Attending to Muse & Nature in Lockdown

Artist Hanien Conradie shares the impulse and process behind a Covid19-lockdown collaboration that brings together image and text; and how, in a period of human silence, her muse and the natural world seemed to work in similar ways.


2,170 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes + gallery


What does it take for distracted creatives to surrender to the cries of their muse’s desires? For some it is simple, they hear, they listen and they translate through making. But some of us academically trained artists scold the muse for her infantile ideas, her need to play and her seemingly inconsistent barrage of desires. And then there are some of us who ignore her voice year after year…

In my practice I work in locally found natural pigments and burnt plant material as part of an expression of climate change and my concern with loss as we head toward a Sixth Mass Extinction. The global ecological anguish and my personal heartache inform the colour palette of my work: earthy ochres and monochromatic black paintings. Black, as a colour of grieving in the West, is also a colour that represents infinite creative potential and has become more and more prominent in my films, my ritual work and my paintings.

Human silence & other voices

As the severe restrictions of the Covid19 lockdown isolated South Africans in their homes, I considered what artworks I could make from a small desk in my bedroom. For quite a few years I have been an active environmental voice, calling for a change in the way we relate to the natural world. Suddenly, because of the virus, the Earth gained respite from our feverish pursuit of money; our disregard for the effect we have on the rest of the natural world. At the same time, everyone became quiet and introspective and the sounds of the natural world became more apparent than before; and people noticed. It seemed to me that the Covid19 lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for humanity to reconsider the way we live. For the moment it felt like my quest for change was interceded by an outer manifestation that was so severe that it forced us to adjust our habits naturally.

Seeking the muse: Showing image 25 from Hanien Conradie's 40 DAYS series
40 DAYS – image 15
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

Within the human silence of the lockdown, the voice of my muse became more insistent than before. I realized that the workings of my muse and the natural world were similar somehow and that less noise and distraction increased the intensity of my creative compulsions. The very uncertain and unprecedented circumstances swept away my normal, considered academic approach to my practice. I felt like breaking free from all my self-imposed limitations, obligations and preconceptions about what my art should be. I imagined that this is how artists might feel during times of war: the focus shifts from making work for others to making work because this is what I do to keep myself sane. I thus found myself surrendering to whatever my muse wanted to make.

I had recently been gifted a set of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolours with 24 colours in a beautiful transportable black box. The new paint had my muse salivating and my hunger to make small brightly coloured paintings seemed vast and insatiable. Before the lockdown, I had planned to make on-site landscape portraits with them. This idea was in keeping with my practice of visiting and relating to living natural landscapes, but traveling outside of my home was prohibited during lockdown.

In addition to the delicious paints, my partner inherited an equally delectable collection of National Geographic magazines from his father. Whenever I saw their bright yellow spines I remembered the remarkable pictures hidden inside and my childlike delight as I pored over the magnificent mysteries of our existence through their pages. Since my muse was completely uninterested in working with the only ‘living’ places I had access to — the interior of my home or my small garden — I decided to page through the magazines. I started to mark any images that thrilled me without pondering their meaning too much. I have used this technique in the past to access my subconscious feelings. It turned out that many of the images I paused on featured lone human figures in extreme natural surroundings; environments where the human body cannot survive naturally.

Surrendering to the muse: postcards from lockdown

My burning desire remained to make miniature paintings in my brand new luminous watercolours. I happened to have a few books of Fabriano Postcard watercolour paper available. There was something about the postcard format that appealed to me: the hint of possible travel and its capacity to carry messages beyond my forced incarceration. In the past, I have always used the actual place or my own photographs as references to paint from. Making use of magazine images was a departure from my usual way and alarmed me somewhat. Sailing this close to mere illustration had my academic fine-artist-self protesting: ‘I have a reputation to think of’ and ‘the Gallery will expect more consistency from you’… I ignored this voice and continued to surrender to what delighted and motivated my muse.

Thus, I commenced a ‘vigil’ dedicated to creating in isolation and produced one painting a day over many weeks. The human silence in the first three weeks of lockdown was heavenly: no traffic, no airplanes, and a communal energy of quiet withdrawal in the air. The comforting solitude punctuated by the occasional ringtone or electronic alert mingled with birdsong, a frog choir and the roaring river close by. This symphony of sound was the perfect context for delicate and detailed painting. I felt happy and at peace as my muse took me on an imaginative journey to some of the most extraordinary and far-off places on Earth.

Showing image 18 from Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40DAYS – image 18
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

These places, in relation to the inner places I discovered during this practice, made me consider what best-selling author and former monk, Thomas Moore, says in his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore suggests that as human beings we know a considerable amount about our external world and that, in comparison, we know very little (maybe too little) about our internal worlds. The images from the National Geographic magazines were mostly about discovering and exploring our external world — not only the Earth and space but also the microcosm. In hindsight, I came to understand that the images I selected were not random at all. They resonated with and expressed the internal states I experienced during lockdown. I became conscious of the inherent wisdom of my muse and subconscious mind.

I have since come to an understanding that periods of isolation are essential for humans in order to cultivate inner stillness. It is important to make time to listen deeply to one’s inner reality and to know its terrain well. In my experience this practice also sensitizes us to be more receptive to the ‘voice’ of the natural world.

When lockdown was finally over, I walked down to the river and it was as if I saw an old and dear friend again after a long time of absence. This little ecosystem on my doorstep was so much more magnificent than ever before. And I delighted in noticing that so much had healed and grown since I had last visited: in the vegetation and birdlife but also within me. This enchanting encounter resulted in another postcard series of 21 portraits of the river, titled ‘My Sanctuary’ (2020), which I made for a South African friend living in the UK.

40 nights / 40 DAYS

Allowing my muse to direct my creative process opened up a more spacious attitude to the flow of life in general and, more concretely, helped me to manifest my desires; in this case 40 small bright coloured paintings. I am now able to ‘hear’ and act on subtle prompts from my creative spirit. One of these ‘nudges’ that came to me was a dissatisfaction with the blankness of the backs of the postcards; where greetings and messages should be. Without text the 40 postcards from lockdown did not seem complete.

I recalled fashion-predictor Li Edelkoort’s podcast about the future of fashion design after Covid19. It was a brilliant talk containing some strange capitalistic approaches to the crisis that I found intriguing. I sent this off to friends and one of them, John Higgins, responded with a voice poem.

Showing image 7 Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40 DAYS – image 7
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

As a writer and academic, John has long been interested in the question of montage — in film, visual media and in writing. As lockdown took hold, John says he found himself, “like many people in the first phase of Covid19 and the ensuing lockdown … overwhelmed by the tsunami of media coverage … [and] at the same time, reading it obsessively as some form of comfort or distraction.” As something of an active response to the increasingly eerie situation, he began to assemble a number of montage texts from the various books, podcasts, news bulletins and online media available within his lockdown environment.

From the talk by Edelkoort, John selected key sentences and put them together in a montage that revealed the underlying philosophical questions in a very humorous way. I sent him a picture of one of my postcard paintings in response. The combination of the text and the picture revealed a fascinating new meaning, which was a delight to both of us. And, unashamedly, I found my muse asking John to join the project.

Thus two parallel projects commenced, each serving as an antidote to calm our anxiety during uncertain times. John created 40 texts and I painted 40 images, independently from each other. Each project maintains a distinct identity when seen in isolation. In my process I selected images from National Geographic magazines, painted them, and — together as a montage — they revealed something about my inner world during this time. One could say that the 40 paintings are reliant on each other to create the meaning (or full picture) of my exploration. John in turn brought together, and set against each other, fragments of national and international news coverage and commentary with other varied readings from his day; also illuminating his questions and thoughts in relation to the pandemic. The 40 texts John crafted can be read separately but are more potent as one long text that leaves one with a sense of the strangeness of the lockdown experience.

Once we completed our separate projects we carefully paired the texts with the paintings. This process took some time, but eventually we settled on some intriguing combinations: some that were easy to understand, and others that created discomfort and ambiguity.

40DAYS-003 image © Hanien Conradie 2020
« of 24 »

Since the images were painted on blank postcards, we decided to incorporate the text as part of each piece. On the reverse of the cards (where address and message are normally written), I give thanks to my inspiration by referencing the National Geographic ‘address’ of the image: the article title, edition, page number and the photographer. In the ‘message’ section of the postcard I ‘performed’ John’s text by transcribing them by hand. The final artwork is thus double-sided and consists of 40 painted images each with its own message on the back.

Because of the double-sided nature of the final work, it was difficult to display the text and painting simultaneously. To solve this, John and I created a printed book titled 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. Here we present the text and image together at a glance. This is when what we describe as a ‘third work’ emerges through the viewer, who makes associations and assumptions based on the information gathered from both sources. One could say that the viewer becomes the creator in this ‘third work’.

Our short film presented here, is another attempt to bring this third meaning to life.

40 nights/40 DAYS is a playful project about serious things. We hope it will both delight and provide some solace in these extraordinary times.


Find out more

You can see a different selection from Hanien’s postcard collaboration with John in her contribution to our Quarantine Connection series from April-June 2020. Hanien Conradie: 40 nights / 40 DAYS appeared on Day 36. All 40 images that Hanien used for the series are displayed at her website, and the original paintings are available from the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. Contact ctgallery@everard.co.za for a portfolio.

Also available for purchase is the hardcover book, 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. This can be ordered from Hanien at hanienconradie@gmail.com.

You can listen to the Business of Fashion podcast (27/3/20) featuring futurist Li Edelkoort, which triggered Hanien’s collaboration with John Higgins. The sources from which John took the textual fragments included media coverage from radio, television, and online sources such as Daily Maverick, The Guardian, the Washington Post and the New York Times; Li Edelkoort’s Business of Fashion podcast; and (dusted off and taken down from the bookshelves) Sir Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (T. Noble: London 1845); Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1956); John Ruskin’s Modern Painters Volume 1 (Dent: London 1935); John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (George Allen: London 1906).

Hanien Conradie
Hanien Conradie
A fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape.
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On Green Verges

Writer Julian Bishop, living on the very edge of the metropolis, found a fascination with local verges during Covid-19 lockdown — and their previously unregarded nature took up residency in his imagination, leading him to a poetic challenge.


 1,210 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Odd, but lockdown opened up the world for me more than closing it down. I live on the very edge of London (High Barnet, actually) in what we joke is the last road in London. Two minutes’ drive away, houses give way to fields and woods before being reined in by the M25. A true green belt.

Being a busy London-sort, my direction of travel used to be either by car to another conurbation or by Tube into a metropolis. Oh, I’d walk to the gym to do a treadmill run and take the dog around the block. Lots of treadmills to choose from, in fact.

And then all the treadmills stopped. My regular journeys into London, aimless shopping trips, poetry readings, my regular contemporary poetry workshop in Enfield — all ground to a halt almost overnight.

The lack of a gym was easy to fix — I started to run (and walk the dog) through the mysterious green acres I’d dismissed as ‘not real countryside’. And gradually my forays extended deeper and deeper, further and further.

Life on the verges

I discovered a bluebell wood, a marvellous open space called charmingly Saffron Green, an ancient yew wood, a stream I never knew existed, which is a source of Dollis Brook… I could go on. And when I ran along the roads, I started to look down and around rather than straight ahead. I became obsessed with the verges — so many wildflowers and verge-dwellers giving their presence away with little quivers in the grass.

Showing verges at Saffron Green, Herts
Living verges – Saffron Green
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

And I began to notice what fellow ClimateCultures member Dave Hubble described in his recent blog as “the beauty in ugliness”, particularly on the unloved verges with their dramatic stands of hemlock, beefy cow parsleys and diverse grasses. My run takes me alongside a short stretch of the A1, which foamed with hemlock in June — how many motorists realised they were driving through a natural toxic cloud? And what I ran or walked past every day slowly took up residency in my head.

All this while, I’d been responding to lockdown through poetry. I decided to take up the challenge set by fellow poet Jacqueline Saphra (whose Poetry School classes I used to attend pre-covid) who decided to write a sonnet a day. I think I lasted about three days… and Jacqui went on to write a hundred (she’s been recording them and putting them up on Twitter).

The Sonnet Room

But I managed a couple of dozen — and noticed, as they developed, the predictable themes about missing loved ones and fear of the future gave way to these unremarkable and unloved stalwarts of the natural world. I took notes for what I called my ‘Sonnet Room’, which I decorated with all these wonderful so-called ‘weeds’. I dreamt of bittersweet, common hogweeds. The bluebell wood earned a sonnet of its own — as did Saffron Green, which was published as part of Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project.

Showing bluebell woods
Bluebell woods
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

Some of these new poems I’ve included in a submission for a pamphlet that I’m hoping to get illustrated and printed.

And other poems presented themselves beyond the sonnet form: a sunbathing grass snake spotted one day on the road verge, crawling over a pile of laughing-gas canisters; a hedgehog (sadly knocked over); the binbag-strewn ditches; a bramble next to a fly-tip, with the biggest blackberries I’ve ever seen…

So lockdown was (excuse the pun) an extremely fruitful time as a poet — and now I’m hooked. What will the bluebell wood look like in the dead of winter? Saffron Green frosted? The stream in flood? How will the verges look next year when the council cutters come back with a vengeance?

Saffron Green

I discovered it on a run – something
I’d never done before, exploring
the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone,
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just feet away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane
rush by, the tang of arcane
carbon in its wake, now obsolete
as packed tubes or nine to five
and I was astounded to be alive.

 

The Hunt

Such silent nights – roads breathless
as if they were infected. What we’d lost –
constant traffic, the drizzle of exhaust –
invisible and insidious as asbestos
or the virus itself. Then a blood-clabbering
sound emerged: a nightly chorus,
foxes hollering like a hunt in reverse –
as if hounded animals were fighting
back. A beastly untameable disease
stalked the streets while humans retreated
like quarry to a den, our vulnerabilities
sniffed out by a hungry meat-eater.
Lives on pause for weeks – it smacked
of wild animals getting their own back.

 

Rush Hour

One month in and a wild rush hour
quickened along the verges, nature
slamming down hard on the accelerator –
rigs of cow parsley towered
over kerbs in Galley Lane, exploding
into stars, rivers of bluebells lapped
against the tarmac on a surge of sap
fuelled by a million lost springs.
Dandelions had no time to turn clocks
into ashes when the lockdown stopped.
Air charged with birdsong soured
in the roar of a more familiar rush hour;
when strimmers returned to crew-cut
the verges, all our new rivers dried up.

Poems © Julian Bishop 2020


Find out more

Julian previously contributed The Hunt for Day 21 of our Quarantine Connection series, and some of his recent poems appear in a chapbook anthology, Poems for the Planet, alongside three other contributors: Maggie Butt, Sarah Doyle and Cheryl Moskowitz. Julian says: “The four of us launched it just a couple of weeks before lockdown at the Faversham Literary Festival in Kent, sharing a bill that included Jenny Eclair, Ken Livingstone and Everything But the Girl singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn. Our London launch was at Christ Church in Southgate which is registered as an Eco Church with A Rocha (an international network of environmental organisations with a Christian ethos).” Poems for the Planet is available from Maggie Butt’s website.

Julian mentioned Dave Hubble’s ClimateCultures post, On Re-emergence and the Avoidance of Clichés, where Dave comments: “I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful.”

Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project published Julian’s poem Saffron Green on their community website Herts Memories, in July 2020.

You can find Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets on Twitter, and more information on 100 days of sonnets: unlocking that maddening door at her website. See The Poetry School for their courses, including with Jacqueline.

UK charity Plantlife has published a Good Verge Guide – a different approach to managing our waysides and verges (2016) and a guide to plant life on our road verges, Road verges – Last refuge for some of our rarest wild flowers and plants (2017). They are currently running their Road Verge Campaign: “If all the UK’s road verges were managed according to our guidelines, there could be 400 billion more flowers, equivalent to an extra quarter of a million acres of meadow. Just imagine!”

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.
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Imagining Woodlands Under Lockdown

Artist Jo Dacombe shares an exercise she developed for students to respond creatively to the sensory nature of woods, and which she’s adapted for online engagement with nature during Covid19 lockdown as part of her Imagining Woodlands project.


1,760 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes + exercise


Each year, in May, I run a workshop for literature students at the University of York, as part of the Imagining Woodlands module, set up as a result of a collaboration between Dr Freya Sierhuis (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature) and me. My workshop would take place in a nearby woodland, at St Nick’s Nature Reserve, where we would tune in on the sensory nature of the woods and how we could respond creatively to this. This year, of course, the module fell under lockdown, and it was impossible to bring the students together, let alone take them for a walk in the woods.

My task, then, was to try to create something of the experience for students who were living far apart, many in other countries, and who were supposed to create something by working in groups, experiencing a woodland environment and a connection with nature. Quite a challenge.

Luckily, I had been working towards creating art installations related to woodland environments, so I already had quite a lot of material that I could use, including imagery made in various ways, video footage and audio recordings from woodland environments. I decided to create a series of online lectures, each followed by a creative task that would respond to some of my material which I could share online with the students.

Imagining woodlands - showing an ancient oak in Sherwood Forest
Imagining woodlands – ancient oak
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 jodacombe.blogspot.com

Entering nature one sense at a time

I am based in Leicester, which, at the time of writing, is still under an extended lockdown. I am sitting in my garden writing this, enjoying the peace of fewer cars and I can hear a bird chirping to the north. The sun warms my skin and a gentle breeze is moving a strand of hair across my cheek. I am distinctly aware of the importance of the senses when outdoors. I am also keenly aware of how much time we are spending indoors and, for us in Leicester, this continues longer than most. With the students, I knew that many of them would not be lucky enough to have a garden.

One of my lectures starts by considering Richard Long’s early work entitled A Line Made by Walking. A beautifully simple gesture he made in 1967, A Line Made by Walking is simply that — the desire line created by the act of walking up and down a meadow in Wiltshire in a straight line, the simple interaction between a human presence and the landscape. I talked with the students of the importance of recognising the mutual impacts of humans in an environment, how it affects us but also how we affect it. I was trying to use Long’s work to break us free from the idea of the natural environment as a place to visit, a pristine place kept for our entertainment and recreation, but rather as a place that we become a part of when we enter and which we respond to and it responds to us.

If you have ever sat in a woodland environment for a long period of time, on your own, without moving, eventually you become part of that environment. The fauna around you will, eventually, begin to resume the activity that it was taking part in before your arrival. I think we forget that what we see is not what is really there, because as soon as a human presence enters the woods, the woods respond and the fauna, and indeed the flora, react to our presence. Animals hide and birds begin their alarm calls. But, if you sit still for long enough, they get used to you and resume their everyday activity. I have often experienced this, as I will sit for long periods in one place in a woodland when I am trying to audio record.

A Line Made by Walking makes us aware of this. I prefer Richard Long’s earlier works, because they are light touch. He only uses what he finds in a landscape, and creates a statement using his own movements or actions, using no more than his own presence and bodily ability; there are no machinery or tools involved, just moving and rearranging. The works are temporary and, once the wind blows, begin to disappear.

We also looked at some of Long’s text pieces, such as One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984. Many of Long’s walks he describes by making lists of words, and arranging those words into shapes or writing them across a map. This method works well to really focus on the things around us that we notice when we take a walk; Long notes the sounds, effects of the wind, smells, textures and weather from his walks.

My group walks are like this, too. Often, I try to get us to focus on one sense at a time; I ask people to walk in silence, show them how to think through their feet or we sit blindfolded in the woods. For my online workshops, then, I tried to create a way of experiencing something of these senses one by one.

The following are instructions for one of the tasks that I set the students, to create a poetry work in response to my video. The task followed the talk on Long and his work One Hour, and we discussed how poetry could be presented visually on a page; how a circle of words has no beginning or end, and how other shapes across a page can change the order in which you read words, and how we could use words visually. Moving and rearranging. The students produced some beautiful works as a result of this workshop, and I reproduce the activity instructions here for you to try yourself. The first part is an individual activity and the second is intended for work in a group; if you can, do share this post with others you can meet up with (at a safe social distance) or work with remotely.

And if you are still unable to go out, like me, then I hope it brings you a little connection to a woodland environment.

Imagining woodlands — an exercise

Individually: Watch the video below, entitled Woodland Canopy, clicking on Full-Screen mode. This is a video taken by looking up at the tree canopy in a wood. It lasts about 5 minutes. There is no sound on this video.

Try to watch the video without introducing your own music or sounds. The idea is that we are isolating one of our senses, just using our eyes, and not influenced by other senses. Try to watch it in a quiet space or use sound-blocking headphones.

Don’t expect the camera to move or much to happen. You need to really watch and focus for five minutes. In fact, quite a lot happens, but it is subtle. Try to tune in and notice every nuance.

As you watch, make a list of words, a little like Richard Long might as he walks. Just write whatever comes into your head. The words might be about what you see, feel or think; they might have imagined connections or spark memories.

You can watch the video more than once, if you like.

In your group: Now arrange to work with your group, virtually. Choose the favourite words or phrases that you wrote from the video. Share them with your group. You could do this with a Google Doc, on Zoom, or on a VLE Whiteboard.

In your group, try to weave all your words together to form one poem or piece of prose. Give it a title.

Think about how you will present this work. How will it look on the page? Or will you record it as an audio reading?

Why not share your poem or prose response to Jo's Imagining Woodlands exercise -- whether working alone or as a group -- in a Comment on this blog? And do share your reflections on this activity or a creative exercise of your that you've found useful during Covid19 lockdown.

Find out more

Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. Jo mentioned that this university activity usually takes place at St Nick’s Nature Reserve in York. St Nicks Centre for Nature and Green Living is a local charity created in the 1990s to transform a former landfill site into a thriving Local Nature Reserve. “The name of the site and the secular charity comes from the middle ages when the area was owned and managed by St Nicholas hospital and church.”

You can see Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking at the Tate website, and you can find out more about desire lines or paths in this piece by David Farrier for Emergence Magazine, which we featured on our Views from Elsewhere page in May 2020.

And you can see Richard Long’s One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984 at his website.

You might enjoy this video from Project Wild Thing, on the science of why engaging with nature is part of being human, and the benefits for our wellbeing. It’s part of the full film, which you can see at the Project Wild Thing website. And The Susurrations of Trees is a recent  BBC Radio 4 programme that features recordings of the sounds of leaves on different trees, the words we use to describe these and the poetic and artistic responses to this experience of nature. “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall…” (Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree).

Jo Dacombe contributed Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands — a piece that originally appeared on her blog in 2015 — for Day 29 of our Quarantine Connection series. Her book, Imagining Woodlands, will be available later this summer. You can keep up to date with that by following her blog — where you can also discover the first issue of Imminent, a new zine Jo has launched with contributions from fellow writers and artists.

Jo Dacombe
Jo Dacombe
A multimedia artist creating work, installations and interventions, interested in mapping, walking, public space, sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects.
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All the Little Gods Surrounding Us

James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.


1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes


Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.

Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.

‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’

The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.

The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has

Spent its whole life
In preparation for an instant,
Learning to fix its being
To a needle point flaring lightless

Presence: Showing 'Owl', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Owl’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“

‘Falling always out of absence into open air’

Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.

Presence: Showing 'Kingfisher', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Kingfisher’
Art & text: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.

In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.

Can we nail the world shut
long enough to discover everything

and

I don’t want to know the name
of the colour of this sky

And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.

A presence in the meeting point

The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.

Presence: showing 'Rook', from the collection 'Winged' by James Roberts
‘Rook’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.

James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.

Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.

And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough
Will I learn to feel the wind
Without wanting to know
What it’s saying?


Find out more

Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.

James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Fool’s Gold — the Cairn and the Wishing Well

In this piece — commissioned by artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman for their exhibition, Fool’s Gold — editor Mark Goldthorpe explores notions of value and care through our experience of objects as works of nature, culture and transformation.


1,700 words + photo gallery – approximate reading time: 8 minutes 


How are we to value things? The objects we make, consume, keep, curate or discard? The natural world around us? The art that explores nature and culture? Artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman ask questions of value with Fool’s Gold, their new two-person exhibition. And, as their title suggests, simple answers — or those that appear simple and we find so attractive on the surface — are deceptive. With time, objects of convenience, of instant desire, of proven utility can become inconvenient, spent desires, markers of futility. Creations of modernity in relationship with ancient nature: things of the now and of deep time. The everyday and the deferred tomorrow.

Transforming human being and thinghood

Matter isn’t just inert, empty until given human meaning. As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, it’s vibrant and vital, making a world where “human being and thinghood overlap … the us and the it slip-slide into each other.”

Two artists, with three pieces each, together create an imaginary and immersive landscape that speaks of our transformation of the material world. Harrison’s cairns and Schilderman’s wishing well, Schilderman’s broken glass castle and Harrison’s array of quadrats, Harrison’s winter blues and Schilderman’s spiral wall speak to each other, allow us to look through and at them and encourage us to see, and to ask… What will we leave behind us? What can we repurpose to better ends?

‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Wishing Well’ – salt crystals & recycled glass. Photo: P.Schildermam © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Transformation is a common thread. Hayley Harrison finds her materials by foraging the waste she encounters in city and countryside: nature transformed and discarded is her natural resource. Pamela Schilderman’s own exploratory mode takes everyday objects and reveals through them another purpose, a new and unexpected expression.

Fool’s Gold: precautionary tales

There’s a fairy tale character to this new landscape, reframing our mundane perception of the world beyond the gallery and prompting us to see things differently. An artists’ landscape, it’s still the one that we inhabit and recreate daily through our countless choices and the compromises and constraints we live under. But the reuse and reshaping these six pieces bring about refashions the whole into something like a cautionary tale for our times. Or perhaps what academic and artist Renata Tyszczuk calls precautionary tales, which “might work with an imagination of the future based on the ethic of care and paying attention … caring as both a practice and an attitude: an attainment and responsiveness of an altered Earth and a new, strange reality.”

‘Fool’s Gold’ detail – wallpaper & fool’s gold. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Quadrats’ – recycled red plastic bags & discarded materials + ‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Signs of humanity’s alteration of the natural world are all around. They are much argued over, but with no room now for outright denial that there’s a problem with the planet. The conspiracy peddlers are still out there, of course, somewhere between a flat Earth and a moon that never was touched by human bootprints. Leave them in their delusional orbits, and let us talk. We can do so without feeling we have to agree, that there’s an argument we need to win, or we must at once put the world to rights.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic? When you think of the future, do you see something that’s already happened and we must decide how best to live with, or something as yet unrealised that we must make? Either way, we have choices to make. We might choose differently, but let’s agree there’s much to care about — to care for — and that we need to be creative in how we approach this.

Artist Tania Kovats says “I’m not naive; I don’t think art can stop the climate crisis, but I think it can give us new ways to think about it … Both in very conscious ways and in very unconscious ways, because our relationship with this crisis has entered our imaginations as much as it has entered our consciousnesses.” Art helps us engage imaginatively with possibilities — within ourselves and within the world.

A large part of what we know personally about the world is built on what we see. But our perceptions are flawed and incomplete. There’s just no way we can take the whole world in: it exceeds us. Imagination helps us plug perception’s gaps, to bridge the distance between us and other. But much of the time, imagination — fed in new and dazzling ways — leads us astray. Rather than connection with reality — real reality, the mineral, microbial and growing, breathing one that sits beneath and beyond our shiny, distracting world of artefacts — it brings a widening disconnect. We’re in nature — that photosynthesising, mutating, proliferating web of beings and bedrock that’s sedimenting, accreting, eroding and circulating to long beats of time that underpin our daily lives — but increasingly we believe we’re operating apart from it. We hold it in reserve: something separate and special and, when we come up against it on screens or adventures, sometimes something truly awesome. But our imaginations, day to day, become a bit dulled to what the world really is: how long it persists, how quickly it shifts, the scale of our rising billions’ impact upon it. So our imaginations need a reset from time to time, and art can transform our perceptions of the taken-for-granted.

Evoking beauty, provoking care

Beauty is perhaps something else we take for granted. Do you look for it in a gallery but not in your waste bin or on the littered margins of our public spaces? Does it reside only in perfection — in pristine nature, in a particular industrial design? Or is it also in the flaws and fractures, the failed experiments, the detritus and ruins of past success? And what of beauty that passes, and the beauty in passing as we let go of artefacts, ideas or habits whose time is up? Cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey describes a possible ethic of ‘palliative curation’ in a world where all nature is marked by the human. This anticipatory marking of transience “suggests another way of approaching this interval of uncertainty — creating opportunities to say ‘goodbye’” to loved landmarks and objects. We might observe their “stages of unmaking” through “rituals of leave-taking that help us bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘gone’.”

‘Winter Blues’ – discarded umbrella frames, plastic bags, recycled plastic Christmas tree, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Crystal Clear’ – recycled glass. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.” Let us focus on objects then and, in sharing a space for conversations about ecological and climate predicaments, let’s each of us pay attention to and expand the scope of those things that are, as poet Alun Lewis expressed it, “within the parish of my care”. If it’s right that human being and thinghood overlap in a vital material world, then proper care for our objects is also care for our selves, and for the non-human selves we share the world with and seem bent on crowding out.

Discarded crisp packets turned inside out, plastic bags pulled into string to be wound and stretched, structures made from broken glass and imperfect salt crystals: frames and lenses through which to look again and see the familiar (always a deception) as new, strange, inviting. Full of potential once more, and offering containers for our hopes and for memories of nature we’d pushed down, unmarked and forgotten beneath the everyday. Build yourself a shiny cairn to honour and re-present those things of value that we’ve discarded, or now need to bid farewell. Make yourself a wishing well to express the better things we might bring about, the value we can now create. Fashion your own frame for the world and invite others to the view. Together, make a new path through the woods. And take care.

RAGM Fools Gold Installation View. Photograph: Jamie Gray © 2020
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Click on image and expand for full size slideshow with captions.


Find out more

This piece arose as a commission from Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman as part of their project. Mark met with Hayley and Pamela at the British Library in November 2019, ahead of the completion of their pieces for the exhibition.

Fool’s Gold runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 14th March. It invites visitors to engage in conversations around the climate crisis and our use of materials. The exhibition is accompanied by workshops, talks, an animation and a live installation. There will be an In Conversation artist talk on Tuesday 6th March at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum at 6 pm (tickets £6). This project is funded by Arts Council England and Rugby Council, and supported by Practical Action, an innovative international development organisation based in Rugby and putting ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world.

Hayley Harrison is an artist whose work examines our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other — via discarded materials, text, performance and video. 

Pamela Schilderman is an artist whose practice is strongly influenced by science exploring notions of identity and individuality through repetition, often juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm as though adjusting the lens of a microscope.

The passages quoted in the text are taken from:

Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Duke University Press, 2010).

Renata TyszczukProvisional Cities: cautionary tales for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2018).

Tania Kovats – Living Near Water (Start the Week: BBC Radio 4, 9/12/19).

Caitlin DeSilvey – Anticipatory history (Uniform Books, 2011). You can read previous posts where Mark reviews and discusses some of the ideas in the book Anticipatory history: Anticipatory History and The Words That Make Our Stories.

Sherry Turkle – Evocative Objects: things we think with (MIT Press, 2007).

Alun Lewis – In Hospital: Poona (1944) in Alun Lewis: Collected Poems (Seren Books, 2015).

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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