Andrew Howe is a visual artist, based in Shrewsbury UK, using walking as inspiration for painting, drawing, photography, books and digital media. He explores how people interact with their environment, and how layers of historical activities in the landscape create the identity of places. Andrew is working collaboratively with me, Kim V. Goldsmith, through our involvement with the international Arts Territory Exchange. He has started documenting his part of the project online through his blog, Of the Mosses. In this Q&A he talks about his work on the project, centred on Whixall Moss — part of the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border.
There needs to be space for imagination, curiosity, unanswered questions.
What drew you to the idea of working collaboratively on the issues faced by the Mosses and Marshes?
The opportunities facilitated by Arts Territory Exchange to collaborate with artists in other parts of the world are particularly exciting because of the possibility to gain an insight to another artist’s practice within a different culture, to exchange ideas that give fresh impetus to our respective practices, and to share the experience of creating new work that would not have been possible alone. For two artists who make work about place and the environment, there’s also the chance to learn about another location and to compare how environmental challenges are manifesting. External views on places we grow familiar with — maybe too close to, could be really valuable.
After some preliminary exchanges on work local to our homes, it became apparent that water was a common feature of our work and there was an interesting connection between RAMSAR wetland sites located slightly further afield, but which we’d each studied previously. I had already begun making work in response to the area known as the Meres and Mosses. Linking with the corresponding work you’re doing at the Macquarie Marshes creates an international dimension that could become far more appealing to a wider audience.
You’re working across the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border, with a focus on the Whixall Moss. What sort of environment is it?
The site is a lowland raised peat bog, Britain’s third largest and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a European Special Area of Conservation, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
It formed about 12,000 years ago, after glaciers retreated leaving a melt-water lake which became populated by swamp and fen plants, and Sphagnum moss. This acidified the groundwater, stopping plant decay and allowing peat to form a large dome. The Mosses wetland habitats support rare species of birds, invertebrates, small mammals and plants.
The nature reserve is mostly accessible to the public, covering an area of about 2,400 acres (about 970 hectares). When you are in the middle of it, it feels like a huge expanse of mostly open heath and bog in a fairly isolated part of Shropshire, which itself is one of the most sparsely populated counties in England. Although the site does attract visitors, it is not difficult to find oneself experiencing the wildness of the place in solitude.
What are the issues there?
The principal environmental issue is that, for a number of decades, peat was extracted from the Mosses and the land was drained to lower water levels in order to do this, and to construct a railway and canal across it. As a result, the raised peat bog collapsed. Natural England is carrying out the BogLIFE project to block drainage and cause the water levels to rise again and help regenerate growth of sphagnum moss. This will, over a long time, cause peat to form.
Peat bogs are a vital carbon sink. Once it is cut, this carbon is released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. Climate change will in turn impact on the biodiversity of the site.
At Furber’s Yard on the edge of Whixall Moss, the issue is that this former scrapyard was left with mountains of end-of-life vehicles and tyres. A remediation scheme has been established, led by Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to clear the site and to create conditions in which it could return to a wetland landscape.
Given these works deep dive into multiple narratives, from the historical to the scientific, how do artists work through all this information to arrive at a body of works?
All artists will no doubt follow different processes. I do a lot of walking and site investigation, I read widely, and look for connecting themes and contrasts. I juxtapose ideas and see what interesting combinations and perspectives emerge. Very often something stands out in a new light, this might be a result of historical or scientific information, or it may be something that is harder to define, a visual or other sensory revelation that sparks the imagination in the viewer. I try to aim for something that is authentic to the place, but not too literal in presenting information. There needs to be space for imagination, curiosity, unanswered questions.
There’s always a relationship between the creator and the viewer or reader. Working in collaboration is slightly different, since the artists will respond to each other’s work, so in effect, the collaborator becomes the viewer.
Collaboration can range from individual responses to work made by others, to exchanging work that begins to cross-fertilise ideas in an ongoing dialogue, to a joint work in which the individual inputs might be difficult or impossible to identify. At this stage, there are no fixed ideas about what the outputs for Mosses and Marshes will be and it might be that we make a range of different types of work. I liken the process to creating a constellation of points of meaning, allowing the viewer to connect up the points with their own interpretation.
What mediums are you playing with to do this?
Photography is my primary means of recording walks, although I collect a wide range of material. These have included other digital media, sound and video, but also physical objects found on site, such as an array of artefacts from the old car scrapyard, which I have treated as archaeological finds. The photography is often not the finished output but more like an ongoing record of observations. My default medium then is in painting and drawing, so I made a sketchbook of studies, which has become an artist book in itself, and from that I have made larger pieces. I have also made a couple of series of prints as monoprints and collagraphs using the found objects, maps, tracings and photographs as references.
These could then be sources for collaborative response. Thinking about your work in digital media, I’m putting together short sequences of images and sound that could be incorporated into a joint piece. I was also hoping to make something using site monitoring data as a way to highlight the importance of scientific analysis of sensitive landscapes. I was given access to environmental monitoring data, including groundwater records, by Natural England, so I have been looking at ways to convert the data either into a visual output or into sound – a reinterpretation of site characteristics which could be interesting to compare for different places.
What do you see creative projects like this achieving, particularly given the collaborative nature of this particular project?
Hopefully, it can engage people in a wider debate about the future of wetlands and similar sites and the role of humans. The collaboration can help highlight the value of global connectivity and interdependence, and raise awareness of the plight of places beyond our horizon. The time for taking action against the environmental crisis is well overdue, and the majority of people know they need to do something.
Artworks can continue to drive motivation for action, but I see creative projects like this offering a way for people to reflect on the situation and test out what it would be like to value the more-than-human on new, more equal terms.
It has been said recently, referring to the Covid crisis, Black Lives Matter and inequality in general: “we’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat”. This is true for the environmental crisis too, except that no boat is going to be big or strong enough to resist the storm, so we need to imagine and adapt to a future in which people adopt a humbler relationship with other lifeforms:
All earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and it is past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word.Donna Haraway
Haraway, Donna; Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165. www.environmentalhumanities.org. ISSN: 2201-1919