Street art by Phlegm
I was back in Sheffield last weekend, to get together with my Tree Stories colleagues, to view potential exhibition space and discuss what we’ll be making for the project.
We met at the Workstation, a 1930s built former car showroom and garage which now houses lots of creative businesses. This whole area of the city, known as the Cultural Industries Quarter has a vibrant, creative feel, with a huge variety of street art, artist studios, silversmiths and metal workers and the lovely Showroom cinema.
The Tree Stories website is starting to take shape and we’re keen for people to send in their own Tree Story images. There’s also a new facebook page which will mean we can gather images and stories there too.
The following day, despite the soupy weather and the dimmest of light, I went out to Ecclesall Woods to immerse myself in the stories and atmosphere of this Ancient Woodland site.
Its history goes back many centuries – there are prehistoric carvings, Romano British remains and ancient field boundaries, as well as charcoal pits, trackways and even a Wood Collier’s grave from its more recent industrial past.
There are already quite a few photographs from Ecclesall on the Tree Stories website, so I went in search of some of those known but hoping also to discover some of its history myself. I wandered through the mist towards an area of big beeches which shows up clearly on Google Earth, since these are a favourite place for people to make their mark.
Although the damp and dingy weather made my photographs quite poor (I didn’t have a tripod with me so apologies for the blur!), it did mean that the trees were dark and glossy from the rain, which dramatically highlighted their forms.
Once I’d ‘got my eye in’ I found that almost every large beech I looked at had markings of some sort – many very distorted and indistinct, some letters clearly legible, some obviously old and some very new. I found a strong sense of place here, with recently made dens and graffiti layered over older carvings and even older charcoal pits and chunks of gritstone.
The idea of marking trees as a way of attaching yourself to a special place came to mind – the organically created paths, smoothed stones and modified trees all combined to give a sense of belonging, that this was a territory that generations of people had felt part of.
I came back to the studio with a good store of new material and ideas for the series of drawings I’ll be making for the exhibition – here’s a sketchbook snapshot of some of them...
Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history – Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.
For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour: it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime.
That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.