Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Valley Thick with Oaks

This academic term Imagining Woodlands ran a course for English Literature students at the University of York.  The course looked at woodlands from different perspectives including literature and poetry, art, archaeology, science and conservation, and involved lectures, practical workshops, and visits to local nature reserve St Nick's.

The students were then asked to create their own project as a response to the course, and present their work for assessment and for the Imagining Woodlands team.

The range of responses was excellent! Students had thought about woodlands from a wide range of perspectives including poetry, film, novels, politics, mythology, tree symbolism, topiary, soundscapes and music, walking, psychogeography, slowness and speed, and nature in the digital world. After each presentation there was a fantastic exchange of questions, comments and ideas, with deep thinking and real engagement in the subject.

Particularly encouraging was the realisation that a group of 25 young people had spent time thinking deeply about the value of woodlands and our relationship to them through this experience, and would take this knowledge into their futures. There was a real sense that each student had engaged strongly with the subject and would be continuing to be inspired beyond the course itself.

And the Valley Thick with Oaks? The course takes place in Derwent College, a beautifully landscaped campus with mature trees around a lake. The name Derwent, as Suzi revealed to us in the session, means the valley thick with oaks. A suitable setting for our subject.

Thank you to the University of York for enabling this new course to take place, and to St Nick's Centre for Nature and Green Living for their contributions.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Events to engage with the invisible

I have a number of events coming up this summer, which are informed by my explorations in Aylestone Meadows for the microseasons project. I will be exploring Things We Can't See (as I wrote about in my last post), do join me if you can.

Friday 15th June - Fruit Routes - 12-6pm
Barefoot Orchard, Loughborough University Campus.

Join me in the Yurt to experiment with ways to make visible the Things We Can't See. Part of a 3 day programme of events for the Fruit Routes edible campus project. See their website for details.

Saturdays, July - September - Invisibility Walks, Aylestone Meadows -1-3pm
Assemble at the car park at the end of Marsden Lane, Aylestone Meadows, Leicester.

Take a creative walk around the Meadows to engage with the invisible. This will be a gentle walk where you will be guided to do simple creative activities to connect more closely to this lovely nature reserve. These walks are commissioned by the University of Leicester's College of Life Sciences Health Matters project. Suitable for all ages, children must be accompanied. FREE BUT PLEASE BOOK!

Click on a date below for details. 

Saturday 28th July Invisibility Walk
Saturday 11th August Invisibility Walk
Saturday 29th September Invisibility Walk

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Printing with UV

I started collecting things that make pollen (grasses, wildflowers) from the pollen trap sites and I wanted to experiment with how I could make images from them. When I'm at the sites, I keep thinking about the air and what's in the air that we can't see... pollen, pollution particles, etc. and how could I make this visible?

In the past I've done a lot of work with cyanotypes, making images from the sun's UV. UV light is from the part of the spectrum that is invisible to our eyes, so it's on my list of Things We Can't See. I took some of the things I had collected and placed them onto UV sensitised silk screens to see what I got. I've been layering up prints from these screens and I'm starting to like the results. It seems to me that layering up images goes some way to representing the many layers of the sites I am working with, and I like how some of the prints have background colours that could be things floating in the air.

I've also started playing around with a microscope to make images, especially of pollen and the pollen traps. My microscope isn't powerful enough to see pollen up close, but it's still interesting to see what is revealed. I could definitely see particles floating in the liquid in the pollen trap which I couldn't see with the naked eye. I will see if I can process these images into prints too.

I'll be exploring more ways of making images using Things We Can't See at the Fruit Routes event on 15th June (check their website to see what else is happening that week). As well as using the microscope some more, I'm hoping to do something with gravity, and possibly try something with the weight of air!

Saturday, 12 May 2018


As a visual artist, I think a lot about invisibility.

I have made a number of "invisible" works in the past.  A memorable one I made in Leicester, on the third floor of a beautiful empty building, where I pinned lines of thread from the ceiling to the floor in a pattern at 45 degree angles. You could only just see the thin lines shimmering and you had to move around it to see it,  and it was impossible to photograph.  Another one I made was a thirty foot long chalk drawing on the floor which worked with the play of light through the windows, to the point that people didn't realise the drawing was there and walked all over it!  There is something very satisfying about creating a work that big that people don't see it!

Why would a visual artist want to make things you can't see? Recently the microseasons project has been making me think about this again. Working with pollen traps, where you really can't see if there is anything in the trap or not, has made me think about how we can't see what's in the air, even though it will have an affect on us, in what we breathe in. Am I trying to make the invisible visible in this project? Or does "Imagining Woodlands" require the invisible to remain in the imagination only, as intangible but real ideas?

I am working with the University of Leicester to run creative walks in the Aylestone Meadows this summer, as part of their respiratory health and wellbeing campaigns by the College of Life Sciences. Breathing links nicely with both my exploration of pollen and invisibility in the woodlands, so I think engagement with the invisible will become the theme of these walks. I will publish the walk dates on this blog soon, I hope some of you can join me.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A secret celebration

I have been changing the pollen traps every week for 11 weeks now for the microseasons project, and noting changes at the sites.  Today was particularly exciting.

One of our pollen trap locations is on a piece of shrub land off the beaten path, hidden away through some dense bracken growth.  Today I approached through the usual way, but was struck by the vibrant green leaves suddenly covering the bushes, a complete contrast from when I was last there and it was all still purple-brown bramble shoots to clamber over.

As I climbed out of the bush and turned the corner, I gasped at the sight before me.  All winter it had been a stretch of yellowed, dry and uncut grass with some twiggy shrubs... but now the whole site was surrounded by a backdrop of beautiful white blossom!

Our project started having been inspired by the Japanese microseasons, and I felt how this must be in Japan in Sakura hajimete saku, when the first cherry blossoms appear at the end of March, that amazing and short lived time when the country celebrates these beautiful trees. Only my celebration was in my secret location and only seen by me. I felt privileged.

The blossoms I can see are blackthorn, which appear before the leaves. But also there are new white buds swelling on a group of trees on the north side of the site, which I think are some kind of wild cherry.  I can't wait to go back in a few weeks and see these bursting into bloom!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Ecocriticism Study Day

At the end of January four women gathered in a room at King's Manor in York.  They came from different disciplines and backgrounds, and travelled from across the country, from the Midlands and Cumbria, to meet in this room.

On the table they laid out books, texts, postcards, pamphlets, laptops, badges and biscuits. After pushing random buttons on a coffee machine, and discovering that it made no difference, the coffee came out the same anyway, the Ecocriticism Study Day began.

Each of the women had chosen a 'text' of differing sorts, and the other three were to read them before the day.  The aim of the day was an experiment:  if we bring together four people from very different disciplines to present and comment on each other's approaches to a subject, will they discover a new and shared methodology?

The subjects in question:  woodlands and walking.

The women:  
Dr Freya Sierhuis, lecturer in English literature and eco-criticism
Dr Lynda Dunlop, educator in science
Dr Suzi Richer, archaeologist and palynologist
Jo Dacombe, artist and creative walker

The discussion began with Lynda thinking about the pedagogy of philosophy, specifically pedagogy outside of the classroom.  What are the different motivations people have for engaging with philosophy? How does the space in which learning is happening change the way people learn? Could philosophy be taught through walking?

Freya introduced notions of Environmentalism, and the idea of "Slow Violence" as described by Rob Nixon. How does critical literature become activism when dealing with subjects such as "environmentalism of the poor"?  They also discussed the impact of colonialism, and how to measure impact; how measurements can be presented to back up any argument, depending on where one chooses to place the boundaries of how those measurements are made.

Freya went on to examine further the politics of landscape, vernacular landscape and the notion of vitalism, as discussed in John Wylie's book 'Landscape'.

Suzi made an excellent presentation on pollen diagrams, how they could be interpreted and some of the problems of presenting the information. She related this to an intriguing book of poems by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, 'Of the Elm Decline',  which generated in-depth discussion on the use of the page in poetry and the visual arrangements of words, poetry referencing science and the effect of knowing or not knowing the meanings of technical words used in a poem.

Finally, Jo presented a work by artist John Newling called 'Dear Nature', a work that literally addresses nature through a short letter, but also concerns context, relationships, material, generosity and exchange and other ideas that were unpicked from this work located in a forest in Scotland.

Several themes seemed to reoccur throughout the discussions, enabling the group to identify common concerns.  The naming of things was discussed more than once, and the power in words to change the way we conceptualise the things we name. The effect of a sense of place was a common theme, and the use of words and images together to augment meaning.

All four women agreed that the day was useful and, if opportunity arose, a further Study Day could be held.

Following a full day in a room, the group went to St Nick's nature reserve and walked in the woods there. Plans began taking shape for workshops that they will hold in the woods for students of the University of York in the summer.  The Study Day certainly seemed to have tied together some of the common threads between their practices, and it will be exciting to see how this will support the Imagining Woodlands work with students later in the year.

Thanks to Freya for initiating and organising the Study Day.

Study Day Reading List:

Philosophy: A School of Freedom, (UNESCO: 2007) chapter 4.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Harvard University Press: 2011) Introduction.

John Wylie, Landscape (Routledge: 2007) chapter 6.

Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, Memorious Earth, (Corbel Stone Press: 2015) chapter v.

John Newling, ‘Dear Nature’

Friday, 16 February 2018

Everything is spinning

Today was sunny, that bright and crisp light that you get on a winter's day. The sun has no warmth but everything it touches seems to glow.  I held up one of the test tubes to the light and stared intently. Everything in it was colourless; a fluid globule of glycerol and water sitting in the bottom, underneath the fibre fluff which shone like it made its own light.

I have installed two pollen traps in the Meadows, changing them fortnightly for new test tubes so that we can track the change in pollen as the seasons move on. The test tubes are mysterious things. Pollen is microscopic, so you can't see it in the tube. Occasionally you see a few bits of dirt caught in the tube, but this sits on top of the polyester fibre and the pollen filters through, theoretically at least. You just have to trust the pollen is there, handle the test tube with care as if it contains a precious, invisible magic.

Everything spins with pollen collecting. The mixture in the test tube has to be spun centrifugally to try to mix each one evenly. Once the trap has been on site and (we hope) collected pollen, it can be spun again to help separate out whatever is in the tube.

The installation and changing of the pollen traps is a cycle. I repeat the activity once a week, alternating the sites, and recording the date and other observations each time. As I do this I'm aware that the whole process is measuring a larger cycle, an annual cycle of trees releasing pollen to begin the process of fertilisation to grow new trees. Once those new trees are grown, they will then become part of the cycle too.  And on it goes, endlessly cycling on this spinning planet of ours.

I wonder how I could represent these cycles of different scale and speed; the fast spinning of the centrifuge and the slow spinning of the life cycle of a tree. My original thought, when I started the microseasons project, was that the art work should be presented around all four walls of a gallery space in a circle. Somehow visitors would start in the centre of the room so that there is no start or end point of the sequence of works, just one continuous loop. If you know of a gallery that has a trap door entrance in the middle of the room, let me know.