Tree Conversations artist residency – reflections

Artist Rachel Barbaresi writes about her experience developing an artist residency for the University, which aimed to give University members new ways to interact with and notice their surroundings on campus. Participants were invited to join a series of ‘tree walks’ on campus, gathering ‘data’ and documenting what they saw in creative ways.


She writes:

“The aim of these workshops was to carry out collective visual research in response to trees at Whiteknights and the MERL gardens with participants from across roles and disciplines at Reading University. I wanted to take an approach that allowed room for subjective responses to the experience of observing and recording the trees, and for the backgrounds, interests and personalities of the individuals involved to play a role. So although the trees were our subject, there is a sense in which this was about the potential for discovery through bringing different backgrounds, disciplines and experiences to the process of observing and recording.


There were two walks in the MERL garden and two in an area of Whiteknights campus called ‘the wilderness’, and an additional walk in the Harris gardens. I became interested in the idea of avoiding photography as a form of documentation, and focussing on other, less familiar ways to record the trees. Participants were given a bag of materials and tools which included drawing implements, a range of drawing surfaces, acrylic work surface to enable tracing, slide cases which could be used for collecting fragments of moss, leaves etc, plasticine for taking impressions, tape measures, notebooks for writing. We also took sound recording equipment. Although I made some suggestions participants were invited to use the materials as they wished and there was freedom to experiment and invent.


Participants spoke about being outside their comfort zone and feeling anxious about taking part in a creative activity, worries about not being an artist and how their drawing ability would be judged. Some also spoke of a sense of anticipation in being able to open the bag of materials and explore and experiment with the contents.
Some of the problems which came from this way of working opened up unexpected possibilities. We decided to go ahead with plans despite forecasts of heavy showers, and undeterred, the group turned up in waterproofs. During the heaviest showers, the rain took away control over our drawing materials, paper becoming wet making drawing more difficult. Participants began to embrace the rain as part of the process, pressing soggy paper into bark of tree trunks to emboss it, causing ink to disperse through shaking water drops from tree branches and using wet mud and leaves in drawings. The weather brought an energy to the process and contributed to the creativity and invention.


It was interesting to work with a group which ranged from people who have arts training to those who have very little experience with drawing. It wasn’t entirely obvious, looking back through the drawings, whether people had experience or not. And when I had conversations with people afterwards about their ideas and approaches to the activities, there were creative approaches and outcomes which were not linked to drawing skills, but to ideas and lateral thinking.


Generally participants spoke positively about the experience despite the weather! One participant commented that she found it a very mindful experience. Others enjoyed the opportunity for creativity, and valued the time spent in beautiful areas of the campus with time to experience the space rather than rushing through. There was an intensity in the experience of looking and making. 


All of the drawings, plasticine impressions, notes and collections have been labelled and organised into an archive with the help of project assistant Sonya Chenery. We categorised items by the person who had created / collected them. The collections were displayed at the Cole Museum over two days, two weeks after the walks took place, and we explored different approaches to curating the outcomes. Visitors were invited to use the collection as a starting point for their own monoprints, lino-prints and tracings as a secondary way of connecting to the original experience of visually recording the trees.


Working collectively made me aware of how much I miss when looking around me and how subjective and individual our experiences are even when we are all working with the same subject matter. I became aware of certain trees, textures and shapes purely as a result of my co-researchers noticing and recording them. We have filters when experiencing the world around us, perhaps as a way of coping with the overwhelming volumes of sensory stimulation around us.


There is so much material to work with as a result of these workshops and I am beginning to think about ways of approaching the collection with an interest in how to develop the sense of archive and follow threads and relationships within the collection.



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