Sunday 18 September 2022
Bryony Benge-Abbott’s Cultural Reforesting Journey at Orleans House Gallery
During the summer of 2021, artist Bryony Benge-Abbott completed a residency at Orleans House Gallery. Find out from Bryony what she got up to.
Wild drawing is a practice of drawing in, of and with nature. It’s about activating our senses and engaging with the motions and rhythms of the natural world through mark-making and emerged as a practice for me during the first lockdown of 2020. While it has undoubtedly helped my painting becoming more dynamic and intuitive, I have also found it helpfully grounding during this period of change and uncertainty, and so I have been sharing some of my exercises with others through well-being walks and workshops over the past 18 months.
Last summer I spent two months developing this practice at Orleans House Gallery, exploring the surrounding woodlands with groups of visitors. My research experimented with ways that mark-making can help us to feel a greater resonance with our surroundings, paying particular attention to balancing physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual engagement. It also involved walking and talking with ecologists and other practitioners who work with the land, observing the woods through their eyes to glimpse a fraction of the myriad overlapping perceptions of landscape. Inside the gallery, I shared recent paintings in the group show Remember the Future and wrote short stories to accompany each work in lieu of the usual wall text, conveying some of the memories and folklores influencing my painting and concepts of time that are currently intriguing me.
Much of my work at the moment revolves around the sensation of losing and/or finding ones self in the landscape; I am interested in the idea of dis-integration – what it means to let go of the ego so as to embody the ecocentric. I am also keenly interested in nature disconnection and the impact it has on the stories we tell ourselves that revolve around identity, belonging and community. The drawing exercises I developed at Orleans House referred to these concerns, and were anchored around themes such as camouflage, play and reciprocity. They were also inspired by two books in particular: Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths in which an Inuit man, Jimmy Echo, is quoted saying: “Violence comes from being outside nature” (raising the question for this residency, how do urban communities support ourselves to experience ourselves as being ‘in’ nature when we are living in environments that are largely concrete and glass?) and the other book, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch, ponders whether we need to be small in order to experience awe and wonder, or if in fact it is awe and wonder that makes us feel small. This question was printed at each entrance to the woods, inviting visitors to carry it on their journey through the grounds.
Over the two months I invited the public to join me in painting with brushes, sticks and leaves and drawing with whole-body movements across paper and canvas stretched and lain across the woodland. I wanted to engage the senses as much as possible, play with expectations of scale, and discover new perspectives. We peeked under plants and spotted clouds with mirrors, followed crawling insects and studied the contours of bark with magnifying lenses, and attempted to capture shadows dancing across our pages in ink and pencil. Sometimes we sat quietly on the ground, drawing mindfully with close attention to the movements, shapes and sounds surrounding us. At other times we jumped up to paint as a group, moving around large rolls of paper at the base of veteran trees to depict visible and invisible connections travelling throughout the woodland.
This particular drawing activity emerged from a talk by urban ecologist Dr Tilly Collins, a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London, who joined one wild drawing session to highlight the non-human, ‘hidden’ connections and interrelationships across the woods. Dr Collins provided a wonderfully mediative narrative on the plant/human oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange taking place around us while we undertook a drawing exercise based around mindful breath. Her observations encouraged the group to consider the dynamism of the landscape from the sky to earth, and at the end of the walk they expressed this new awareness by drawing chemical communications running through roots and travelling up the truck and through the air to surrounding the trees. The result was a beautiful abstract painting that participants said they could not have imagined creating at the start of the workshop. I often find that this is an outcome of wild drawing because the practice is something that literally anyone can do, no matter the levels of creative experience or confidence. It is all about play, letting go of inhibitions and not worrying about creating something perfect or literal or neat. By engaging breath, sound and touch, and studying the world from different perspectives – using our imagination to try to inhabit the non-human gaze, and those invisible connections – we find that the artworks that emerge are often intriguing and unexpected.
Young people find this much easier, of course. In the family wild drawing workshops I ran at Orleans House Gallery, children found their favourite trees in the grounds and the drew them. They then introduced each other them, sharing their character traits, likes and dislikes, conjuring fantastic narratives about which trees liked each other (and didn’t!) and letting the group know how their tree preferred to be greeted. It’s all about community, ultimately; finding different ways of moving through and engaging with the wider more-than-human community of our landscapes. Drawing and storytelling can be powerful tools to tap into this sense of awe and wonder at belonging to something bigger than ourselves; noticing other existences helps us become more conscious of what we are participating in
Alongside the public workshops, I walked and talked the grounds with Mishal Baig, Communications and Research Coordinator at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, where they run workshops and retreats in spiritual ecology, environmental forester and founder of Weald Woodscapes Frankie Woodgate, and Sian Jones, an Integrative arts psychotherapist and eco psychology practitioner. These conversations provided an inspiring glimpse into the ways different practitioners view and engage with the same landscape. I began to notice evidence of the history of human intervention and woodland management in areas I had previously overlooked, started to consider the symbolism and folklore of the woods, and was introduced to small rituals to connect with life cycles and seasons which I then adapted for wild drawing walks. Filmmaker Ellie Mackay joined these conversations and we will be releasing a short documentary film on the residency soon.
The two months at Orleans House Gallery were rich with conversation and creative play. I valued the opportunity to develop ‘wild drawing’ further, testing approaches and gathering immediate feedback from the public on exercises designed to heighten our sense of attunement with the natural world. The experience of focusing on one landscape for two months and inviting many different people to explore it with me through drawing further fuelled my fascination with the myriad stories we humans project onto nature, how much the meaning the landscape holds and how it can support us particularly during destabilising periods in time. I also relished the opportunity to expand my workshops so as to integrate different disciplines, such as science and somatic movement, paying close attention to what extent this expansion enhanced or distracted from the intended core experience of feeling closer to nature through drawing. As a result I am currently busy in the studio developing new approaches to wild drawing that are still focused on mark-making yet now allow story, ritual or movement to occasionally lead the experience.