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
Falmouth Art Gallery 19 September – 21 November 2015,
and at Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University 16 January – 19 March 2016
Having been involved with the development of the Soil Culture project since 2011 it was a great honour to be invited to be part of its final exhibition alongside such highly respected names in the world of environmental art as herman de vries, Ana Mendieta, Richard Long, Mel Chin, Chris Drury, David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy, to name but a few. The show aims to express the way artists have worked with and about soil and ranges from simple soil rubbings and paintings, alongside sculptural installations and bioglyphs (a photographic process using microbes) to soil remediation projects and large-scale earth works. It is also the perfect culmination to the long and distinguished career of CCANW’s enthusiastic director Clive Adams.
My own contribution to the exhibition was an earth pigment painting completed in 2009, as well as installation of three glass top display cases showing different aspects of soil art including pigments, soil science and soil biology to help contextualize the other work in the exhibition. Helping install the exhibition reminded me of the attention to detail necessary that makes work of this caliber really shine – it took 3 of us over 6 hours to hang herman de vries’ grid of 16 soil rubbings and a team of 8 a week in all to hang the show, not to mention the years of preparation involved in bringing all the work together!!
© P Ward 2015
To accompany our[i] recent exhibition, painting together, at the White Moose Gallery[ii] in Barnstaple, we offered three workshops to explore the possibilities of creative collaboration through painting with local earth pigments. The first two workshops consisted of morning visits to prominent pigment sites followed by afternoons making paint and painting together on a shared canvas in the gallery. The third workshop was spent entirely in the gallery and looked closer at paint making techniques before using rocks and soils gathered in the previous outings to work with.
North Devon has an extremely rich geology – a combination of Devonian, Carboniferous, Perma-Triassic and more recent glacial deposits – that has shaped the way we have and still relate to the environment. Glacial clays have provided excellent material for local potteries. Copper, iron, sliver and tin were mined on Exmoor. Culm grasslands have offered fertile grazing for beef, dairy and other livestock. And different earth pigments have been extracted for both industrial and artistic applications. Bideford Black (and anthracite) was mined across the region until 1969, while raw umber was extracted from locations around Combe Martin[iii]. But wherever we go there is always an incredibly varied spectrum of earth colours to be used, representing and celebrating sense of place however we choose to express ourselves.
Sharing a surface to work on – in this case a previously prepared canvas – was found to be a fun, if sometimes frustrating, but rewarding and liberating experience. Sharing the whole experience – gathering pigments, making paint, sharing lunch and conversation, working on a communal surface and finally reflecting on the day – offered new ways of working beyond the more often isolated practice we enjoy. It’s not for all but can help shift our practice as artists into new areas, seeing how others work, observing our own methods, habits and expectations from a different perspective and raising interesting questions of ownership, value and public perception towards communal ways of working.
fremington quay eARTh walk 27615
A first impression of Fremington Quay may be that of a fairly non-descript quay on the bend of a muddy estuary. However, when we look a bit deeper a rich history is evident. It was once one of the largest ports in the southwest, exporting iron, wool and clay, amongst other local products, around the world and importing coal and lime from South Wales. Until recently the Quay was a major railway siding, replaced now by the Tarka Trail cycle path extending from Barnstaple to the Ball Clay quarries at Meeth and Peters Marland south of Torrington. Its history is excellently displayed in the newly refurbished museum at the equally excellent café in the old station building.
The Quay sits broadly on the meeting of the Devonian (450 million years ago) and Carboniferous (350 million years ago) geological eras, a weakness in strata marked by the River Taw’s meandering intersection. The underlying carboniferous shales, slates and mudstones of the Crackington Beds, extend west to Hartland Point, and are capped on the southern banks of the estuary by glacial deposits from the Flandrian Ice Age 40,000 years ago. All this creates ideal conditions for the amazing array of pigments to be found along the low cliffs beyond the large disused stone limekiln west of the quay. A few miles inland Fremington clay pits provided fine red clay until 2013, helping establish and maintain the local potteries in Barnstaple and Bideford. The clays were laid down as sediments in glacial lakes and riverbeds. The folds, cracks and twists in the sedimentary carboniferous rocks allow for oxidization of minerals, offering an exquisite range of colours and textures. Some have said that in other countries the site would be considered a national heritage site. For now however it is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
I first came across the site when walking my dog many years ago, noticing the fantastic colours and rocks. However, it wasn’t until I started seriously researching earth pigments that I actually touched the rocks and found the colour. I have since visited with eminent geologists form the Ussher Society and Devonshire Association to learn more about it – although to be honest I wonder if I have not become just more confused, each ‘expert’ offering a different theory of the areas formation, age and make-up.
For the painting together workshop the participants were bowled over by both the area’s history and geology and the amazing array of colours available. The painting we made is, I think evidence, of the lively experience and the richness of the site. It was subsequently hung in the Create Centre in Bristol as part of the Soil Culture exhibition.
Greencliff eARTh walk 15715
Bideford Black has become popular among artists recently, after numerous projects focusing on its local significance and artistic potential. This workshop was therefore, not surprisingly, well attended with 10 participants and thankfully the weather was glorious. While the Bideford Black deposits exposed at Greencliff were the main attraction, there is a good range of other usable pigments easily accessible from the attendant sandstones and clays – white, grey, orange and pink rocks and clays were gathered, along with other beach detritus, and taken back to be enjoyed in the afternoon painting session.
There being more people made for a quite chaotic and crowded painting together experience, with two smaller canvasses being provided to take a specific place in the White Moose show. Limitations and parameters are an important aspect of any creative process and these were discussed at length within the context of the day’s workshop. Participants ranged from experienced artists and students to designers and other interested parties. Again the results and insights gained were an exciting reflection on the site, its history ad geology, the materials and the day’s events.
painting together, White Moose 25715
After a brief overview of previous workshops and introduction to the materials, the final workshop experimented with various methods of paint making including using egg tempera, gum Arabic and PVA glue as binders. As a theme we focused on water and the sea. The rocks, clays and soils we were using were predominantly sedimentary, being laid down thousands and hundreds of millions of years ago under the ocean, by rivers, in lakes or by ice in glacial times. This is an idea that Francesca and myself are both interested to investigate and participants were happy to indulge us.
The group shared their own experiences and relationships with water, and more specifically the sea, and continued to use this as a focus for mark making, imagery and discussion throughout the process. We thought of immersion, of healing, of play, of floating and sinking, of mysterious and murky depths and of a power wild and untamable. We painted creatures and waves. We blew bubbles. We wallowed in mud. One of the challenges was to paint the sea without the colour blue! The paintings success for me lay in its obscurity, its vagueness and shifting focus. Were we beneath the sea or floating in primordial swamp, part of it or separate? Its hard to tell, but we had a great day making it.
Many thanks to Karen and Stella and to all those who took part in the workshops, to all who visited and enjoyed the exhibition, to all who contributed to the work and especially to the White Moose for hosting the exhibition. Unfortunately, we didn’t sell any work and had to cancel the ‘in conversation’ event through lack of interest but maybe that is a sign of the times or of a prevailing attitude in North Devon towards more contemporary/conceptual art forms but also an interesting reflection on people’s response to communal work. But whatever each time we entered the space we felt extremely proud and pleased with the show, with the work we had done together and the experience we had offered all who took part. We have thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to take the show further afield in due course.
But for now, all good things must come to an end…
© P Ward 2015
[iii] According to local sources “no paint box was complete without Berrynarbour umber.” The pigment was mined until the 1790s and ground with ochre from East Down before being sent to London to be included in Reeves paint boxes. I have taken umber from the River Umber that runs through Combe Martin but as yet I have not located the quarries where it was mined.
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)
a pleasant few days break in west somerset
after a week of hard work inside the studio.
despite a forecast of persistent heavy rain
and a recurrent mechanical inconvenience
there was sunshine
a chance to tidy the garden
to the sound of wind shaking the trees and familiar birdsong
inspiring peace of mind and a few life-art works
to celebrate the simplicity, beauty and creativity of nature
reflections of place and time and relationship
Waste and wastes implies unwanted or unusable materials. The term is often subjective (because waste to one person is not necessarily waste to another) and sometimes objectively inaccurate…[i]
In preparation for a local school’s artsweek I will be leading at the end of January I have been researching some very basic materials such as sticks and leaves and mud, and wheelbarrows… I have been invited, as an environmental artist, to develop a series of activities to engage 500 children between the ages of 4 and 12, and their teachers, with ideas of local ecology, its influence on the region’s historical development and our current relationship with it. 2015 being the UN International Year of Soils, and being one of my own specialisms, I have chosen the theme of SOIL. The activities will allow children and teachers to explore and hopefully learn something about the nature of soil and its importance in all our lives. The activities, designed to be starting points for creative journeys for teachers to explore with their classes, will also lead to an end of week environmental art exhibition including work made by every child in the school. The centrepiece will be a large earth pigment painting built up during the week by the children and finished by a group of ‘gifted and talented’ students who have shown a particular aptitude and interest in the arts. The painting will be left as a legacy for the school and acknowledgement of the hard work accomplished during the week. Hopefully the children and teachers will have an enjoyable and memorable time.
© p ward 2014
making a mole hill soil ball, baggy point 281114
i come upon
in my perambulations
the hill of a mole
a breathing space for some subterranean excavation
tunneling her way
through rich rooted firmament
and on meeting such a mound
it is my inclination
to reach down
from my lofty perspective
to bury my soft suburban hands
in this sifted sorted moist soil
and to draw out a handful
i form a ball
and place it thereabouts
acknowledgement of our underground companions
symbol of my connection
with what lies beneath my feet
above your head
that supports this miraculous life we do enjoy
© P Ward 2014
For further information please contact me…
© p ward 2104
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)
Many apologies for my recent lack of posts – I have been rather busy and somewhat otherwise engaged of late. Here are a few pictures and words to fill the gap. Many thanks for your continuing audience and support…
after the storms
after the spring has sprung
we may begin our gathering
of old and new
to make way for,
in preparation for
how different is this world
from one place to the next
from one day to another
holding hands with you…
with love to Francesca, Noah and all my family
P Ward 2014