The Ash Looks Back

While the school sessions are postponed and some activities have gone online, I’ve been quietly working away, researching and developing my own artwork ready for the exhibition (now scheduled for October instead of July). The Ash Looks Back is the title I’ve come up with to describe this body of work.

I decided when I was invited to take part in the One Ash project that I wanted to start making work about the perspective of the Ash tree itself, working in collaboration with the tree and the community of organisms that it is part of and supports, and I’ve continued that into my Ash Tree Stream work too.

I’m interested how changing our orientation to a tree changes how we think about and behave towards it. If we assume that the tree is sentient, that it can sense what is happening around it, that it is part of a wider community, not only of trees, but funghi, plants, birds and animals, how does that change the artwork that I feel drawn to make about or with that tree?

I started by attaching my camera trap to the One Ash tree on the Englefield Estate, and didn’t quite get the results I was after. The tree wasn’t on an obvious animal path and there had been a lot of disturbance in the area when other trees around it had been felled or coppiced. So I didn’t get any photos of the deer or other animals that lived there, but I did get one image of Wendy, the Andover Trees United Director.

In the end it was an important photo. We too are animals and our lives are as intertwined with trees as any other. So Wendy became the first animal to be recorded by an Ash tree… or recorded unwittingly by herself, and since then I’ve become open to the idea of people being included in the artwork too.

Recently I’ve been focusing on the Ash trees that I can reach by walking or cycling from my home in the Pewsey Vale in Wiltshire. With the Covid-19 lockdown I have my boy home from school, so he has been joining me on expeditions to locate suitable trees on our allotted daily walk/ride. We take the camera out one weekend, set it up in a promising place, and collect it again a week later.

Sometimes there’s just a couple of videos of waving branches, or a blurry badger bum disappearing out of the frame, but other times there’s 20 or 30 images or videos to look through.

Brown Hare

I’m developing new pieces out of layering different photographs together, and I’m working on a new film too. It’s a slow process, that’s in part led by the trees and animals themselves, as I have to work with what they give me. It can be frustrating and exciting and gives me a precious insight into a world that I don’t usually have access to.

I’ve shared a few examples here of work in progress, the finished film and images won’t be ready for a while, but hopefully it helps to expand people’s understanding of the value of Ash trees for biodiversity, and what we stand to lose when they’ve gone.

Covid-19: Making Some Changes to the Project

In light of the current situation with Covid-19 our plans for school sessions running through to June, and an exhibition in July at CAS (Chapel Arts Studios), unfortunately won’t be possible.

Happily though, Arts Council England have approved our proposal for a few changes to the project, meaning that we can hang on to our funding and continue to support Andover schoolchildren, teachers and families to use art to engage with local Ash Trees, and learn about associated issues such as Climate Breakdown and Biodiversity.

The main changes to the project will be as follows;

  1. The exhibition at the CAS Chapel will be moving to October (dates tbc)
  2. The third session for each of the 5 partner schools will now happen alongside the exhibition, in October
  3. We have produced two resources (Identifying Ash Trees and Making Art With Ash Trees) sharing some of our ideas for identifying and responding to Ash trees, for children and families to use at home or on their daily walks. Anyone is welcome to use these resources, whether you are connected with the 5 partner schools or not.

If you do get out and identify an Ash Tree (or even spot one from a window) please do take a photo, or make artwork about it. You can share photographs of trees or artwork with us using the #AshTreeStream hashtag on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

You can also send them to us via email with a little bit of information about them and you (where is the Ash tree? Why did you choose it? What is your name? How old are you?). We can then add them to the blog.

I may not be able to get out to walk and work with our partner schools right now, but we can share our work more widely on here and on social media and help to inspire people to get involved while they are in isolation at home.

Take care, and please do get in touch, I hope to hear from you soon…

Free Resource: Making Art with Ash Trees

Following on from my last post on Identifying Ash Trees, I’ve put together a free downloadable resource with suggested arts activities to carry out with or in response to your own local Ash trees.

As before, please do share your experiences, photos and artworks with us, either on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the #AshTreeStream hashtag, or via email so that we can post them on the blog for you.

All the images used in the resource are taken from Ash Tree Stream school sessions with the 5 partner schools. If you have any questions about the activities, please do get in touch.

Have fun and please remember to follow the government guidelines on social distancing.

Starting Out in Abbotts Ann

Thank you to Maija Liepins who has been the first person to get in contact following the publishing of our Identifying Ash Trees guide.

All words and images below are by Maija. If you’d like to share your own experiences of Ash Trees, please download the guide and share any photographs/artwork with us using the #AshTreeStream hashtag on social media or via email.

Walking this morning while the light was still fresh brightly shimmering on the river and highlighting the hedges… I collected on my phone the sounds of water, and photos of trees, starting out in Abbotts Ann, I headed toward Monxton and on the hill down into the village that was where I saw my first maybe-ash tree.

I took some photos to compare with James’ ash tree identification guide just to be sure.

I headed back home under the railway bridge and back up Duck street, seeing three more rainbows and two teddies on fences and in windows to cheer passers by.

Free Guide: Identifying Ash Trees

With the Covid-19 lockdown and school closures we wanted to support people to get out (on their one walk or cycle ride a day) and start to identify Ash trees growing in their local area.

Whether you have an Ash tree in your garden, on your street, or in your local park, we’d love you to take a photo or make some artwork, and share it with us on social media using the #AshTreeStream hashtag.

If you’re unable to get out right now, You can also share Ash trees that you can see from a window, or a favourite tree that you remember visiting before lockdown. Some people have already shared trees with us, you can see these by clicking on the Your Favourite Ash Trees category.

If you’re not sure what an Ash tree looks like, you can use the simple guide to Identifying Ash Trees that we’ve put together for you. Please download it here:

We will be making a second resource available soon, sharing different approaches to making art from Ash trees, so that once you’ve identified and located your local Ash trees, you can record them with drawings/rubbings, create a map to document your walk to/from them, or write a poem.

Please do stay safe and follow the government guidelines on social distancing.

Walking, Mapping, Tracking

Over the last couple of weeks, Becky and I have worked with Andover C of E and Vernham Dean Gillum Schools for the second time on this project (with Andover C of E it’s my third time overall as I also worked with them to say thank you and goodbye to the One Ash tree).

In both these recent sessions we have used fold-out maps on walks out of school, to record the Ash trees that we found, and the different features and wildlife that we encountered along the way.

Andover C of E is a town centre school, whilst Vernham Dean lies a few miles to the north of Andover in a very rural area. With the first school, we walked through the town and along the river, whilst with the second we visited the nearby playing field (Bury Dean, a plague burial site so the children tell me) before walking up a hill along the sides of fields to the local church.

As an introduction to each of the sessions I shared examples of different ways that maps have been made and used, by artists and others. For instance, two different maps of the Mississippi, one using colour and shape to show how its path has changed over time, and the other in the form of a long scroll, wound into a wooden case, another mapping different myths and beliefs by Grayson Perry. We talked about how maps can show you where to go, or record where you have been, can be ways of recording both physical features and thoughts/feelings.

It’s always really interesting to see what the children notice and how they choose to record/map it. Obviously the key thing we are looking out for are Ash trees, and the main way they have of identifying these at this time of year is by the black buds. Once we’ve located an Ash tree we stop and take time to look around us, and encourage the children to listen too.

On our walk through the town we passed along streets lined with shops. One child shared how he lived in a local pub, others drew the sculpture of the ship by the river, whilst a few took rubbings of river-themed poetry set into the pavement. These experiences give us a chance to start to explore Andover’s cultural heritage and the links between Ash trees and the River Anton, which together give the project its name.

In Vernham Dean a lot of the children experimented with mark-making using fallen Ash sticks, grass and soil. They noticed animal tracks in the muddy path and we offered them visual guides to help them work out which animals had made them. A tunnel made of Hawthorn and Blackthorn was named the Fairy Tunnel by the children and led to drawings of fairies being added to a few of the maps. The children have been exploring natural resources and mark-making in school in other lessons, and were clearly extending and connecting this learning whilst out on their walk.

With Andover C of E, we ended our walk at a Park near Rooksbury Mill, and made artwork to highlight the position of the Ash trees that we found there. The children are keen to do more making with found materials next time.

At Vernham Dean where the children had told us they wanted to focus on maps/posters and other forms of publicity/interpretation, we spent longer on the maps and are looking at how we can expand on these next time, perhaps creating a form of trail for local people to follow.

I really enjoy giving groups of children this kind of opportunity to share a little of themselves with us, showing us what they notice and telling us why it stands out for them, stories of local experiences linking home and family, or a fascination for snails. As one of the teachers noted, it gives time to stand back and watch the children and get to know them in a different way, and gives the children a chance to personalise the experience, making it more engaging for them and giving them the opportunity to work alongside new friends, learning from and sharing skills and ideas with one another.

In the next session we will be working with Portway Junior School again, taking a walk down to make artwork together at the nearby Charlton Lakes.

One Ash – Experiencing Connection

One Ash is a project from Andover Trees United, working with the Englefield Estate near Reading. It is from the One Ash project that the idea for Ash Tree Steam first emerged, as I discussed with Wendy Davis (ATU Director) her vision for engaging local schools in using creative ways to learn about Ash Trees, and how we could enable the children to develop an emotional connection with trees too.

Last week saw the One Ash tree being felled at an event that involved schools, artists and craftspeople coming together to celebrate the life of the tree, and explore how its wood might be used. You can read an account of the day on the Englefield Estate website.

The day before the felling I visited the tree for the third time (I had previously visited to start planning school sessions, and to develop my own ideas for artwork). This time I was to work a class of Year 3 children from Andover C of E Primary, who I had met previously during an Ash Tree Stream session.

This new One Ash session was a chance to link the two projects together in the children’s minds; bringing together the techniques for recording and responding to trees that we had experimented with in school, and applying them to this this particular Ash tree.

As Becky supported groups of children to measure the tree, learn about its root system, and consider the benefits of sustainable forestry, I offered the children an opportunity to give thanks to the tree.

On a rope around the tree we hung thank you cards, made using prints, rubbings, drawing and writing, with the children thanking the tree for a range of things, from giving us oxygen to giving homes and food to animals and birds.

Children sat between its roots whilst they made their artwork, or on nearby stumps, and when it was time to leave, two children spontaneously gave it a hug. One boy also ran back and gently placed a stone on which he had drawn a face, at the foot of the tree where he had been sitting, before backing slowly away.

On the day of the felling I was excited to share the experience with the children. As the tree came down, people cheered and clapped the foresters. For me it was a poignant and moving moment. As the tree that I had witnessed children thanking and hugging the day before crashed to the ground, I felt my chest tighten, and I walked forward to touch and quietly thank the tree myself, before taking away a few black budded twigs.

I also retrieved the stone with the face from the sawdust at the base of the tree, and handed it to the teacher of the boy who had left it there. He hadn’t been able to come to the felling and it seemed the right thing to do, to save it from being trodden into the ground, and honour the connection that he had obviously felt.

As everyone wandered back to have lunch and try out different activities at ‘Base Camp’, the wood from the tree was sawn into rounds and planks. It will now either be given to artists and craftspeople whilst green, or seasoned for a couple of years before being taken away for furniture making etc. ATU are putting together information on their website on all the artists/craftspeople involved so I will share that soon, and an exhibition of all the work made will take place in 2022.

I thought for a long time what wanted to make with my piece of the tree. First of all I felt that I wanted to make work in collaboration with the tree, rather than actually use the wood, so I tried strapping my camera trap to the trunk and leaving it for a few days, but I only got one photo and that was of a human (Wendy). Then I thought about how I could take the tree to meet people who couldn’t be there, by taking a round from the stem to events, workshops and other meetings, sharing the tree’s story and triggering conversations about trees, climate and biodiversity.

Camera Trap Photo of Wendy

So that’s what I’ve done. I have a piece from the trunk of the tree, which I have sanded on one side, and which is currently sitting in my house, waiting for its first outing. I’ve started taking photographs of the grain/rings and been exploring the similarities and differences between the wood and my own body. But primarily, I’m going to take it to different places and to meet different people whilst documenting our journey together.

In the meantime I’ve tried using my camera trap on other ash trees, with better results, and am developing a series of photographs titled ‘The Ash Looks Back’, showing the animals that live alongside Ash trees (including us). I’m going to be showing the first version of this series at the Happenings Exhibition at The Walcot Chapel as part of Fringe Arts Bath in May, and possibly at The Sylva Foundation as part of Oxfordshire Art Weeks.

In my funding bid to Arts Council England I said that I wanted to use Ash Tree Stream as a way to carry out research and develop new ways of working with trees, that wouldn’t be possible without funding. My work with the children of the 5 schools, with Andover Trees United and CAS (Chapel Arts Studios) lies at the heart of this work, whilst my research into Ash trees, and new ways of working with trees in general, gradually makes its way out to feed into other exhibitions and events.

At the same time as all this I’m (still) reading The Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It’s taking me a while as I keep stopping to add post-its and underline relevant passages, and its stuffed full of those. I’m learning a lot and I’m loving it.

At Charlton Lakes with Harrow Way Community School

Our second session with the Year 8 Art & Photography students from Harrow Way, saw us walking to the nearby Charlton Lakes, and basing ourselves around a group of young Ash trees.

Before leaving school we had recapped on the student’s ideas from the previous session, showing them how we had taken these into account in the planning for this session.

I shared images from artists such as Ana Mendieta and David Nash, who had used found materials in their arts practice in different ways, and then Becky demonstrated how to make a frame for weaving from sticks and twine.

The frames were used on our walk to the lakes to introduce the group to a way of documenting journeys and places through incorporating found materials. We wanted this session to start to make links between Ash trees and the wider ecosystem, by weaving together the different elements that make up the whole.

Once at the Lake we split into three groups and took part in three main activities:

1. Making artwork around one of the Ash trees, using found materials gathered nearby, bringing the attention of members of the public to them.

2. Looking for animal footprints around the lake, identifying them with a tracks/signs guide, and choosing the best ones for casting with plaster.

3. Using drawing with charcoal/pencil/found pigments, and photography with phones, to record the elements of the Ash trees’ local environment that stood out for each student.

After walking back to school, each student selected the photos that they wanted to be printed off, and wrote their reflections on the day, all brought together within the sketchbooks that they started during their first project session.

We finished off by discussing what we might do in our third and final session in May. One boy was keen to find out more about Ash Die Back Disease, where it came from, how long it had been in the country and what the signs are that a tree has become infected. It really struck me the way that he had started to realise that trees were living, breathing beings that could grow sick just like us.

So in our next session in May, we will revisit the subject of the disease itself, and possibly look to extend some of the activities that we have already tried out, depending on what they have moved on to with their teachers. It’s obviously a little way away so we will be keeping in contact with Mrs Collins their Art & Photography teacher, and planning through discussion with her.

Initial thoughts are that we might change the scale of the mark-making and use very large sheets/rolls of paper with mixed-media to document their experiences in groups. Or we may respond to their obvious enjoyment of creating a temporary installation around the Ash tree, by moving to a site where we can have more and larger resources available, to create large site-specific sculptures/shelters.

Teacher’s INSET: Art and Outdoor Learning

A couple of weeks ago, all the teachers from the 5 schools, plus Andover Trees United and CAS (Chapel Arts Studios) staff, were invited along to the CAS Chapel in Andover for an INSET (professional development/sharing) afternoon.

We wanted to make sure that everyone understood the thinking behind the project, had met the other project partners, and had a chance to share how things were working in practice.

The session was a combination of reminding everyone of the aims of the project, facilitating hands-on activities to explore the trees of the surrounding churchyard, and discussing the role of art and outdoor learning in the Primary and Secondary curriculum.

We explored the value of art as a way of learning about the world through direct multi-sensory experience, and the additional value of taking that learning outside to interact with our immediate environment.

As we will be holding our Ash Tree Stream exhibition at the CAS chapel from 11th to 25th July this year, it was also an opportunity to show everybody the space, and discuss with CAS Program Curator Susan Francis what might be possible.

We want an exhibition that will prioritise the voices of the children, through sharing sound/video/quotes alongside artefacts and photographs from the project sessions. The specific design/curation of the exhibition however, will be decided upon much later in the project, when we’ve seen where the project sessions and the children’s interests have taken us.

As part of our discussions on artful/creative approaches to learning, we looked at the value of child-led or child-centred ways of working. As the three sessions within each school are spaced out across the year, we want to enable the work taking place within these project sessions to ripple out into the wider school community, and on into the children’s families/homes, rather than take place in a bubble.

To do this we are aiming to engage the children in ways of exploring, noticing and making, which are relevant to them and their needs/interests. We are involving them in documenting sessions by recording their investigations in their sketchbooks, involving them in planning sessions wherever possible, and supporting their teachers to follow where this journey takes them,making links with their ongoing classroom-based learning.

‘Exploring nature with (a) child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.

…I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the (adult) seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.’

The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson

Tree Seasons, by Lucy (Year 3)

Each child that is involved in the Ash Tree Stream project across the five schools, has a sketchbook that they are using to record their experiences of Ash Trees and the ecosystems of which they are a part. We use them in project sessions and they are encouraged to take them home and use them in lessons too.

Lucy from Portway Junior School took her sketchbook home over the Christmas holidays and wrote this poem. Lucy didn’t give the poem a title, so I’ve given it a working title of Tree Seasons, until I can check with her if she has an idea for a different one.

Tree Seasons

It’s winter time and the sun shines.
The trees are bare,
they’re dark and brown;
Like giant twigs on the ground.

It’s spring time.
The flowers are growing,
and the sun is shining.
On the trees the leaves are showing,
in the branches the birds are nesting.

It’s summer time.
The sun is hot its very warm,
the trees are full of leaves.
I climb up the tree to hide
and pick apples while I play.

It’s autumn time,
the trees are changing colour;
red, orange, yellow, brown
before they fall to the ground.