Alternative Monday 25 – Art in the woods

This week’s Alternative Monday post is by artist, teacher and forerunner of our Alternative Provision programme, Barbara Rawcliffe.

My first encounter with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art was in the summer of 2008 when I met Rosalind Stoddart, who had organised a series of summer workshops for children. During lunch we talked about the possibilities of working with a group of young people who had been permanently excluded from mainstream school and who now attended the William Knibb Centre [later The CE Academy] where I taught art. I was surprised by Ros’s enthusiasm for the idea of me taking a group on a workshop doing art in the woods, but I was even more surprised by the astounded look on my Headteacher’s face when I asked for permission to take them – seemingly teachers rarely made such requests. Little did any of us know where that first encounter would lead.

The first workshop took place in Fermyn Woods Country Park with artist Martin Prothero. It was agreed that it would be a small group and that there would be backup in case things went wrong! I met James Steventon [then Fermynwoods’ Education Officer, now Director] and no one quite knew what to expect.

We visited Alex Metcalf’s Tree Listening installation, which let us listen to the sound of water being drawn from the earth and up through the roots and branches of a tree – although the students were far more impressed by Martin’s knowledge of wildlife, plant life and being able to recognise animal tracks. The only downside to the day was the constant torrential rain. Sandwiches became a soggy mess, but we all agreed it had been a great day.

Foolishly, I thought this would be an experience I could manage once a term. The Head had other ideas. The silence was deafening when she rang and asked me if I would like to take more young people out into the woods to do art workshops on a regular basis the following term, and could I organise it! I think it was the logistics that concerned me most. However, with the help of James we managed to get the long-standing collaboration between Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and The CE Academy off the ground.

Art in the woods - egg tempera

James called on his artist friend Kenneth Martin to take a session that involved taking tree rubbings and making charcoal and fire – always a huge hit with our students. Artist Rebecca Lee took a session creating soundscapes and walks listening to music through headphones.

James led the third session which involved tiny canvases and making egg tempera paint to a 14th Century recipe, with pigments made from the earth, including a piece of lapis lazuli he had bought in Egypt.

This was our very first collaboration. Although at times the learning curve was steep, it was considered a success overall. Needless to say the Head and the students wanted more. From then on, the collaboration between Fermynwoods and The CE Academy has grown and developed.

The Alternative Provision programme provides much more than art in the woods to many young people whose lives have not always been easy. In an environment of kindness and understanding, interacting socially with artists and their work, it has enabled students to develop skills, knowledge and understanding of both contemporary art and life, without fear of failing.

Barbara Rawcliffe

Art in the woods - photography

This post concludes our Alternative Monday series, looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities over the past 10 years. The programme itself continues into our eleventh consecutive academic year.