workshop study and evaluation – a response

What do you understand by the term ‘workshop’ and do you think that this practice has become more relevant in the last few years?

 A question by Sarah Gatter (MA 20th Century Art & Design, UCF) 29511

 beaford arts ‘painting with the earth’ workshop (pward 2011)

Of course, actual experience, not the limited abstractions of science, matters most in the conduct of our lives. It is our entire experience, including our cultural heritage, that links us to the world in which we live, not just the artificially limited aspects of experience that constitute an experiment or a scientific observation. If we are not to live double lives, split between an ‘objective’, impersonal, mechanistic reality and the ‘subjective’ world of personal experience, we need to find a way of bridging these two realms. (from ‘The Rebirth of Nature – The Greening of Science and God’ by Rupert Sheldrake)

The motivation behind my own creative practice and work(shops) is firmly rooted in a desire to experientially animate and transform our perception of nature, and to affirm and celebrate the innate instinctive symbiotic and resourcefully creative relationship that we all have with that natural world. Added to these qualities, inherent to all creative practice, is the immanent global environmental crisis brought about by a perceived disconnection in our behaviour from the natural cycles of universal evolution and ecology, enforced through an attitude of dominance, violence and exploitation. Such attitudes have been systematically created and reinforced by the Cartesian revolution in Science, Religion and Art that has detached our existential experience from those harmonious cycles, and placed us intellectually as a race beyond the realms of responsibility toward ourselves, each other and the more-than-human world of which we are essentially an integral part.

This creative position therefore dictates and informs the choices towards the ways and means by which I approach all areas of my practice – for me I am primarily a human being and secondly an artist, although the boundaries between each within the contemporary concepts of art and ecology are becoming increasingly blurred. As the question infers the relevance and appropriateness of the ‘workshop’ as an art-form in itself is becoming increasingly prevalent as a response to the social and ecological environment we are presently experiencing and creating – this in consequence to the movement within contemporary art away from the social, psychological and political constraints of the gallery and its attendant attitudes and preconceptions, which wholly engender its effective disempowerment. It has become increasingly difficult over the last 50 years for artists to ignore the call of our conscience and deny the potential power for transformation, education and empowerment that socially engaged art practice may offer. Whether such practice is simply a redressing or re-appropriation of traditional and indigenous personal development techniques or a genuinely altruistic and instinctive response to a mutating socially destructive world-view, or just a means by which we may maintain a financially viable creative practice within the fashionably shifting tides of postmodern capitalist society, is a matter for academic debate, but its prevalence and recognition as art/creative practice cannot be denied.

Perception of the inner substance of things can only be acquired through practice. (J.Beuys)

As you are aware, my own interests lie deeply with our relationship to the natural world and the affirmation and celebration of its holistically animate nature, and hence my own practice has evolved towards the use of locally sourced organic materials and collaboration with other disciplines which may further elucidate such relationships and implied responsibility. The actions and processes that I adopt hopefully encourage and celebrate a deepening of our connection to the more-than-human world and a reassessment of our innate human/animal faculties to perceive the world of which we are a part. The materials and actions used are therefore more a vehicle for my intent as such, rather than a formal end in themselves, despite the knowledge-based dimension of their study. My own discontent and realization of the ineffectiveness of object-based art as a medium for spiritual and political audience empowerment and communication, has led me to adopt a more participatory, performative and process-led dimension to my practice while reaffirming the importance of both experiential and energetic qualities to be present in all its manifestations. Through collaborative projects with science practitioners and discussions with other arts educators I have come to appreciate both the differences and parallels between approaches and the value of open-ended, knowledge-based, artist-led and skill-based pedagogical actions, and to understand the validity and importance of interweaving pedagogical diversity and the ability to spontaneously react to situation and place – that is to have a broad skill and knowledge base appropriate to the area of study, both physically (geographically) and intellectually.

A pre-requisite for an artwork that manifests a counter-consciousness is that the separation which existed between the artist and audience is closed, that they become mutually engaged, to the point where the audience become the rationale in both the making and reception of the work. (Stephen Willats, Society through Art (c.1970))

I personally continue to question the quantity and nature of guidance (or interference) the facilitator should make within the experiential learning process that my workshops set in motion – maybe this should not be prescribed but dictated by individual circumstance, again reinforcing the breadth of adaptability and skill needed for effective facilitation. On the other hand, for me a ‘workshop’ is an opportunity to share and express aspects of my personal practice, both experiential and knowledge-based, that I feel have deepened and transformed my own sense of humanity and animate ecology, and through which I might further develop that practice. The liberal motivation of non-determinate facilitation, or ‘responsible participation’ as it might now be known, sometimes leaves me pondering my role at all except maybe for a permission giver or limit-setter, whereby if people enroll to participate in a workshop concerning earth pigments, for example, they do not end up learning car mechanics or accountancy (despite the relative usefulness of both alternatives!?)! Indeed it does often seem that I am merely saying to people “Yes, you may touch that rock, pick it up and draw with it or make it into paint!”, which to me hardly warrants my fee!? However, to the participant the act is itself a revelation and one that may rejuvenate or utterly transform their experience of their immediate environment through an act of deep healing. To engage in a tactile sense with naturally occurring substances connects us to an aspect of our being which maybe reminds us of our resilience and resourcefulness as a race, of our creative intelligence and our aptitude to survive. It elucidates the deep energetic resonance of nature and the vast universe of which we are an integral part.


Essentially, a workshop is an opportunity to provide participants with ‘moments of creative departure.’ Just as art objects hopefully engage and stimulate people toward inspired intellectual contemplation, so the workshop potentially takes participants a step further toward inspired action through the element of tactile engagement. A simplicity and open-endedness of activity allows participants a greater scope to utilize and explore our own creative capabilities and aptitudes as we build a communicative relationship with the materials and processes suggested. By involving participants in gentle and affirmative ritually engaging activity we may also promote a deeper connection to nature and the creative process that I believe to be both deeply healing and holistically restorative. For me the ‘workshop’ is a natural progression and solution to the aspirations of communication, engagement, activation, education and embodiment within my environmental art practice as a response to both the ecological crisis we are facing and the evolution of art as a meaningful and creative entity within society. To forward such an affective role for art, to re-determine its essential power within society, we must first be willing to challenge our society’s preconceptions of it – the ‘workshop’, through its holistic and communal evocation of the creative principle, has the potential to present such a challenge.

Useful contacts, links and bibliography

  • Natalia Eernstmann – RANE Phd student (UCF) who is currently asking…“How does/can art contribute to the development of sustainability literacy among citizens, which enables them to explore, design and bring forth sustainable futures?”…through art-based collaborative learning toward sustainability. (see
  • THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF ART – Suzi Gablik (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991)
  • LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS saving our children from nature-deficit disorder – Richard Louv (London; Atlantic Books; 2005)
  • WHAT IS ART? Conversation with Joseph Beuys, Edited with Essays by Volker Harlan (Forest Row; Clairview 2004)
  • CONVERSATION PIECES: Community and communication in modern art – GRANT H KESTER (University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2004)
 painting with the earth workshop, fremington quay (pward 2009)


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