During these challenging times a lot of people have unexpectedly found interest in the doorstep environment. Daily walks have made people notice nature. Even in the cities, the forces of nature have been more in evidence. A friend told me how the smell of the wall-flowers around St Paul’s Cathedral filled the air, normally swamped by petrol fumes. Everywhere the dawn chorus has been more magnificent than ever. Fruit trees this year almost exploded with blossom and because bees seem to have thrived, are now set with groaning boughs of plenty.
With the gallery closed, I too was more appreciative of nature, and had time to devote to observation and cultivation. I became quite obsessive about posting plant and garden images, weeds as well as the vegetables I was trying to nurture. A lot of Instagram friends were doing much the same, posting sunsets, field views, and these explosions of blossom. But it all felt a bit random. Admiration, yes. Intense interest, yes. And while it was all broadly appreciative, in my view it needed just a little push to make it, including me, more environmentally aware and focused. Challenging times required a challenge, so, this led to my #doorstepenvironment monthly Instagram challenges.
The #doorstepenvironment challenge
Each day in May and each week in June, I set a theme, posted an image and text and invited others to do the same. Pearce Marchbank designed me a template and I designed daily and weekly prompts to be as open-ended as possible, so that ideas could flow from them, rather than being constrained by them. The idea was to encourage people to look harder for meaning, but also for signs of environmental change.
Over the two months the #doorstepenvironment, which had not previously been used, gained over 500 posts. And it was fascinating to watch the unfolding responses. During the last couple of months, a whole host of artists have been sharing new work and insights. Some have come to me separately, but have no less been looking afresh at the world under their noses. The # has become a veritable exhibition, lively and interesting.
Big stories in tiny things
Artists have been immensely resourceful by looking harder at local detail. Sometimes they found it on their excursions, often however it was right under their noses at home. Constantly, they brought ideas to the challenge as part of a wider narrative about the environment. And consequently they enabled new ways of engagement with it. Many artists have created entire new projects. The best of them have managed to find big stories in tiny things.
Waste and sustainability
Daily waste diaries became a thing. Both @gillbliss_artist and @liz_elton became fascinated by their compost. The results were really quite different however. Gill Bliss is great at making montages. She began by arranging kitchen peelings into compositions, maximising the juxtapositions of colours, textures, shapes. Then she grouped images into a screen-block of four. Sustainability was her overall message. However, with their dramatic diagonals and colour balance, they work equally well aesthetically as a sequence of abstract images.
Afterwards @gillbliss_artist worked up the ideas further and made a film, making full use of digital mirroring to create a dynamic sequence.
Poignance of waste
In contrast, Liz Elton made a daily diary of kitchen waste, by arranging vegetable peelings into collaged images. There was colour and vibrancy in what was discarded and about to become transformed into a new resource. The images- to use a cliched phrase – made the familiar strange. But more than that, they showed in brilliant and humble ways, how there was beauty in neglect.
As well as her own discards, she added other found elements, such as flowers from a sad occasion. This added poignancy and symbolism, more overtly celebrating a moment hovering between life and death. It seemed timely for our current moment. She said
‘ those pictures of my bin during lockdown have led to a number of new conversations. I was so knocked backwards when lockdown started, but started to make connections between paintings and kitchen waste on its way to the compost. It seemed a logical extension of my practice. I really enjoyed participating in the #doorstepenvironment.’@liz_elton
Foraging research in the environment
Then there was @samhodgeart, based at @chisenhalestudios. Conducting experiments with foraged vegetable and earth pigments is part of her normal practice. However, roaming daily out and about, she expanded her research and gave it new momentum as a result of being forced into a restricted local geography. New materials emerged out of the familiar.
Sam said: ‘I really enjoyed taking part in the doorstep environment challenge. It helped me to focus on looking closely at what was around me during lockdown and to see how much was there.’
Resulting images are subtle and far transcend the mundane nature of their origins. Plus, Sam gave us privileged access to her studio. We could see work spread out there as she developed new approaches. And there was a new and bigger audience watching as the work unfolded and developed.
Specialist knowledge in a new context
Altogether, little details have acquired more significance as we have become closer to them during lockdown. One of our daily contributors, @frenchhistoricfarmbuildings, (aka Francis Kelly) is not an artist, but a buildings historian. He participated with wonderful insights into the vernacular buildings of rural France. For him, the challenge took him right to the heart of his subject. It gave a new and relevant context for him to air highly specialised knowledge.
Always informative about such details as earth-bedded wall construction, heather-insulated roofs, Gascon water-mills. He offered us a thread of expertise about a deeply rural and historical environment.
For the ‘stony path’ prompt, he brought us a shepherd’s semi-underground shelter from the Occitan. Most of the other participants were artists, so he gained followers in new fields as a result. ‘It’s like gaining friends of friends’, he remarked. ‘Thank you for the many new followers.’
Sewing into nature
@mcmcswift (aka Heidi McEvoy Swift) did a whole new project for the #doorstepenvironment, linking her sewing and textiles with nature. Every day, she embroidered images, borders, words and phrases relating to the daily prompts and photographed them. Sometimes she made textile frames for landscapes, embroidered words onto her own clothing, or worked directly onto plants.
The ‘stony path’ prompt, alluded to in the last post above, was a reference of mine to herman de vries. His exhibition in 2017 was named after the original name for Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in the Scottish borders. In response, Heidi comments:
‘I first sewed a row of stones onto this cloth and was photographing that on the stony path when I noticed how wonderful the oxalis looked coming through the stones. This is my favourite piece, because it was so serendipitous.
Her witty engagement between nature and sewing skills made these images even more poignant, and skilful. One respondent commented: ‘How did you manage that? ‘Must have been tough….. I’m totally enchanted by this project of yours’.
Ever aware of the extra meaning given to her work by its fragility, she embroidered sink or swim on delicate leaves. Both just skimming the water surface, ‘sink’ is on the brown leaf and just dips below.
Look and Listen
Her comment alongside ‘Look ‘and ‘Listen’ embroidered onto lovely pink tinged tulip leaves was, ‘Take a little bit of time. You have plenty’. About this image, made in response to the prompt ‘today’s revelation’, she said, ‘I struggled with this one as it is not straightforward how to reveal what is hidden. ‘Look and Listen’ are used here as instructions. Maybe something was revealed at the heart of the tulip.’
Of the overall challenge, she later said:
‘the challenges…. gave purpose to some work I was already trying to formulate, and cemented some thoughts about presentation and accessibility…… I had been trying to work exclusively with stitch and textiles, so decided to include that in each post as my personal challenge. I did not intend to do all 30 days, but gradually realised that it was a good way to keep focused on work at a time when everything was very difficult in so many ways.’
Time for reflection
Plenty of time for reflection is what a lot of people were experiencing. Tessa Grundon – @tessa.grundon – spent the lockdown period away from her studio in New York. Thrown back on her childhood home in London, she made highly symbolic images, loaded with memories and associations.
Her pictures of night-time wanderings, incorporated personal memories. Reflections in windows and mirrors enabled her to recall both familiar present and inaccessible past.
Pot-bound plant life
Tessa is an artist who normally uses natural pigments and vegetation. Pot-bound plant-life immediately echoed how she, along with many other people has been feeling confined. She commented later:
‘The thread pieces are made from plants in my mother’s garden using an old spindle from my childhood. I was back in my old bedroom while being in isolation looking after my elderly parents. Collecting, breaking down the plants into threads to spin and work with for a future project.
It was very meditative and soothing to be spinning again and also the idea of creating threads from my mothers garden – her greatest joy . To tie bits of time and place together, mending what is in the process of slipping away.
The sticks with lichen are from a large Robinia in the garden that my grandmother (her mother in law) had bought for her many years ago. She’s not fond of it as it is always shedding something all over the garden! But it seemed poignant to be binding the the twigs together with other elements from the garden.’Tessa Grundon
The readiness for people to see the symbolism in what they have been doing, has been fascinating and quite important. Every day rituals have changed for us all through Covid19. Not least of these has been the obsessive hand-washing we have all had to get used to.
Painter Juliet Goodden – @julietgoodden – re-focused her normal practice and become enthralled, not to say obsessed with the paraphernalia of the hand-wash.
Each day she has composed little watercolours focusing on soap, dishes, hygiene products, sinks and baths. The bird’s eye views, askance compositions and slivers of detail told a whole story about the minutiae of domestic life. Juliet Goodden’s images are private, quiet, almost reclusive.
Artists from the collective @haptic/tacit, as their name suggests, are overtly physical in their approaches. Working with soil, clay, metals, the great outdoors, they had to translate visceral experience into digital form. Tiny watercolours translate ideally onto a little phone-screen, whereas sky-scapes are much harder. Nevertheless, @haptic/tacit made great use of juxtaposition in their images to contrast different materials and to make experimental new works.
On the edge
For the ‘On the Edge’ challenge theme they compared molten and solid materials. Fieldwork brought them to the familiar topic of their next exhibitions and to ‘close observation and interaction with site or subject through making.’ Sensitive again to symbolism @kimnortondesign remarked in relation to her ‘On the Edge’ image of balancing blocks:
‘I’ve chosen this piece of work because of its weight, balance, strength and fragility. As we find ourselves at the tipping point for multiple changes on a global scale. Now is the time we must learn to listen, to nurture and to come together for the sake of the planet and for one another’.
Artistic endeavour was often as much about surprise discoveries as it was about making new work. @andhowenow (aka Andrew Howe) combed his local area both for art-making materials and for the residue of other art projects. Round the corner in his own neighbourhood he found some photogenic distressed wood works from local organisation, the Urbane Gallery. However, @andhowenow’s own developing experience with the environment generated interesting discussions.
His foraging exploits to source paper-making plants led to a discussion with other artists about sustainable art practice. He is in fact an environmental consultant as well as a multi-skilled artist. In response to @ruthredgrave’s query about acrylics being plastic=bad, he replied: ‘It’s a difficult one… many pigments and solvents are toxic… and just making stuff is often not really very sustainable but it depends on complex factors.’
This is a much bigger separate discussion we all need to have, about making practices which are environmentally sustainable. It is indeed a complex issue. However, lockdown seems to have unlocked many revelations about materials and processes among artists who have either had to reduce their geographical range, or have chosen to embrace the limits of freedom.
The ever inventive @ginaglover, a long-time exhibitor with GroundWork spent her lockdown experimenting with photographic techniques that required minimal resources. Based in the countryside throughout lockdown, the freeing up of time enabled her to experiment. ‘I felt that I finally had permission just to try things out without pressure to work to commission, to meet deadlines, to rush about in London.’
Like many other photographers in fact, she began with cyanotypes using her garden plants and weeds. Quickly wanting to experiment further, she developed into making Lumen prints. She had a stock of old photographic paper but also a new space to play with and an exciting local environment to explore. It all began from taking over a redundant storage space full of junk. At first she worked alongside the junk, and she increasingly came to embrace it.
Her experiments have turned sculptural as she makes assemblages and installations from the junk. Delighted by her discoveries of historic image-making techniques, she has increased their complexity.
Making ‘chemigrams’ finding new ways of colouring and ‘cooking’ them with plant-based mixtures, and urine.
At first she was irritated by the fact that the only way of really fixing them was to use the scanner. Now she feels that of course, this is a way to embrace new technology. There is no point in pretending it doesn’t exist, but it is there to help us to innovate.
It struck me when talking to Gina Glover that she is articulating what many others are feeling their way towards. And that is a real rediscovery of self. Lockdown, ironically has helped that. Especially for people who are happy in their own company and good at self-motivating, it has been a precious time for re-invention.
Wealth in your back yard
There is an old Norfolk legend about the Pedlar of Swaffham. A poor man hardly able to support his family, he lived in a cottage with a great oak tree in his garden. One night he dreamed that he had to travel to London Bridge where he would receive some good news. So off he went, walking for days. He arrived, hung about disconsolately and nothing happened.
Eventually he got talking to a shopkeeper and told him that he had made this long journey to hear news to his advantage. The shopkeeper laughed and said how foolish he was. He himself had had a dream that he should travel to Swaffham in Norfolk, as under a large oak tree in a Pedlar’s garden he would find a pot of gold. But of course he would not dream of wasting his time on such a ridiculous quest for no certain result. Thus, urged to go back home, the pedlar rushed to dig beneath his oak tree. There he found not just one, but two large hoards of gold which kept him wealthy for life.
This is a common kind of rags to riches story. But the moral, of course, is that no matter how far you might travel the world, you are just as likely to find treasure in your own back yard.
I didn’t have this particularly in mind when thinking up the #doorstepenvironment challenge. But it has been one of its remarkable outcomes that so many contributors have indeed found their treasure locally. Let us hope that together we can continue to find ways to be locally grounded. And that our greater local awareness can be sustainable and enable us to think about the environment sustainably – through art.
Looking back over it all now, for me, this challenge really opened new insights. It has been wonderful to see the abundance of new work, but also self-defining for the gallery too. I have been challenged by the quality and level of engagement to think of new roles for the gallery in widening environmental perspectives.