One of the starting points of my Blossom & Thorn project about hedges along the National Forest Way has been my work on paths. This piece, on a wall boundary, represents a path, a walk, an escape route, a boundary. My work crosses over lots of elements of personal and landscape history at the moment and the stories intermingle, grow together like hedge branches and twining honeysuckle and rose.
During the development of the Blossom & Thorn project concept I chose to bring together my interest in paths and walking routes with this project about hedges. At one point I was thinking about hedges across the whole National Forest area which is 200 square miles and was far too big for a 6 month project! I realised the National Forest Way, a 75 mile long distance footpath winding across the National Forest, starting a couple of miles from my house, was the perfect container for this idea.
During this month volunteer hedge spotters are walking parts of the National Forest Way and using my hedge spotters guide to look closely and think about the hedges they find on their walks. The process of looking at hedges on a walk makes you slow down and consider your surroundings. I hope it is helping people learn new things and see their familiar landscape in new ways. By slow looking and thinking we can engage in depth with something new. By walking along footpaths we take our time and we also walk in the footsteps of thousands before us who would have known these hedges too.
This week is National Hedgerows Week and I encourage you to go out and look at rural and urban hedges while they are at their best, full of greenery and blossom, before the thorns become more obvious again in the winter. If you are near enough the National Forest Way in Leicestershire, South Derbyshire or Staffordshire, please share you findings about the hedges you see along the National Forest Way and be part of my project mapping and recording the fascinating linear forests our landscape is crisscrossed by. Find out more about taking part here. Volunteers can win tickets to Timber Festival and join me on a walk exploring the old hedgerows of the festival site as well as much more!
In winter and early spring they can be the most amazing sculptural forms which never cease to fascinate me.
In Spring they are bursting into leaf and blossom. Here in Leicestershire the Hawthorn or May blossom is just starting but there’s still some blackthorn left. I’ve also found some apple blossom recently too, as well as the verge plants like bluebells and hedge garlic coming through.
Different species of hedge trees come into leaf / flower at different times so in recent walks there have still been plenty of bare branches to enjoy as well as the fresh new leaves. Hedges will be completely different in a few weeks’ time so it can be really interesting to take a close look now and go back later and see what’s happening.
Look out for more posts about what I love about hedges, the inspiration I am exploring for this project and initial plans for the artwork I am creating.
For National Hedgerow Week (8-14 May), you might like to explore some of the National Forest Way in Leicestershire, Derbyshire & Staffordshire and share your hedge stories with me for my Blossom & Thorn project. I am collecting your findings about the hedges you find alongside the long-distance path to incorporate into an artwork which I will be sharing at Timber Festival in July.
With my hedge spotters guide you can walk and explore as little or as much as you like. Take your time to look at the trees and shrubs, search for signs of old hedge laying and see if you can spot hedges gone wild or hedges closely clipped and managed. Take the guide along with you and make notes to send to me. You can walk half a mile or 50 and send me one hedge report or lots using the online form here.
This project is supported by a National Forest Arts Grant.
Like the hedges, my Blossom & Thorn project is in bloom now! Last weekend I led a guided walk along a section of the National Forest Way in Leicestershire. 14 of us (and one dog) explored several stretches of hedges in really varied condition. Some were closely clipped and others gone semi-wild, while others were entirely feral. Most of them had signs of old laying within them and we found a good variety of species including some unexpected like gooseberry!
The participants told me they had a lovely time, chatting with each other about their own nature enthusiasms and learning about hedges, fields, landscape history, trees and plants. It was a really fun experience for me to take others on my hedge walks as I do most of my hedge-spotting research walks by myself.
I’ve been exploring different parts of the National Forest Way for this project and have been to both places I know well and completely new routes. Last week I visited the Rosliston Forestry Centre, in the middle of the National Forest. The National Forest Way, the focus of this project, snakes around the site and into local fields and villages. I managed to visit on a beautiful sunny day and enjoyed a 3 mile walk with only a little bit of deep mud. I found my first old hedge immediately upon leaving the visitor centre (top left image below) and followed a line out into the village of Rosliston. This turned into a flourishing young hawthorn hedge around the churchyard with the remnant of a hedge opposite, one forming a green lane but now a stray hedge on an access road (top centre image).
I found some amazing old hedge trees turning into full sized ash trees (above left) and some fragments of hawthorn (centre) as well as some beautiful sheep and lovely spring hedge bottom plants like hedge mustard / garlic and bluebells.
I’ll be sharing more of my hedge discoveries, my sketchbook and plans for the artwork in the coming week for National Hedgerow Week.
In the meantime, please volunteer to share your hedge stories if you are near to the National Forest Way and can visit in the next few weeks before the end of May. Find out more here about taking part in this project. My project is supported by a National Forest Arts Grant.
I’m always looking for new ways to share what I’ve learned the last 20 years or so and to support other artists to do brilliant work. I’ve recently had the privilege to work with Mandeep Dhadialla on a major commission for Leicester Museums. In the hope that this will be useful to others working on similar projects, or commissioning similar projects, I am sharing some of the experience here.
Running or working on a big commission or project can be really daunting. There are unfamiliar complexities in the planning, delivery and even in the negotiation and contracting stage with partners, museums, galleries, funders or all kinds of other people / organisations involved. Then there’s the challenge of planning and delivering participatory work, building relationships and making this all fit into the time available. The creative work often gets squeezed out in all of this development stuff and many artists find it really hard to work solo on a creative project and need someone to bounce ideas off. There are a lot of decisions in this kind of work and whether it’s your first project or your fiftieth, someone to share it with is incredibly valuable. Working alone is tough, especially on a pressured project. I know this from experience – and something I’ve learned and tried to implement in my own work is collaborating with someone or bringing in advice and support to every project, even if I have to pay for it myself.
There are constant decisions and negotiations with big projects and most of us don’t have experience of everything, the expertise to make decisions or the time to fit in all the elements of a major creative project, nor the brain space to deal with all of this whilst also conceiving and producing an original artwork or commission. It’s too much for one person. So here’s where I come in as the extra person. Over the 25+ years I’ve been in this creative sector, I’ve run projects that other people invented and I’ve also created them from scratch and seen them through from vague idea to major exhibition and pretty much everything in between. One of my greatest work joys is mentoring artists and supporting them to work in new ways, find their creative voice and do the kind of work that brings them alive.
To go back to Mandeep’s project, this one, Steam and Seeds, was a commission from Leicester Museums & Galleries to create a new piece of work inspired by Abbey Pumping Station and the associated environmental issues around water usage and treatment (aka sewage!). The finished work, three lino cuts showing the cyclical processes of water management, have been digitally-reproduced large scale and are on display at Highcross Shopping Centre now until 4th June.
I’ve been working with Mandeep for a couple of years on projects and as mentor and she asked me to help her work out what she wanted to say in the application, and in the end we decided that I would also be part of the application as project support / mentor / advisor. It’s hard to find the right job description for this kind of work and it would be different for each person and project. As I’m already mentoring Mandeep, this seemed like the right route, but I also did research into the subject matter (eg consulting my dad about sewage) and gave lots of advice and suggestions about the museum and how they work, as this is my background and specialism. Throughout the (very quick) commission process I was a second pair of eyes and ears, to share thoughts about design, complexity of construction, colours, details and other parts of the creative process. And I was there to support, advise, reign in when needed and encourage creative ambition where that was needed and overall help in whatever way was required to make this a successful project.
As an artist mentor my key role is to help the artist do their best work, with self-belief and focus. I try to provide a support structure to allow creative growth rather than a plan of how I think they should be doing it. For this project I was also able to have my museum hat on and thought a lot about what the museum would want out of it and what was important for them. There wasn’t chance for a lot of object-based research in this short project but that’s definitely something I would like to bring in more next time I work alongside an artist on a museum project – which I hope will be soon!
So what next?
I want to do more of this please! I have loved this way of working and I think it could work for others. I’ve already been talking to artists about me being part of their funding applications to be artist support / curator / advisor / project producer or any combination of those things. In this project I worked directly for the artist but I think this would be really beneficial for organisations to offer this kind of support to artists they are commissioning too. Organisations have a lot to do and aren’t usually able to provide 1:1 support and may not have access to specialist artist mentoring either, which is where I could come in.
My 1:1 artist mentoring is currently on pause while I catch up with other projects after being ill earlier this year but I will have new slots available from June. For the moment, my Maker Membership is a great way to get some light touch support from me and be part of a supportive creative community.
If you are looking for a creative community with ongoing support and resources to challenge your thinking and take your creative practice further, have a look at my Maker Membership. It’s a monthly rolling membership that you can join any time. I create workbooks, blog posts and videos about all kinds of things including research, creative development and reflection. There’s also a lively community who share their work and their thoughts via the members chat and we meet monthly on Zoom for a group mentoring session which is always really inspiring and encouraging. It’s £25 per month to join with no minimum term. Find out more here.
Blossom & Thorn is a creative project looking at hedgerows in the National Forest in the English Midlands. You can take part in the project by joining a guided walk and / or walking parts of the National Forest Way with my hedge guide and sharing what you find.
You can find all the information on the main page for the project here.
Join the artist for a research walk on Saturday 29th April 10am-12pm at Newtown Linford, Leicestershire. This is approx 2 hours gentle walking mostly on footpaths with a couple of stiles and one road to cross. It will probably be muddy so please wear suitable footwear and waterproofs in case of rain. You can still volunteer if you can’t join this walk. Free! Book here.
Share your own walks
Walk in your own time on sections of the National Forest Way that are near you and send me your observations about the hedges you see. This is open until the end of May as I will need the data to make the artwork in June. You can walk as little or as much as you wish and send me one hedge report or 20. There’s a digital or printed booklet to help you explore hedges and you can send me your hedge stories online. Full details here. Volunteers can also get free tickets to Timber Festival where the artwork will be displayed, 7-9 July 2023.
My Maker Membership is all about creative growth – learning new things, looking at your own work in new ways, connecting and sharing with others and taking your creative practice forward. I have invited current Membership to share their work in a new online exhibition focussing on how they have grown creatively through the membership and the community of other makers. I wanted to offer members an opportunity to show their work (some have not exhibited or shared their work at all before), to have a deadline to finish a new piece and to see what the others in the group have been working on. I am so pleased and proud to present a very eclectic but highly creative and thoughtful group of works. Have a look at the exhibition here.
The online exhibition of 13 members work, plus a group project and one of my new pieces of work, is available now until the end of April 2023.
If you would like to boost your creative growth through this group and the support I offer, membership is open to all makers. You can find out more about Membership here.
Before I visited Festival of Quilts earlier this year, I was thinking about another world where something other than quilts were on display in a huge, annual competition. I was inspired by Fashion Fictions which Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd introduced in Making Meaning Live where alternative versions of the world are explored where there are restrictions on clothing or fabric production as a way of creatively imagining ways to address over-production and over-consumption.
First of all I pondered a world where it wasn’t possible to buy new fabric to cut up and sew it back together into patchwork… where we had to use scraps to make patchwork for practical purposes if cloth wasn’t so over-abundant and little-valued like it is here and now.
I was also thinking about alternative cloth / sewn things that might have become popular to make other than quilts. Why have quilts become the thing we make for pleasure, creativity or retail? What if patchwork had never grown into the art form it is now? What other large-scale textiles might there be on display? Flags? Sails? Banners? Unique handmade garments?
That led me down a route of thinking about protest banners and political or social banners which were so important in the 19th century and how they are such a small part of our textile world now compared to quilts. Banners were an extraordinary art form in the 19th and early 20th century and an important means for women to use their skills and creativity to further a cause or social issue or promote a sense of belonging for a community. It’s something I keep coming back to myself for my own work – and I’ve started in a miniature way with my Protest Pincushion, a tiny sort of banner! (This was not in the Festival of Quilts because it’s too small and it’s not a quilt.)
Community quilts and group textile project, sometimes with a political or social message, were such a big thing during the pandemic and this demonstrated just how powerful and meaningful collective message-making. I found it so interesting to explore this in the Textiles in Lockdown podcast which I’ve republished as Making Meaning episode 18.
Thinking about this has made me appreciate group quilts and projects more and I’m really interested in exploring what is out there in the world of textile with a message. I visited the banners exhibition in the Textile Biennial in 2019 which was really amazing but it makes me sad and frustrated that banners aren’t as well-explored art form as quilts and there isn’t a place for banners to be shown annually, to be awarded prizes and publicity and where we can come together to make textiles that have a positive impact and use resources consciously.
So let’s imagine a fictional world where using precious textile resources was only acceptable when the finished piece had to say something. It had to be activist, community-made or share a message. Imagine those halls of the NEC full of protest banners or social group banners proclaiming their important social message. There is a competition for the best banner in a number of categories such as activism, community groups, human rights, image-based, text-based, political… and then I thought why aren’t they the groupings that quilts are entered into now? Why isn’t there a ‘statement’ category at Festival of Quilts? I really think there should be.
So with all these thoughts in mind, I visited the Festival of Quilts with the intention of seeing just how many pieces in the open competition had an obvious political, social, personal or community message. I know there will be some I didn’t see and I’m sure there were plenty of others that had a message but it wasn’t visually immediately obvious and was maybe more apparent in the artist statements in the catalogue, but I didn’t have one and very much didn’t have time to read them all.
I was so delighted to find so many with a message ranging from very subtle commentary within quilts to pieces overtly political or with a powerful, meaningful statement. I expected to find pieces made by groups with a strong meaning or message and I was amply rewarded. Quilts have a great history of being used by groups to come together and share emotions or to make a point or a message, partly because of their ideal format for individuals to make a piece which is then assembled into a whole. It really is a great vehicle for community practice and one which I have used myself many times.
The Grenfell Memorial Quilts were by far the most impactful pieces at the show, partly due to the size of them but mainly due to the impact and meaning behind them. I can’t help feeling though that they didn’t get the space, prominence or display impact they deserved, maybe because they are wonky and imperfect and very much community-made which is always a contrast to the perfection of competition quilts. There’s a place for both of course. I would LOVE to see community arts practice given the stage it really deserves in galleries and in society but that’s probably another blog post / life’s work.
The Sophie Hayes Foundation was a brilliant example of this kind of work done really well, and clearly with a bigger budget and structure behind it than the grassroots Grenfell Quilts. These really combined powerful messages, excellent craftsmanship and really good marketing. I don’t mean that I thought they were in any way ‘better’ than the Grenfell quilts, they are just differently produced and presented.
I really enjoyed hunting out pieces with a political, personal or social commentary within the competition quilts. As this isn’t a category of quilts to enter, they were dotted around and I am sure I missed lots. The group quilts category is a good place to look for statement pieces, there are still some covid-related pieces and I am sure I will have missed many of these shown last year when I didn’t attend. There are a number of them in Textiles in Lockdown and I know there are hundreds of them around. What fantastic records of life experience during 2020 they are.
Here are some of the pieces I spotted.
I would love to hear from makers of these or other quilts or textiles with a message. Where do you show and share your work? What’s the place for this kind of impactful textile? How would you change the textile world to allow more space for stitch with something to say?
Creating great projects is all about the preparation and behind the scenes work. As my Community Spirit project is coming to an end, I’m reflecting on all the work and unseen effort, creativity and chaos that goes on to make things like this look seamless. I started working on the funding application last summer when my house move got delayed again and I suddenly had 2 weeks with not much in the diary. But the idea of the project was even longer ago than that. While I was deep in the middle of volunteering for the foodbank in 2020 I went for a walk in the park (because I couldn’t go any further) and was thinking about just how vital and impactful volunteering was proving to be. And I wanted something to show for it. Something that others could see and that would really shine a light on the amazing work done by volunteers. It took 12 months more before I turned it into a funding application and then it took three attempts to get the funding, taking me through to the very end of 2021. It was hard to write the application and even harder to revise and change it and keep the energy and enthusiasm needed to get it finally funded.
Luckily, one of the changes I made to the project in the re-submitting stage was to bring in an associate artist. I realised that I need to collaborate, to work with others and have a team to work with. I invited Mandeep Dhadialla to work with me on this because of her experience in running community workshops. In fact originally I thought she would be doing all of the workshops although it really didn’t work out like that!
Our first joint job was to create the concept for the artwork. I love coming up with different ideas for making projects where different people can collaborate and work towards a finished piece. The original application says that we’d make a quilt but I knew from the start that I actually wanted to do something different. I love a community quilt project but there are a lot of them around and I always want to take the least obvious route in a creative project.
The other element in this project was that I was working with Mandeep not just by myself and I soon realised that the quilt idea wouldn’t work with Mandeep’s print on paper specialism. So I wanted to find a different way of working that would allow paper and textile to be used and I realised that it would also be great if the pieces made could be returned to the participants rather than produce one large piece which would then need a home.
One of the inspirations was Alinah Azadeh’s Medals for Everyday Courage, shared by Craftspace. I loved the idea of medals or tokens to celebrate the work volunteers had done. But I didn’t want to copy this idea for my own project, I needed my own concept. We bounced around a lot of ideas and eventually rosettes came out top. It worked perfectly – could be made in textile or paper, there’s space for words and images and they would make great mementoes of volunteering for makers to give as gifts or to keep for themselves.
We both worked on creative concepts that would be easy to make in workshops and at home with materials kits and put together all the stuff required and made prototypes.
I wrote instructions and printed booklets with photos to go with make-at-home kits while Mandeep prepared printed and hand drawn papers for the kits and workshops. And then we got started. Over 50 rosettes were made and contributed to the project over the summer and we then had to work out how to bring them together and display them in a way which allowed us to move it around easily and return the rosettes to their makers after the tour ended.
After a lot of research and experimenting, I decided to make a simple quilt for the pieces to attach to and went on the hunt for a suitable display stand which would work. I had a lovely time researching quilt displays but in the end opted for coat rack / open wardrobe style stand. The one I picked was designed to move easily and folds up for transport. It has a large box attached at the bottom which is not ideal in some ways but does mean I can store the packaging for the display all in the base and leave it at the venue.
So then I made the quilt to go on the stand, for the rosettes to attach to. That was a lot harder than I hoped, as I was running out of time and had to short cut to make a simpler version. I had intended to make a complex patterned patchwork but eventually realised that it would be impossible in the time I had left and also would be covered in rosettes so wouldn’t show anyway! So that rather lovely but wonky piece of patchwork is going to become my own artwork about volunteering – smaller scale and more visible as a standalone piece. Mandeep and I spent a day securing rosettes with extra stitching, backing, glue and other scaffolding to make sure they stood up to being moved and handled regularly.
One final inspection by my cat and it was ready to go on tour.
The showcase, along with the film and a booklet of my research is now on show in Loughborough at John Storer House. It’s there until 14th October and then has a couple of other venues in the county before it’s taken apart and the rosettes are returned to volunteers. You can also watch the film and download the booklet here. This is the last of a flurry of community projects I’ve been working on in 2021-22 but there will be more, in time. If you work for an organisation that would benefit from an artist-led project, please get in touch.
Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories
I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories.
The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.
Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.
In this final conversation of the series, I am talking to Gillian Lee Smith, a Scottish painter based in Northumberland. Gillian and I first met as members of a designer-makers group in the English midlands but we reconnected over Zoom during the pandemic and have had some wonderful conversations about our practices, our mentoring work and our creative ideas. In this conversation we focus on mentoring and talk about how both supporting others and being supported ourselves helps our practice. We talk about the zigzag journey of creative practice and how reflection and talking things through with others really helps to clarify things, to open new doors and to inspire.
Gillian Lee Smith is a painter living in Northumberland. Her ongoing work is inspired by maritime history – fishing communities, the stories of the ocean and the man made structures of harbours that mark the boundary and often create sheltering spaces from the storms.
Gillian is embarking on a new body of work called The Lost and The Left Behind which will explore themes of the ongoing resonance of history, loss and memory. The process of painting (creating, burying and excavating) allows an image to reveal itself over time and can connect to a particular story, memory or experience in surprising ways. Gillian is exploring ways of taking this approach into other media such as printmaking and mixed media for her new work.
A practicing artist for over 15 years, Gillian teaches in person workshops and creates online courses such as her signature programme Building a Body of Work as well as working closely with other artists through mentoring. Exhibiting locally and nationally, Gillian recently won a highly commended award with her portrait Through dust and darkness (The Miner) at Woodhorn Mining Museum.
If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.
My Maker Membership is now open for all makers wanting to explore their motivations and to build meaning and research into their practice and be part of a supportive creative community. We meet once a month and I share resources, tips and research to help you develop your own work. Find out more here.
Mandeep is a printmaker and workshop leader who works under the brand The Laughing Cactus Print Studio. She’s also local to me and we’ve been working together a lot over the last year or so on community projects and sharing thoughts on our respective creative practices. In this conversation we talk about the themes Mandeep is currently exploring around stillness and displacement, about belonging and moving between two countries. We talk about community practice and the impact it has on our work and the benefits of the collaborative work we are currently involved in.
Mandeep Dhadialla is an artist printmaker living and working in Leicester. Her work revolves around linocut printmaking, including on textiles, and making handprinted and hand-bound books. Spending her formative years as a child in Kenya and migrating to England in her early teens influences her practice. She explores concepts of home, place, safety and comfort within her printmaking practice, experimenting with combined monoprint, linocut and collagraph print techniques – more recently on the idea of Stillness in Displacement, of how landscape provides the constant anchoring between inner emotional displacement and outer physical displacement, a parallel in narrative between migration, the pandemic and landscape.
Mandeep has sixteen years’ experience of teaching with museums and arts organisations. Her own printmaking practice continued to develop exhibiting widely in shows including Society of Women Artists. She achieved the Runner Up award at Sock Gallery and Highly Commended in their recent Summer exhibition. She received an Honourable Mention Award with Circle Foundation for the Arts, Kenya, and achieved Commended in Teesside Print Prize 20. She is a member of Leicester Society of Artists.
My Maker Membership is now open for all makers wanting to explore their motivations and to build meaning and research into their practice and be part of a supportive creative community. We meet once a month and I share resources, tips and research to help you develop your own work. Find out more here.