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Having Breath

It's a cool grey midsummer day and I finally have time to reflect on what's passed creatively and what's to come. I delivered a presentation about SAP to some creative practitioners a few weeks ago. This is a transcript of the talk and represents an ending (the last page if you like) - a summary of how the project started, how it went, my aims and some of the surprising outcomes:

Like most of my projects ‘Saturation Point’ – as in the entanglement of interventions, craft-making, and conversations that it evolved into – initiated through material experimentation in the studio, having something I felt was important to say and a lot of outside exploring.

Reaching this place as an artist began when I started using found materials from the garden which then expanded to foraging in the verges and hedgerows and then into the woods and the more embedded I became in the landscape - the more I noticed the growing duality between the natural and the cultural. I was asked a few years ago to describe my work in three words and I’d just written a piece about natural dyeing methods and I borrowed some of the language used to describe these processes – fugitive, alchemical, wild – these three words have remained the framework for my practice and often serve to remind me of my commitment to a sustainable practice.

Ideas for Saturation Point grew out of an interest in environmental politics and eco-feminism – looking at the historical figure of the female herbalist & village healer who would have had a more collaborative, symbiotic relationship with plants and wildlife and at a time before land enclosure and (this element was to become relevant once I grasped the real scarcity of remaining wild spaces & the restricted access to most of the local rurality). These ideas became integral to many conversations that took place over the course of the project.

In the studio I was experimenting with natural colours, extracting pigments from foraged plants & realizing these slow processes required a rhythm that suited my practice; I could stir a pot, experiment, write, go foraging at a gentler pace .

Five years earlier I secured a green arts mentoring bursary with Chrysalis Arts and attended a talk by artist Ruth Levene. Her projects often involve co-inquiry with the sciences and her advice to knock on doors encouraged me to reach out to a local environmental scientist, Martin Lord. He’s been keeping weather records in the area for twenty-five years and his data gave the project scientific authenticity I needed to share the escalating changes in the climate- not just in a far away land but right here in the northwest of England. I think there’s a value in bringing art and science together as a way to communicate what’s often seen as esoteric statistics and I’m grateful for the rigor his data brought to the project. In the end there were so many surprising incidental outcomes - relating to the experiential forages that the rag rug has become just a small paragraph in a much broader narrative.

So after securing arts council funding I began to research suitable sites that were easily accessible on foot or public transport. During lockdown I followed a footpath across a field into a wood close to the M6 motorway in Carnforth (it’s not on any google map). What I really liked was its natural messiness – the woodland is privately owned but unmanaged with a circuitous footpath crisscrossed by fallen trees & a tarn at its center - the result of an old sand and gravel quarry, its surrounded by roughly 40,000 pine trees planted by the quarrymen when they were asked to leave fifty years ago. There’s also elder, silver birch, goat willow, hawthorn, rowan intermingling with the pines and on the periphery evidence of ancient woodland with broad leaf trees, elm, oak, beech and beyond that scrubland and bog. Some areas are now designated sites of special interest by Natural England. This was the place - where we gathered once a month to experience, observe & document the wildlife, plant species, & fungi.

There are a number of artists in the northwest who work with similar themes, and I approached eight to accompany me over the year, each artist was chosen for their unique specialist knowledge on folklore, natural colour alchemy, fibre weaving, lumen printing, sound art, poetry, herbalism, food foraging & mycology. It was important to involve other artists in the project and this 'enmeshing' has resulted in the formation of a super-supportive creative network and joined up the dots for a lot of artists like me who work in rural locations.

The forages began in January 2022 with the first guest artist Abi Barton leading the event with 15 participants. We walked from the canal tow path across farmland to the woods. Once there we gathered materials to build a nature altar, we collected pigments in hand-made books & stood in a circle listening to the natural sounds against the backdrop of the M6 reflecting on the complicated relationship between culture & the natural world. We gathered bramble leaves, bark and pinecones for the dye pot and shared a cup of pine needle tea. In early March we listened through hearing trumpets and lay on our backs on wet moss with Amy Stretch-Parker. In April we made dandelion cordage with Suzie Grieve. In May we used magnifying glasses to observe insects with Russell Hedley. In June we made lumen prints with Julia Parks. In July we went on a wildflower pilgrimage with Carolyn Moreton. In September we made random poetry with Jacqui Symmons. In October we studied fungi with Mycelium Thinking. Anyway, we learned many things, including the rules of foraging - to only take where there is abundance, to leave more than is taken, to check for bugs, to give thanks, to tend rather than extract.

After each session I spent a few days processing the foraged plant material to extract the colour and then dyed a couple of recycled cotton squares, then reduced the extraction into an ink – producing an intense, dark potion which I like to think of as time capsules containing the essence of each event. I also held monthly open studios to share dyeing processes and we would often do an impromptu workshop, printing or clay or weaving…

By December 2022, when the events had finished, I began the process of making the dyed recycled cotton squares into a textile artwork. Martin Lord devised the colour-coded graph, and I translated it into natural dye colours. The warmer colours representing warmer temperatures and vice versa, the longer darker grey pieces representing months where the temperature went over 31 *Centigrade.

I’m not a textile artist - the rag-rugging technique was chosen for a few reasons - it’s a traditional local craft once associated with poorer communities where women would rag together in one household to conserve on candles. In Cumbria rag-rugs doubled up as an extra layer on the bed during harsh winters. Historically the rags were torn from the very last shreds of threadbare clothing, a practice that aligns well with the mission of local organisation ‘The Sewing Café based in Lancaster - who focus on making, mending & fabric recycling as an anti-dote to mass consumerism & fast fashion and who invited me to exhibit the work as part of their event 'Other Worlds' earlier this year.

Collectively our presence in the woods represented a need & an opportunity for quiet resistance. Each individual art activity liberated the participant in some small way, to notice and listen, to explore textures, to taste leaves picked from the tree, to lie down in an open space and stare up into the canopy, to pick up charcoal or stone or twig & make marks on paper, all of us demonstrating a need to merge with our environment – to be equal with it & to value it.

Video documentation of the forages has been made into a short essay film with the help of artist, Debbie Yare. The film has featured in two environmental film festivals.

I’ve learned many things over the last eighteen months but if I had to summarize the three key lasting outcomes that have filtered down like sediment they would be:

having conversations creates a ripple effect. the project was a conversation between people and elements and the forages provided crucial moments of physical connectedness. They were also conversations between people and materials – a series of multi-sensory experiences that opened up possibilities for a deeper relationship with the natural world.

And I think back to some of the woodland events in terms of a collective empowerment – I mean the power of art or creative practices to act like a magic cloak giving participants the freedom to behave differently.

And the inevitable familiarity that comes from revisiting the same place each month, pausing half way through the walk for a foraged tea... these processes slowly becoming reverent and ritualistic. Perhaps I'm looking back through an idealised lens - but a sense of being a part of the landscape seemed to emerge with the repetition. For a short while it felt as though we were as much a part of the woods as the moss and the mycelium.

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