A community project by Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Carmarthen.
By Emily Laurens
When you come into a space with the intention of engaging with nature it changes the way you behave. You look in a different way, you notice things you might otherwise overlook, you breathe in the scents, sounds and sights more fully.
On a beautiful May afternoon I met Oriel Myrddin Gallery volunteer Pam and photographer Heather Birnie on a piece of land beside extra care scheme Cartref Cynnes in Johnstown for Oriel Myrddin Gallery's project Elder Trees // Coed Hynaf.
This patch of land is tucked away beyond the manicured gardens and lawns. It has a pond with a path around, beautiful mature trees, scrubby areas and patches of wild flowers and grasses. The hedges are laden with May blossom and new leaves, the air heavy with scent from the hawthorns and buzzing with insects. The pond doesn't hold much water but spikes of bulrush and yellow flag are pushing through the mud. Later the participants tell me that in winter there are ducks.
We prepared for the session by collecting leaves and flowers, stones and feathers. Setting out the chairs I noticed how I was moving at a slower pace, feeling the effect of the greenery and stillness.
The project has been funded by Gwanwyn and has been inspired by Oriel Myrddin Gallery’s exhibition Walking the line by Forest + Found. Artist duo Forest + Found are influenced by their relationship to the land, treading the line between art and craft. Walking the Line is on at Oriel Myrddin Gallery until 6 July. 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.
Slowly participants appeared in the space, unsure of what would be asked of them, but present and inquisitive. 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 anxious I find it works to get into something active as soon as possible. So we began to explore nature through the senses. We started with sound. This was a good starting place for 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 around us. The warbling trails of blackbird song, the shushing of the wind through the trees, the distant whoops and cries from the adjacent school playground. The results were abstract and surprisingly similar and a conversation began around sound: the difference between man-made and non-human sounds – stories and laughter about the nearby bin lorries beeping at 4am alongside the dawn chorus; and the way that when you tune into it the sounds around us seem to surge and fall, with moments of absolute silence.
From hearing we moved onto visual senses, all the time with an awareness of participants differing abilities. To counter the sensory overload of nature in spring with its myriad details we looked through viewfinders. As Heather framed participants through her camera lens they found distant vistas, detailed close-ups, and areas of pattern, framing images and taking photos with their minds eye. Despite the simplicity of this exercise participants loved it, relishing the chance to really look and realising the power of framing an image. We then focused on the green surrounding us tearing up leaves and sticking them to double sided tape to make swatches, finding gradients amongst the green from dark to light. This was an exercise in looking deeply and paying close attention to things our eyes often skim over.
As we moved onto the senses that we engage with less often, at least consciously, the atmosphere changed. Participants relaxed, stories of their relationship with nature emerged, 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.
Pam and I handed out natural objects – a rose from my garden, beach pebbles, shells –participants closed their eyes took the objects and said whatever 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 for some minutes, feeling the petals against her cheeks, finally saying “Baby's skin, new born baby's skin”. Then, still cradling the rose, she told us of her long career as a midlife and her love for 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 the meadows on the banks of the Twyi teaching her wild flower names and ways to forage for and cook wild foods. Holding a beach 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 a selection of photographs from the session by Heather Birnie will be at The Warren, Mansel Street, Carmarthen from May 24 – June 23.
Funded by Age Cymru’s Gwanwyn Festival.