Seeing a bear in a tree – Reflections by Jean McEwan

29th July 2016

trainers and shadows

Seeing a bear shape in a tree
Talking to horses with funny haircuts
Sneaking into a field of buttercups
Running our hands along pine hedges in residential streets
The house where the three legged cat used to live
Inventing stories about initials sprayed onto a wall along the canal.. who is/ was SD??
Purple flowers growing in a painted purple wall
Doing a silent disco in a piece of waste ground where a nightclub used to be
Chancing upon across a children’s parade
Gesturing and laughing together on a silent walk

There are so many magical moments from the last months of my walking project with the Circle of Friends. For the past 6 months, together we have exploring playful, creative ways of walking, wandering and wondering around Blackburn and beyond. During our walks we have been sharing stories and memories about places, recording sounds, making notes, taking photographs and collecting found objects.

Witnessing what and how the group notice and interact with their surroundings, the unusual parveen findsand surprising imaginative and poetic ways they describe the things and places they see, and the stories they tell about themselves and about their town, makes my heart swell. This is everyday creativity.

Talking to the group recently about their experience of the project, we remembered the ‘doubts’ and ‘second thoughts’ they had at the beginning ­ from worries about staying safe and dry in bad winter weather to not being sure about where to go, and the whole unknown­ness of the whole project about art and walking. From our first very tentative walk in Witton Park­ to the following months where we have explored, and wondered, and looked and imagined in lots of different places, from the town centre to the canal to residential areas to walks in country lanes. it feels like we have come a long way ( It’s difficult to avoid journey metaphors so I’m just going to go with it).

lookingI see a group of people who have increasingly become comfortable with walking in different places , who are confident and adventurous about taking ownership of their walks and who see their experiences as creative expression. Circle of Friends are a long established group in Blackburn. Members have different kinds of impairments and support needs, from physical disabilities to learning disabilities. They are of different ages, experiences and backgrounds. From the moment I met them it was clear to see strong bonds they have with each other and how they support and care for one another and delight in spending time together. As an artist my approach to working with people is responsive. I read a quote once from pioneering US artist Suzanne Lacy that how she works is about ‘hanging out with people and seeing what they want to do.’ This is always in my mind as I begin a new project.

Working in a genuinely collaborative and democratic way with people means getting to know them, finding out where they are at and building from there. So In the early days of the project , my focus was on building relationships with them, getting to know them as individuals and as a group ­ what they were interested in, what they responded to, what support they might need. My role as an artist working with people is to facilitate, open out, give confidence, suggest possibilities, be open and alert to what is going on ­ draw out peoples’ strengths and interests, nurture their creativity, gently encourage risk taking and move outside comfort zones.

Working with Super Slow Way is a great fit for me ­ the clue is in the title! because they get that it takes time ­ to develop relationships, build confidence, try new things out, have time to think and talk and develop ideas collaboratively. That it’s not about about outcomes but valuing the process. They create conditions for this to happen. For me as an artist it’s ideal ­support and advice is there, but I also have had the creative freedom to develop my practice as a walking artist working with people ­ to research, experiment and collaborate ­ and to do this meaningfully ­ which has been completely invaluable. The group had had quite traditional experiences of working with artists and having workshops, where the artist imparts their knowledge and skills. My way of working with people is different; it is about doing art ‘with’ not ‘for’ and empowering people to feel ownership of their own ideas and creativity.

kavita and deniseI was keen to break down barriers between me as the artist and the group and to change perceptions of what I as the artist was bringing or would do. Making them comfortable with a different, more fluid, less structured way of proceeding, based on unknowns and feeling our way as we go along, of the art being the walk, not something we produced after it. Trust and a degree of being ok with uncertainty is really important. I was worried about this in the beginning but have been very lucky in the group, who were open and willing to push outside their comfort zones, and who accepted me as one of their own from day one..

In the last 6 months we have explored different places in different ways. The group made maps of routes significant to them in Blackburn and then guided the rest of us in walks along them. Kavita took us to Corporation Park, where she has happy summer memories of walking among the trees with her boyfriend. Yasmin took us to her house for a brew then a walk along her neighbourhood, which included a quiz and a silent walk. We customised a Blackburn Town Heritage Walk into an impromptu Circle of Friends Town Walk, going to places that hold memories and stories for the group­ here’s where Yvonne did a YTS training placement, ­ and here is Lucy’s family’s shop which sells uniforms, where she has played and worked all her life.

We’ve dipped our toes in psychogeography and the politics of space in towns and cities looking at hamish fultonthrough walking games and defamiliarising ourselves. We’ve experienced getting lost on purpose and had mindful walks, where we experience through all of our senses. We’ve had forays into self publishing, through creating zines (SIY magazines) about our walks. We’ve counted shopping trolleys in the canal and hung out with a new family of cygnets. We noticed birds with orange beaks and yellow legs. We’ve made up songs, listing the things we see. We’ve read Wordworth’s ‘Daffodils’ out loud to each other on a trip to the

Lakes, and discovered how walking in his time for enjoyment was a radical act. We took a trip to Manchester and compared notes on walking in a city and walking in a town. We’ve have lively debate about conceptual art and discussed what is, and what isn’t good art about walking, and the different forma a map could take. Everyone has brought their own unique qualities and responses to our wanderings:

Yvonne is a born storyteller
Fahad is observant and has an attention to detail.
David lights up when he ecnounters animal life.
Lucy is a font of Blackburn knowledge and history and people and places
Denise is independent will often surprise us by appearing from nowhere to join us
Kavita loves to take photos on her DS
Farmeen is eloquent and poetic

parveen and lucyI have been very lucky in working with such a wonderful group of people who have been so open to me and the ideas I’ve brought. This is not always the case when working with people! And also in having an amazing support worker, Yasmin as part of the project, who both supports the group and participates in the project. The trust between Yasmin and the group, and her flexibility and openness to me is a very important part of the success of the project. I know I can go to her for advice and guidance on what support people need.

Throughout the project, the challenges for me with such a diverse group of people who have different ways of expressing themselves and engaging with the world have been about trying to make sure everyone can develop in ways that are good for them. Not everyone is comfortable with words so this isn’t always easy

The questions that have come up for me throughout the project are
Am I steering things enough, or too much?
Am I pushing enough, or too much?
Are there enough outcomes?
Do we need to ‘make’ more?
Am I documenting enough?
Should we be talking about ART more?!

I often haven’t had the answers to these questions, but I think the questioning is a necessary part of being an artist working with people and a means of continually reflecting on the process of co­creating together. And any doubts and questions melt away each time I see the group, we go out, and experience the sheer infectious enjoyment of being outside and walking together.

Friendship, play, creativity, love.
Where are we going next? they want to know.
It is always an adventure.

Jean McEwan

2 Responses to “Seeing a bear in a tree – Reflections by Jean McEwan”

  1. This is so amazing! Made me wish I could join this group and walk and make art with you. The article is ver evocative, and the project sounds wonderful. As do all the people involved. Love the poems, and the prose is poetry itself.
    All good wishes and love

  2. I have just read the story that Jean has written, it was wonderful. When I read it, I got a lump in the back of my throat with the nice sincere things written about the group. Jean has made us feel so comfortable and at ease that she feels like one of our group. I would just like to put that I have really enjoyed my time going out on our walks and the time with Jean as have the rest of the group. I also read the comment from the lady Catherine above and it was a real nice praise for Jean. Thank you

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