocity of the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in in turn…. For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.’

David Abram – The Spell of the Sensuous

It’s been a hectic but illuminating couple of months, and a calmer April is now starting to offer me the opportunity to pause and reflect and draw these different threads together. I’ve also set some time aside in the studio and the outdoors to explore and make for myself, before the cycle continues, and I start to plan some new projects…

  1. Such an inspiring post James, thanks for sharing it. It has sent off all sorts of ideas and innovations in my mind. The first and last photos are both really wonderful too.

    • admin permalink

      Thanks Lily, I’m really glad you found it inspiring, it takes a long time sometimes to be able identify exactly what is happening in a project, let alone get it down on ‘paper’ and be able to share it.

  2. This reminds me of being down the Eden Project last year and we did similar things as well, and learnt how to build a hut! I think it’s great for children to do this type of activity, instead of sitting at a computer all weekend! It’s Easter weekend now so after this comment I’m making sure we get back outside!

    • James permalink

      Thanks Dave, glad you enjoyed the post, and good to hear about the experiences you had at Eden too.

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