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