Why I care about linking creativity, environment care, outdoor learning and mental health.

    My whole life has been spent pursuing art and creativity. Designing beautiful community spaces with Lego and writing stories progressed to painting, drawing and making clothes (badly!). Then I was awarded an Art Exhibition to attend a local independent school with state-of–the-art facilities in painting, printmaking and ceramics. Thanks to my brilliant form tutor – who was also an art teacher – I studied printmaking for GCSE and A-Level, and was awarded a full Art Scholarship.

I then went to the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing, which is the reason I went!) for a Foundation Diploma and a BA Hons. I made a bit of a mess in the first few years, due to inadequate course framework and tutoring combined with my own poor mental health. In fact, it was in the midst of a dark depression that was getting more critical and dangerous, that I somehow – miraculously – found solace in the environmental movement; reading books about it, reading spiritual frameworks about it. Often the key to managing a non-acute moderate mental health difficulty is to find something new/renewed that speaks to you more than you speak to yourself. That, for me was environmentalism.

Thinking back, this was inevitable.

The very first school I went to, a state primary in Wiltshire, had two things that still stand out to me: A freezing cold giant paddling pool next to the car park, where we had swimming lessons and nearly died of cold; And a really old car that had the engine removed and was installed on top of a hill on the school field, for us to play in.

Being outside, playing, learning, and socialising had the absolute strongest effect on me. It still does. Hiking and camping for days on end in the Pyrenees is the closest to a sublime experience, or Nirvana, that i’ve ever come.

I also started a village recycling club when I was about 8. I was the only member. I went around in the woods collecting up solid agricultural waste in bags, so the wildlife didn’t choke or get poisoned. I developed dermatitis on my hands by the time I was about 15 – maybe that’s why!? Printmaking also involves some fairly caustic substances sometimes, so that might have added to it. But either way – environmental conservation and art have all the vibes from me, even if I do get skin conditions from them. Maybe this is also why we ought to care more about waste-contamination.

My next school was a school that worked to a very liberal ethos, inspired by Steiner, Montessori and other pedagogical and psychological frameworks. But it wasn’t frivolous, or hippy. It had a farm, and we had weekly farming lessons (Rural Studies) from day 1. We were all encouraged to sign up for rotas, working on the farm before school, from as early as 6am.

This is in the 90s, before Forest School was as widespread as it is now. We didn’t have ‘Forest School’ sessions, it simply was a forest school. Between lessons and after school we played in the fields. (it had boarders, so there was free-time after lessons and lots of us day kids stayed late to play with our pals while our parents finished work!) There was a stream, and we were left unattended to build dens and swings, and the school employed a girl called Nettie to help us light campfires if we wanted. There was also a 20 metre long concrete pipe that the stream flowed downhill through in one section, which we just about fitted in and rode through on dinner trays. Nobody knocked themselves out. (Play therapists and outdoor educators will LOVE this – it’s called risky play!).

There was also an overgrown area of vegetation, about a hectare in size, which we called the Jungle. There were mounds and crazy trees and massive rhododendrons, and across all the year groups, some kids, somehow had developed a game which was in full swing by the time I arrived at the school, and probably still goes on. It was called DoiDois and Gorillas. These were the two teams, and each team had a mound. DoiDoi Hill and Gorilla Hill. DoiDois were generally accepted as the goodies, and there was a lot of deflecting, spying, secret missions, conflict resolution, and imagination. Design of disguises and costumes was important too. The game would resume every break time, every day, term after term, year after year. The best day was when Angus was pushed in the pond by his younger brother, and the Jungle fell silent. When Angus emerged, covered in pond-weed and fuming, every died laughing. And so the crisis was averted, and we all had a demonstration, aged seven, in not taking ourselves too seriously.

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When I gained my sponsored place as an Art Exhibition student at my secondary school, the first term was hard. The reason was; there was no playing outdoors and making up games, and no building dens or running around in streams. I guess it just wasn’t cool. It was also an elite school that – now I reflect on it, and on the types of jobs the alumni have – was very geared towards corporate leadership roles, where success in the mainstream Capitalist industries framework was encouraged. Art, play, and health and well-being work was not.

I did learn to love it though, and most of my friends were the local kids who, in my view, were from much more normal beginnings and had a much more playful attitude to socialising and future goals. I had a friend who wanted to be a mountain biker, and one who wanted to be the next female Prime Minister for ideological reasons, and one who wanted to be a Midwife. A friend and I listened to niche music in our room and planned to convert a barn when we left school and commission arts and gigs.

We weren’t the kids that understood science, or studied economics, or liked maths.

We needed a bit of a scene that differed from the prescriptions of the school, so we inadvertently developed one. We hung about in the park uptown, misbehaving. I was still totally absorbed by the ‘Art Block’ though, and spent a lot of time in there printmaking. Music was also massive. I was into emo, punk rock and pop punk and I felt a lot more at home with the expression in those songs than in a classroom with the international kids who arrived at school by helicopter, and didn’t know what a cooker was. I essentially had a sheltered upbringing – no exposure to abuse, drugs, homelessness, illness etc. I have an educated, engineer father whose has had a successful career vai being a dustman, a farmhand and an engineering project manager to becoming a managing director of a small manufacturing business. I have a creative ex-chef mother who can make lace and gardens and curtains and all the things that add spice and comfort to life. She works in a bookshop, which requires her to counsel and console as much as sell books. And they took me camping and to Brownies, to America once, and to the theatre. A very blessed upbringing. But these kids from school were on a totally different level. They had staff. And actual Ribena taps in their houses. And were in the Russian Mafia. 

By the time I left school, I definitely, proudly, completely identified myself through art and music. They improved my confidence and enabled a lot of social opportunities. My best friends from school were all either artists, or huge music fans. They’re still my friends. Maybe it’s because our friendships know how to weather storms and absences – our psyches are creatively informed and so we understand the emotions of everyday life, not the bureaucracies. We’re adaptable and responsive; maybe that’s what creativity can teach you. Maybe rural living too.

 

    Then there’s a new friendship, well – actually, a renewed friendship – with my first EVER friend. Her dad is my Godfather. But since we became teenagers, although our parents remained friends, us kids grew apart. But when we were 25, she moved to London, and moved into the newly vacant room in our houseshare following a conversation with her dad/my Godfather, coincidentally while we were doing some green woodworking; he was teaching me to lay a hedge and use a billhook. – Strange what pivotal events occur during outdoor creative pursuits!

Anyhow, my new housemate/old pal and I realised we were both very keen on environmental conservation. Because there were two of us, we went to local action meetings together – it’s easier to do things when you’ve got a partner in crime. Within a few months Alice (that’s my pal) had applied for (and got onto) a Masters course in Climate Change and International Development, and I had enough research under my belt to work as a writer (amongst other things) for a sustainable textiles blog.

I also learned more about Permaculture and decided to save up, leave London, and learn what I could about being more sustainable in my own life in the long run. The only problem with London (besides the cost of living and the pollution) is that my need to be creative wasn’t aligning with my need to earn enough money to acquire my own property in which to create a permaculture designed living system. (I initially had plans to make and sell my own zero waste clothing line, but soon realised I wanted to work more locally than that – perhaps I still can, very lowkey?)

I’d also spent the last four years racking up my required 1000 hours of experience to be able to apply for a Masters in Art Psychotherapy at Sheffield or Goldsmiths. This was my goal, and when I was approaching my 1000th hour I went on a 3 month Foundation Course in Art Psychotherapy. Then Brexit happened. I went to job fairs and consulted Art Therapists and health trusts and commissioners. No – art therapy is not a stable career option right now, and the training is monumentally expensive. I also just can’t get past the idea of having to work indoors every day!

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Papa collecting a vulture tailfeather in the Pyrenees.

    Since leaving London, i’ve been able to access more of the more remote/large areas of natural or rural land that offer me comfort and learning. My cost of living has also gone down. But the availability of creative jobs has also gone down.

I started to look into working in Mental Health again, working up from the bottom rungs. Wasn’t convinced I could hack it, day in day out.

I started to look at training as walking and hiking guide. Not enough art and creative idea generation.

I briefly considered starting a creative business again; commercial somehow. Nah.

Ideally I could have a job designing and building dens and treehouses, and renegades of the future would make art and clothes and put on punk gigs and their kids would make puppets and there’d be plays and performances. And environmental awareness would be raised and 100% renewable energy achieved globally. But that sounds too much like good fun so we might not get funding for it.

What I have realised, is that although there are socially-engaged art projects out there, and plenty of them, they present two problems for me:

  1. I have no proven and accredited experience in Leadership, Project Management or Teaching. This is more often than not, essential for getting hired on these projects.
  2. I have yet to come across a creative project that combines both community-engagement and environmental awareness.

Selfishly perhaps, I think this is a gap in the world of creative problem solving. Certainly in Herefordshire.

This past summer I worked in Art Promotions and Access for a local district council, and although there is emphasis on bringing art to kids and youths, there is no guidance, support or mentoring for young adults who have benefited from this access and want to pursue a creative career. I know – I’m one of them. Herefordshire is barren for such things – once you’re over 25, you’re a fish out of water. There’s no coaching on funding, networking, business and project management. There are not even any affordable CPD courses, certainly not in the West Midlands.

So, I want to try to carry out my own projects – visual, written, activist, engagement orientated – that enable and promote climate awareness and local action.

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A tree I saw on the day I saw Tom Petty – rest his soul – and I saw two girls my age having the best day anyone has probably ever had, watching Tom Petty play American Girl. Told ya.

 

Incidentally, I was today offered a job as a Support Worker for a brilliant Creative Learning Day Centre and Residential Home for adults with Learning Disabilities. It’s an amazing place that offers Arts, Bushcraft, Livestock Care and all sorts of other personal development courses for local adults with learning difficulties.

My job, besides some pastoral care, will be to work with the service users to identify and plan activities that will promote their health, independence, and hopefully employment prospects.

I should learn a lot about what i’m investigating through this job.

Especially as it had occurred to me that people with learning difficulties may not be able to work many hours, if at all – they may only take on voluntary positions. How amazing would it be for them, and for everyone, and the planet, if they (if interested of course) could learn more about, say, a local nature reserve, and progress to giving a guided walk for the public once a month?

Environmental learning for everyone I say. It’s good for us, it’s good for our social lives and communities, it’s good for job opportunities and it’s good for the planet.

And creative practitioners often have the ability to engage many many people, and appeal to those who might not otherwise be bothered.

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Enjoying the estuary on the Denmark/Sweden border – because it’s on The Bridge. Sometimes places are highlighted because of art, or music, or film.

And the reason I decided to keep a log of my research, is that I suddenly realised it might be worth my while, whereas before I had been sceptical about whether outdoor learning is even useful; perhaps it’s just fun. Maybe creativity is a superfluous gift; a hobby.

But then I realised that almost every moment I can recall vividly, or that I recognise as a moment of learning or of mental tranquility, took place either outdoors or whilst making art (or creative writing.) At school, playing DoiDois and Gorillas, or hiking in France or Wales, or camping with my parents, or printing some clothes I made and dyed with dyestuffs I salvaged from cooking. Even when I worked at the council, which I did NOT enjoy (I was under-utilised and the whole organisation was, in my, view operating at a snail’s pace), my salvation was camping after work in a campsite just out of town, by a little pond with all the ducklings!

I even wrote, at Uni, about how helpful it is for us to get cold and wet, and not be scared of it – like when I froze in the swimming pool at primary school or when my thighs went numb from playing hockey until 9pm in January in the rain, in a tiny skirt.

I also realised I’d written my BA dissertation on the theme of environmental awareness through learning outdoors, via creative engagement!

Then I realised that the only project I received 100% marks on at Uni, was a project where I wrote an essay, in conjunction with piece of art I made outdoors using natural materials!

Hot damn.

So this is where my research begins… or continues, rather. I have some old research which I shall reflect on and post if it fits.

This is my case.

Grand.

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