NEWPORT COMMUNITY INFANT ACADEMY ARTSWEEK 2015 – Soil Culture*
I was recently invited to develop and lead environmental art activities for Newport Community School in Barnstaple, North Devon. The activities offered opportunities for staff and pupils to explore and celebrate our relationships with Nature, in particular soil and local earth pigments. The school has 500 pupils between 3 and 12 years old. A range of activities, including mud painting, making soil balls, bundles of sticks and leaf sorting, were presented to the teaching staff and then left for them to interpret. The communal artworks created were included in an exhibition for children and parents at the end of the week and a 6x1m earth pigment painting made by the whole school was left as legacy of the week’s hard work.
For me to develop such a large-scale event for so many was extremely daunting – how teachers do it day-in-day-out is amazing! It was incredible to see a painting evolve at the hands of 500 children, with only the most arbitrary guidelines, to become a vibrant expression of their experience and of North Devon itself. All participatory group paintings I have facilitated have somehow turned out well, but I have never tried it with 500 children before, and it is certainly a way of working I hope to pursue further in the future. The other simple activities, and reflection upon them, seemed to give children and staff space to try something new and also a space to learn through a different, more hands-on approach. The whole event has given me a great deal of satisfaction and confidence to tackle such events again in the future.
The exhibition was well attended by some most bemused but interested parents looking for their individual child’s work only to find it absorbed into the totality. The school, to their credit, thoroughly got behind both the educational and experiential value of art activities and also the contemporary conceptual nature of the final exhibition. Many thanks to Georgie Treanor for helping organize ARTSWEEK and to the children, teachers and staff for their patient and enthusiastic participation, and to Francesca for her support and help preparing the canvas.
soil . making paint . local history . geology . local resources . environment . culture
INTRODUCTION to TEACHERS PACK
“Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible” Paul Klee
Art is one way we learn about the world. The learning and creative processes are based on both sensory experience and reflection. The process and expression of such experience is what we know as Art. From the beginning of human history we have learnt about the world through experience of the materials that are available in our immediate surroundings. From this experience, and through trial and error, we have developed the technologies to enable us to survive. As communications and transport have become more versatile and far reaching we have often lost our knowledge and understanding of the local environment and the materials it provides.
In North Devon, as elsewhere, our culture and identity as a region has been based on the natural resources available. For many centuries the chief industries were mining, for iron and copper, and sheep farming wool on the steep hills and valleys. The soils have promoted a rich and varied agriculture from dairy and beef cattle to crops. Bideford and Barnstaple both had large potteries supplied by clay pits in Fremington and Peters Marland. The potteries have unfortunately closed now but the white ball clay pits at Peters Marland and Meeth still quarry and export clay for use in brick- and paper-making. And, of course, Bideford has a black earth pigment named after it that was mined until 1969. Bideford Black was used in the boat industry, to paint tanks in WW2 and by Max Factor to make mascara.
By learning about the materials in our local environment and appreciating their importance to our lives it is hoped that we may also learn to respect them a little more.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself” Zen Proverb
- THE SOUND OF CHILDREN LISTENING – we have quietly listened to the wind and trees and birds and the sounds of Newport. We have felt the sun and wind and rain on our faces and the earth beneath our feet.
- CIRCLES MADE BY WALKING – we have been walking in big circles on the playing field, making big muddy drawings with our feet.
- 500 children – communal painting on canvas by all members of the school using North Devon Earth Pigments. We have learnt about where paint comes from, how the rocks it is made from are formed, where they can be found in North Devon and how to make paint before adding our mark to the big painting.
- Soil Balls – we have been investigating soil brought in by teachers from around North Devon to see what it is made of and what creatures live in it and then forming it into balls with our hands.
- LEAF COLLAGES – we have been collecting leaves and sorting them to see how many different plants, shapes and colours there are.
- CHARCOAL DRAWINGS – we have been looking very closely at leaves and drawing them using charcoal.
- BUNDLES OF STICKS – we have been gathering sticks from the playing field and tying them together. This simple activity has led to discussions about fuel, building materials and ways of tying things.
- DIRTY HANDS – we have been getting our hands ‘dirty’, covering them and some paper with mud.
- CORDYLINE STRUCTURES – we have been using cordyline leaves to explore natural fibres and making all sorts of things from them.
- WORD WALL – we have been writing down words that the ARTSWEEK activities have inspired.
- SLIDE SHOW – here are some pictures of us exploring, creating and enjoying the activities this ARTSWEEK.
© p ward 2015
To see more of the work visit http://www.newportprimary.devon.sch.uk/artsweek-19th-23rd-january-2015/
* Soil Culture is a project by the Centre for Contemporary Arts & the Natural World to raise awareness about soil through the arts (www.ccanw.co.uk)
Today I let a Peacock butterfly out of the window of my house. It is mid December but the weather is mild.
We have a number of butterflies – mainly Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) and Peacock (Aglais io) – who appear to hibernate in our house. When the weather is mild they wake up. I am never sure whether to let them out or not. Would staying in the house mean further hibernation or slow starvation as they flap helplessly against the windowpane? Letting them out into the changing weather can only mean certain death as their life force is drained by the cold and lack of nutrients from their natural food sources.
From childhood I was taught that a butterfly’s life lasts but one day, as it emerges from its chrysalis with shimmering wings, drinking briefly from its chosen flowery nectar, choosing a mate and exhausting itself in procreative fervour. This seems not so or at least not entirely accurate. I have read that the Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) reaches British shores after a migratory flight from northern Africa and Spain, while obviously the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell often spend a winter, at least, in dry dark sheltered roof spaces and cupboards before embarking on life once more.
As this butterfly flew out into the dim blustery day I wonder on how much more misinformation I have been fed during my formative years, and if this brief liberation, caused by my own puzzled intervention, was truly for the best…
© P Ward 2014
in preparation for our first event at eARTh – a meeting of COMBEbusiness group to share ideas around how the arts are and can contribute to sustainable economic development in the ilfracombe, woolacombe and combe martin area of north devon on the 5th november[i] – we have been getting busy making new work, refamiliarizing ourselves with painting and enjoying the possibilities of the space to share and exhibit work (as well as juggling babysitting of our 7 month old baby). we have published a new website about the space and our work together – http://www.earthnorthdevon.wix.com/arts.
here is some of the work in progress…
my own work has principally been inspired by reusing and repainting some over and into some old canvases, allowing me to nudge gently back into the painting process. while this has raised a few old nagging questions about the purpose and validity of painting in the 21st century, and left me to ponder where to keep them all while they’re waiting to find homes, I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in a practice that I have been working with for quite a long time. it has been pleasantly surprising how quickly one can confidently slip back into the ‘zone’ of aesthetic contemplation and creativity. after a most productive and revealing break from painting onto canvas (or board), while exploring the more conceptual dimensions of my work on the MA art & environment at falmouth university, I have come to see and consciously place my work within a more global and historical context. this has similarly given me more confidence in my approach and hopefully a more realistic and effective position.
i was recently contacted by an artist in residence at the florence paintmakers arts centre in egremont, cumbria[ii], enquiring about the development of learning programmes about earth pigments. the arts centre and enterprise has been based on the site of an old haematite pigment mine. the pigment was originally used extensively in more industrial applications – iron oxide paint – but is now being developed as a range of artists colours along with a selection of other earth colours from the area. as a result of our exchange I was sent a very finely ground sample of ‘egremont red’ which I have used as a background in the above painting. when mixed simply with water and pva it initially has a rich warmth that when dries gives a soft metallic sheen – very satisfying and quite unlike any iron-based pigments I have used from devon. many thanks to lorna and jenni in egremont – I look forward to seeing what you make of north devon’s pigmentsand to visiting your project some time in the future.
eARTh’s mission statement…
ART, as an interdisciplinary and interactive process of investigation, is essential and intrinsic to our understanding of the world we inhabit both for the enrichment of our own experience and the development of sensitive and responsible relationships within it.
eARTh aims to provide a space for such investigation in the outstanding and unique environment of north devon utilizing contmporary artistic skills and experience, developed itself over many years through such investigation.
alongside their own evolving work as environmental artists peter ward and francesca owen are asking how the arts may be utilised to stimulate ecological awareness and influence the policies that are shaping the world. they are more than happy to share this work with any organisation or party committed to such research.
but first and foremost eARTh hopes to celebrate the wonder and beauty that is this world…
we are now planning our next event – an open studio for a week during december to share our latest work with a broader audience – watch this space. many thanks and lots of love to francesca[iii] for her determination to get the studio up and running, her patience and beauty with noah’s constant demands and to noah for his patience with his arty parents 🙂
© p ward 2014
At a second attempt, a motley crew of eight interested and involved parties mustered opposite the Burton Art Gallery in Bideford for a day of exploration into the blacker than black, the dirty sticky stuff, the pigment pride of North Devon[i]. To lead the party were myself, an artist by most accounts who has previously dabbled creatively most deeply into this unctuous substance, and Dr Chris Cornford, director of IGI Ltd[ii], who has conducted personal but extensive geological research into the pockets of vitrinite (coal measures) that punctuate the underworld between Greencliff on the coast and Umberleigh on the River Taw 12 miles inland.
Having chosen vehicles we headed to ‘the source’ at Greencliff to start the day. Dr Cornford settled into his rhythm, spinning geological tales, tales over hundreds of millions of years, tales of light and colour and structure and form, of crushing heat and weight, of forests and mountains before our imagination. For all we knew he could have been making it all up but science has a funny way of drawing us in – of describing our observations and imaginations with such doubtlessness that our questions seem trivial. Just let the waters flow over with the words and I’ll see you on the other side. The story wrapped up for another day. Given to permutations and evolutions in its dreams before it is unearthed on another.
Thus we enjoyed the magnificence of the coast, the seam and its company for a while, taking our fair share as others had evidently done before us – mini mines punctuating the 70-degree cliff-face smudge, a puddle of paint appearing at its base, art and science happily wandering hand in hand, not adulterated pseudo-science or wishy-washy art-fangled nonsense, but ART & SCIENCE, making no excuses for their individual natures but co-existing and complementing, enriching experience in their own ways for whoever may have an ear, or an eye or a sense at all.
So after a most generous lunch and perusal of past work in the Burton Art Gallery & Museum, the afternoon was spent in the inspiring presence and environment of the Sandy Brown Museum in Appledore, a starting point for my own earthy adventure. And armed with the morning’s preamble and a few buckets of black thick gritty carboniferous clay, we set to work in our own ways, exploring our own relationships, surprising our presumptuous preconceptions, being frustrated by a lack of colour and a dull ache for more. This is BLACK. I am BLACK! Do with me what you will and I will do as much as I can muster. I will sink in deeply, drawing light from this most pleasant day until we learn to play in joy and recognition of our own natures. Light and shadow arm in arm…
Many thanks to all those who participated; to Sandy[iii] for sharing her space, to Chris for giving of his time, knowledge and enthusiasm and to beautiful Nature for sharing her abundance so generously.
© P Ward 2014
Falmouth University, 2-5 July 2014
The first major event of the Soil Culture[i] programme organized by CCANW[ii] and RANE[iii] at Falmouth University took place over the last week. The event brought together talks, workshops, social gatherings and exhibitions of artwork and posters from local and international artists, soil scientists and agriculturalists to celebrate and investigate how the arts may contribute to shifts in attitudes and understanding of a matter we take very much for granted – soil.
My own contribution included the forum logo, a small display of soil inspired work with Francesca Owen in the Woodlane Campus Library, a poster commissioned and printed for the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in South Korea by Alex Toland[iv], a Painting with Earth workshop and a number of art works in a pop-up exhibition on site. It was good to meet, hear and see the rich and varied work of those of like minds and inspirations, and especially to hear the no-nonsense common sense of Graham Harvey, author of one of my favourite books, The Carbon Fields[v]…
“Why, she wondered, were Indian peasants being pushed into debt and penury by a system of agriculture that was supposed to bring prosperity to rural communities? And why did monocultures, which were intrinsically of low productivity, come to be accepted as highly productive though they required huge inputs of chemicals and fossil fuels, and then produced less food than traditional, diverse farming systems?” from The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey, p.100
“Organic milk, for example, is a blend of the good and not so good. Organic standards require that at least 60 per cent of the ratio must be in the form of grass and forage. In terms of its nutrient content, milk produced to this minimum standard won’t compare in quality with milk of cows getting 80 per cent of their feed in the form of grazed pasture, organic or not. And, as on conventional farms, milk produced to higher standards will be diluted with milk produced to the bare minimum standard.” from The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey, p.136
It is always exciting how participation in such events can provide the space to create new work and to make and renew contacts. Let’s hope that the forum will lead to increased future awareness, projects and collaborations towards our need for changes in attitude and policy around issues of our care and relationship with soil, a living substance upon which our and all life depends. Also thank you to Daro Montag for all his hard work organizing and raising funds[vi] for this event.
© P Ward 2014
[v]THE CARBON FIELDS – GRAHAM HARVEY (Bridgewater UK; GRASSROOTS; 2008)
[vi] Funding for the Forum was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
for me, the making and appreciation of objects and acts within an environment describes the intrinsic quality and value of art. it is a process that may celebrate and affirm the miracle and wonder that is existence, our dexterity to observe, interact, learn and communicate (with) such awe and innate ability. as we continue to learn, to place our aptitudes and ourselves in relation to this world, its abundance, so our artwork may evolve and reflect any newly found position. art by its very nature observes and reflects how things act by bringing them together in relation to others[i].
“Even though it is the same quarter acre, the farmer must grow his crops differently each year in accordance with variations in weather, insect population, the conditions of the soil, and many other natural factors. Nature is everywhere in perpetual motion; conditions are never exactly the same in two years.
Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable success in the farmer’s field is a big mistake.” from the One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka[ii]
“The fact of the matter is that whatever we do, the situation gets worse. The more elaborate the countermeasures, the more complicated the problems become.” from the One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka[iii]
more recently, my past obsession with making (and often attempting to tamper with the way things have become) has been replaced by a simple sense of wonder at being in and of this world, of the dynamic physicality of everyday acts of living wherever and whenever i am. an attitude fostered greatly by my experience of the creative process, both artistic and otherwise. i express myself in this world and enjoy the interactions with other, in this sense of being alive with no other purpose than just that – to be. my work has changed from a process in my mind, expressed predominantly in isolation through the traditional media of art, to the more physical, bodily and experiential process of exchange called life.
(but how i’m going to pay the bills is another matter!?)
P Ward 2014
[i] …whereas science may be seen to divide and dissect in its efforts to understand.
[ii] Masanobu Fukuoka,One-Straw Revolution (New York; New York Review Books; 1978)
[iii] Masanobu Fukuoka,One-Straw Revolution (New York; New York Review Books; 1978)
Doniford, West Somerset 291113
This day, I was sent two disturbing articles relating to the research I am presently doing about soil. One, posted by the Soil Association on Facebook from the Ecologist magazine, stated how the majority of meat sold and consumed in the UK is now fed with Genetically Modified products, which has led to sickness in the animals and in turn is passing such illness onto humans who (choose to) eat the products[i]. The other, published in the Telegraph was sent by a fellow artist, and expressed the realization by American soil scientists that the biological life and energy in a great deal of US soil may have been irreversibly degraded by continued intensive farming methods similar to those employed in the UK[ii]. The articles unfortunately did not surprise or shock me, but both left me feeling, yet again, utterly helpless and frustrated in the face of such odds. What, as an artist or otherwise, can I do to change or shift human attitudes and behaviour? Why do big companies, governments and the majority of the population continue to adopt, support and employ technologies that have been proven without doubt to be for the good of no one, let alone the few? Just where is the sense in a world motivated solely by power over, by profit and material gain? Is it small wonder that many of us chose to bury our heads in the sand, or to numb our senses to the facts? Just how can we expect to cope not only with the constant barrage of distressing information but also the even more distressing reality?
More recently, with the immanent prospect of my second child, such information leaves me utterly terrified at what the future may hold. While I may personally accept, with much difficulty, the debilitating truth of this present ecocidal reality in which we live, I still have not fully realized the power or belief within myself to confront or even challenge it. Over the last few years my previous optimism and enthusiasm has been sorely tested by the constant exposure through social media and the internet to the cumulative implications of our self-imposed abuse. Can my own chosen vocation as an artist really affect the world, as I once believed, beyond simple and crude awareness-raising? Can it truly reach people who really don’t want to hear? And even if it can, how can I financially sustain my work as an artist? In the current political climate many aspects of the cultural sector, including education, seem to have been deemed such a threat to the status quo that artists are finding it harder and harder to find support for our work beyond the stultifying and questionable confines of academia or, if we are ‘lucky’, the morally spurious world of commerce. How in such a time can we find the strength to pick up our pens, our brushes or our cameras, to stretch and flex our aesthetic and intuitive muscles, to squeeze more paint from the tube, so to speak? What drives us on and inspires us to arrange, compose and juxtapose; to experiment, investigate and perform our plethora of creative maneuvers and how can we not respond to the situation in which we find ourselves wholly immersed?
My own interest in art and my resulting practice as an artist was born out of a desire and an aptitude to observe, manipulate and record the processes and materials of the world – in other words to enjoy and share the process of making things. Alongside this I have had a lifelong fascination and sense of wonder with the other creatures and life forms that share this world. At some point these interests (and every other aspect of my life) merged to create the art practice that I share today. At no point did I consciously decide to make my work political. By Nature it simply is. To make good and affective art, to interact fully and with energy in the world I must allow myself to become utterly absorbed in the processes of creativity and the materials and subject matter that fascinate me. To do this, artists must be fully supported in their role. I find it difficult to tailor my work in response to ecological crisis or to any economic or intellectual climate. My tendency, based most likely in mental and physical self-preservation, is to turn away from suffering and trauma and to make things that bring myself and hopefully others joy – to celebrate the privilege of being alive. This is not to say that I am not willing to accept the facts or implications of the present ecological crisis, nor that I cannot deal with the sorrow and grieving that such suffering entails. It is more that to celebrate existence, to engage with it in all its gory detail – its birth, its life, its destruction and decomposition, its ignorance, helplessness and despair, its beauty and magnificence – is my way of responding. This may not be obvious or directly related to the more empirical evidence that science relies upon as proof; it is more simply an act of defiance! My way of saying my energy will not be subdued! I am not ready to roll over and die just yet…
tribute to ana medieta 1, doniford, west somerset (p ward + f owen 2013)[iii]
Art by its very nature is transformative. Our actions as artists do not need to be directed at any particular issue or thing, we must simply do! And the more we allow ourselves to do, the more we allow ourselves and are allowed to become emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually in the work that gives us joy then the more power and resonance that work may hold and convey. This is true of all things.
So everyday I continue to act in this world. To walk and observe, to interact with and explore the wonder that it continues to express through its very existence, and to share my own sense of wonder with it all. And this day – a dull grey day in late November – I visited a what-may-seem rather unimpressive stretch of coast along the Bristol Channel in West Somerset. I am presently reflecting upon how my work with earth pigments may engage audiences with contemporary issues relating to soil as part of the CCANW/RANE Soil Culture project[iv]. While there is an obvious relationship between what lies beneath the soil, the rocks and geological structures and their mineral content, and hence its ability to support flora and fauna specific to a particular geomorphological region and then whatever agri-industrial-cultural manifestation that may become evident, how may creative and intellectual engagement with such materials raise awareness about contemporary soil issues? So to follow my own lead, I must simply do and invite others to do the same. Stop the overly analytical head and partake in those things that give joy, that bring peace, and share with others. Maybe that way we will find a way…
© P Ward 2013