A hand-drawn map of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria with words and images, by Helen Cann

Mapping a Moss of many layers

A hand-drawn map of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria with words and images, by Helen Cann

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.

Detail of a handdrawn map of Bolton Fell Moss by Helen Cann. The image contains words (View point and Old Mill) and images of people, with description of the formation of peat over a ten thousand year period

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!

Three people stand with their backs to the camera, while they look at a large map of Bolton Fell Moss

Helen’s process

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.’ 

Images and writing from a map created by Helen Cann of Bolton Fell Moss. Images include a hare, a curlew, a girl and a digger

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.’

A woman and two men are looking at a peat sample taken from 9 metres beneath the surface of a raised mire.

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.

Moss of Many Layers Film

By Juliet Klottrup

Juliet Klottrup was one of the five artists who worked as part of the team on the Moss of Many Layers project – here’s the film she made after months of research. Click the link and enjoy – it’s a 15-minute watch.

The film now features in the COP26 Virtual Peat Pavillion – visit it there and find out more about peat, mires, mosses and bogs across the world.

An image of the virtual peat pavillion at COP26

To find out more about the project, and the extraordinary Bolton Fell Moss National Nature Reserve, visit the project page here.

Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

food crops, sustainability & GM

Guest blog by Daksha Patel

This new work – a group of three ceramic pieces – explores themes of global food security and the impact of climate change and new pests and diseases upon food crops.

Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

We are today increasingly reliant on a very small number of food crop species worldwide. According to a report by the New Scientist only 0.1% of the planet’s edible plants are currently used to feed people. Research at Kew is exploring how traditional and wild food crop varieties, which are more resilient to shifting climatic conditions and emerging pests and diseases, can be used to breed genetic diversity into today’s food crops to make them more resilient.

I was commissioned to create this work as part of ‘A Modest Show’ collateral events at BAS9 (The British Art Show 9) in Manchester, 2022. The ceramic pieces featured at the event I’ll Bring You Flowers, a pop up meal and exhibition with fellow Suite Studio artists Fiona Donald and Lisa Remers. This brought together curators, artists, feminist chef and sommelier duo Anna Søgaard and Kim McBride from SUPPher, for an evening of wonderful food, wine and conversations with the general public. Some very interesting discussions about the environment, plant diversity, climate change and plant genetics ensued!

I often start new work by drawing. These sketches are of traditional food crops such as Akkoub (part of the sunflower family which grows in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and the Morama bean (an oilseed which grows in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Kalahari desert). It is of course impossible to ignore the other man-made threat to global food security: the impact of war and conflict on the supply chains of staple foods such as wheat. I incorporated mapping lines into the drawings to suggest coastlines and shipping routes, connecting different plants and geographical regions together.

I wanted the forms of the pots to reflect glass instruments such as conical flasks and beakers typically used in research laboratories. They were thrown in porcelain by Steve Graham at Clay Studio Manchester who skilfully and precisely followed my designs.

I used cobalt oxide to decorate the pots, an intricate process using tissue paper to transfer my drawings with a fine brush. It was very difficult to see what the final result would be, as the cobalt oxide was gritty and didn’t emulsify in the way water colours do. It was simply a question of making different concentrations of oxide by mixing with water, and waiting to see what emerged after firing.

A white ceramic pot raised on a potter's wheel with a design

The genetic modification of food crops is enmeshed in all kinds of inter-related, unresolved and ongoing issues. Farmers may become increasing reliant upon expensive seeds from the very small number of biotech companies who own the intellectual property for the genetic variations. The impact of GMO contamination in the environment is an ongoing concern that needs more research. Ultimately, scientific research is implicated in wider social, political, economic and environmental issues.

Finely decorated porcelain pots and food are both deeply connected to social practices and culture. The juxtaposition of traditional crafts with the laboratory-based forms and drawings on the ceramics, positions the scientific research into food crops and genetics in wider social contexts.