Digging for (Common) Treasure
My practice is centred on fostering an alternative narrative for Englishness to hold onto. To become a culture that violently colonised others we first had to colonise ourselves by stripping ourselves of our history and connections to our own land until all that was left were the scraps. If we want people who only have a fistful of the union jack and a love affair with WW2 as their cultural identity to change their view on Englishness, then there has to be alternative culture built up to offer people.
I look at using clay as a material to lead to deep connections between land, making and belonging. I use specific historical events to forge links to current societal issues; to engage and open up discussions about the ways we live in this country, what it means to be from England, and possible ways to connect to a land that is genuine and rich –going beyond flag waving and populist patriotism. This stems from personal experience of not relating to a country that holds an outdated narrative of ‘Englishness’ whilst still being born and brought up here. I am looking for ways to relate by looking through history at people who reflect my values and continue to inspire different ways of looking at society even when our environments and daily life are completely different.
My artistic practice is very research based and is constantly evolving through the investigation – this process is the most important part of my work, and the ‘final outcome’ is the collective research, not just an object or collection of objects. It uses different disciplines, such as photography, film, publication, and ceramics, to document and share my findings all centred around my love of clay.
My research began around books such as ‘Who Owns England” by Guy Shrubsole and ‘The Trespassers Companion’ by Nick Hayes. Both of these books look at land and our current connection to it, through a very political lens. In particular, about the lasting impact of Norman invasion in 1066 on land ownership today, with families who own large regions of the country having familial bloodlines to close allies of William the Conqueror. I then went on to collate a timeline from 1066 onwards with important dates relating to land ownership and the stands to protect access to it. I also looked at current activists such as the Land Workers Alliance. This is where the content of my research started and will be discussed in more detail later in the essay.
Research is integral to my artistic practice, any ‘making’ without this context doesn’t make sense, the reading into history and art movements, and time spent away from physically making are as important as the ‘final objects’ themselves, this is something I think has always been true in my work but I hadn't been able to connect the dots and vocalise this. For me this relates to the art movement of Fluxus that ‘[encourages] the artist to focus on the process of creation, rather than having a finished product’ . This way of creating feels more natural to me and fits with my interests and way of working.
My work has always had a factor of social engagement – an aspect that was tricky to do over the past few projects, due to the nature of working over the pandemic.
There are three main aspects of research within my work that I want to introduce here, all are critical to my working practice. They are physical, historical, and contextual.
I came to the material cob during the period of working from home over the pandemic where I was looking for a way to make that did not require firing or any particular tools and machinery I couldn't access, and it felt immediately intriguing.
The term ‘Cob’ was first recorded in Cornwall in 1602 but has been used as a building material since prehistoric times for homes and
walls and many other structures all over the world. For example, Yemen has tower structures of 14 levels still standing within the walls of the 16th century city of Shibam. Cob is made up of clay, aggregate (usually sand) and fibrous material (usually straw). This combination creates a strong, durable material that has been perfect for building due to their accessibility. It does not need firing like clay usually does and the straw adds strength throughout. In England it was traditionally made by using oxen to trample and mix the individual materials and then ladled onto a stone foundation in layers then trodden by workers- this process was called ‘cobbing’.
I chose this material as its enduring nature throughout history mirrors a lot of the topics I am trying to investigate. The way it directly connects to the local land it comes from – the way it was dug from the earth and used in the same field to build the home; the straw cut from the neighbouring field. This all speaks not only to the sentimental connection to the land but also the sustainability of using what is around you.
To start this investigation into using cob, I had to test the levels of each component when using pure recycled clay from the workshop which has no aggregates already in like unprocessed dirt would.
Generally, the mixture is 80% sand and 20% clay and then add the straw afterwards.
Can clay help to connect to land, I think it can, especially when the material is emphasised as a key point. Cob, due to its physical locality to any area you want to focus on, and the tactile nature of mixing and making is the perfect material for my work and I found my reactions to it have been mirrored by responses from others in the workshop and the want to touch, look closer and learn about it.
I wanted to look into land in a broad sense but, on a personal level see how I could connect with England. I came upon an essay by Rebecca Tamas called ‘On Watermelon’. It focuses on a commune from 1649 in Surrey, England after the regicide of Charles I, which was the first recorded instance of communist thinking in England. They were led by a man named Gerrard Winstanley who started producing pamphlets on ideas he said he received from God. He wanted to go to the commons and live together, digging and tilling the land to create a ‘Common Treasury of relief for all’. Without the need for money they instead relied on a community of care for each other using the land that he felt was already theirs. Gerrard and his followers were ruthlessly attacked by locals -led by the land baron of the area- for the whole time they were camped together trying to inspire a new way of life. Despite this they advocated for non- violence and felt that once the workers and landowners saw the community’s success, they would voluntarily give up their private land to join.
Even though the period they occupied land was short (one month in the first spot and not much longer in the next) and the lack of knowledge about them within the UK (quote from the exhibitions officer from Elmbridge Museum, Amy Swainston ‘I think nationally within the UK there's not a lot of awareness of the Diggers and who they were.’ , the Diggers still have managed to have lasting impacts and cultural relevance in a way many at the time could not have foreseen. For example; the Diggers, the community activist and street theatre group in San Francisco, active 1966-68; The Land is Ours movement led by George Monbiot, who in 1999 set up camp on St Georges Hill in Surrey to commemorate the work and ideas of Winstanley and the Wigan Diggers festival that celebrates them annually. These continued references of activism, ideas and the essays they inspire, show how this group can still be used to motivate today and reflect ongoing cultural issues that may look different or go by a new name but have the same detrimental effects.
Therefore, the Diggers felt like such a focusing point for my project that fits with everything I am trying to instil within my work. They show the connection between land and politics and that there have always been people looking for different ways to live and exist in this country. I also saw their use of print at the British Library which came about at such a volatile period in English history and found using print myself would be a strong way to bring my research into the forefront and showcase it alongside physical work.
“For I took my spade and went and broke the ground” - Gerrard Winstanley 1649
I started by looking into tools – spades in particular. These objects felt like clear links between how humans have physically connected with the earth; how we physically cut and move the earth, physically nurture and farm to survive. Additionally, as I focused on ‘The Diggers’, spades and shovels felt like a clear starting point of investigation.
I went to the British Museum to see if they had any tools on display, I looked at tools already in my home that were in our garden when we moved in, I also travelled around my local area looking for tools, seeing them as evidence of human work and interaction with the ground.
Richard Slee has made a lot of work using tools as an inspiration. In the essay for the V&A about his exhibition from Utility to Futility he states ‘It's also about making a tool useless by making it precious – when the Queen plants a tree she's given a silver spade, it does nothing'. I looked in particular at his spade (see Figures 10 & 11) also owned by the V&A and the way an ordinary object is elevated by his art, by putting it on a pedestal, even if it is now objectively useless. Focusing on the everyday is very much in tandem with my work and the theme of looking at a group of ordinary workers who made a change.
Figures 10 & 11.
He also states in the same essay ‘I was thinking about the way certain materials are hyped up, the boloney about porcelain's mystique. Porcelain is really no more valuable than brick clay, yet it's given added value. I've added value to the brick clay by sticking on cheap diamanté’. This way of looking at a material’s perceived value -which is made up by humans to fit into capitalism –is an alternate way of viewing value. It relates to my use of cob, which has no heightened perception, no ‘market demand’ yet it has value to me because I choose to give it some.
I started hand building tools, mixing up buckets of cob and manipulating it into the forms of tools. I made one mould of my spade but didn’t use it as it felt too rigid, I preferred to not give them uniformity- I went from my mind and hands, going from the investigation I had done already looking at spades and other tools. The result was that the objects had a naturalness and wonkiness to them that I felt embodied not only my feelings but also the nature of cob itself. It looks like the ground it came from and that felt honest.
After starting with tools, I paused and looked at my current location. My new home in South Bermondsey. Can I find a way to connect to the land under my feet now? I felt connecting with my current location and time would help me overall connect to a location and group of people hundreds of years ago.
I went out into my garden, almost all of it is covered in stone, wood, fake grass, plastic. Can I find the land and record it? A recording of the temporary and hidden -showing the literal ground that had been covered and compressed.
Sitting and waiting outside while the plaster dried and listening to the birds and the road was very grounding and using plaster felt like taking a snapshot of the exact moment in time. However, using this cast with slip or clay would not work due to the undercuts and fragility of the details. So, to take this process forward I am going to slip cast directly into the ground – though I do like the plaster as a piece on its own- snapshotting the texture of one small area of earth, covered by humans but still there.
I realised from this that the process of making – the cob and the plaster- was the most interesting part to me. The time I spent with the materials was the work, it was me witnessing the land and time and recording it. Combining the use of cob and plaster together I wanted to next record the making of the cob and take a plaster cast from the cob alone not in a form.
I looked at the film maker Ana Mendieta, a Cuban artist who often used her own body in the land and recorded it using film and photography. As an immigrant to the USA as a child, her work invokes the feeling of wanting to physically place yourself into the earth. She is quoted as saying ‘My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that tie me to the universe.”
I also looked at the films of William Cobbing and Jim Melchert. Both artists' films have a visceral material focus. William Cobbings squelching raw clay heads that he slices at and Melchert's film where he and a group of others dunk their heads into a bucket of slip were both interesting to me as a way of recording a process and seeing clay as a performative discipline. Contrasting preconceptions of ceramics as a static object.
Cobbing states ‘I hate the rise of the far-right in the UK and globally, and sometimes have that creeping feeling of ‘all my idols are dead and my enemies are in power. Art provides a sense of common ground and community to take shelter from and confront this.’ I relate to the expression of politics through art in this way and I also enjoy how his work isn’t obviously political. I find my work does this and this is how I like to express myself, Matt Raw said to me after a presentation in 2020 that my ‘work has a quiet politicalness to it’ and that is how I want it to come across. I hope to put seedlings of ideas into people’s heads, give them something to go forward with, look into and think about afterwards.
I set up in my garden and filmed myself mixing cob, pouring plaster onto the trampled cob, and then waiting while it hardened. While the film recorded, I sat behind the camera in what felt like a form of meditation and really experienced my surroundings as it got dark, and I listened to the continued noise from the street and the life around me.
I found using film to be incredibly freeing into what I could show and share, they will be shown alongside any objects made –shown together as the symbiotic relationship between making and having.
Mapping / Walking / Recording.
When looking into how to take this idea of recording a landscape in a way that references ideas and people from a different time, I wanted to go out into the physical space they occupied.
Researching Richard Long, I came across his walks as art in their own right, and how he went about recording them in a way that
could be shared but not witnessed. This took me back to idea of Fluxus and how art can be the experience, can be the making, and how in doing can create an accessibility and simplicity to art that otherwise can feel daunting.
I went to Weybridge in Surrey, where the Diggers were located, and decided to walk around and see the area. In an ironic twist from the ideas that grew there, the main site of St Gorges Hill was now privately owned – used for golfing and luxury estates. Even the current residents seem to understand the irony and want to keep any acknowledgments of the Diggers away from them, this was evidenced by the relationship between the local museum and the residents’ association of St Georges Hill. In my interview with the Elmbridge Museum they said ‘I think there’s a lot of memory to protests like the Land is Ours movement in that area they’re just very cagey and I think there's a lot actually, a lot of awareness of the irony between the fact of what the Diggers were wanting and what it is now!’.
I still wanted to look around and go for a walk even if I wouldn’t be warmly welcomed. I listened to a talk by Scientific journalist and author M. R. O’Connor about the benefits that getting lost and finding our way have on our brains- particularly the hippocampus. This research also investigated how indigenous cultures shared information with each other on the landscape and how for
generations they would pass on knowledge, familiarising themselves with the area in a depth that goes beyond what a lot of people currently can access or comprehend.
Inspired, I wanted to try get to know the area in my mind, not use my phone map, but just walk and find public footpaths and enjoy the environment.
I spoke to a security guard stationed at St George’s Hill entrance and he was quite hostile towards me as a walker and wouldn’t help me- especially when I mentioned the Diggers. I hiked for around 5 hours altogether and roughly a week later I made a drawing of my route from memory with no reference map. I wrote my thoughts in a notebook and recorded sounds and took pictures.
Where do I see myself working as a ceramicist? How can I bring together my physical and historical research to help with my aims of connection to land? I know I want to work within a historical environment and so set about researching the diverse ways that can look.
Museums have always felt like a natural space I want to integrate within. I think that using the audience that museums already have could be an interesting way to reach a wider range of people; especially people who might not feel comfortable in art galleries, smaller museums are often more intimately connected to local populations who could relate more to the subject and so have a bigger impact.
I looked at how museums engage their audience and how it could be possible to create a situation where engagement with the history is active and not passive. Just learning about something or reading something and then going on with your day doesn’t always make people feel the relevance in their current lives. I conducted some conversations with my peers and asked them about this and it was the consensus that having something tangible to hold or make adds depth to the learning creating a deeper connection to the topic at hand.
I started by looking at some existing ways museums and makers use ceramic objects and history to engage people with their work.
The Wellcome Collection is a museum and library looking into science, life, art and medicine. They started actively sharing their handling collection with the general public in 2013 as parts of their galleries were closed, and they needed alternate ways to share their collection. In a blog they wrote about their experiences, several of the visitor experience assistants noted how their participants were more actively engaging with the topics they brought up due to having a haptic starting point to go from compared to museum tours or talks. They noted how the participants were less shy and felt
more able to share their own lived experiences and stories that added significantly to the conversations around the objects.
The conclusions the Wellcome Collection team came to, align with my own research and thoughts that objects create deeper ways of connecting. I also noted the easing of social awkwardness where there is a specific focus for group discussion and interaction.
Handling collections are a great starting point for engaging with history, but it also ends with the object. There is no thinking through making and it still ends when the objects are returned, though there is a higher chance of integrating with personal stories and creating a feeling of relevance to their current lifetime the active engagement is still quite passive.
Replicas and Forgeries.
Looking at existing ways makers fit within the museum and add to historical impact I found two vastly different case studies.
Billie’s and Charlie’s.
Within Walworth Library in South London, they have integrated local history and heritage. There are cases of objects amongst the books and a small exhibition about some of the borough's history.
In one case, there is a series of skilled forgeries called Billie’s and Charlie’s.
These items were made by William Smith and Charles Eaton, mudlarkers from the early 19th century who became known for their high-quality forgeries of medieval artefacts that even passed inspections by antique dealers of the time. They reacted to the fascination with owning history and the demand for new artefacts before eventually being discovered.
I looked at these men and how they were skilled in their own right, but chose to use that skill and only to replicate what had come before. They did involve themselves actively in history but it wasn’t in a way that created forward momentum.
PottedHistory.PottedHistory is a small family business based in Northumberland who focus on museum level replicas. Their ceramics are historically accurate and come from a love of the making process as well as the design. They aim to make quality items available for all- not just museums.
They speak of wanting to put ‘history in your hands’ and have a huge focus on authentic making for the time period of the pots – they range from Paleolithic onwards. They use traditional techniques from hand building to how the clay is prepared- these things might not be obvious at first glance, but the added layers of historical legitimacy and care by the makers evokes a feeling of holding something important that has seen these times periods (the clay has!).
The master potter Graham says ‘When I handle an ancient pot it is a little like shaking hands with the original potter. ‘A handshake across thousands of years!’. This connection is important and clay is such a perfect medium for these emotions as it is a richly tactile material with muscle memory.
They have worked on a commissioned project looking at Japanese flame pots and Dogu figurines that have English Heritage that where shown in the Stonehenge visitors’ centre (Figure 30). They also do demonstrations for schools, prop work on film and TV and even create urns.
Both makers are actively engaging with history, but they don’t take the ideas and imagery and do something new. I wanted to look at them as there is a market and benefit to this type of work but I knew this wasn’t what I wanted my work to reflect. I want to bring history to the current times but also push it forward rather than just mirroring existing work.
I chose to look at Verity Birt as she is a current contemporary artist working in the research sphere. Her work constantly creates links between disciplines, subjects, and locality. In ‘Dark Derision, 2021’ she uses her 2D research alongside a ceramic object– joining folklore, local materiality, and pre-history.
Case Study: Verity Birt.
Birt involves a lot of collaboration, research and workshops in her arsenal. One of her works in 2017 ‘Anarchyology’ was a workshop where she worked with the choir, SHE, from Newcastle in Northumberland national park interacting with prehistoric rock art sites. They explored what knowledge could be shared when interacting with these sites ‘with more intuitive, playful and collective actions’.
She recently completed a residency at Creswell Crags to gather research and explore the caves and prehistory there.
I chose to look at Birt because she explores a context where you can work and stay in places which aren’t usually artists spaces, but spaces where you can share and gather information, which can help show history through different perspectives. This is something I am aiming for, and a reason I looked at her continued narratives of history, landscape, art and social engagement.
In this ilk, I got in touch with Elmbridge Museum, the local museum to the Diggers in Surrey, who since 2018 have been working on updating the offerings the museum has on the Diggers and Winstanley. They have been working alongside the citizens project team at Royal Holloway and PHD Historian Lívia Bernardes Roberge; to create a series of videos, update the trail there and put out blog posts.
I reached out to them to talk to them about how they currently work within the local community and how they create relatability with the current time and to ask them what they about my work. I have referenced some quotes from the interview throughout this practice review.
They were very accommodating and enthusiastic about talking to someone interested in the Diggers and museum research. They suggested different people to approach in the council/museum network to get permission to get clay from the local area and were incredibly helpful. They asked if I wanted to write a blog post for their website about my interests and work which I will be doing which is a great start into working with smaller museums and organisations on specific local history.
Their current outreach work consists of worksheets, lesson plans for schools, discovery boxes, an interactive map for the Trail and videos.
They don’t have a permanent display space and work from an office, they use various smaller areas to put temporary exhibitions on. It seemed like they didn’t have any current plans to actively engage with the ideas from the Diggers but rather allow people to find them themselves through the trail and the new boards they were installing at each site that links to information on their website. I do know that they also have a resident’s board that actively doesn’t want any Diggers related work to encourage pushback from the privatisation of the land so this could also hold them back.
I also looked at other museums or spaces I would like to engage with that have similar themes that I want to continue exploring. A few examples are, The Peoples History Museum in Salford -they talk about actively engaging people to think about democracy and political ideas, The Marx Memorial Library in London- they are a library and archive working with not just Marxism but wider socialist thinking, and the Grassington Folk Museum in Skipton –they look at tools, minerals, mining from the Dales and the folklore around it.
‘Can clay and mud be used to create a connection to a country or land?’ this personal question I started with has led to an enquiry into the way museums could be places of generation rather than just conservation. Studying ways contemporary artists are using history and collaboration with spaces and landscapes outside of the traditional gallery space such as Verity Birt, PottedHistory and Richard Long have helped me find a context I want to occupy, an audience to engage.
My objective is to lean into the making process and how this can be shared to create tangible links to history within the setting of the landscape; ending up with a framework I can take to museums and show the benefits of.
In using a sustainable material like cob, that naturally creates discernible links with not just place, but also time, I wanted to show how political ideas have already been sown into the land, and then use these ideas to create something new using the environment in place of historical artefacts - creating an ‘archive’ of work that builds upon the existing foundations of the historical knowledge.