Elder Trees

As part of Age Cymru’s Gwanwyn Festival Oriel Myrddin Gallery held an outdoor art session exploring nature engagement and connection. Five tenants from extra care scheme Cartref Cynnes in Johnstown joined Emily Laurens Oriel Myrddin Gallery’s Community Art Coordinator, one of Oriel Myrddin Gallery’s volunteers Pam and photographer Heather Birnie for a meditative session on a patch of wild land.

The project has been funded by Gwanwyn and has been inspired by Oriel Myrddin Gallery’s exhibition Forest + Found: Walking the Line  which is showing at the gallery until Saturday 6 July. Artist duo Forest + Found are influenced by their relationship to the land, treading the line between art and craft.

Gwanwyn provides ways for older people to become involved in the arts and creative activities during the month of May. It celebrates the opportunities that older age can bring about, and promotes the benefits of exploring creativity, developing a critical voice and participating fully in the artistic and cultural life of local communities across Wales.

Emily:

“The area of wild land between Cartref Cynnes and Queen Elizabeth High School has a pond with a path around it and some beautiful mature trees. Docks, nettles and buttercups abound and the hedges are laden with May blossom and new leaves. The pond doesn’t hold much water but spikes of bulrush push through the mud. The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot with a little breeze. We placed ourselves on the edge of the path so that the participants could reach down and pick grasses and flowers.

Slowly participants appeared in the space, unsure of what would be asked of them, but open and willing to try something new and unfamiliar. There were some complaints – one participant grumbled about being outside “This would be much better in the craft room” and there was also the familiar chorus of “I can’t draw” “I can’t do art”.

After a brief round of introductions we dove straight into the first activity. With groups that are feeling unsure and slightly anxious I find it best to get into something active as soon as possible. The whole session was based around exploring nature through the senses and to begin I wanted to bring sound into focus. This was especially valuable to one participant who was partially sighted. When I said we were going to draw with our eyes closed he laughed and said “I think I can do that!”

So with closed eyes and in silence we drew the sounds surrounding us. The warbling trails of blackbird song, the shushing of the wind through the trees, the distant whoops and cries from the school playground. Participants used clipboards and graphite sticks which can be used any way up and are capable of making marks on all their sides and edges. The results were abstract and interesting and a conversation began around sound: the difference between man-made and non-human sounds – stories and laughter shared about the nearby bin lorries beeping at 4am alongside the dawn chorus; and the way the sounds around us seemed to surge and have lulls, even moments of absolute silence, once you tuned into it.

From sound we moved onto visual senses, all the time with an awareness of participants differing abilities. It is easy to get sensory overload in nature, there is so much to look at, so much detail. To counter this we looked through viewfinders, framing images and taking photos with our minds eye – distant vistas, close-ups, and areas of pattern. Despite the simplicity of this exercise participants really enjoyed it, relishing the chance to really look and realising the power of framing an image. We then celebrating the greenery around us making colour swatches by tearing up different leaves and sticking them onto double sided tape, finding gradients amongst the green from dark to light. Again this was an exercise in looking deeply and paying close attention to things our eyes normally skim over.

As we moved onto senses that we engage with less often on a conscious level – smell and touch – the atmosphere changed. Participants relaxed, personal stories of their relationship with nature emerged, and the feel and smell of objects promoted memories. There was a sense of deep, relaxed engagement and concentration and participants seemed less aware of Heather and her camera.

In another eyes closed activity Pam and I handed out natural objects – a rose from my garden, beach pebbles, shells – and participants held and felt the objects saying words that came to them. Gwynedd held a feather and said “Direction, this object is all about direction”. Margaret meditating on a mussel shell said “ferryboat, not perfect, oddity”. Audrey, who had been the most reluctant of our participants at the start of the session pressed a rose to her face, feeling the petals against her cheeks, and said “Baby’s skin, new born baby’s skin”. Then, still cradling the rose, she told us of her long career as a midlife and how much she had loved holding the new babies.

The smell and taste of wild garlic had Audrey telling us of her grandmother who loved nature and took her for walks in meadows teaching her wild flower names and ways to forage for and cook wild foods. Holding a smooth pebble Charlie told us about his childhood in Ferryside, the woods and beaches, and how he had a pet adder for a while which frightened his mother who found it unexpectedly in his bedroom!

We closed the session by taking advantage of the breeze watching petals and seeds blowing away in the wind. Gwynedd shook May blossom petals which settled in her hair like confetti, and Audrey threw her rose petals aloft in a moment of joyful release.”

The exhibition of selected photographs from the session by Heather Birnie will be at The Warren, Mansel Street, Carmarthen until 23 June.

 

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