In April 2019 artist Justin Carter presented a new body of work, exhibition and related education activity at The Arches, Fineshade Wood, inspired by the regional relationship between oak and ore. The project was part of The Forest Is The Museum, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art’s two-year programme of artist residencies and exhibitions at our project space at Fineshade Wood, Northamptonshire between 2018 and 2020.
To celebrate Fermynwoods Contemporary Art’s 20th anniversary and the Forestry Commission’s 100th, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art’s programme expanded to Fineshade Wood — a natural habitat and ancient mixed broadleaf and conifer woodland, heritage site and leisure facility in Northamptonshire, 13 miles outside of Corby and site of Forestry Commission’s regional base.
In line with Forestry Commission England’s Memorandum of Understanding with Arts Council England, our joint aims were providing insight and inspiration for artists, and new experiences for audiences, through forest-based artistic activity. Renovated by the Forestry Commission, The Arches serves as the project space and artist studio for Fermynwoods’ programme of artists in residence and associated activity in Fineshade Wood.
Justin Carter, Reader in Contemporary Practice: Art & Environment and Lecturer in Sculpture & Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art, was the artist in residence from July 2018, presenting the outcomes of his research at The Arches from December 2018 to April 2019.
Fermynwoods’ educational base Sudborough Green Lodge sits within the largest and richest biodiversity grassland in Northamptonshire, a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the diversity of its flora. However, the presence of the human impact upon the landscape remains visible in traces of medieval ridge and furrow ploughing.
In the 1930s, Corby was then the nearest small village with an ironworks providing its main employment, which grew rapidly to an industrial town when Stewart & Lloyds established the largest steel works facility in Europe to exploit the rich seam of iron ore. Much of the surrounding Rockingham Forest was used to provide timber to fuel the furnaces. In areas where this has been replanted in a conscious attempt to return a site to nature, the landscape remains shaped by industry with large furrows still visible from the dragline excavations.
Informed by his personal experience of slowing down and reconnecting with this landscape during his residency, Justin developed Blood From Stone, a new body of work inspired by the regional relationship between oak and ore, combining oak galls and bark from the landscape with rust removed from local ironstone quarries’ dragline buckets to make iron gall ink. The ink was then used to create inkblot prints suggestive of natural species, and displayed in The Arches much like a Victorian insect collection.
With approximately 130,000 annual visitors to Fineshade Wood, the potential for new experiences for audiences is vast. Previous research into the Quality of Visitor Experience at Fineshade Wood on behalf of the Forestry Commission in 2015 identified that a large proportion of visitors are not traditional arts audiences, also demonstrating that there is a large synergy between contemporary art and woodlands; 34% of visitors “more likely to see contemporary art if it is in [FC forests] and 40% of visitors “more likely to visit [FC forests] if there is contemporary art on site”.
However, in order to engage visitors on a deeper level, we launched Justin’s Blood From Stone exhibition with an artist talk alongside Susannah O’Riordan, Roots of Rockingham Project Officer for the Back from the Brink project, led by Butterfly Conservation. In addition to a first-hand insight into Justin’s work, Susannah discussed the reintroduction of the Chequered Skipper butterfly in Fineshade Wood, previously extinct in England since 1976, and the restoration and management of a network of woodland sites across the Rockingham Forest area, creating more habitat in which vulnerable species can thrive.
Audience members discovered several areas of overlap between Justin and Susannah’s work, visually and conceptually. Susannah noted the intersection between natural and industrial in the prints that most resembled butterflies, as the lack of human forest management led to the Chequered Skipper’s previous extinction.
Schoolchildren engaged in the exhibition, principally through visits by children from Irthlingborough Nursery and Infant School, Irthlingborough Junior School, and The CE Academy. Children benefited from both access to the arts, and access to arts in a woodland location. After exploring Justin’s prints, children explored the forest, mirroring Justin’s experience of slowing down and reconnecting with the landscape. It is often considered a measure of art’s quality when it makes the viewer look more closely at the real world. However, the children drew further insights into the work itself, seeing insects, slippers, skeletons, spaceships, faces, and a baby in Justin’s inkblots (but agreeing that there was no correct answer).
These school workshops were led by artist Jessica Harby. After facilitating an investigation into the display of Justin’s studio detritus, which revealed his trials and errors in making iron gall ink, Jessica encouraged pupils to experiment with her own concoctions of natural inks made from kitchen ingredients, including turmeric, beetroot, and tea, in addition to a jar of grass ink. After guessing the ingredients using their sense of smell, pupils participated in ink battles between natural and manufactured drawing inks, dropping the inks onto wet paper to see them interact – a further exploration of the human impact upon the natural.
For the overwhelming majority of children, this was the first time they had visited Fineshade Wood. Irthlingborough is a town with its own ironstone mining and quarrying history, approximately 30 miles away from Fineshade. The CE Academy is a pupil referral unit and long term partner with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art providing alternative education for young people who are permanently excluded from school, dual registered and for school age mothers across Northamptonshire – students who are typically landlocked by their urban postcodes.
Justin also presented Blood from Stone at Dartington College of Arts Evolving the Forest conference, a three-day international gathering bringing together creative thinkers and doers to explore the forest and how we live with trees, through a hands-on workshop where participants learned about making ink from oak galls, bark and rust, exploring the process of klecksography (ink blot printing) in a playful and speculative way, with the resulting public work displayed at the end of the workshop.
This project helped reinforce Fermynwoods Contemporary Art’s mission of commissioning innovative and meaningful ways for visual artists to engage with audiences, in public spaces across Northamptonshire and online — but particularly in celebrating and engaging with the natural world.
The success of the project demonstrated a role for cultural organisations in engaging audiences with the environment, and the potential for cross-fertilising audiences. As stated by David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.
Shortly after this project, Fermynwoods joined other cultural organisations in declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency. As an organisation that engages with the environment, we seek to extend this thinking into sustainability for the organisation, for people, and for the natural world, applying the skills, creativity, and resourcefulness of art practice to the world at large, better managing our resources, and seeking to minimise the adverse environmental impact of our work.
Our forthcoming programme aims to explore how extracting resources impacts on the landscape and its occupants, posing further questions about the relationship between the natural and industrial and conflicts posed by climate breakdown.
Director, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art