The beauty of where we hold our workshops with students excluded from mainstream education is that the venue is tucked away down a two-mile track, secluded from the public and guarded by a forest of trees. For students to gain access, the usual routine is that artists meet Fermynwoods staff “at the gate,” situated at the top of the track, for 10am.
The artist then follows a hire car containing both staff and students, forming a cavalcade navigating the twists and turns through the woods, arriving at the cottage in time for a cup of tea and some hot buttered toast. After that we spend the following four hours revelling in creativity. On warmer days climbing trees and running free, while on colder occasions arguing over who’s going to gain VIP access next to the wood burner. However one day was going to challenge this familiar construct of place and time.
As artists delivering the workshops, we discuss and fine-tune our plans with the Fermynwoods team. Mine involved walking and drawing. To sketch the scene as we journeyed, using the scenery to inspire and write prose or poetry to accompany the drawings. Instead of beginning at the cottage, I requested that we started the workshop further down the road at Fermyn Woods Country Park. It seemed like a good idea at the time and the weather had been favourable. I had pictured us being a group of intrepid explorers mapping new terrain – and then it snowed.
Discussions were had. Should we change the workshop? No. Should we drive to the cottage and start the walk from there? No. Will the hire car get stuck in the snow? Yes! Will the students remember to bring wellies and warm coats and gloves? Maybe. Will they opt for more fashionable but less functional alternatives? Definitely. We took the decision to stick to Plan A. It would be an experience.
Beginning at the Country Park, we started proceedings sketching twigs and branches. Using pencils, pastels and charcoals we observed the purple and moss coloured bundled masses, which were infinitely more interesting than the blanket of green that summer typically provides.
As paper became soggy and fingers numb, we followed the path into the woods and stumbled upon one of our earlier interventions – a shed featuring songs by Corby Complaints Choir, prompting one student to protest about the cold while pacing inside this wooden monument to complaining. While this student was improvising his own vocal arrangement, another was standing under the protective boughs of the woods, quietly writing.
It was time to move on and into the open of a shining white field. The snow was deep and each step needed focus and decidedly more strength than when walking along the flat gravelled footpath. I challenged the group to notice the scene in which they now found themselves. To stand in the middle of this expanse. To take note of the change in geography and the crystallised landscape that surrounded them. To draw what they saw and experienced. To describe their own sense of place.
Toilets, tea and toast were now simultaneously calling and so at a quickened pace we sought out the security of our hidden cottage. After a hasty lunch it was soon time to return to the Country Park. Although the route across the snow-laden field was tiring, it was the quickest. But of course the students knew best. Fuelled by their own chorus of complaints, the weary troupe circumnavigated a course that took twice the time.
Despite, or perhaps because of their complaints, some beautiful work was produced. One student in particular, recently arriving from Poland, had already discovered his own sense of place in the depths of Fermyn Woods.
Landscape Poem by Jokobas
To Grab Us
And Turn Us
Out Of Breath
Look out for more Alternative Monday posts every fortnight, looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities.