Access laws

Until two months ago I lived in a pocket of England particularly well served with footpaths and access land. Having moved a few miles north just for a few months because of housing issues, I am shocked by how constraining the footpaths are, and the field edges are all marked with ‘Keep out no right of way’ signs.

In Scotland there is far better public-facing legislation around access to land. There is no such crime as ‘trespass’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trespass_in_English_law) A person is legally allowed to wander across most land, as long as they do not cause damage or intend wrong purpose. A change in the law in England in line with that in Scotland would be transformative of local people’s relationship to land, our sense of belonging to a place, and would certainly be a fairer interpretation of what it means to own land (such that one can own its productivity, but not its place-ness, not its being).

So much land has been removed from common ownership by dubious methods that a legal return for the ‘commoners’ to at least go and look at it would surely be fitting. In England, land access rules are still overwhelmingly written for the benefit of the landowner. So much of this land was (essentially) stolen from common ownership in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and since that time there has never been enough of a real argument about what it means in moral terms to own land – rivers, woodland, beaches, fields. To my mind there is a fundamental problem with the idea of owning large tracts of land, not least when it overly distorts and diminishes what a landowner’s neighbours can do in proximity to the places  they live. In Wales they are debating a change in the law to coincide with Scotland. (https://www.thebmc.co.uk/access-charter-for-wales) So, why not England?

Neither the Ramblers Association nor the Open Spaces Society feel there is much chance of a change in the law in England currently. In response to my queries I received replies that said “we cannot see this realistically happening with the current government and other campaign groups” and “I suspect it would be a non-starter here”. Why are people in England any less deserving of access to our local places? I presume one issue is that the more conservative population of England tend to preserve the status quo. But is it also that people here are surburbanised, occupying their own little house-unit full of gadgets, working all hours to get their hands on a house in the first place, and then fighting off perceived threats to their little ‘castle’ from all comers, and ignoring the rest?

In short, is there an appetite for change here?

Landowners hold what I believe to be unreasonable levels of control and power over their neighbours’ activities. My current landlord, who owns several farms in the area and rents out the cottages and farmhouses on all of them, has recently brought in a no pets clause, partly to stop tenants with dogs thinking that they might have access to walk around the edges of the fields! People need to feel entitled to walk over land. We should be allowed to explore, to meander, to be led by our curious eyes and noses, to belong in and to the landscapes we love. Personally, I kind of count myself part of the wildlife. I am not a natural rule breaker, but to me this freedom is fundamental.

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Woodland Portrait Project (field notes)

Fiona MacDonald

Woodland Portrait Project

Peacock Visual Arts 11 April – 23 May 2015

Field Notes for visitors, by the artist

This exhibition is the first public showing of new work made as the result of my persistent engagement with one smallish, ordinary-extraordinary wood near the M25 in Kent. This wood (actually two interconnected woods and some scrub and steep pasture) is on the hills between my house and the motorway and is on the North Downs. I plan to spend several more years exploring with/in, and learning, this particular place.

The exhibition Woodland Portrait Project at Peacock Visual Arts is conceived as one large, multidisciplinary installation. It aims to mirror the discovery and detail in woodland. I place one thing alongside, against or even inside another, to evoke how disparate large and small things nest and entangle to produce a unique ‘ecology’ in wooded space. It does not attempt to be a scientific or objective or realist study, rather it is very personal exploration of learning a place and becoming-with a place, by making art with and in and through it.

The large sculptural hanging drawings are tree portraits, but portraits more ‘with’ than ‘of’ the tree. Each one is made by encasing a section of tree in my chosen paper, and then making a rubbing of the bark with graphite. This is making that requires touch, literally rubbing up against a place – thus a meeting of bodies, a co-production. There is an indexical relationship between the drawing and the tree, which I think is stronger than that of a photograph. These rubbed marks are made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite. The tree and me meet here on this paper. What is produced by that meeting is the artwork, but also a transformation of our relationship. The tree becomes individuated, personified. As my project carries on into the future, my aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood (I have counted twenty-three so far) but the trees are approached as individuals, and acknowledged as co-creators of the piece.

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Tucked in and around the ‘trees’ in this show are responses to lots of other aspects and beings that populate these particular woods. There is a ring of sculptures that look something like dancing figures. The shapes of these sculptures are derived from woodland flower petals, one from the Common Spotted Orchid, and the other from one petule of the conical Bugle, both of which species are relatively common in the chalk-hills of the Kent Downs. Each shape is made from four colours, because they are cast in the four soils types I have dug up from the woods (Kent has a notoriously complex geology, having intricate layers of sedimentary rocks and soils laid down by successive river basins and shallow seas). Each of my soils was dug out and made visible by an animal – the yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud from a molehill. I am not sure where the ash came from, but I do know that during World War Two, these woods were heavily used by the army, and I find metalwork (billy cans and the like) that date from this time lying about, and even one shattered shell casing still sits grimly among the bluebells. There are lots of craters as well.

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The hinged painting Vixen Fight elaborates an event that happened last summer, when foxy screeching made me investigate up the hill, to see two foxes starting at me somewhat guiltily, luminous in the torchlight, eyes ghostlike and shining. I had been reading a book about foxes, which described a fight between two vixens in the mating season. In my imagination, these two instances coalesced.

The two metal wall brackets hang works made in a similar way (using a process of exchange and accretion) but with different creatures. The larger brackets hang Foxhole Polygon. The muddy painting you can see is one of two shaped canvases I sewed in the Autumn of 2013. The other one was made out of linen, and sized with rabbit skin glue, a traditional painter’s medium used to protect material against the damaging effects of oil paint. I left these either side of a foxhole. The linen one got mightily scuffed up straight away, and within a week it had disappeared. The one you see stayed out all winter and I retrieved it in the Spring.

Foxhole Polygon  Snaketrap Drawings

The smaller brackets hang Snaketrap Drawings. The paper had graphite and King Alfred’s Cake, a dry blackish kind of bracket fungus, which produces good pigment when it spores, grated onto it before I hid them under snaketraps (squares of metal or carpet that wildlife enthusiasts use to entice snakes to warm up under so they can count, not catch, them) on the nature reserve. I can’t promise that the snakes made the marks you see, but slowworms definitely enjoy using these places, I’ve seen them several times. And I’ve seen grass snakes, but never yet the adders for which the nature reserve is famed. I fear slugs may be responsible for the holes though. Enormous, orange slugs.

The photos and videos bring a little bit of the ‘real’ into the exhibition (and are used sparingly as the real is a tricky business). I am interested in the marks made and the traces left by all the living beings that use this wood, humans included. I think of myself as acting alongside these other creatures: making, building and drawing in the landscape. There is quite a lot of human rubbish too, bottles, cans, packets and the like. I couldn’t bring myself to include photographs of that here, as it’s just too depressing, and you know all too well what it looks like, it’s everywhere.

  08-Touching-Roe West-Hill-Flint

I have learned quite a bit by looking at poo. Badgers have a very varied diet. But often they have a LOT of one thing at one meal. They like to pile up different poos on top of one another in small holes called latrines, so you really get to see the contrast in what they had for their dinner that day. Foxes, on the other hand, like to poo in prominent and decorative places… to adorn the top of a hump, or log. Once I saw a fox poo on top of a mound of horse poo, which seemed rather – rude?

The video called Animat is rather different. It came about because I placed a painting I had made on the floor of the woods over a small bush to dry, so I could roll it up and take it back to the studio. But then I got fascinated at the way the wind animated the painting. It got under and into it and made it appear to breathe, to become animal. I hope it brings something of that in-the-moment experience to the gallery – brings a little of the wind in to get under and into the exhibition.

video available at: https://vimeo.com/86404090
My aim for this research is to interpret and promote a world view that is less anthropocentric, and which highlights “the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter, 2010 p.11) such that we can see beyond the end of our noses to the vitality and significance of the nonhuman world that surrounds us. It isn’t there for our benefit. It follows a different agenda, has its own frames of reference, its own purposeful and playful activities.

All the smaller paintings on paper were made in the woods, and sometimes with the woods, in the sense that they are drawn with berries directly onto the paper.

One paints the shadows as they passed across the paper on my knees. One paints birds flitting about in the bushes. One the light and shade across the fields from the top of the hill. None of them are really representational, but they are evocative. As an artist, I think that it is a fine thing to be captivated by a good view, but it can become a problem if one is interested in the view without any real imagination of or care for what it actually contains – with who actually lives there (by which I mean creatures and plants of all sorts). Romantic Sublime painting of the 19th Century helped persuade people to love and value the wild and beautiful places of Britain, where before they had found them frightening. Most people lived much more rural lives then, and understood what a cowslip was (they look like tiny ladies’ bloomers with yellow frills, but what is a ‘bloomer’ anyway, you may well ask?). Concentration on the glory of big views can obscure so much, including the very problems that created the views, like deforestation and overgrazing by sheep. In woodland, the big view is rare (especially in summer months). Instead you get thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.

That’s why I wanted to get down into the mulch and squelch of the bluebell and to put my fingers in the badger’s footprint. I want to touch this place, hunker down into it as much as I can, and practice being very thoughtfully a body among other bodies, more similar than different.

Fiona MacDonald lives and works in Kent. She was Abbey Fellow in Painting at the British School at Rome in 2011. Previous solo shows include Works from the Mirrored Series at 10 Gresham Street 2011, Morphology at Maddox Arts in 2009, Anthropoflora at Long and Ryle 2007 and Habitat at Phoenix Arts, Brighton in 2006. She trained at Chelsea College of Art and Leeds Metropolitan University.

Kinship

I’ve been away from my ‘own’ woods for a few weeks, frolicking on a SVA Forest Studio residency in King’s Wood (see two previous posts) and this morning went up the hill for a run, but needed to start slowly and thoughtfully so as to get a chance to reconnect. As I climbed the hill I was thinking about the equality of ontology of human versus nonhuman being (via reading Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, and whilst looking at my hand as it touched the leaves) and about how we grow into and belong to a place. I was thinking about the woods where I grew up (also in Kent, but only just, on the border with Sussex) and how I belonged to those woods and fields, or in them, more than their current so-called (what does it even mean) owners (who always seem to catch me out and accuse me of trespassing if I go back for a visit) because I grew up there, and so they are part of the psychological/developmental structure of my being. But then I thought that these ‘now’ woods, these Shoreham woods, had also become part of a significant shift in my development, and in some way a cause of it. Then this personal pondering transferred to a thought about the way that human beings evolved within and through shifting complex entanglements with other life forms, which although in some ways discreet or distinguishable from us, have become what they are within, alongside and around us, and us them. That what we currently are in evolutionary terms cannot be separated out from these other bodies.

This made me want to lead on to a thought about the distinction between life and non-life, in a way that Bryant does not agree with, and which as yet I cannot tell whether is a product of naturalistic naivety on my part, or an instinctive but important insight into why life is different from non-life (I think there is not a clean break between the two but there is a continuum of liveliness, and a difference in kind between a mouse/geranium and a shoe/toaster). The thought was that we are more kin to all living things than we are to the things we design and create ourselves because we have evolved alongside, in, over, under and around them for millions of years, and so they are written in to us (we share common genetics, common ancestors) in ways similar to that of our families.

Where this thought leads I have yet to explore. For example, most man-made objects are made of natural materials, however transformed, so that means that they share genetic information. And along another line of argument, families can be bloody and tricky, whereas friendship can be infinitely sustaining (if the analogy expands to man-made objects being our ‘friends’, as oppositional to ‘family’, which is deeply dubious anyway)… I had hoped that Tim Ingold would provide my full answer to the problem, but as yet I am uncertain, or not quite grasping his thinking correctly, as it seems to swerve back and forth from the convincing to the unconvincing. I should provide instances of this, but I’d have to re-read it and I haven’t got time today (you can translate that as I want to go to the studio) but I will return to it.

Ant-ics

It’s been a day of happy ant-ics in the forest studio.

Yesterday on my wanderings I found a magic place full of huge wood ant nests. There were perhaps 15 nests in the space of half a football pitch, and the nests were up to 130cm high, five times the size of the ones I painted with the other day. So today I went prepared with plenty of coloured paper, blue watercolour, video camera and tripod. Each nest was assigned a different colour paper – only 7, not all of them. Each nest reacted a bit differently, as I had noticed before with the pair. Some are far more aggressive, and swarm the paper, rushing into the wet paint as soon as it appears, but others are far more cautious or chilled, only a few getting onto the paper, and seeming loathe to go near the wet patches. In one nest, they swarmed on to the paper very fast but stayed in the dry corners, as if surveying the scene! Another difference is that some ants have drooping bottoms that pick up the paint, and ‘draw’ thick woobly tracks, whereas others only pick up paint on their feet, leaving skittering little marks and lines. The most aggressive nest made an incredibly hallucinogenic painting, incredibly intense, till there was hardly any paper left showing. Another major distinction between the paintings is that on some nests I can reach the relatively flat top but in others I have to place the painting on a slope, meaning the paint drips in different ways. I am a bit in love with wood ants now, despite a couple of really vicious stings (I reckon I deserved it).

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I have been reading up online, and there are some fascinating explanations to some of the things I mention.

Here, as explanation of so many large nests occurring close together:

“Wood ant colonies occur in two forms; monodomous (single nest colony)/monogynous (one queen per nest) colonies and polydomous (a network of many nests)/polygynous (many queens per nest) colonies. It is thought that new colonies are all monodomous and monogynous. Over time, the colony matures and becomes polygynous. Having a surplus of queens means that this single nest can now “bud” off, creating satellite nests surrounding the original “mother” nest. Worker ants, food and brood are often transferred between the satellite nests and the original nest and this can help nests in unsuitable habitats persist by having a “helping hand” from their neighbouring nests. Overtime an area can be colonised by multiple nests, all connected together in a polydomous network. Nests can reach hundreds of mounds per hectare under the right conditions!”

This is super interesting as I was watching the thousands of ants that continually swarm about the forest floor, wondering how they distinguish their own nest from the nearby nests, as surely ants from different nests are crossing paths all the time? And also, are they not territorial? SO that explains that – they are not in competition as it is all one huge colony.

Also, (see below) I knew that ants milked aphids, and have watched endless columns of ants climbing up and down tree trunks – of broad leaf species to be fair as well as conifers but I have never read the detail. ALSO this also explains the ants with the fat bottoms trailing in the paint– they are the ants returning from honeydew collection, with their ‘abdomen’ full to busting of honeydew. Honeydew is a sweet nectar-like liquid aphids secrete after feeding on plant sap.

“Ants “milk” the aphids of their honeydew, and in return protect the aphids from predators and even move them to better feeding grounds. Wood ants are commonly seen moving up the trunks of pine trees, sometimes 30m tall, to collect honeydew from pine aphids living high in the tree canopy. With abdomens distended from honeydew, the ants return to the rest to regurgitate honeydew for the queen and other workers.”

As regards the ethics of my activity, I realise that it is not strictly kosher to interfere with wood ant nests. I aim to be gentle in my approach, using just paper and watercolour, all removed after about 10 minutes, but yes, some do die by drowning in the paint, and sometimes their friends come to try to drag them out, with greater or lesser success, which is pretty heroic, and distressing. Some clench onto my paintbrush with their mandibles with such force I can no way shake them off – they can lift 100 times their bodyweight! But then again, I expect I kill more ants without even realising it just by walking around. There is a closely related species of formica rufa called the blood-red-enslaver! These pirate on neighbouring ant nests and enslave the inhabitants to raise their own young. So, um, hey.

Here are some more ant facts (all this info is from http://www.woodants.org.uk):

Wood Ant Facts

World records

  • There are more ants roaming around the world than any other creature on the planet.
  • The combined weight of all the ants on earth would total more than the combined weight of all the humans.
  • A healthy forest has around 500 wood ants for every square metre.
  • If a human could run as fast as an ant for its size, it would be running as fast as a thoroughbred race horse.
  • They can lift 100 times their own weight. The human equivalent would be for us to carry a bus.
  • Relative to their size, ants have the largest brain of any insect.
  • A human brain has 10,000 million cells. An ant brain has 25,000. So a colony that has 40,000 ants is equal to one human bran.
  • It has been calculated that an ant’s brain has more processing power than the computer that controlled the first Apollo space missions.

Colony Life

  • The whole colony acts as one organism with interchangeable roles.
  • Colonies for the most part are all female.
  • The life expectancy of a worker wood ant is only 60 days, males only a few weeks, but queens can live 15 years or more.
  •  Queen ants sleep for up to 9 hours a day. Workers have to make do with power naps!
  • Wood ants are right-handed! Or rather footed!

Nesting

  • Wood ants are solar engineers in that the different aspects of nest construction maximise thermoregulation. They also sunbathe on top of the nest on sunny days to absorb heat which they then release in the brood chamber.
  • As well as a loft insulator, the thatch is waterproof.
  • In autum, the nest can generate enough heat to melt a light dusting of snow.
  • Wood ant nests are home to many other insects – some welcome, some no so welcome! Many of these nest dwellers are found no where else.
  • Pine resin has antibacterial properties, so by incorporating this into their nests, wood ants are protected from bacteria and fungi that could otherwise harm them.

Feeding

  • A wood ant colony can consume more than 20,000 prey in a year.
  • Wood ants use sight and smell to navigate. They have remarkable memories for after hibernating for 6 months they will still remember routes to foraging grounds.

Defence

  • They can spray formic acid 12 times their own length.

Forest Studio day 1

Stour Valley Arts Forest Studio Residency

19.8.14

Arrive with John at lunchtime in two cars, the SVA car is a white escort with a decorative green layer of mould.

We walk, ostensibly to see the ancient yews, but inevitably go the wrong way. The roads through the woods are so big and hard gravelled it feels unsatisfying. I am nervous of ticks when going into long vegetation, and think I see one on my top, John doesn’t believe me. Near the furthest end of our walk three dark (sika?) deer bound across our path. They seem bigger than Harry the fallow stag to me. We cross over the lane and try for a loop of path that looks like it will bring us back home without walking on the road, but get entangled and confused. The view at the end of the path we are following opens up into a dry valley punctuated by an amazing line of poplars, so regimented as to look alien in the curving landscape, but in their own way incredibly lovely, and a good contrast. We hide from the view as we are probably trespassing, and follow a muddy track that seems to have been scraped out by a machine with caterpillar tracks. In amongst the caterpillars are really clear deer hoof-prints and fox paw-prints. Also a great fox poo – encrusted and shiny with beetles.

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We get increasingly lost and try to get out to the road through a nursery but the fences are too high and we have to double back and climb through brambles into a field and finally home to the studio.

Our first night here is so luxurious, it’s incongruous in the prefab office feel of the studio. John makes rabbit and chestnut stew, parsnip and potato mash and green beans, cooked (except the stew was made earlier at home) on the tiny two hotplates, with smokily delicious elderflower champagne. Everything is foraged or grown and made by John. I am not sure my art can match up to his bounty. I brought a bloody pizza with me, despite having read that there is no oven, but forgot to bring my homemade courgette soup. Doh.

20.8.14

My first trip out properly, and I’m heading for the yews again. I see where we took a wrong turn yesterday on the map, but still end up confused and (briefly) taking a wrong turn further on. It is a glorious sunny still day, incredibly peaceful. On one sunny ride I see about 20 dragonflies zooming around like WW2 aircraft. And 2 green woodpeckers dipping along, and butterflies, especially red admirals, skimming and gliding glamorously. Except the one that seems inordinately interested in the muddy path, flying in successive 2” hops and seeming to try to eat mud.

I find the yews, at least I find several yews after about 2 hours, though none as stately and perfect as Shoreham’s to be honest, and none quite as perfectly proportioned for my painting installation idea. I will probably try to make it anyway, but it could be one of those plans that is better sidelined in preference for something spontaneous.

With that in mind I make a quick pair of paintings in response to a pair of wood ant nests. They are next door to each other on the edge of a ride, and similar in size and shape, but the ants’ reaction to having a piece of brown paper placed on their nest and my painting on it (in watercolour, not harmful) was really different. Nest A went crazy at the painting, swarming over the paper, up the brush, all over my feet etc, and all the tiny flicky marks in the painting were made by the ants charging about. I could hear the mad tappy-tapping of all their little feet – it was unnerving and a bit scary to touch the picture. Nest B were far more chilled, just 20 or so ants investigated, and they seemed more timid, more likely to run away from the moving brush than attack it.

Nest-ANest-B

On the way home I picked a couple of broom stalks to use as a brush. I think this must have been partly inspired by Andrew Graham Dixon’s programmes recently on Chinese art, watching the calligraphy / brush painting, but also that my long floppy swordliner has become far and away my favourite ‘feral painting’ brush. My broom ‘brushes’ are very scaggy and unrefined, but that’s what made the marks interesting (on yellow paper, back in the studio). I might try to do more, with different ‘brushes’, out in the woods, perhaps abstract, or perhaps looking at something. Maybe each ‘brush’ makes just one painting? And is shown with it as part of the work…? It reminds me of the Tim Knowles series that I love and envy, where he tied graphite/charcoal (really would this work or did he cheat?) to the ends of twigs and set up an easel in the way, so that a tree made a drawing when blown by the wind. Different species of tree made quite different marks/drawings. Genius.

Talking of genius, I also started (finally) to read Feral by George Monbiot. What a brilliant man, how inspiring, exciting , and well researched this book is. My coining the term of ‘feral painting’ was inspired by the title of his book, and I have read spin-off articles –see this about the incredible ecological effects of the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone. And the year so far that has been spent in thinking about what feral painting might be /mean/involve has me realising ever more that the rewilding that has to happen is, first and foremost, of myself. Two snippets that jump out: George paddles out to sea in his kayak until some alteration/emptiness he is looking for happens in him “Here was my shrine… in which I freed myself from knowing” (p.16) and “Rewilding has no end points, no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem or a ‘right’ assemblage of species would look like.” (p.10) It is extremely difficult not to look for a ‘right’ answer when making art. Sometimes to rewild my ideas of what painting is/can be, I need to move counter to the aesthetics to which I am instinctively attracted. I cannot plan out what feral painting should look like, just follow the cues and experiment, and try to move/act in the place of not knowing.

Social Engagements in Aberdeen

I’ve been in Aberdeen for a couple of days to do a site visit for my show at Peacock Visual Arts next April. I will be exhibiting the first results of my (potentially infinite) project to make an ‘expanded portrait’ of the woods at the top of my hill. The macro structure will be created by rubbings of trees. These sometimes huge, fragile, sculptural drawings will hang ‘in space’ from the ceiling. Around them will be situated paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos, working towards building an ecology that mirrors the complexity of scales, surfaces, interactions and activities in the woodland. Some works are observational but not all, it is about the mingling of human and nonhuman, in an experiential and imaginative dialogue, rather than attempting a document that resembles a science experiment.

Alongside the show I’m hoping to get involved in some local ‘forest school’ type activity. I met with Stephen Bly, Aberdeen’s renowned Woodland Ranger, and he was kind enough to show me around some of the urban woods and talk about his projects, and how some southerner, middle-class, artist-female might be of any use or interest to his clients (my words/questions/fears not his, I hasten to add). What really impressed me was how he responded to these anxieties: that my inexperience in ‘outdoor learning activities’ would place me alongside the group better than skilling up and practicing before I get there; and that being alongside people was the only way to begin. It isn’t too common to find people, other than hands-on makers and artists, who are so confident with the power of not knowing. He’s quite a guy.

That evening, in the pub with Peacock’s director Lindsay Gordon and artist Anthony Schrag, the discussion got around to the joys, woes and anomalies of ‘socially engaged practice’. Schrag’s practice spins things around to show them up – see Legacy where he kidnapped all the city councillors out to a tent in the park to make them available to the people they were meant to represent. He said there ought to be socially engaged practice for rich people, then shot off to sort out his event in Northfields leaving Lindsay and I to argue the toss about some spiny problems, which to be honest we gave up on after the second pint, as I became a good deal less coherent. But it left me asking some questions of myself.

What is the point of social engagement in art? Why do this workshop project? Is it to benefit me/my career, or the gallery profile, both of which arguably tie in to funding one way or another? Or some half-arsed notion of helping poor people, in which case probably something else would be more useful. It would be reasonable to accuse me that the workshop is an add-on and not the main event, but having said that, I am keen to do it. For me, the ‘mission’ isn’t ‘to benefit poor people’ but to promote a mutually beneficial relationship between people and their natural environment. The distinction is important because it is about the welllbeing of the stuff and beings of that natural environment as much as it is about the people who live there.

The practice, activity and research that goes for me under the banner of Feral Painting; all this activity of reading, acting and reflecting with which I’m engaged, is about this relationship. The practice is hands-on experimentation in tripping myself up in my own assumptions and habits, to make myself more feral: more intimate, thoughtful, insightful, aware, playful, to become more deeply (perhaps oddly) engaged with my environment. And to share this with other people, and infect them with this desire to look at, explore and love their local natural spaces, and the myriad lives being led in them.

Returning to my earlier beef about how humans privilege the view over the living contents of a place (in feral vs the forces of convention) t is well expressed in this dichotomy between the terms landscape and place “Landscape is ‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be viewed from one spot… an intensely visual idea’, with the viewer looking on from outside, whereas ‘places are very much things to be inside’” (Fiona Stafford, quoting Tim Cresswell, in The Landscape of Ossian p53, in The Obsidian Isle, catalogue of the touring exhibition by Gayle Chong Kwan, Graphical House 2011)

I plan to do this through the art objects, exhibitions, publications I make of course, but art world lingo only speaks to a certain sort of person. I am beginning to suspect that the border between art and non-art might present increasingly useful and challenging opportunities. These opportunities are a bit scary and might be a total disaster of course, but that is the ways of unfamiliar things.

‘A Damn Nuisance’

The shift in the ‘why’ of my art practice might be fairly subtle from the outside, but is pivotal from inside. It has changed from ‘who I am’ to ‘what I stand for’. My greatest personal role model, at a level I will doubtless never achieve,  is my Great Aunt Pat. Not famous. But well-loved and well-known for her tireless work on behalf of open spaces, footpaths, access to green space, and to the beauty and dignity it affords for people, and the respect it affords the natural world. ‘A principled belief in what is ‘right’ underpinned her lifetime of activism, ranging from anti-apartheid marches to wanting wire-cutters as a Christmas present for clearing footpath obstructions.’ (from her obit by fellow footpath activist Kate Ashbrook).

She had immense time for, interest in, and generosity towards friends and family, but was absolutely fearless in the face of authority. Her local MP Bob Marshall (Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010) described her as “the constituent I most admired… and most feared”. He nominated Pat for a Local Hero award, and when she would not countenance this, he had to explain why he thought she deserved it more than others and said “ You are what I most aspire to be as an MP. A damn nuisance!”