mending objects, mending roadsides, mending lives

Just back from the MENDRS symposium in the Lake District where in spite of a deluge of rain and chilly temperatures, a group of strangers became friends over a weekend of talking, sharing, walking and mending.

The symposium was held in the best location possible – a working farm surrounded by heartbreakingly beautiful countryside – that is when you could see through the clouds!

In the small barn we had people shrimping their computers to send them helpful messages such as, “please take a break” In the library we had people darning socks, leggings and    t-shirts, thanks to instructions from Tom of Holland (who also knit a replacement sole for a shoe) and we had the gals from Stitched Up and Sue Bamford teaching people how to mend seams in their clothes and customise old clothes to make something new to wear.

In the large barn, we learned about Repair Cafes in Holland; about an online repair manual where you can find simple instructions for how to fix just about anything, including your i-phone (after you have dropped it in the loo!) and about Access Space in Sheffield, where under the guise of repairing computers, people who live on the margins of society have a place to go where they are accepted as someone who has a contribution to make. We discovered that you don’t have to keep buying new clothes; that you can repair the motor of a power drill – even when the manufacturer tells you its isn’t worth it – and end up with a better drill; that there is a world of people out there who are not buying into a consumerist society and are happier mending, and doing it for themselves.

And we went on a walk – and yes, we did indeed find plenty of litter to pick up, and we also found a whole lot more. A chance meeting with plantsman and chocolate maker Ben Popple led to a collaborative walk in which he taught us about all the edible and medicinal hedgerow plants we found as we sauntered along footpaths and farm lanes.  We even got to taste some lovely flowers:

And because you cannot disregard health and safety entirely, and because I had a few left over from the quadrat exercises last year, Hi-V vests were worn:

Then we got to the main road. Our empty bags soon filled up with the cans and wrappers  and nappies and sometimes unidentifiable items that some people throw out of their cars.

When we got back to the farm we sorted through our collection to separate out the recyclables. (Some people are thoughtful enough to put their rubbish into a bag before they dump it by the side of the road.)

As always it was lovely to be outside walking and especially to learn about plants I have been walking past my whole life without realising how tasty or useful they are. And we cleaned up, and by doing so mended that stretch of road by removing other people’s rubbish. And most importantly for me, I learned that people will come out and clean up – especially if you can provide them with a benefit, such as tasting wild plants.

This walk leaves me with a huge debt of gratitude. Thanks to everyone who came out. It was a pleasure for me to share my crazy obsession with such a kind group of lovely people. Thanks to Ben Popple for agreeing to collaborate at such short notice, and thanks to Luis Fernandez who took all the photos. And thanks to Jonnet, Guiseppe and Beck, who organised the symposium.

(Use the MENDRS link at the top of this post for more details about people and projects I’ve mentioned, and a whole lot more fabulous stuff I haven’t.)


busy bees

Last year I travelled to Italy where I wandered, dumbstruck, through church after church, as my world was transformed by the beauty of stuccoes and sculptures and paintings and architecture; all created to make the Glory of God in Heaven (and, yes, the power of the Catholic Church,) tangible here on Earth.

This week, sitting on the beach with a book, I watch a toddler marching unsteadily back and forth across a shallow pool created by the incoming tide and a line of rocks. In his fist he holds a soggy paper cup which he fills with sand and then, wading into the pool, with water. At the rocks, he dumps the contents of the cup then turns around to walk back to the sand to start all over again. When he slips and falls over he looks up, puzzled, and tries again. Then he looks towards his dad, and smiles a dimply smile.

We love to work. To be busy – to do, make, create, dream – is hard-wired in us. In children we call it play; as adults we call it a job and it pales and we long for holidays – so we can do a spot of gardening, or surf, or climb mountains or travel to distant cities or read books on the beach.

It is tiring, all this doing. So on Monday nights I go to yoga, where my teacher encourages me to still my “monkey brain”; to empty my mind of thoughts so that I can give up the notion that “I” am somehow separate from “you,” or from the glorious Universe in which we live. And sometimes I expand to become both a small pin-prick part of this Universe and all of it – but only fleetingly; that hard-wired urge to think, to notice, to talk to myself, to reflect on the day past and plan the day ahead floods in and the moment is gone.

But not forgotten. Somewhere deep inside me I hold on to the memory of that moment so that, maybe, my doing, my work, can be more than simply satisfying the monkey brain. Maybe it can be of service; to you, to the Universe, to the wonder that is life, and to the glory of God, whatever that may be.








small acts of repair*

Let me start with a question: “How do you make a repair?”

“Well,” you might respond, “it depends. What do you need repairing?”

“A sock, ” I say. “A pair of jeans. A mug, a bicycle, a car. A beach” When the sock is worn or the jeans ripped, repair usually involves darning, in which we effectively replace the worn-out heel or toe with new yarn; or patching, in which we may reinforce the tear with stitching and then cover the whole thing with new fabric. A broken mug handle may just need to be stuck on with glue, (or you may choose to make a new handle,) and with my bicycle I may need to remove a part and fix it or replace with a new part that works. It’s off to the mechanic with a car because I know nothing about cars, but I imagine the same principle as with my bicycle applies.

In all these cases repair involves adding to, or replacing something of, the original object, so that we are changing it to a lesser or greater degree. (And in the case of my sock, when the darning ends up being darned, one can imagine that although the sock retains much of its original form, it actually becomes a very different sock as the original yarn is replaced with more and more new yarn.)

What about a beach? Just how do you repair a beach? Well, what I do is to remove, rather than add. I take things away from the beach – the plastic bottles, food packaging, fishing net fragments, polystyrene and countless identifiable and unidentifiable fragments of the plastic that surrounds us in our daily lives. The beach, in its essential beachness, stays the same. Or rather it is returned to the state it was in before the rubbish arrived: the rocks and sand, the seaweed and limpets will still be there when I leave. So this is a notion of repair that is a restoration to an earlier state rather than an adding or replacing.

I might not want to make any of these repairs: darning a sock (or mending a mug, or a bike or a car,) requires certain tools and materials and takes time and patience not just in learning the skill, but also in practicing it. It is slow, and in the case of the sock may well be futile since we know that any darn will only wear out again. Why bother, when I can buy a new pair of socks easily and cheaply as I shop for groceries in the supermarket?

Another good question. After all, when everything can so easily be thrown away and replaced with new, why would anyone bother to fix anything? “But there a lots of good reasons!” you reply. “Because I will save money; because my granny knit the sock for me; because that broken mug has monetary value, or is no longer available new.” Good reasons, all. And my favourite reason for repair, one I stole from my yoga teacher when he invited us into a particular pose, is not for any perceived benefit. It is ridiculously simple and also extremely liberating: Because we can.

“Because we can” answers some little questions that have been nagging me since the first time I came home with a bag of rubbish picked up from a beach. Why are you doing this? And why bother? Tomorrow more people will arrive to leave their litter behind, and the tide will bring in more. In 23 beach cleans over 7 months last year we removed approximately 12,000 pieces of mostly plastic rubbish: a drop in the proverbial ocean. Globally we now produce 300 million tons of plastic a year, of which half is designed for single use. Only 5% of those plastics are recycled and about 40% are unaccounted for: dumped illegally or simply lost in the waste stream. Much of it ends up in the ocean, where the UN estimates there are 45,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile. If cleaning beaches to remove ocean plastic pollution is a kind of repair, it’s a very slow repair, and very possibly futile.

So, let us return to our original question: “How do you make a repair?” Goat Island director Lin Hixson asked this question at the beginning of the process that led, two years later, to the Chicago-based company’s eighth performance piece. She relates finding a 1970’s manual in November 2001 that detailed repairs such as how to replace the grip on a tennis racket or reface a ping-pong bat, instructions that she describes as “Small acts of repair. Calming the hands in a troubled world. Restoring damage to use.” As an artist responding to the then-recent attacks of September 11, Hixson found the notion of repair more useful that revenge or retaliation. In fact it was “the smallness of (the repair instructions”) that struck me, in comparison to the big event that had happened.”

In much the same way, the discovery one day of rubbish on my favourite beach and my consequent, if rather sporadic, attempts over the past two years or so to repair what I saw as damage by picking it up, has led to something I could never have imagined then: a body of artwork, this blog, becoming part of a global group of similarly crazy beach cleaners and soon, I hope, an MA. And along the way I have come to rely upon the doing of these small acts of repair for something even greater than the satisfaction that comes from doing something because I can. There is a deep pleasure to be found in returning to the same place over time. In immersing myself not only in the job of picking up rubbish and restoring the beach, but also in the physical sensations of a warm breeze and the smell of seaweed, or the thrill of a stormy sea, or the pure joy of diamonds of sunlight dancing on the waves. These small acts of repair, directed at the beach and motivated by an awareness of an impossible global problem, have restored me.

*For this post I have shamelessly stolen from the title of a book: Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology and Goat Island, (Stephen Bottom and Matthew Goulish, eds, New York, New York, Routledge, 2007.) All the quotes in this post also come from this wonderful and mind-blowing book, quite unlike any book on art I have ever read.

mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Last month I was cleaning at Swanpool, one of my local beaches in town, when a lady came up to talk to me. (An extraordinary event, as strangers NEVER talk to me when I’m cleaning, but on that day I was wearing a Hi-V vest.)

In the course of our short conversation I mentioned that the beaches only get cleaned by the local council during the summer season. “Oh,” she said, “so it’s up to volunteers.”


What I look for when I go to the beach ....

This gave me a lot to think about. Firstly because my initial reaction was, “I’m not a volunteer!” Not that I have anything against volunteers – in fact I have spent much of my adult life involved in volunteering in one way or another. But when I walk out the door to go clean a beach, I do it off my own bat, when and if and how I choose. There is no charitable organisation involved, no risk assessment, no volunteer application form to fill out, no set date or time. I just do it.

So no, I am not a volunteer. But isn’t it interesting that this kind lady who stopped to talk to me should think like that? We live in an age of fear in which we are actively discouraged from doing, or even thinking, for ourselves. The coffee cup warns us that the contents might be hot. The tin of pencils advises that we wear overalls when engaging in craft activities. Health and Safety fears regularly put paid to traditional events and activities that might involve accidents. Children no longer know how to play hopscotch and other street games. They don’t even go to the park by themselves any more.

A week or so later, in that way that things appear when you need them, I found a book in the college library that perfectly articulated my rather fuzzy line of thought. In “Making is Connecting” (2011, Polity Press) sociologist David Gauntlett (yes, I know!) describes what he calls the “Sit Back and Be Told” culture in which we live: Education is a process of teachers imparting knowledge to students; leisure time is dominated by the act of watching TV, and consumer culture provides us with a steady stream of desirable goods that help us to forget our troubles – at least for a while.

In response to this pleasant but passive way of life is a movement towards a “Making and Doing” culture: you find this when farmers make land available for allotments, in Stitch and Bitch groups, in online communities for just about every enthusiasm you can think of, in Facebook and YouTube: people making and doing and sharing and, in the process, creating not just community but a different way of looking at the world and our place in it. A way of being that we create ourselves and that has radical social, cultural and even political implications, as we have seen in the Occupy movement.

Tina cleaning up on Bodmin Moor

So people who choose to pick up other people’s rubbish in a public place – a beach, a park or the street – are breaking the rules. That rubbish is supposed to be picked up by someone paid by the council to do so – someone in a Hi-V vest (there it is again!) and big boots and protective gloves and one of those handy picker-upper things to get the rubbish into the black bin liner that they are carrying. Not by some crazy lady with a shopping bag. Which is why, when I’m out on the beach in my usual clothes doing my stuff, I might just as well be invisible. And when I’m wearing a Hi-V vest I become official, part of something, a “volunteer” maybe. And not just one, but two kind ladies come up and talk to me about what I’m doing.

But you know what? We’re doing it anyway. We’re out there doing, and making, and sharing about it online, and creating a global community of people who don’t accept the idea of “Sit Back and Be Told,” who prefer to live in a “Making and Doing” world.  It could be growing your own veg, or knitting a sweater rather than buying one. It could be the kids out on the street in front of my house playing football on the first day of the holidays. Or a group of friends taking the ferry to make rubbish kebabs on the beach. Or camping out on the street to protest the banking system rather than camping out at the mall to make the sales. With or without our Hi-V’s. And some of us still remember how to play hopscotch.

Rogues, Scallywags, Rule-breakers. Poets, artists, and dreamers. Stand up and be proud! You are creating, not the future (because the future doesn’t exist but that’s the subject of another post,) but the present. A present in which we take back our power to create our world through our own actions, however modest. I am proud to count myself amongst your number.

a tale of two obsessions

There is a neat connection between picking up rubbish off beaches and knitting: both are simple, repetitive actions, requiring very little set-up or equipment and involving the same hand movements over and over. Both have the potential to be pleasurable and incredibly tedious at the same time. Both can be done alone or in company. Both result in a visible result – even though on the beach the next tide will bring more ocean debris, and I may have to rip out all of yesterday’s knitting to correct a mistake I find today. Both run the risk of becoming an obsession.

I’ve been knitting way longer than I have been cleaning beaches. I like the fact that with the simplest of materials – two sticks and some string, in effect – I can create just about anything I want to.

photo by Steve Lundin

I also like the slightly nerdy aspects of knitting. If you want to design your own sweater or tea cosy, there is math involved. Stitches or rows per inch times the desired width or length; variables caused by differences in tension; necklines expressed as a percentage of total body size, that sort of thing. There is a lot of working-out-as-you-go-along on scraps of paper.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that last summer I began to introduce a bit of math into my beach cleaning by sorting and categorising and totalling the contents of my beach cleans: another tedious, obsessive and yet weirdly satisfying activity.

What I’ve ended up with is a whole lot of numbers scattered throughout three notebooks. (I like math but I’m not very organised.) By themselves, on paper, they are just lists of items, data. They don’t necessarily hold any inherent value other than as a record of what we have done and what we have found. If I was organised, or patient, I could work my way through the numbers, analyse them, and come up with a clearer picture than the one in my head of what gets left behind or washed up at what beach, or what happens when the tide changes or the seasons turn.

But I’m not that kind of person.

So instead I decided to take that data and attempt to represent it using knitting. I started with a beach clean with Jan from last July at Porthbeor beach. We had each focused on a different part of the beach: my haul was characterised by over 900 pieces of polystyrene, along with a few of the usual suspects; plastic bottles, crisp packets, unidentifiable plastic fragments and foam, and nylon rope. I gave each category of rubbish a colour and then knitted three strips in which each stitch represents an item I had picked up.


the beady-eyed among you will have noticed that the strip on the right is upside down!

Each of these strips has the same number of stitches and describes the same data. The only difference is the pattern I have chosen to illustrate that data. Coming up with these apparently simple designs involved a lot of scribbling on pieces of paper and a surprising amount of ripping out! The “frame” in beige is just that. It’s what keeps the strips from curling along the sides. The rust colour is the colour I chose for the polystyrene. The middle strip does the best job of showing just how much polystyrene I found compared to everything else, but is the one that most people find least interesting visually.

These strips were shown in our interim show last December, along with the original notebook containing my “sort” notes, and a pattern key:

photo by Bryony Stokes

photo by Bryony Stokes

They are now part of another group show, this time in the college library:

Is it just me, or do the strips look a bit lifeless lying down?

These little strips have quite a bit of potential as far as my MA is concerned. Knitting a strip for each of my beach cleans would be an interesting way of recording the work of cleaning beaches. Art college tutors are very keen on the idea of transforming one thing into another, so they fit the bill in terms of any academic expectations. This would be a satisfying and also time consuming and potentially tedious project, in the same way that cleaning beaches is, and so would do a good job of expressing that connection between the two obsessions in my life.



it’s good to talk

In my last post I wrote about what happened when I decided to make beach cleans the focus of my MA in Art and Environment. I was working on my own: cleaning beaches on my own and then working on my own in a studio trying to make art from the ocean debris I found. I was very much stuck in the idea that art is done by lonely artists who keep their work close to their chest until it gets shown in an exhibition. You know, that genius in a garrett who suffers for their art.

Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856. You can see this painting at the Tate Britain.

I also resisted setting up formal beach cleans because I thought art was about making, not organising, and I wanted people to think about picking up litter as something they do all the time, not just once a year. Yet, almost without knowing it, I was beginning to collaborate with others and share what I was doing. In January 2011, I performed in Watering Spirits, a shadow play devised by Emiko Tokai, which involved improvising with light and water in front of a screen in order to cast shadows that are viewed by an audience. It was both a performance and a meditative and very private experience, and it reminded me of what I already knew from years of yoga classes: that sharing a personal experience with others – in this case an audience – creates a new, and potentially more powerful, experience for all.

performing in a shadow play (photo: Emiko Tokai)

this is what the audience saw! (photo: Emiko Tokai)

I also began posting snippets from my beach cleaning on Facebook and persuading friends and family, (some a little camera-shy,) to join me, bags in hand, on the beach.

So when Jan Nowell, another MA student, suggested working together I agreed – but soon realised I felt uneasy about the whole thing. I was scared I would lose ownership of my ideas, my work. A part of me wanted to run back to my lovely studio, just me and my stuff. After a weekend of worrying, I told her my concerns. We talked it out and established some ground rules for communication: if you have a question or a concern, speak up. And if you are working on something that you feel is uniquely yours and so not to be shared, say so. Collaboration is a very productive form of working – so long as everyone is on the same page.

Turns out that Jan and I work very well together. We worked in an experimental way, a kind of learning by doing: go to a beach, clean it up, process and record the finds, make a note of what we’ve learned, repeat. We’ve cleaned beaches in Falmouth, taken the ferry to clean beaches on the Roseland, and the train to beaches on the North Coast. We began to see variations in the types of debris we found on different beaches and wondered about how much these are influenced by tides and currents. We met with people whose work overlaps with what we were doing and talked rubbish with them. Along the way we’ve met all sorts of people, and had a lot of fun: making rubbish kebabs, talking to people on the ferry, and investigating the beach using quadrats – you can read all about it in my previous posts.

Tina, Jan and Tina at Polzeath

Working with Jan made me see that I can open up my work to include others. Sometimes just a few of us working informally and spontaneously, and sometimes by inviting people to a specific event. (Yes, art can involve organising!) Working together makes the job of cleaning beaches much lighter. And the act itself becomes a space in which art occurs. It occurs in the work of transforming a beach, (however temporary that transformation may be,) and in the conversations we have had with passers-by and on the ferry. It occurs in the investigations made on beaches within quadrat squares and the unexpected participation of strangers. You can think of it as a performance, or a dance, perhaps. Not so different from performing in front of an audience in a shadow play – none of us knows quite what will happen next but the very act of working and talking together deepens the experience for all involved. In this context art is not so much about ownership, not an object you make or possess, but an action you share with others. It is a gift.

I still clean beaches on my own, especially Arthur’s Beach, my personal favourite. Sometimes I talk to people I meet and tell them what I’m doing. And the old codgers who look after Arthur’s know what I do and help out when they see me. But, to be honest, it’s Jan who has the knack for conversations. I share through this blog, and through the connections I’ve made with people all over the world who also clean beaches, and streets,  and parks. They are very special people. I’m hoping those connections will lead to more collaborations, and more art, in the future.

and do you make anything with the plastic you find?

When I tell people I’m studying for an MA in Art and Environment, they nearly always ask, “What does that mean?” Or, “What do you actually do, then?” I explain that my work is concerned with plastic ocean pollution and I clean debris off local beaches.  The response  to this information is always, “Oh, good for you” and/or “And do you make anything with the plastic you find?”

Not really, is the short answer.  But as in so much of life, the short answer doesn’t really tell the whole story …….

I started cleaning beaches because I was swimming in the sea. One day at my favourite beach I found something I couldn’t identify. It took me a while to determine that it was man-made, probably a bit of worn and battered fishing net. The dirty white ropey stuff in the bag on the left, in fact:

Soon I realised that the beach was home to all sorts of debris. My beautiful beach was a veritable dumping ground for litter and ocean debris; some left behind by the brave souls/nutters who venture so far from the public loos and cafes found at the town beaches, but even more washed in by the sea. I couldn’t just turn a blind eye, so I picked it up.

So began my career as beach cleaner. Over the past year and a bit, this career has slowly become the focus of my MA. To begin with, I didn’t really consider the cleaning to be art: art was something you made, with stuff. This point of view, however, was a tough one to reconcile with what I was doing: for one thing, the stuff I was picking up was – and still is – pretty yucky:

…… and for another it was damn lonely cleaning those beaches on my own and then sitting in my studio on my own wondering what to make of/with it all.

I tried to focus on the bright, colourful stuff that other artists find, clean and arrange into aesthetically pleasing photos or collages. For a while I even convinced myself that it was treasure, a modern version of the ancient treasure hoards geezers with metal detectors find in fields:

But when I started to incorporate the beach debris I found into my work it turned out a bit differently. Being a knitter, the first thing I made was a knitted child’s swimsuit, from a 1930’s knitting pattern. It had shells going all around it and I added beach debris on the back:


It had a sense of nostalgia to it because of the style, and also a sadness – the rubbish represented the metaphorical weight of the 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean on my back as I swam in the sea, not to mention the stuff I actually pick up.

My next piece was a sun dress:

This stayed hidden away until December when I included it in a group show. It is an uncomfortable dress; it would hurt to wear. When I made it I was thinking of all the plastic that stays hidden from view but is still in the ocean even if we can’t see it. It is, as someone pointed out to me, my hair shirt.

These two pieces are a pretty good representation of my state of mind as I cleaned beaches on my own. They say a lot about how hopeless, and angry, and lonely I felt. Then in June last year I started collaborating with other artists. I’ve written in past posts about the beach cleans we’ve done and the rubbish kebabs we’ve made and, most recently, using quadrats to examine the beach more closely. These all represent a different way of looking at art. A way of seeing art as doing, not just making. Art as an act, or a performance. Changing my way of looking at art has changed how I think about what I do. I’ll write about that in my next post.