In the 5th in my series of interviews with artists I’ve been talking to Carolyn Morton who is based in Birmingham. Carolyn is a participatory artist with a socially engaged practice. Her allotment plot is a rich resource for her work.
Can you tell me more about your practice and how ‘Fugitive Wild Plot’ evolved?
I’m an artist with a participatory practice working with people who aren’t artists. The making process frames a different sort of conversation, making to make sense of the world. The projects that I initiate are a reflection of the things that I need in my life. So ‘Fugitive Wild plot’ came out of working at my allotment and how I used it whilst i was artist-in-residence at St. Mary’s Hospice. It became a place to collect materials to take into the hospice as well as a space on my way home to reflect about what I was doing.
From that experience I started developing an application for Arts Council project funding for a year of action research looking at parallels between ecological restoration and our own wellbeing.
I’d been making botanical inks from the wild plants that I pulled up to diversify the planting, trying not to let any one species dominate. The plot’s unusual as it’s surrounded by hedges and planted with about 200 wild flower species. I try and balance my desire to cultivate crops with what other species need to flourish.
I submitted my application a couple of weeks before lockdown but then all Arts Council funding schemes were put on hold. A bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but I look back now and think it was quite fortunate, as it would have been an exhausting pace of workshops and community engagement alongside my research.
Lockdown has given me an opportunity to consider a smaller scale of working that looks after my own wellbeing as well as connecting and supporting others.
A couple of other projects that I’m involved in have been affected by lockdown. One is with a collective that I’m part of Feminists Work For Change. We were awarded Arts Council funds to work in partnership with Birmingham & Solihull Women’s Aid in 2 of their refuges, using art and crafts to build confidence, activate and share skills the women already have and to profile issues around domestic violence through a public awareness raising campaign.
The other is with A3 Projectspace where I have a studio. Each studio holder devised a project around community and participation and what that could look like in connection to A3 Projectspace. I was going to make eco-inks to explore the ecology of the canal towpath along by the studios in Digbeth. Throughout lockdown each of us has been reshaping what our projects are in the light of Covid-19. They’re going ahead, but they’re different. My project is going to happen at my allotment and via zoom. Still using botanical ink making and still drawing parallels between our own wellbeing and environmental wellbeing but scaled-back. I’m thinking about what a participatory practice looks like in a socially distanced world as that’s the reality that we’re all facing now.
Much of my work is about building community and participation. How will that work when we can only meet at distance and in small numbers? This time of year we can be outside, but what’s going to happen as the seasons turn? I’m trying to capitalise on what we have now to explore those questions.
Are there any particular artists that have inspired you?
With the rise of Instagram I’m following ink makers who are all around the world. There’s an American man called Thomas Little he writes beautifully about what he does, makes the most beautiful scroll drawings with his inks and is mystical, esoteric and philosophical.
Everyone has a different story about why they make inks and what they make them from. He uses alchemical and chemical processes, dissolving weapons to make ink. I think he had some sort of gun trauma in his life. (There’s another organisation called Swords to Plough Shares and they dissolve guns to make agricultural tools.) I think the stories around what people are doing are fascinating. What initially seems quite a niche interest just blossoms. There’s an American woman called Heidi Gustafson who’s been collecting earth ochres and minerals and making pigments from them for many years as a way to connect deeply with the earth. Ink making is not only a practical way to reduce the ecological impact of our arts practices’, but also to transfer the ideas, actions and processes to other areas of our life; how and what we connect with, how we balance what we need with what other species need, what we protect and what we dispose of. Circular and zero waste production reflects the ‘no waste in nature’ ethos.
Tactile, meditative, repetitive making is something that I instinctively come back to. That kind of simple making is an important way of soothing my mind so I feel into a different space and think differently.
Have you looked into the history of botanical inks?
One of the books that’s been really important to me has been ‘Make Ink – a foragers guide to ink’ by Jason Logan he makes inks from what ever is in the landscape whether it’s industrial waste or natural materials. I’m reading a book from the late 1800s at the moment, one of the earliest books on manufacturing pigments. I want to find out how to ‘lake’ my inks, to extract the pigment through a chemical reaction to precipitate the pigment. Then I can dry and grind the pigment and it will be a stable colour to be mixed with a binders depending on how it’s going to be used. I’d also be able to send them through the post to sell and to connect with other ink makers and artists.
I think arts and science are interwoven aren’t they?
Yes, it’s a cultural separation which has given science a privileged place, whereas art is often seen as something for leisure. But art is the stuff that gives our life meaning and makes life worth living. Bringing the two together can generate different and enriched ways of working, thinking and talking about things.
Are there any other ways that you create things from what you grow?
I’ve been making small woven panels with materials that catch my eye on a simple loom of cardboard and string. It’s a way of keeping a visual diary of what’s happening at the plot.
I don’t have enough time to process all of the materials that the plot generates so I’m drying a lot of materials to use later; nettles for nettle fibre, sedge which is tough and prolific, horsetail, hop vines, teasels …
My studio is full of natural materials. I remember my mother saying to us as children, which I wasn’t really interested in at the time, ‘Why don’t you make a nature table’. I would like to make the curious natural objects that I find into a sort of museum display. I’m thinking about Wunderkammers and Cabinet’s of Curiosity, making something that would catch people’s attention and tickle their curiosity.
We all enjoyed lockdown because we heard the birdsong and smelt the blossom. It took me back to childhood summers when there was less traffic and pollution. Our daily hour of allowed outdoor exercise became a special time to enjoy and connect with the natural world so much more deeply. It feels like an experience to build on.
Do you have a shed studio space on your plot?
I call it my ink shed. Part of the Arts Council application would have provided a more substantial and weatherproof studio shed. My little shed isn’t watertight or secure, but I’ve propped it up and fixed it up a bit. I think lockdown taught us a lot about making do with what we’ve got.
I have a small camping stove so I can process plants and inks there and continue at my studio or in my kitchen at home. Ink making has become another way for me to connect with people. I’ve been surprised at how many people have contacted me and want to see the plot and learn more about what I am doing.
Because inks are unstable and impermanent they will continue to change with light and heat. This also means you can modify them to change their pH and colour range. I love this kitchen chemistry and that there’s no wrong which is always a good place to be. It’s about accepting what I’ve got, rather than thinking what I want. It’s about connecting with a place and seeing what’s there. It’s simple magic.
Are there other people working creatively on your allotment?
My plot is known as the secret garden as it’s quite secluded and you enter through a hole in the hedge. I know there are other artists on the site. There’s a woman who’s been extracting clay and making wood fired ceramics. There are painters, photographers, set designers and print-makers.
Is there any thing else you’re working on?
At the start of lockdown someone who I follow on Instagram who’s based in Lancashire asked me to be part of a ‘Hexting project’ which is like Chinese whispers. 30 artists responded sequentially to a text. It was a spontaneous way of working and interesting to not be precious but instinctual.
I’m also part of ‘Materials Club’ at STEAMhouse – we’re exploring bio materials and bioplastics, which complements what I’m doing on my plot. I’m harvesting a lot of horsetail to dry and use over the winter. It makes beautiful ink because it’s high in silica and it shimmers. Every batch of horsetail ink is slightly different in colour and it deepens as it ages. I’m interested in exploring how it can be used. People dislike it and think of it as invasive. I’m interested in conversations at the intersection of gardening and culture; how we look at ‘weeds’ and cultivated plants. Horsetail sums up what I’ve always done in my practice – working with the marginalised, overlooked and those pushed to the edges.
Thankyou to Carolyn for sharing her practice and experiences of lockdown and thankyou to Arts Council England and to National Lottery Players for supporting my work through emergency funding. You can find out more about Carolyn’s projects on her website and by following her on Instagram.