Case Study 8: Iona, Environmental Artist

Iona, Environmental Artist

The allotment project took place during the summer term of 2011 with a year 6 (aged 10 and 11) class in an inner city primary school in the Midlands of England. The relatively new, low-rise, school building sits beneath a tower block of flats in an area of the city formerly known for textile manufacturing. Disused factory buildings are a prominent feature of the local landscape. The project was led by a single artist, Iona, well known for her work elsewhere in the same school and with other schools in the locality, but new to the particular class. This was a one-off project which took place through three separate meetings: the first in the classroom, the second in the hall of the local Quaker Meeting House and the third on the artist's allotment. The artist also returned to the school to support the teacher while the class were engaged in creative work reflecting on the allotment visit. The project was not, however, primarily related to producing art works: the focus was on creativity and well-being more generally, in a period when trips out felt more manageable after the stresses of tests that had taken place earlier in the month and before the children moved on to secondary school.  

The first session was based round a PowerPoint presentation which Iona had put together from her personal photographs, the first of which showed her dressed as a flower fairy pushing a litter cart. The focus of Iona's talk was her personal experience, interests and beliefs and the art works and performances she had devised. She encouraged the children to identify with her emotions and guess what she was thinking.  As the session progressed, the themes running through Iona's talk emerged more clearly. The flower fairy symbol neatly introduced a recurrent focus on the natural world and also served to signify Iona's interest in transformation through peaceful protest, creative arts and community action. The pace of these exchanges was brisk but unhurried. Iona's tone was friendly, matter-of-fact and inclusive. ('I can't wait for you to come and see my allotment! I'm going to let it be a surprise to you when you come, but [putting up a photo of a pear tree] look at these pears!') She addressed the children in a generally adult-to-adult manner, dropping in personal details and listening carefully to any points the children cared to make. She conveyed both deep seriousness about her work and the sense of joy and fulfilment she derives from it.

Iona made no attempt to shield the children from the painful side of life, though the framing was always positive, personal and art related. She used examples of problems, setbacks and false starts from her personal history to illustrate the importance of her message about perseverance and self belief.

The other over-arching message of this first session was about everyday creativity: that, with effort and imagination, something could be made from virtually nothing - 'you can use something that you would throw away and make it permanent'. These were to be the themes for Iona's next two sessions with the class.

Before the class visit to the allotment, there was a session focussed on self expression through the arts. This pre-figured the allotment visit in several important ways. It happened off site in The Friends' Meeting House, a community space that was unfamiliar to the children. As before, the resources for the session were idiosyncratic and provided by Iona but, as with the allotment session, the main teaching method was the facilitation of independent activity.  The focus was on producing representations of stress, and then of contentment, through the production of collages. The materials for making the collages were stored in what Iona referred to as her 'Tinker's Box'. The Tinker's Box comprised about 30 small crates full of beads, the hooked lids of shower gel containers, cones, feathers, drinking straws and other, mainly plastic, objects derived from domestic or packaging sources. The children assembled - and later dismantled - the collages on large circles or squares of coloured card. They worked individually in a self-chosen space on the hall floor, having selected their own collection of materials from the Tinker's Box. Once they were satisfied with their collage, they were encouraged to write about it, in prose or in poetry.

The patterns of Iona's language use were similar in many ways to those of the first session, but the focus of this second meeting was on the children's experiences and creativity, so she offered no anecdotes or sustained personal references. The emphasis of the session was on exploring, creating images, interpreting symbols, finding language that captured emotions. Instructions were couched gently, as invitations. Most of Iona's time in the session was spent crouching on the floor in private conversation with individual children, listening to their points about their work. This was in contrast to the teacher, who was also circulating and showing obvious appreciation for the art work, but offering semi-public suggestions and prompting certain interpretations. Photography was used as part of the recognition of each child's efforts (‘Can I take a picture of that? ’The child nods and smiles and, when it's taken, they both look at the image together). The use of photographs also served to develop the theme - introduced in the first session - of making something from nothing and, in doing so, creating something that persists.

The session was designed to appeal to different senses and to offer multiple modes of expression. The focus was on the self, rather than on Iona as an artist and personality. This paved the way for the third session, the allotment visit, which Iona had planned as a multi-sensory experience to be explored multimodally.

The allotment is a triple plot, surrounded by high hedges, near the top of a hill overlooking the predominantly working class area of the city where Iona lives. Grassy lanes run between the hedges demarcating the plots, and entry to Iona's allotment is through a privet arch and a high wooden gate. Three buildings sit on the plot. The 'huckleberry shed', a cooking area with a camping stove, shelf units and a brightly decorated awning, butts on to a 'reflection room', a wooden shed with sofas and soft furnishings. Between the two, a curtained area offers some privacy to the rudimentary toilet facilities. Near the top of the plot, at the crown of the hill, sits 'The Sky Palace', a large dark blue structure made of reclaimed glass windows and doors with a lean-to on one end. The allotment is loosely divided into areas. There is a large raised bed, a picnic table with benches, a hammock under some trees, a wild brambly stretch along the back end, a flat grass and dirt sitting space and a fire pit. The whole plot is decorated with found, reclaimed objects: a bath tub pond, a pillar of car tyres decorated with CDs, pitted metal advertising shop signs, a wash basin on its side, shoes with plants growing in them, plastic barrels. A wooden ladder set against the huckleberry shed gives access to its gently pitched roof, which is partially covered with bedspreads.  Tools - wheelbarrows, forks and trowels - and containers of varying sorts are arranged around the plot.

One child, coming up the lane and through the gate into the allotment, commented that it was like being on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, a reference that captured some of the strangeness of the environment for the children. Iona, who had been waiting for her visitors, welcomed them to 'my land'.  She took enormous pride in the allotment and assumed that they would be bowled over by what they saw.

Most of the session's activities were conceptualised as 'jobs'. They included: cutting up vegetables to make soup over the fire for lunch; sorting bulbs that had been retrieved from a public park; barrowing bricks from the bottom of the hill; transplanting marigold seedlings; painting a plastic barrel; winding in the hose pipe; decorating bird-scarers made from CDs. There were also leisure and craft activities: modelling with clay on the picnic table; playing darts in the Sky Palace; music making, with the xylophone and a ringing bowl on the roof of the huckleberry shed; sleeping or swinging in the hammock; taking photos and video with the school's cameras. And there were other allotment holders to meet: Jack, 'the Elder', who kept chickens, and Robbo, Iona's friend, who had a pigeon loft on his plot.

Iona modelled how she did the jobs and the leisure activities. She showed the children how she sat on the shed roof, watching the sun rise and making her bowl ring. She told them how she'd been feeling ill the previous weekend, so had sat in The Sky Palace, resting and thinking. She mentioned that her nieces were planning a sleepover in the Palace. She showed them how to tend the fire, chop the vegetables, prepare the barrel for painting with masking tape, distinguish between hyacinth, daffodil and tulip bulbs, and handle the seedlings gently. The children responded warmly to what was being offered. In the open discussion sessions they elicited from Robbo that he spent about seven hours a day on the allotment, that Iona’s family spent time there helping her and relaxing and they probed the relationship between the plot and Iona’s art. At the close of the session, the children asked some very practical questions which suggest their different experiences of the artist’s and the teacher’s pedagogies. They asked their teacher: 

Boy: Are we going to write a recount of this?
Girl (generally, before the teacher could respond): A diary, probably.
The questions to Iona were:
Boy: Can I come again?
I: That would be lovely. But you're in year 6 now.
Girl: I'll visit school every time they come on a trip here [i.e. return from secondary school]
Girl: Who will take over the allotment?
I: I don't know. I've no plans to leave.
Boy: Can I? Can I take over the allotment?

Iona’s project was very much about ‘learning to be’: it moved from a focus on the identity of the artist, to creative activities at The Friends’ Meeting House, a place that prepared the children for ways of doing and being in the unfamiliar territory of the allotment. The boy’s questions, quoted at the end of the case study above, indicate how literally some children understood the ways in which Iona was seeking to embody alternative ways of being and thinking. The children both enjoyed and appreciated the experiences offered on the project. In the final discussion, one boy said he felt ‘Inspired. You inspired me.’

I:  Oh, that's lovely. What have I inspired you to do?
Boy:  Art. To make art.
I: Thank you, that's very generous of you.
Girl (with hand up): You've kind of inspired me as well. Because you've made all these things and you haven't gave up. But the thing is, you haven't bought a lot of things. You've made it from scrap. And it looks - not new, but definitely not old.

The experience of the project was of immersion in Iona’s world and logic. The class were explicitly encouraged to be interested in Iona’s personal ‘obsessions’ and to appreciate the things that she loved. Within the initial classroom based group experience, there was both metaphorical and physical space to be yourself. The children sat in their normal places in a darkened room with their chairs turned towards the whiteboard. They were free to guess, interpret and comment, to make their own links, if they wished to. There was no pressure to contribute and no sense in which a point could be deemed wrong or irrelevant. The PowerPoint images and commentary were unpredictable and the session meandered, but it was obviously going somewhere: not to a single, pre-determined goal, but towards the development of individual understandings of what might make someone want to live the kind of life that was being described. The major resource in the lesson was the artist herself and her willingness to lay herself open to scrutiny.

In all the sessions, Iona used the word 'flow' in the sense that Csikszentmihalyi (1990) might, in relation to creative  energies and performance, work going well and people getting along well together. The flow of her own presentation seemed to be guided by an imagistic logic of analogy: pictures of work in the psychiatric hospital prompted memories of how much she had disliked school; the memory of a dying boy was followed by comments about mazes, patterns in nature, her pleasure in getting her smartly manicured hands dirty and, from there, to some before and after shots of the back garden of the terraced house where she lives.  The children respected this. They were interested and intrigued. They left the session talking excitedly about the allotment visit, though it seemed likely that most of them had an, at best, hazy idea about what an allotment was.

In some senses, the framing of the second session might seem to have been that of a conventional art lesson. Yet there was minimal attention to the technical means - the materials or the skills - by which the artwork was to be realised.  The art activity was primarily about self exploration: recognising how feelings of stress or relaxation are experienced physically, recognising personal patterns and triggers, finding symbols to express abstractions that are inchoate yet were very real to the children. The clean, shiny, everyday objects they used to create their collages carried no cultural weight or obvious value. The children enjoyed sorting and handling them and no one appeared to feel excluded from the activity or less able than their peers to produce a meaningful piece of work. Similarly, the movement from art to writing was a fluid one; the choice of poetry or prose was up to the individual. Each of the activities was accompanied by music which Iona had chosen to create particular moods and the session started with dancing.

In terms of the themes that she identified in her talk, the third session built on what had gone before. The pleasures and rewards of hard work and effort were highlighted alongside the importance of relaxation and taking time to appreciate the environment. Alongside examples of life’s difficulties and challenges, there was an emphasis on the abundance of nature; the importance of self expression; the possibility of using your ingenuity and creativity to make something out of nothing. But there was more that was alien to the children in the environment of the allotment: more dirt, more emphasis on reusing stuff that others had classed as rubbish, no sanitation. The pedagogical sequence was carefully crafted, moving from the classroom to the allotment, from school to recycled materials, from considering artist-produced work to creating works of art in the context of everyday activities. Iona’s role was as mediator and guide rather than instructor. The emphasis was on the agency and life choices of the students in the group. Her focus was not on providing a role model for the children but on showing alternative ways in which a creative, fulfilled life could be lived.