ESRC Festival of Social Science, 10th November 2018
I met Dr Joanie Willett at a ‘Melting Pot’ event at Exeter University’s Environmental Sustainability Institute at Penryn Campus in Falmouth, Cornwall. The purpose of the event was to provide opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaborations. Dr Willett was fascinated by aspects of the geology behind earth pigments, particularly of those connected with mining waste, and of the potential for public engagement that my workshops provided. I was intrigued by Dr Willett’s studies around Parish Councils and how to promote public engagement in the political process, reminding me of conversations I had in Australia around the ecological basis of Aboriginal tribal councils.
After a further meeting, held as a walk along the ‘Tin Coast’ in West Penwith between Pendeen and Botallack, we decided to organize a public workshop exploring these principles. Funding was obtained from the Economic and Social Research Council and Exeter University as part of the Festival of Social Science, a national event making Social research accessible to the general public.
where the personal becomes POLITICAL: the idea
Our personal experiences, knowledge and perceptions of the places we live are all valid contributory factors to the cultural truth of a place. In Western democracies the starting point for policy decisions are ideally based in such cultural truths. Parish councils, of which there are some 10,000 in the UK, are the gathering places for the diverse cultural perception of our local communities. Beyond this such cultural perceptions are strongly influenced, if not determined, by the geographical identity, the physical ecology and resources, of a place.
painting a parish future offers a creative space to cultivate and share personal experience, knowledge and future visions of the places that we live.
It is hoped that the creation of such a space within a working Parish may encourage a spirit of commonality and cooperation within groups that may too easily become competitive and detached from the truth of a regions imminent ecology, in respect of all its inhabitants.
painting a parish futureis a collaborative research project led by politics lecturer Dr Joanie Willett and ecological artist Peter Ward in association with Exeter University’s Environmental Sustainability Institute. The project will utilize a shared knowledge of local political process and creative environmental engagement.
An initial enquiry will gather local people, parish councilors and experts to walk and share experiences and knowledge in a reflective process in the Parish of St Just in west Cornwall. The daylong event will culminate in a communal painting using gathered materials to express a shared vision of the future. The painting and further documentation of the event will be exhibited at the ESI at Penryn Campus and at a local venue in St Just Parish.
painting a parish futurewill run alongside ongoing national and local initiatives ‘Going Wild’ with Cornwall Council and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the St Just and Pendeen Neighbourhood Development Plan.
The project will provide a model for further actions in local communities across the UK, international research with Indigenous communities in Australia and the basis for an academic paper in relation to such activities, as well as a real focus for community action in the place it is performed.
The event was advertised locally in the Parish ‘Outreach’ magazine, through flyers in local shops and on notice boards and through personal invitation to relevant experts. It was hoped that we would have a group of about 20 people for the event. In practice, we were fortunate that a County Councilor expressed her interest from an early stage, inviting a simple presentation at a Town Council meeting in St Just to further promote the event. On the day, 2 people who had signed up did not show leaving us with a group of 7, including Dr Willett and myself. While the response was a little disappointing, and indeed raised a very important discussion regarding public engagement, the small number did allow for more focused time and intimate space for discussion and sharing and better engagement with the process.
Part of my personal motivation for the event was to begin to learn more about the place that I live. Both my own background research about the area and the process of organizing the event provided interesting insights into the present social dynamic and historical roots of the parish. Another part was to establish contacts within the community and with relevant organizations for future projects.
Participants included an artist, a politics lecturer, an environmental educator and project manager, a childminder, County Councilor, Town Councilor and a geologist, providing the basis for lively, diverse and informed discussion throughout the day with many thoughts for positive action being shared.
The morning walk took us through the village of Pendeen to the recently restored leat (a community project initiated by a member of the group), through the historic mining community of Lower Boscaswell, to the medieval ‘holy’ well and then through remains of Geevor Tin Mine and ancient field networks down to the coast, before heading back to the Parish Hall for lunch. Conversation within the group flowed easily between the whole group and individuals and covered topics from local planning policy, local history and geology, the influence of the environment on agriculture, national environmental and political attitudes, interspersed with a shared appreciation of the natural world, and in particular the local environment. Lunch was a homemade vegetable soup, made using exclusively local produce from the community farm, along with local cheese and bread and a splendid array of cake.
Pendeen Parish Hall, photo courtesy J Willett
The process of painting (interesting for my part for the lack of ‘artists’ in the group) took participants a little out of their comfort zones but allowed us to ground our thoughts in a meaningful and enjoyable way. The pigments themselves offered further insights into the local environment, as well as paint making. The painting itself was structured through an approximation of the evolutionary process, starting with imagery around geology, then land use and flora and fauna and lastly human intervention. Despite the initial discomfort, participants recognized the value of the process, at whatever level individuals felt able to contribute, and enjoyed the end result.
painting a parish future – Pendeen in St Just, photos courtesy J Willett and M Ward
conclusion and further action
Despite the somewhat disappointing public response to the event, it was agreed that it had been a useful and inspiring day with everyone feeling they would use what they had learnt in some way. Some said they ‘had never participated in anything like it before’ and that it had revealed a new way of working in the public sphere. I was personally encouraged by how everyone got involved with the process and in particular how the act of painting with local pigments was enjoyed and valued.
As a facilitator, whenever I approach an event such as this I will necessarily fill my mind with any relevant information I wish to share and a structure I aim to run the day through. In practice, especially when working with adults, it is essential that such plans are held merely as guidelines and that the process and dynamic of the group are allowed to express themselves for a satisfactory outcome to be achieved. Indeed, it is inherent to the process that the day is allowed to progress organically within any practical limitations, such as time, space, numbers and sustenance, to be true to itself. What is exciting about such a process is exactly those surprises or unknowns that arise, leading us to new ideas and future actions.
Through contacts made at the Town Council presentation, it is hoped that the painting and research will be exhibited at St Just Library, while also being shared with the Town Council and Local Neighbourhood Development Plan as an example of public engagement. Discussion has already begun regarding further collaboration with Dr Willett with the possibility of developing the event in other areas. Business and public groups in the area have also approached me to run similar workshops for upcoming events.
painting a parish future– Pendeen in St Just, communal painting, earth pigments on board © p ward 2018
Thank you to everyone who participated in the event, for the support and interest of the local community and especially to Joanie for her contributions and collaborative insights.
© P Ward 2018
THIS TOXIC(?) BEAUTY
The 7 colours shown here have been gathered close to historic mining sites in west Cornwall. Some are waste products from tin and copper mining and may contain toxic minerals such as arsenic and cadmium, ironically both used historically in paint and pigment production. Despite being found alongside public rights of way until sufficient mineral analysis has been made of the samples I am unable to share them with the public.
However, I am comfortable enough to start using them myself (with care). Inspired by the milling process used to extract tin I have started to mix the raw materials with water before filtering with a fine sieve. This minimizes the grinding process and hence the possible inhalation of dust. So far I have only used PVA glue as a binder but enjoyed the difference in colour, provenance and nature of the pigments compared to the North Devon pigments I am more familiar with. As such the imagery has started to take on its own character relevant to the materials, the geographical space and my personal experience of Penwith and west Cornwall. I am currently working with Geevor Tin Mine Museum to develop educational workshops using the pigments. The mine itself and attendant museum is utterly fascinating allowing me to better understand the differences between pigments from natural landforms and those extracted from deep underground. In due time I will be able to better share my findings but for the time being here are some of my first paintings made using the wonderful, beautiful but maybe a little toxic Cornish pigments.
As yet the paintings are relatively small (up to 60x60cm) but I look forward to taking some of these ideas to a larger scale and context. If you are interested in any of the work shown here or would like to support or contribute to any further research please get in touch.
With thanks to the people and places of west Cornwall. In particular, the staff of Geevor Tin Mine, Fiona, Natasha and of course Francesca and family for your inspiration and support.
© P Ward 2018
some things I have seen, done and made that have made me think, feel and smile over the last few months…
“Reading true literature [Nan Shepherd] reflected, ‘it’s as though you are standing experiencing and suddenly the work is there, bursting out of its own ripeness . . . life has exploded, sticky and rich and smelling oh so good. And . . . that makes the ordinary world magical – that reverberates/illuminates.’ ” taken from Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane.
drawing a line, coast to coast with skedge 13916 © eARTh 2016
with special thanks to francesca, noah, agnes, family and friends for your love, support and companionship 🙂
© p ward/eARTh 2016
water, air and earth
sticks and stones
and, somewhere, fire
as the year unfolds
to a new life
and you grow
and hold us rapt
in your emphatic personality
we deliberate upon Nature
and deafening response
there is red and black and grey and green
dirt to some
riches to others
what is left
we play together
The year began with family and friends in a rainswept County Clare, Ireland, my home for 10 years. Many of the places I wanted to revisit and share were beneath meters of water. Things, of course, had changed for better and worse but the spirit of the land still shone through.
Then more mountains and lakes, family and friends, as my brother’s path shifts to the Welsh borders, an area I have not visited before but will visit again. This time snow, ice, fog and sunshine accompanied my journey. Lake Vyrnwy reservoir submerged a Welsh village to supply England with water.
And at ‘home’ the winter lashes the coastline, reshaping and reforming. Ilfracombe was originally named after King Alfred and was gifted to two of his sons as a sheltered harbour on the western approaches to his kingdom. Before then an iron-age hill fort overlooked the natural harbour from, what is now, Hillsborough nature reserve. This part of the North Devon coast is formed predominantly from Devonian slates, sandstones and shales and boasts some of the highest sea cliffs in England. We have a new studio here that we hope will provide a base for our creative endeavours and space for others to enjoy.
In May, as part of the CCANW Soil Culture project, I led a walk and talk with the White Moose Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to celebrate North Devon’s relationship with its earth resources. “Let’s Walk and Talk Dirt!” involved local potters, Harry Juniper and Roger Cockram, geologists Chris Cornford and Andrew Green, and soil scientist David Hogan to present some different perspectives about our local resources. Participants really enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the events but were frustrated by the lack of time to explore the subject matter in more depth. We are now working towards a ‘summer school’ to further explore North Devon’s potteries, pigments, rocks and soils.
The Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton, East Devon invited me in May, to run painting with earth workshops to accompany their ongoing Soil Culture exhibitions. The first workshop introduced the ideas to a small group of partially sighted children from the WESC Foundation, providing a space for us to enjoy the more than visual experience of the process and materials. I was also excited to be exploring a new area of the country, encouraging me to find new pigments and learn about their geology and history. The second workshop, for artists, included an invigorating morning field trip to Jacob’s Ladder beach in Sidmouth to gather small quantities of the iron-rich red and green mudstones, and whatever else took our fancy, followed by an afternoon of furious experimentation grinding and binding a selection of pigments with a variety of mediums. It was great to meet some new faces in such a lively and friendly gallery.
Something that did surprise me was the presence of chalk in the landscape of East Devon. Having been raised in Portsmouth I am familiar with the chalk and flint of the South Downs and Isle of Wight but wasn’t aware of it so far west along the coast. The sedimentary Cretaceous beds at Beer, that I saw from Branscombe beach during a day of research, lie above Upper Greensand that then rests on the more familiar Mercian Triassic red mudstones of South Devon. Apparently there is an ‘unconformity’ here in that the interceding Jurassic layer is missing, the area being land during that era. The nodules of flint and chert present in the Chalk and Upper Greensand that make up the beaches are also apparent in the local architecture creating further similarities to the South Downs and other Chalk areas across Europe.
One such region, that I also feel an affinity with through my ancestry and boyhood cycling adventures, is the Wessex Downs. The ancient country of Wessex encompassed Hampshire, west to the Cornish borders, and Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Somerset. In more recent times its character and characters have formed the backdrop for the literary works of Thomas Hardy. I was recently contacted by a research fellow from Exeter University to collaborate in a project to explore the value to health and well being of arts-based environmental workshops. His previous research looked at the work of Thomas Hardy in relation to the Wessex landscape. We are now waiting to see if our initial funding application has been successful before embarking on a major AHRC project around a similar theme. It has been fascinating working with a complete stranger towards a shared goal.
Meanwhile, closer to home again we have been working with the local community towards re-landscaping an unsightly patch of ground behind the bus shelter in our village. It was good to be invited, to meet some more of our neighbours, to learn about the history of the village and to think how to we might alter such a space to celebrate the area. It was recently discovered that the area is owned (rather than it being public space) which has put the project back somewhat!?
And back in the studio I have been enjoying putting together some new work (see previous post) using old offcuts of wood, old pots of paint and some new pigments. After 9 months I finally feel like I am settling in, enjoying the space and making something new, as well as finding time for my other interests and beautiful family. With a new arrival imminent we’ll be working hard to keep it up…
© P Ward 2016
The Soil Culture project led by CCANW and RANE will be drawing to a close soon with its final exhibition at Peninsula Arts in Plymouth from 16th January to 19th March 2016[i]. The project as has been documented in a 120-page publication with essays by prominent soil scientists and soil artists, along with illustrated accounts of residencies and other activities enjoyed during the 3-years.
My involvement in the project began when I met CCANW director Clive Adams in 2009. I presented him with six small glass pots of ground earth pigments from North Devon. He suggested I meet soil artist Dr Daro Montag at Falmouth University who was just starting an MA Art & Environment Course, which I subsequently attended.
I was invited to join the Soil Culture project development team in 2011. My contribution has also involved workshops, exhibitions and some of the imagery used to promote and support it. I was recently asked to write a short essay for the publication and retake a series of photographs of ground and raw earth pigments to be used for the cover and chapter/section headings…
The publication is available from http://www.ccanw.co.uk/ at a price of £15 per copy.
© p ward 2016
[i] Peninsula Arts Gallery, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, PL4 8AA. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 11am-4pm