Borders and reflections: The creative group

Sheila Tilmouth. Bird's Nest, 2013. Painted in oil on board

In 2011, we were invited by the Trustees of the Little Ouse Headwaters Project to run some creative projects. We began by working with Garboldisham school to explore the river sites and make art in response to them. Then in the following year we began the process of forming a creative group of adults.  Culture formation was part of the purpose of this creative project and the extent of what that entailed was not to be underestimated. We worked, like the Little Ouse river,  at the edge of two counties, where we were told from the outset, only half-jokingly, that there were cross-border differences, and that, for example, Blo-Norton people wouldn’t communicate with those from Redgrave. Such differences were too subtle for an outsider to notice, yet perhaps contributed to there being a sense at the beginning, at least, that we were outsiders who needed initiation.  But there were other kinds of borders to be negotiated. There were potential disciplinary ones between the existing nature-specialist, conservation-minded members of the Little Ouse Headwaters project and the new members of the ‘creative group’ to be formed. There were already existing artist members among these groups of course, and there were photographers who were perfectly happy as they were, recording and working with nature.  However, while some individuals were already contributing valuable perceptive insights to the valley, their contribution was relatively unknown beyond it and remained almost intentionally parochial. The artists had no public profile yet as part of the work of heritage understanding and conservation, and their contribution was under recognised. There was the potential to change that, to connect the artists to the wider project in terms of the new visions and understandings and creative expressions they could bring to the work of heritage.


We discovered only after a few meetings that none of the artists had ever shown together, or had even shown their work to each other before. There was even an element at first of suspicion between people, and more so, of us, as the group facilitators. Establishing trust took quite a long time and some people chose either to remain distant, or to carry on running their own projects in their own way without necessarily involving us, or particularly working in tandem with us. After all, what were we there for? What was our purpose? It was clear to us that we were there to create community, shared purpose, and to create some kind of forum for bringing artists of all kinds together.  We wanted to integrate the creative and heritage aspects of the work of the Little Ouse valley. But to individuals, who had moved to the area for peace and quiet and whose artistic purpose was reflective, and not necessarily a shared one, we were possible intruders. To those people who were already quite competently running their own workshops and public events, we were seen either as potential competitors, or as an irritating interference. We had no budget to commission new works from them nor did they need us to show them how to operate. So there were difficult aspects to the project all round.  Our intention of course, was to turn all this into a positive rather than a negative situation – to bring new energy and connectedness, which is often easier for outsiders to achieve, and to lend a higher profile to local creative resources and talents.


At the beginning, we had clear models to share of other river projects, other programmes around the world, which had brought creativity to bear on the understanding of localities and natural resources. But we felt strongly that we had to strike a balance between offering visions and comparisons, and keeping ideas of outcomes open and flexible, so that we could together come up with the most appropriate solutions as part of the developing work with the group. We did not feel it was our role to dictate, but to offer opportunities and then to help to resolve some solutions to the best of our ability. Equally, as representatives from an internationally renowned exhibition gallery and university, we had to be clear that bringing ideas from outside is what we do best, and that we aimed to show results. What we know about is making projects and exhibitions, and we have the resources and training to provide excellent quality. To us it was obvious that our role was to work with artists as colleagues, to create a stunning range of workshop processes and exhibits and events and to widen visions and opportunities.  


A core group of artists and writers welcomed us warmly.  But of course, and it seems obvious in retrospect, some people did not particularly welcome a group project whoever was running it and wherever it had come from.  Our university background could cut both ways - over the entire project, we were alternately regarded as colleagues aiming to share high quality work and great practice, or, as, elitist or condescending interlopers, out to belittle people and expose private ideas (which could not have been further from the truth). We found the range and mood swings of the group at times, baffling, at times hurtful, at times entirely understandable.  Much of the criticism was caused either by frustration – we were by turns too indecisive, or too dictatorial; too specific in certain things, too vague in others.  In spite of clear emails and regular meetings, some peculiar misconceptions persisted in circulating, getting more entrenched as time went on.  Some things were funny: for a long time people thought Veronica was Liz and Liz was Veronica, which made little difference to the project as we were both closely involved, but did show up how we might have only communicated half as clearly as we had thought! A lot of what we experienced concerned the regular frustrations of group projects, some people wanting to be told what to do, others not liking to be led, everyone wanting to understand what was required of them in order to contribute to the best of their ability.


A final project exhibition became imperative and for its preparation it required careful discussion, negotiation, looking and listening, working individually with each artist. The Trustees wanted the benefits to be spread over the region, but for practical and financial reasons the exhibition had to be fitted into two weekends in several village halls rather than spread over several weeks as we had originally intended.  However, the more we moved towards the creating of the exhibition, and discussed plans in detail with individuals, and made clear exactly what was required in terms of programming, with numbers of works, presentation and information, everything brightened and improved.


As we became immersed in the developing project, the group became increasingly fascinated by the area and its history. The biggest surprise, though not to those who were already local historians, was the history of flax and hemp growing and the once thriving linen industry that had occupied many households in the 18th and 19th centuries. A few traces of it remain in this area, which is now relatively densely populated, such as some retting ponds and weaver’s cottages. There are also still some collections of linens in the area and a wonderful collection at Norwich Castle Museum, which we visited and studied. So a strand of our project became about local resources and about making use of plants for various creative purposes. Had we longer, this could have been developed considerably into more of an enterprise and we trust that in the wake of the main phase of the project that this very promising beginning will be continued. Photography was another very positive aspect of the project and the group included a number of great photographers whose work became more and more important as we proceeded and gave great structure and atmosphere to the final exhibitions. There were also some great writers in the group who managed to link up on some of the less tangible aspects of local heritage, picking up for example on local legends and folklore as well as making imaginative leaps to some of the further flung associations we had explored in the project, making cross-cultural comparisons with the Amazon in particular. There were quite a few professional artists in the group. But as a way of involving amateur artists or those who wanted to contribute work but not necessarily come to meetings or join the group formally, we set a group project, which eventually became the ‘Species Wall’. Knowing that there was a phenomenal resource of knowledge about local flora and fauna, we invited people to make single images to record them in whatever was their preferred style or medium. The most active contributors to this project came from the Lopham Art group and the resulting wall was a particularly absorbing and rewarding aspect of the exhibitions.


The exhibitions, held in Lopham Village Hall over one weekend in October 2013, and Blo-Norton and Thelnetham village halls over the next weekend were undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the project. Lopham was the general exhibition showing the full range of artefacts and creative contributions, while for the following weekend we split the content into mainly photography, writing and performance at Blo-Norton (and a party to mark the end) and mainly textiles, painting and artefacts at Thelnetham.



Veronica Sekules

Project Curator

January 2014