TOGETHER FOR OUR PLANET ARTIST RESIDENCIES - BETH SMITH
In Winter 2022, we hosted two early career artists as part of our 'Together for Our Planet' #climateaction programme. Here, one of the artists-in-residents, artist Beth Smith, shares some reflections on her residency.
'Together for Our Planet' Artist Residency Process and Reflections by Beth Smith
I remember our first residency meet up at Global Gardens fondly. Emily, one of our lovely mentors, sent us off to find one colourful object, one beautiful object and one interesting object. I loved this simple, creative approach to beginning to connect with the residency surroundings. It automatically sparked our childlike curiosity, opening our eyes to all the treasure to be found in the various areas of the garden. It also opened up questions around what these descriptive words mean to us and why, particularly in relation to our personal connection to, and experiences of the natural world.
These conversations naturally got us connecting with each other and before we knew it, Tash, my fellow artist in residence, and I were talking about collaborating on ideas throughout the residency as we found that alongside our shared passion for environmental issues, we also had a shared interest in mindful movement, dance, community artwork and conceptual explorations.
The aims of the residency began to be established in this first meeting and a key idea was the importance for both Tash and I to be able to have time and space to creatively explore our own connection to nature. We also confirmed our joint desire to extend this exploration out to the community as much as possible during the residency. So, alongside the development of our personal practice we aimed to bring new people to the gardens through providing participatory creative activities that enabled and encouraged connection to each other, nature, and to the broader topic of solutions to the climate crisis.
I was excited to get creative in such a beautiful setting and returned as soon as possible to start exploring and forming my initial ideas for the project. I thought a good approach to get ideas flowing was to explore all areas of the garden and get to know some of the plants up close. I enjoyed appreciating all of the colours, shapes, textures, smells and later, with the guidance of Bethan, one of the gardens lead volunteers and font of foraging wisdom, even enjoyed tasting much of the garden’s produce. I loved hearing from Bethan about the different characteristics, properties, and preferences of the plants.
These investigations and discussions highlighted to me that although I adore immersing myself in nature and find so much joy and peace in doing so, I actually have very little understanding of the depths of its awe-inspiring complexity or how to take care of it. This became a key realisation in my personal journey with connecting to nature.
In my on-going visual arts practice I love to make use of natural objects and to ‘upcycle’ and transform man-made objects that would otherwise be discarded. In line with the theme of climate action, resourcefulness quickly became a key element of the residency.
I soon discovered that the long stems from the Jerusalem Artichokes were available to be used and began exploring how I could manipulate and weave them into shapes. I really enjoyed playing around with this material and thought I might be able to develop a nice community workshop from it, but my ideas eventually led me in a different direction.
Tash and I attended the community gardens ‘Making and Mending’ group where we had a merry time making Christmas decorations using scrap fabric and did some collaborative origami using old magazines. This reinforced and inspired our ideas around resourcefulness and community as we moved forward with the residency.
I also discovered I had access to offcuts of wood from when the studio table had been made. I tested out an idea of using my engraving pen and then my pyrography pen to carve/burn images of plants into the wood. I found that this type of wood was not as malleable as I’d hoped, making both techniques particularly difficult and unsatisfying.
By this time however, I had begun to feel more immersed and part of the Global Gardens community and had been given a HUGE squash from one of the allotments with a beautiful, vibrantly orange, and very thick skin. My failed attempts with the wood sparked the idea of instead etching into the skin of the squash. I cut out a section of it, and, putting the flesh of the squash to one side to be used later for cooking, I began exploring how best to approach this organic canvas. As it turned out, etching using my engraving pen worked very well. I then tested whether slow roasting the squash skin to dry it out was an effective method to preserve the images. I was delighted at the result as a beautiful texture and stark colour contrast developed through the skins time in the oven. Although not entirely expected, I was also quite pleased with the interesting curling effect that occurred.
Tash and I made sure that we carved out time to explore ideas in the garden together. Through plenty of chatting, mind-mapping, sketching, and visualising we brewed up our ideas for the participatory creative workshops. We also shared some of our personal discoveries along the way and I got to enjoy photographing Tash as she met and mimicked some of the plants through her mindful movement explorations.
We decided to run two community workshops over the weekend of the 10th and 11th of December which then led onto the final sharing and participatory event the following weekend.
We had a lovely group of participants join us, some dropping in for a while, some able to stay for the whole workshop, some new to the gardens, some had been before. Both workshops began by Tash leading participants in mindful movement to connect us to our bodies and plants in the garden. This set us up nicely for in-depth reflections on humans’ relationship to nature.
The first workshop was called ‘Love Letters to Nature’. Writing poetry is another core form of expression for me but was something I had never facilitated before. So, to challenge and expand my practice and to share my love of this form of expression, I chose to run a creative writing session with the aim of participants connecting to what they love about nature. The concept behind this is that for climate action to be sustainable we must act from a place of love for nature, which we are a part of, and not from panic.
Climate anxiety is an ever-increasing issue effecting people, especially youth, today. It is something I have felt and struggled with in various ways myself. At points I have felt very overwhelmed by it and sometimes quite alone in my anxiety and these experiences were part of the reason I felt so motivated to apply for this residency with such an inspiring title.
Climate action is so much more powerful when taken together and we have so much more energy to keep moving when we are connected to a community that is moving with us.
With all of these themes and ideas in mind, I chose to open the workshop by reading a poem by Mary Oliver, 'Wild Geese'.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Inspired by Emily’s invitation at the beginning of the residency, we then did an exercise to connect to our senses and to start getting creative with our words. We collected something that was colourful and described it without saying what colour it was. We collected something with a smell and described what images, memories or colours it brought to mind. We collected something with an interesting texture and got a partner to describe it to us with their eyes closed. This all turned out to be quite an entertaining way to connect to each other and natural objects.
We also then wrote down things we are grateful to nature for, and I guided a short meditation to connect us to the sensation of gratitude washing through our bodies. This was to set us up to begin writing our odes to nature. We briefly explored different approaches to writing an ode (love poem) and then spent some time writing and sharing what we’d written
The second workshop was called ‘Invitations From Nature’. I started by reading a poem from a book called 'Active Hope' by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone:
Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued
by the Lone Ranger or by some savior.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life
on whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forth at this time.
We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.
With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,
Strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.
Active Hope is a readiness to engage.
Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others;
a readiness to discover the reasons for hope
and the occasions for love.
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,
our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
our own authority, our love for life,
the liveliness of our curiosity,
the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,
the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.
I had started building a mandala around the fire using leaves and the Jerusalem Artichoke stalks. I invited participants to add to the mandala using objects they collected from around the garden. In three different layers of the mandala, I asked participants to reflect on what they feel nature is inviting from us as individuals, communities and globally. We shared some of our contemplations and then I invited participants to use a piece of old charcoal from the fire to draw around their foot on a piece of scrap cardboard and then to cut it out and write down a step they wanted to take in their lives to answer nature’s invitation.
To round off the session we went indoors, and each made a part of an origami star, inspired by our session with the Making and Mending group. This was to symbolise the power of collective action. It began to get dark, and some participants had to go. Some of us stayed and got carried away decorating the star by candlelight using beetroot juice and make-shift drawing utensils, followed by continued conversations around the embers of the fire.
In both sessions, the dark and the cold were stark reminders of nature’s changing seasons, and we were all glad to be able to gather with cups of tea and cake (made using the squash from the allotment!) around the fire which our trusty fire-keeper Nick tended to. It is hard not to feel a sense of community when gathered in a circle around a fire and I felt much gratitude to be able to share feelings and connect on ideas with a variety of minds with different outlooks and approaches to environmental issues.
Our final week of the residency was spent preparing for the community gathering. We sent out posters and flyers and online invitations. We had decided to provide an interactive trail for visitors to the garden which involved questions inviting participants to explore and interact with different parts of the garden and reflect on their own relationship to nature.
Using the etching technique I had discovered, I continued my journey getting to know some of the plants in the garden. I chose a selection of plants with varied shapes and planned to get recordings of Bethan sharing some of her knowledge about them. Timing didn’t work out with Bethan but fortunately I met Stevie, another garden volunteer who had plenty of insights to share. I recorded mini interviews with him in which I picked his brains about the properties, life cycles and uses of the plants. For part of the trail visitors were given maps to find the etchings which I attached to artichoke stalks along with QR codes so that they could listen to the interviews.
On the day of the event Tash and I welcomed visitors and performed live art whilst visitors took part in the trail. Tash was moving in response to different parts of the garden whilst I was creating a mandala around the fire using natural objects. During the residency I was dealing with multiple challenges in my personal life, and this was a very mindful, calming, therapeutic practice that the residency enabled me to develop. Visitors to the garden were invited to write a pledge to nature on a cardboard leaf and to add it to the mandala.
We all finally gathered around the fire, and I shared a poem I had written to bring together some of my personal reflections from my time on the residency. Tash performed some improvised movement to respond to the words whilst I read.
The poem reads as follows – you can listen to a recording of the poem here.
Mother Nature’s Call
Mother nature has been calling to me for quite some time.
She longs to remind me who I am.
“Get to know me” she says.
“Get to know your body” she adds.
“Listen to your body, it is longing to be close to me.
And I am crying out for you to know me.
Be with me, be curious, ask questions.
If you want to understand life, I can offer so many lessons.
If you want to understand yourself, I’m full of endless reflections.
But I have to let you know, I am hurting, and I need nurturing.
Your species have been taking too much from me for too long now without giving me enough in return.
I am hurting, and I need nurturing.
I can see that you too are hurting, and you need nurturing.
Shall we make a deal?
How about we nurture each other,
And help each other heal?
Whilst you learn how to take care of me,
I can teach you how to take care of yourself.
I can remind you of what you already know.
But I want you to remember to take it slow.
Rushing can cause chaos.
Pay close attention to each step,
And remember to sometimes look up to feel the raindrops.
Each season has its purpose.
I’d love for us to sync-up,
But it can only happen if you listen and try to remember”.
“I remember” I reply.
“I remember how you held me as a child as I climbed your branches that curled against the summer sky and sprinkled me with golden sunlight.
I remember how you taught me that growth comes in phases as I watched the dandelion seemingly die and then watched its seeds fly.
I remember how you taught me that for beauty to blossom, we must rest and look inward as the daisies closed-up overnight.
I remember how you taught me that it’s okay to fall when your apples started dropping.
I remember how you taught me not to take life to seriously when I slipped on a rotten one and laughed.
The thorns taught me that life can be painful, and the blackberries taught me life can be sweet... or sour… or bland.
The more you brave the thorns, the more tastes you’ll experience, but often we can’t choose the flavours that end up in our hand.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at dodging the thorns, and spotting the sour ones before I pick them, but not always…
And to be honest, I don’t always bother keeping the bland ones in my mouth for too long…
But they can make the sweet ones taste even sweeter”.
“Ah yes”, she says, “you remember a lot,
But did you know that there are things you can do to help more of the blackberries taste sweet?
And remember, if everybody could help to harvest the apples, less of them would go rotten.
And there’re a few other things I can remind you of that you might have forgotten,
But for now, you must listen,
for enough has been spoken.
Lean into the lessons with your mind and eyes open.
Link arms with those who have already awoken.
You are not alone on this path, and together you are stronger.
Keep moving forward and it won’t be much longer
until one day deep in your soul
once again you will feel and know you are whole.
You will lie, eyes up to the sky, arms out wide in a field.
And you will find peace has filled your heart,
For you and I will be healed”.
This residency was a beautifully challenging and incredibly important experience for me. It has helped me to feel more grounded and supported in my own endeavours to approach the climate crisis in a hopeful way. It gave me space to deeply explore my connection to nature and how I can help to nurture it. Since the end of the residency, I have begun my journey in growing my own food, starting simple with tomatoes and herbs. It is a beautiful way to learn to understand nature’s needs whilst taking care of my own. I have also continued developing the use of natural and found objects in my visual arts practice. I turned a piece of weaving I made using the Jerusalem Artichoke stalks into a mobile for my nephew and have found a joy in making jewellery using natural materials and recycling old bits of jewellery and metal. Although these are small acts, I believe a resourceful and creative approach to what we find in nature, and re-thinking our use of ‘waste’ products, forms an important movement in the changing of the corrosive tides of overconsumption.
We got lots of lovely feedback from participants and I hope to further develop my ability to facilitate community art and climate action events as well as continue developing my use of visual arts, creative writing, and interactive art for sharing ideas and knowledge about the natural world and our relationship to it. I will for sure be spending more time at Global Gardens. Sending gratitude to all involved.
With many thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund in Wales for supporting these residencies.