Yesterday I led my first Green Town Group session with Holne Chase Primary School at Howe Park Wood. Howe Park Wood is a pocket of ancient woodland, bordered on four sides by roads and houses. The woods are the site of my work with two of the four schools, together with Campbell Park.
With a forecast for heavy rain all day, my plan for the day changed shape several times. We wanted to be outside as much as possible, this residency is all about using art to engage with the outdoors, but at the same time we didn’t want this Year 1 class to be so cold and wet that we put them off.
Luckily there were enough gaps in the rain to be able to spend a good chunk of both morning and afternoon exploring the woodland and making artwork in response.
As at Campbell Park we drew on the in-depth knowledge of Ranger Nicky from The Parks Trust, whilst using art-making to notice and record. This time instead of making large-scale group maps the children were given sketchbooks, ink pads for printing, tape and envelopes for collecting and sticking, and pencils for drawing. In the end though it was the mud that was asking to be touched and listened to as we squelched and stomped, and printed with our hands and feet.
The flooded ditches, swampy paths and dripping trees added a wild edge to the woods that wasn’t there when I visited before. It’s a managed woodland with bark-chipped paths, a visitor centre/cafe and is a wonderful resource for the local community, but it felt right that the rain had taken back a little control over the environment for our visit. Children ran, paddled, splashed, jumped over temporary rapids and waterfalls and squeezed mud between their fingers and the page.
In the afternoon took some time indoors to dry off and asked the question ‘What Can Art Be?’ then looked at the work of artists who make their work outdoors, with the children choosing their favourite pieces to reflect on and to inspire their own work.
Finally, we returned to the woods, in the rain, to gather materials and assemble temporary artworks in groups until the coach came. I’ll be meeting with this class at the woods again in May, and in between the sketchbooks will return with the children to school to support their continuing investigations.
I wanted to keep the content of the session relatively simple, giving the Year 1 children a chance to find out what they were excited by, and a range of ways to sense, record and reflect on their experiences, both as individuals and a group.
After the group arrived, and we (myself, Bethany from MK Gallery and Alice our Project Assistant) had welcomed the school, and reminded them a little bit about why we were there and what we had discussed in my school visit, I handed over to Nicky, a park ranger with whom we were working for the morning.
We spent the morning outside, in a walk led by Nicky and punctuated by opportunities provided by me to stop, look, listen, feel, draw, make rubbings and collect.
Nicky gave the group useful contextual information about the site’s history and ecology, while I gave them a chance to connect with the here and now, and pay attention to what was asking to be noticed.
In the afternoon, back at the Cricket Pavilion, our base for the day, we invited six groups of children to each create a map of their experiences with the support of an adult. Long sheets of paper were taped to the floor and they were encouraged to incorporate the rubbings, drawings and objects that they had collected along the way. I provided pens and pencils for mark-making, glue and tape for sticking, coloured card, luggage tags and string.
It was an opportunity for the children to take their experiences from the morning and to explore how they connected, to express their feelings and memories through mark-making, textures and found objects, layering and combining one with another to tell the story of their journey through the park.
We will be meeting at the Park again in a couple of months for our second session together, to build on this initial exploration, and any follow-up work that takes place back at school.
Although 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.
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.
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).
Many 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
It’s not really a walking bundle as I’m home resting with some kind of bug, but as I’m interested in seeing the wild in the domestic, and particularly interested in making art in my kitchen (see Kitchen Sketchbook), I thought I’d give bundling from the materials I found around me a try.
Again its a female doll (I have some male dolls on their way to me via eBay), and her face has been coloured black. I didn’t choose a female doll deliberately, they were the first I came across, so for me in this work, gender isn’t a key factor. I also didn’t choose a black pen for her face with any thought to race.
As you can tell, I do feel a responsibility for how people interpret the fact that dolls of a particular gender or skin colour are used, even if that wasn’t a part of the work at the beginning. Elements of this work stem from being surrounded by my son’s toys, and in a similar way I feel a responsibility to my son to provide toys that reflect his own ethnicity, and which go beyond the usual stereotypical boys toys.
As I make the work, and source new (second hand) dolls, I discover more about what dolls are out there, and I start to explore why. There are so many gender issues in particular tied up with dolls, whether I’ll explore that in more depth I’m not sure. My key interest is in the doll as a body and a toy. Maybe it will be addressed more directly in upcoming doll-bundling work with artist and friend Kathy Mead-Skerritt.
Just as when I walked on Salisbury Plain, I picked up and used the clay that was available, so too in my kitchen I picked up and used the one permanent pen that was available, plus a plastic milk bottle, different kinds of tape and packaging. I used the pen to cover the doll’s facial features as I wanted to take away the sickly sweet Barbie look, and to bring it back to the shape and materials.
I wanted to see what an apparently quite bleak and open place in late Autumn could provide for a new bundle. Its easy to wander through a wood or garden and gather a range of ‘stuff’.
She is tied and wrapped with brown steps and coarse grasses, wet chalk and clay rubbed into her plastic skin and twine bindings, taken from the puddles in the tank and Landrover ruts.
I’m going to look on eBay in a minute for some second hand male dolls. I haven’t found any in charity shops. I want to see how differently it feels to use a body that’s more like my own, and to balance things out a bit in terms of gender. The reason I’ve been using female ones is that they are a lot easier to come by second-hand.
When I’m working with children I’m doing as little as possible for them, offering support and guidance whilst ensuring that the making and ownership is largely theirs. With my boy, he generally isn’t interested in the making, the priority is getting the right protective gear/mask/weapon whilst the role play is still ‘live’, and I am a handy props creator, his technician in the creative process.
To me these look a little like simple folk art. Sometimes they are just what he wants and they get played with for months with regular repairs (like the cardboard tube sword). Other pieces of wearable artwork (armour for a knight, Superman chest-plate etc) have been lost or worn into oblivion, whilst on other occasions it takes me ‘too long’ and by the time its ready he’s already moved onto something else (e.g. the Fireman Sam breathing apparatus made from gaffer tape and a sausage tray).
These are some of the things we have made and which are still surviving…
My work has always revolved around the bodily experience of place, including place-based learning and creative play. I’m interested in connection beyond the binary, in blurring boundaries. Since our son came to live with us, toys have featured in my adult life like never before, and have started creeping into my work too.
In my walking bundles I aim to include only those materials that I notice as I walk, but in this new piece and others to come I wanted to combine toys and found materials, the man-made and the organic, plastic and earth.
If I took my son’s toys I’d be in big trouble, so I have started collecting second hand ones from local charity shops, to take with me on my travels and adapt.
For this first experiment I spent time in my garden, and used a lightly sanded Barbie doll. I chose the doll as it again makes that body-environment link, and connects back the my Body Project/Blank Twins work with artists Chris Seeley and Kathy Mead-Skerrit.
I spent some time walking with children, staff and parents from Downton Community Preschool, exploring the local area and inviting the children to show us what they had noticed.
We looked at the colours and shapes of leaves, at the creatures tucked away inside hollow Cow Parsley stems, and discussed who lived in the houses that we passed.
Back at the preschool I created two areas with the staff, one laid with long rolls of paper to echo the track that we had followed, with various natural objects and mark-making resources, the other with tables, chairs, clay on boards, and all the finds that the children had selected to bring back.
My camera seems to be slowly dying at the moment so I don’t have as many photos as usual, but it was a lovely session and a privilege to share in the children’s creative investigations of their home patch, their bodies and imaginations.
I’ve written on here before how Autumn, often seen as a time of decay, or of retreat, can at the same time present a new beginning, as terms start and new projects begin. Today is my first day back at work and I’m feeling thankful to be spending it working at home, catching up on all things website and blog related.
A week ago I took a walk while my son was at school, and took with me imagery from similar walks with him, printed onto old letters and bills. As he starts school and I return to work, we pull away from each other and then return, weaving home life with school or work based challenges, and drawing from new sources of sustenance and inspiration.
This work starts to explore that interweaving, against the backdrop of our home patch.