Wood to World exhibition

I’ve got rather behind with blogging by way of being busy finishing work for and installing a solo exhibition at Kaleidoscope Gallery in Sevenoaks. SO here is some pics of the show and some explanation of how things were made.

It’s my second solo exhibition of work made as the result of persistent engagement with one smallish, ordinary-extraordinary wood near the M25 in Kent. This wood, actually two interconnected woods and some scrub and steep pasture, is on the hills between my house and the motorway, on the North Downs. I hope to spend more years exploring with/in, and learning, this particular place.

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The exhibition Wood to World places several kinds of things alongside, against or even inside another, to evoke how disparate large and small things nest and entangle to produce a unique ‘ecology’ in wooded space. It does not attempt to be a scientific or objective or realist study, rather it is very personal exploration of learning a place and becoming-with a place, by making art with and in and through it.

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The large sculptural hanging drawings are tree portraits, but portraits more ‘with’ than ‘of’ the tree. Each one is made by encasing a section of tree in my chosen paper, and then making a rubbing of the bark with graphite. This is making that requires touch, literally rubbing up against a place – thus a meeting of bodies, a co-production. There is an indexical relationship between the drawing and the tree, which I think is stronger than that of a photograph. These rubbed marks are made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite. The tree and me meet here on this paper. What is produced by that meeting is the artwork, but also a transformation of our relationship. The tree becomes individuated, personified. As my project carries on into the future, my aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood (I have counted twenty-three so far) but the trees are approached as individuals, and acknowledged as co-creators of the piece.


There are two rings of sculptures that look something like dancing figures. The shapes of these sculptures are derived from woodland flower petals, from the Common Spotted Orchid, the Yellow Archangel, the Bee Orchid, and one petule of the conical Bugle, all of which species are relatively common in the chalk-hills of the Kent Downs. Each shape is made from four colours, the four soils types I have collected from soil dug out by animals in Shoreham Woods (Kent has a notoriously complex geology, having intricate layers of sedimentary rocks and soils laid down by successive river basins and shallow seas). The yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud was a molehill. I am not sure where the ash originated from, but I do know that during World War Two, these woods were heavily used by the army, and I find metalwork (billy cans and the like) that date from this time lying about, and even one shattered shell casing still sits grimly among the bluebells. There are lots of craters as well.

The panoramic ‘landscape painting’ is made outside, working on the ground on Polhill Bank, looking towards Sevenoaks, using just-picked berries held in the hand (blackberries, dogwood, old man’s beard). I had a pony companion/observer while I made this painting, and as the sun set and the moon rose I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Palmer (if you don’t already know him, do look him up, he’s good). The texture and imagery comes partly from the grass underneath the tracing paper as I drew, and partly from the bushes that surrounded me. It is not representational, but evocative. As an artist, I think that it is a fine thing to be captivated by a good view, but it can become a problem if one is interested in the view without any real imagination of or care for what it actually contains – with who actually lives there (creatures and plants of all sorts).

Romantic Sublime painting of the 19th Century helped persuade people to love and value the wild and beautiful places of Britain, where before they had found them frightening. Yet concentration on the glory of big views can obscure so much, including, sometimes, the very problems that create the views, like deforestation and overgrazing by sheep. In woodland, the big view is rare (especially in summer months). Instead you get thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.


The lilac humps are painting-sculptures made with meadow ants (Lazius niger). The paper covers the nest, the paint (food colouring) is dripped on, and the ants run through the paint to make the drawn lines (or don’t, and drink it, or ignore it, or are scared of it). The thicker, woobly lines are made by the ‘fatter’ ants that droop their abdomens into the wet paint, whereas the tiny scratchy lines are made by antic feet. What never ceases to intrigue me is how one nest differs from another in their attitude and activity. Ant nests have distinct personalities. In fact, there is also the odd subversive ant who behaves quite differently from her fellows – who is obsessively interested in my paint drips, repeatedly wading into them and running around in them, and these ants are by far and away my best artists. You heard it here first. Or, if you didn’t, please get in touch.

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The photos and videos add a little bit of the ‘real’ into the exhibition (and are used sparingly as the real is a tricky business).

My aim for this research – these artworks, experiments and exhibitions, is to interpret and promote a world view that is less anthropocentric, and which highlights “the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter, 2010 p.11) such that we can see beyond the end of our noses to the vitality and significance of the nonhuman world that surrounds us. It isn’t there for our benefit. It follows a different agenda, has its own frames of reference, its own purposeful and playful activities.

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P.S. In my experience it’s often worth checking under snaketraps. Especially in the morning.





Embodied Knowing

It has been a time of meetings, walks and conversations – with other artists and practitioners of other disciplines – around how we ‘meet’ the wood.

My first of these significant encounters took place in Gloucestershire rather than on home turf, visiting a shamanic practitioner I met on the Dark Ecology course at Schumacher College led by David Abram and Stephan Harding.

Mandy Pullen made me laugh, and her shamanism, which is a subject I can feel skittish about, appears to rise up from the ground. It is embedded in this living world rather than in separate cosmologies or sparkly unicorns. At Schumacher she mentioned that she was communicating with plants, and building her relationship with particular species, and I wanted to know more.

Mandy lives in a house she looks after herself. It is white, but its window-frames are painted with carefully cut-in sections of red, orange, yellow and blue. The garden wraps around the house, and all of it is kitchen garden. Beds of vegetables and medicinal herbs, fruit trees and bushes are bordered by large hedges; a pond full of frogs nestles under large leaves, there’s a small greenhouse and a huge woodshed full to the brim with carefully stacked wood and decorated with bull’s head sculptures she made herself.

We go and watch the Severn bore together. It is a 1* (the smallest) but the initial hump of brown water is followed by swelling and filling of water that just keeps coming, in a way that moves us both. A swan, who had been dabbling about downstream as we walked up the footpath, comes floating past, riding the tide sideways on and moving too fast like when you walk along a travelator, in a way that is frankly ridiculous. The tide fills my belly and head. We are talking about home, and my longing for one (and the difficulty of affording one in the place I love) and the water seems to reassure, in a generous but muddy way… if not one thing, then another.

Link to Bore-d Swan video

In the Forest of Dean there are hundreds of people following the Sculpture trail, or the Stick Man trail, depending on age group. The trails cut into the landscape with human narrative, and thus frame the forest for a family audience. The forest as theme park. I like it that children are making nests out of leaves and twigs – maybe it makes them think about what it might be like to be a bird? As a kid I lived in a very rural place and messed about in the woods a lot alone or with my brother. My experience was amplified by a series of books (by who? They were bound in identical red material with the title in gold lettering on the spine, and I cannot remember the author’s name, nor have I ever found anyone who has read them) each of which took an animal (the Badger family, Fox, Rabbits etc) as its central protagonist/s. I think that the title of the series was the name of the wood, but of course these characters inhabited ‘my’ woods in my imagination. I feel those books were important in developing my sense of living alongside other lives in the woods, as rich as my own, if more mysterious.


It was quite something that Mandy took me to her place of work – a regular walk where she undertakes her private shamanic journeying and experimentation and communing with nature. I met her Spiral Tree – this is her in it, she just fits – where, she said, every time she visited she was shown something new. Did she mean a vision, I wondered? But it was more embodied than that – it was mushrooms proliferating deep inside the point of the spiral, or one day noticing that the tree was still alive and was sprouting new growth.

Our verbal conversation was fascinating, it started the moment I arrived and will continue on for a long time yet I hope, but what I treasure, what I understand in my bones, is that embodied thinking and experiential knowing, with and in our physical world.

Mandy Pullen’s website




Trust technique

Wood to World is in large part a research project with which I aim to deepen my relationship to beyond-human nature. I am experimenting with differing (aligned and contrasting) ways of thinking and practicing relation to and communication with nonhuman beings.

Animal Communicator James French’s one-day course in the ‘Trust Technique’ is a newish venture for him, and draws on his Reiki practice (to Grand Master level) and many years of teaching and practicing animal communication. It aims to condense and clarify his understanding to date, such that the technique is clear, simple and effective enough to teach the key elements to people with animals in their lives in a single day. Almost uniquely among the 38 participants in the barn in Surrey, I do not own a pet or work (exactly) with animals.

James separates his approach from that of ‘whispering’ calmly but vociferously. Whispering, he says, is about applying pressure, and rewarding a desired behaviour by the release of that pressure. In as such, it is still intrinsically dominating, replicating the core hierarchies that conventional animal training employs. The trust technique, on the other hand, seeks to commune with an animal for the purpose of healing, and of deepening the relationship, resulting in loving relation rather than obedient servitude.

James asks us all to become completely still and fix our gaze on a point. The process is described as ‘delivering the present moment’. We note and release each of our thoughts as we would note and regard an animal’s distraction or activity when we are practicing with them.

He defines the key concepts as ‘creative reaction’, ‘realization learning’ and ‘trusted cooperation’: Creative reaction uses the innate sensitivity of intelligent creatures to one another’s moods and actions, and encourages positive change by managing one’s own role in that dynamic. In practice, this means giving the animal your active, thoughtful understanding and loving attention, or ‘mindful regard’. Realization learning is described as a deep process that can heal the sufferer of traumatic events by providing an alternative (contradictory, positive, nurturing) experience of human beings. This deep process-learning works only when the animal is completely peaceful (indeed, for a portion of it, asleep). Trusted cooperation is the position in which one can then ask the animal to do something, perhaps scary, without dominating them – they look to you for reassurance and guidance, because they trust you.

After a morning learning the theory and practicing ‘delivering the present moment’, we follow James around the Mane Chance Sanctuary as he demonstrates his technique with (and tells us the horrific histories of) some of the rescued horses. We all stare at a point near the horse with him, and whenever it flicks an ear or changes its position we think actively about it. Some horses drift easily into snoozy relaxation, one lies down almost immediately, one seems more interested in nuzzling James and licking his ear. Everything proceeds at the animal’s pace. Patience and persistence are watchwords.



It is a very windy day, but many of the horses are still remarkably keen to come and see forty people and ‘get present with us’ which considering that one of them was nicknamed Doctor Death, for no small reason, is pretty impressive. I ask if it is possible to use the technique with the birds in my garden (my code for wild creatures of all sorts). James says he has had considerable success with his own garden birds, although he doesn’t elaborate. (He has worked professionally with lions and turkeys among other things).

James is practical, grounded and remarkable. His kindness and clarity is refreshing in a world so often dominated by ego, pretension or woo. His thoughtful passion and intent to benefit animals (and indeed people) is palpable.

Trust Technique website

James French animal commnication website