The final in my series of artist’s interviews is with Richard Shilling and Julia Brooklyn who work both individually and collaboratively as land artists. In 2017 I invited Richard and Julia to work as resident artists on the allotments and community garden at Boundary Way in Wolverhampton. They led sessions with local schools and artists and we had a memorable time working outside and chatting about artistic process and the value of creativity to health and wellbeing. It was lovely to catch up with them both earlier this year about the impact of lockdown and social distancing on their plans.
How have you been getting on over the past few months?
Prior to the lockdown we went to Milwaukee – we were invited there for a couple of weeks during January, and then we were due to go to Texas for a festival in March, so we stayed out there, rather than coming home in between to reduce our carbon footprint… we moved from a very cold climate to warm weather in Texas. We’d been busy making art and living in a bubble, I was keeping abreast of the news back home but it seemed, despite all of us being aware of the pandemic, it wasn’t until the March that actual circumstances were beginning to change.
In Texas at the Llano Earth Art Festival we were with artists from all over the world, Canada, the US, Australia and many parts of Europe. It was interesting to witness the consciousness change, it really felt like human beings the world over, beyond the places like China, Korea and Taiwan who were ahead of us, were realising what we were facing. Governments were now taking action and all of a sudden, right in the middle of the festival we had to fly home and that’s been the situation ever since. All our bookings were cancelled for the foreseeable future so we went from being isolated from reality creating in the Milwaukee snow, sunshine in Texas to lockdown at home.
Also we were due to go to Mexico for 5 weeks for another festival, straight after Texas. It was a whirlwind so it was a bit of a shock to go from all that straight to the weirdness of what we all experienced here at home
Can you tell me more about the work you made in Milwaukee? The snowy photographs looked amazing
It was great. We were put up in an apartment in a place called Lynden Sculpture Garden for two weeks and we basically had the place to ourselves until the end of that fortnight when they had a winter festival where we, along with other artists, entertained the public making snow art with them.
Yes, when we arrived there was old melted snow there but the next day and night it snowed a lot giving us fresh stuff before getting really cold with wonderful blue skies. Where we are on the North West coast in Lancashire, when there’s snow, which is rare, the temperatures are often not all that cold so the snow doesn’t hang around for long. So it was a real treat to have freezing temperatures and snow on the ground for several days and a large park to play around in. Ice and snow are fascinating substances as the ambient temperature makes a big difference to what you can create. The lower the temperature the more ice will stick to things whereas snow becomes dry, if that makes sense, and is powdery and won’t stick to itself, whereas when it goes towards the freezing point it becomes much more pliable. So it was great to be able to explore that as much as possible, it isn’t something we get to do very often.
Following on from that we travelled to Texas at the end of January for LEAF (the Llano Earth Art Festival), our third year there and it was wonderful to have weeks of time to create before the other artists arrived as the festival itself was in March. I worked on the largest and most time consuming installation I’ve ever put together and Richard did the same with his. We also were tasked with making the festival entranceway sign which was fun. It was great to have nothing else to do but make things for the festival itself.
Yes it was great. I made the largest thing I’ve yet created which took three weeks and I also put together the Film Festival for them where we show several films from around the world at their local cinema. I had just finished my latest film Sacred Cycles and it was a real treat to see it on a big screen. As I said things got real fast just as the festival started and we had to leave right in the middle and that long period of having nothing to focus on but making things came to an abrupt end. We were really grateful for that time though, not least as we missed the bulk of the British winter and came home to all that gorgeous spring weather. I think we only saw three days of rain between January and May.
As lockdown started we would go for daily walks and generally keep up with the news. But like many people I have found it difficult to process a lot of what is going on in the world. Not just the pandemic but world politics, Trump, Brexit, the detrimental effect that social media is having on general discourse and the environmental catastrophe looming ever closer and all those things have really stifled my creativity.
I made a film about the work we did in Texas, you can see that here Sky, Riverbank and Land and produced a new limited edition glossy coffee table book titled Essence but beyond that I found my connection to nature and the solace it brings through gardening, growing vegetables, going out for walks and bike rides. I feel like I need, as I am sure many others do too, to see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel in order to start processing what has been happening and then I expect the creative spark will reignite and those things will come out through my work.
Our ethos is to create out in nature with only what we find and as such we don;t make objects to sell. We make things to put online to create interest in what we do and then we get work from that. But the pandemic put paid to all that and we’ve been trying to work out how to adapt but it is proving to be really challenging as making permanent objects or trying to bring what we do online only leaves behind a lot of what it is really about.
So I suppose it’s about finding a different way of engaging with people?
The obvious solution is to go online but that separation between you and others via a screen is really not the same. You are not out and about, looking, for leaves…you just haven’t got the Internet in a lot of the places where we go in the wilds looking for things.
No, our ethos is about making real connections. To nature, to yourself and to others. What we do is supposed to be an antidote to screen time and provide opportunities for what we feel people really need, it just doesn’t seem right to go down that route.
So that important ‘Sense of place’ cannot be recreated online?
The environment you are in is very important to our creative process. Indeed that is what it is all about really. The intention is to deeply connect with where you are and who you are with and to use how that makes you feel to inspire what it is you end up making.
That’s why growing vegetables in my garden is great, I can achieve a lot of the same connection to nature without having to channel all the stuff going round my head at the moment into something creative.
To be creative I need to have a long period of time with something, with lockdown this is more difficult, places are busy, as is what I am thinking about, I’ve found the connection I need in the garden here, the world’s a different place, I’m not scared of it but I feel happy cocooned at home, but home isn’t the place where I get inspired to do art and I’m not yet ready to let out my feelings about the world’s situation in new work. That will come with time and space but at the moment is feels like a fallow time with new ideas just germinating.
A local festival that we work with invited the artists that normally take part to write their favourite memories of the festival. As I was writing my memories down, I got quite upset, it was so sad that it wasn’t taking place, I hadn’t been thinking about it too much until then and this forced me to think about it, and the uncertainty about the future. I felt really emotional thinking about will we be there next year? Will festivals be allowed to carry on? There was a lot of things like that going through my mind, almost like a sense of grief, loss, it felt painful.
Making land art seems a bit artificial and unimportant in the whole scheme of what’s going on, it’s not just about making things, it’s about expressing your feelings of being in a natural place and when I am in a natural place I am doing it to get away from the rest of the world and yet if I open up my feelings to whatever is there the overriding thought is what’s going to happen? What’s this going to be like next year? Is it going to change the world? And how exactly? I find this a bit of a stopper to creativity.
If we took the previous two years, there’s been a consciousness change about how we’ve polluted the world with plastic, that we’ve done it everywhere, to everything. The pandemic will pass but the damage to the environment we have caused is only now really starting to dawn on us.
Another thing that we seem to be waking up to is the damage to our society that social media and screen time is rapidly creating. We are in the midst of a social experiment where our attentions are fought over by the richest companies we have ever seen. And this seems to be leading to ever more division as we live more and more in our own echo chambers.
As freelance artists we need to use social media to keep our profiles up but it does seem that it is becoming less and less ethical to use these platforms as much as we are, maybe people like us should be making more content not less as what we create, I would hope, is a force for good unlike the petty squabbling and political divisiveness that is so prevalent.
You have to let people know you are still around.
Social Media has given people a way to vent, but no way to actually process, people get angrier, there seems to be a global tension… it seems to be making people more angry.. I’ve been thinking about this for a number of years…there’s been this build up…I wonder whether some of it’s to do with us, as physiological beings…. feeling natural cycles [of the seasons] our bodies are geared around this, waiting for harvest , building your energy up, ready to prepare for Winter…you feel it in your bones…
I agree, it feels like to me that social media isn’t the only culprit for the global tension we all feel. I think it goes deeper and there is a subconscious feeling we have that we are ruining this planet and it is manifesting in anger and division. So in the light of all that, there is a lot to process and a lot to consider. What will the future hold? How can we continue working if we cannot as we did before? This means I am struggling with being in a creative head space right now.
I’ve been doing a lot more collage with paper, I find it very absorbing and it does take my mind off the whole COVID thing, it’s different every time.
I’ve missed getting out doing kids workshops and interacting with people. It just feels like everything is changing and we don’t know yet where we will end up, or indeed whether this is just the start of more and more change.
Which artists inspire you at the moment?
I really enjoyed Grayson Perry’s art club! I think he needs to do that all year round, and I love to watch Bob Ross’ joy of painting too! Joking aside when it comes to inspiration I am really looking forward to the new work that this period will have inspired in our community of artists. Although I think I will have to wait until the world opens up a bit more before heading out to see any new art.
But right now the place I have gained most inspiration from is my compost heap! It is enthralling to see the myriad of creatures in that ecosystem. Over the last couple of months I’ve been shooting timelapses in and around my veg patch and the different timescale reveals thousands of creatures unseen in the human perception timescale. When I say I haven’t been creating I have really but not work to put out to the public. There is experimental work that I have been doing purely for my own interest and study of my compost heap has been part of that. In my film work I have been working towards capturing better the experience of what it feels to be connected to nature and what it is you witness but it is challenging and very much work in progress. It has been one advantage of this situation, that I have the time to connect to the environment in different ways where I do not need to consider the goal of bringing something that I can share to fruition. Hopefully that will help influence new work in the future for the better.
Thankyou to Richard and Julia for talking to me about their work and to Arts Council England for supporting me through Emergency Funding.