One of the main artistic outputs from the Moss of Many Layers project is the map of Bolton Fell Moss created by Helen Cann. This post put together by Harriet Fraser gives a behind-the-scenes look at Helen’s process, and how the map came into being.
Helen’s map not only shows the history of the moss, but also the present, documenting the ongoing upkeep of the Moss, and the hoped-for future as restoration brings rewards. The layers of time – past, present and future – were important in Helen’s thinking.
The map shares stories from local residents and insights from scientists, and portrays the wildlife communities that have returned to the moss since extraction ceased and are likely to thrive as their habitats improve. It’s a thing of beauty, something that draws you in.
When the original map was shared at the Wide Open Day it was like a magnet – people gathered around it, pointed out things they recognised, new information that surprised them, and used it as a catalyst to share further stories. The map is hand-drawn, in wonderful detail. When further infrastructure is in place on Bolton Fell Moss, and accessible via the boardwalk, a reproduction of the map will be in place. We can’t wait to see it there!
Helen compiled the map over a number of months. As well as visiting the site (which she reflects on in her blog here), Other artist researchers in the team shared recordings with her, so she could listen to interviews with people who used to work on the site when peat was extracted and ecologists and rangers who are now monitoring recovery of vegetation, and the return of wildlife. And Helen had conversations with the scientists, restoration specialists and others on the Moss of Many Layers team. This approach is new to Helen, and it’s great to see how rewarding it has been.
‘I have rarely worked with an inter-disciplinary team before other than being given access to historian or curatorial research notes, for example. Moss of Many Layers gave me the opportunity to have face to face talks with experts. The site visit was fantastic and vital in understanding the land and being able to have conversations with experts in the field.’
The inter-disciplinary nature of this project impacted the approach of all the researchers, with a level of responsiveness that relied on iterative learning and conversations. ‘My experience as an illustrator means my practice involves following a brief and then delivering as near to the agreed brief as possible. In this case, I created my own brief and then followed through.’
When we talked about this, Helen reflected that this is quite unusual – but worked perfectly. Each artist began with a loose framework (in Helen’s case, to draw a map) and then let their work evolve according to ongoing learning from visits to the site and from other people. Helen’s visit to Bolton Fell Moss caused her to change some of her initial ideas (and do a fair amount of rubbing out!). This doesn’t happen often in her work. ‘In the future, it might be good to allow myself space for more ‘idea bouncing’ and the flexibility to change course from the initial brief if my thoughts develop or I’m inspired to go in other directions. In general, I’m not sure how acceptable this is for stakeholders if they’ve a been promised a particular outcome – I’d never do this as an illustrator but it’s good to know how/if this works within an art context.’ Perhaps this is a key difference between pure illustration and research-led illustrative artwork, where the shape, detail and overall feel of a piece, can alter along the way: it’s responsive. You can read more about Helen’s reflections on her process on her website here.
One of the aims of the Moss of Many Layers project was for the various pieces of artwork to reflect learning, rather than an aim for a predetermined outcome. We’re really happy that this is what happened – and when all the work is compiled and made available we’ll share a link to it through the project page.
Encountering the unexpected
I asked Helen if anything unexpected happened for her. This was her answer:
‘ – the realisation that the Moss was in a constant state of flux, was still a work in progress and that I’d need to adapt drawings made initially as thoughts and practice had changed over the months. I’m used to maps becoming anachronistic over time but never within such a short time, and I have to acknowledge that some elements of the map may be out of date by the time it’s actually printed as a sign!’
This might be a little unexpected in the context of creating an illustration, but it is an encouraging reflection: now that extraction has come to an end and restoration work is beginning to have a positive effect in the way water balance is shifting on the moss, the process of healing is showing quick results. It’s part of the positive story of this place – the geographical location won’t change, but a lot else will.
And a final word from Helen? ‘It’s been a blast. I learnt loads and am really pleased with how the map turned out. I wish I could have had some of that cake.*’
*The cake at the Wide Open Day was a 3D presentation of the bog.