Nature in the City

Here's the final episode of spending time developing 'nature spaces' in darkened cupboard-like rooms listening to recordings of birds twittering away in forests! 

Yesterday evening's Thursday Late: Nature in the City at Manchester Art Gallery was a celebration of all the hard work carried out on the Thomas Horsfall Project with two schools (see previous blog posts) to create an interpretation guide and film for the Art for All: Thomas Horsfall's Gift to Manchester exhibition. It was also the chance for visitors to participate in art activities inspired by nature and also find out more about the exhibition and gallery roof garden!

I was tucked away in a (usually hidden) room right within the main entrance of the gallery. I created an immersive Plant Space, which encouraged people to try out drawing challenges and dispel the myth that 'they couldn't draw'. The specially created environment transformed a rather corporate-looking meeting room into an intimate, comfortable nature-inspired space! I wanted to encourage people to spend time looking and observing details within plants and natural objects under spotlights, while relaxing to a soothing forest soundtrack in a cosy, atmospheric space. 

Thanks to Emma Carroll, Joanne Davies & Meg Parnell for all their support on the projects!

Art for All: the Thomas Horsfall Project

'..probably one of the best ways of increasing our happiness would be to train us to notice some of the great quantity of  beauty on which the eyes of all of us rest...' 

'A Study of Beauty', Thomas Horsfall, 1883


Thomas Horsfall (1844-1932) was a philanthropist and art lover who collected over 1700 artworks and objects which he displayed in his Manchester Art Museum which opened in 1877. His aim was to bring beauty, through nature and art, to those who were less fortunate and had few opportunities to experience it in their daily lives. He was also a pioneer of art gallery education as he ambitiously programmed a variety of public classes, performances and events within the museum. Horsfall also established one of the first art loan schemes to schools. He was therefore certainly a pioneer, given that he did this well over 100 years ago!

Horsfall's museum in Ancoats eventually closed down and became part of Manchester Art Gallery's collection in 1953. Parts of the Horsfall collection can now be seen in an exhibition Art For All: Thomas Horsfall's Gift to Manchester, which was co-curated with children from St Augustine's CE Primary School, Harpurhey, close to the original museum site. This exhibition also features artworks and a film made by the children and artist Pat Mountford, filmmaker Jess Wild and sound producer Dan Beesley from Wild Bees Production. For more information about the exhibition click here. Also click here for the curator's blog.

As a second phase to the project, I was asked to work alongside 3 other artists to each explore a formal element within art: line & shape, form & composition (space, perspective), texture & pattern, tone (light) & colour (hue, value, intensity). This exploration would occur with two school groups from two contrasting areas around the city. This process of investigation and work produced will then be turned into a gallery interpretation guide for visitors and also a film.  

I was asked to select an artwork from the exhibition which I felt most exemplified my assigned formal elements: tone and colour and this was to be the starting point of a series of workshops working with Goostrey Community Primary, Cheshire and Manchester Communication Academy, Harpurhey. After a few days reflection and decision-making, I chose Andrew MacCallum's Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest, 1877, which I think is screaming with examples of tone and colour through my interest of light and shadow!

As my practice is concerned with creating immersive environments, I wanted to focus on bringing the world of the artwork to life in some way. I also wanted to use different lighting and sound to create a natural environment that would encourage the children to 'zoom in' and feel confident to explore details of colour, tone, light and shadow within nature. I also wanted to engage the groups with different drawing and mark-making techniques to free themselves from the fear of not being "good at drawing", which can often be the case.  

I turned up at both schools with a wheelie bag filled with plants, lamps, art materials and a recording of bird sounds and set up an atmospheric 'art studio' to encourage a simple study of nature through observational drawings - something I have to admit, I haven't done for a long time myself! I also then paved the way for a path into abstraction as we began to hunt for shadows cast by the natural forms and explored layering techniques with different materials ,such as tracing paper and acetate.  

The process provoked much discussion about freedom vs. control, and how certain challenges encouraged the groups to really look and observe the details, without the pressure of having to do something 'perfectly'. Teachers also commented on the way the specially created environment encouraged a heightened level of concentration and focus for both groups (year 6 and year 9). 

Watch this space for news on the guide and film that is to be produced and can be accessed when visiting the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery!