Community Nature Murals
Jon Barrett- Community Engagement & Volunteering Officer
Back in December we developed ideas for a community nature mural, one of the many exciting projects that emerged from our virtual ‘office’ at the time – but things were looking very different then, and the idea of spending hours painting nature images in the company of others seemed pretty unimaginable. National restrictions were keeping everyone firmly, and safely, indoors.
It was during that roadmap out of ‘lockdown’ that face-to-face work looked like it would be at a significant roadblock for some time. We had an idea in mind for what we wanted – to create a space for people living locally to enjoy, create, imagine, explore and learn from the wonderful experiences of nature and what the Quantock Hills AONB means to us – but we had very little idea of when, and in what way, that could happen.
We knew that a time would come when we could share experiences with one another again – to enjoy the social and emotional interaction that comes with partnership working and local engagement. It was through some of these virtual conversations we were having that an interesting blank canvas (actually Somerset West & Taunton corporate blue) had emerged in the shape of several 30metre hoardings surrounding the Woolaway housing development in North Taunton. An interesting, and unresolved, site in one of our target project areas – somewhere that presented an exciting opportunity.
It turned out it wouldn’t be our first time in the community, as we got to experience the pride and passion that existed in the neighbourhood when we helped Youth Unlimited deliver activities during the Easter holidays for children on free school meals (some of those children would later join us again for this project). It’s a community that’s rightly proud of its area, and although it’s on the doorstep of the Quantock Hills, little obvious relationship exists with the natural landscape that lives just around the corner (apart from street names that register some of the regional landscapes, Selworthy Rd; Dorchester Rd; Hereford Dr; Bodmin Rd etc.).
That pride was felt most keenly when we first introduced the idea of a nature mural to impassioned local residents – things weren’t necessarily smooth – a lot of antagonism existed as a combination of both the pandemic and pre-existing sentiments toward the housing development itself. The hoardings were a bone of contention for many locals; they represented upheaval for the community and an uncomfortable relationship with delays in the development. Though an unwillingness to participate in this project was less about our scheme than it was a frustration felt universally.
We progressed our plans – not in defiance, but in a belief that this was a place rich in community-spirit, that the strength of feeling toward this was an indication of how much people cared, rather than lacked in engagement.
Part of the joy of a National Lottery Heritage Funded project like this is that it brings us closer to those communities who live in our local neighbourhoods. By bringing projects to the doorstep we offer more people the opportunity to contribute, building a stronger and more diverse contribution across our project area. We live in an area of lowest social mobility in the UK and there are so many systemic barriers of access for people living locally that contribute to this issue. Projects like this help to build confidence and break down some of those barriers. We knew that we needed an artist who could deliver a fun and engaging project and capitalise on the sense of pride felt in the local area – but also to work with the ambition, escapism, sense of wonder and adventure that the Quantock Hills AONB can bring for people.
We commissioned regional illustrator and mural artist, Dave Bain, from his excellent track record of working with communities and his colourful, quirky, nature-themed subjects. Having Dave on the project really helped to develop our audiences and build meaningful community connections. Dave has a method of creativity and playfulness that goes beyond the murals themselves – one that is experienced by the communities he’s worked with for some time to come.
From the outset, in chatting to Dave and developing ideas, it was clear that he immediately understood our project and felt the same enthusiasm for it that we did. Dave had a great sense of what we wanted on a professional level – which made for a really enjoyable and creative relationship. We loved exploring designs and ideas for delivery with Dave as he made this process fun and inclusive. We took residents up to the Quantock Hills on a weekend in May and they all got to fill in a helpful activity sheet produced by Dave. Those documents formed the basis for designs that would inspire and inform the mural.
That trip, although hard to get as many people involved as we would have liked (the weather wasn’t kind on the morning and there were unforeseen challenges – like public confidence being affected so soon after the change in national restrictions), was instrumental in the way we learnt from the our audiences. Sometimes those smaller, intimate groups, can help inspire meaningful engagement and reveal interesting insights. It was clear that for many people living here, the Quantock Hills was somewhere they may never have visited before. I couldn’t help but feel moved by one child who, on approaching a horse at Wilmot’s Pool, remarked that it was the closest they’d come to a horse other than in the computer game, Minecraft. We even heard afterwards about how the children had done a whole school project about their trip – right down to drawing the bus journey.
Freedom, quiet, fresh air, adventure, escaping and happiness were all feelings that were described on that trip – and nature, in the form of woodlands, wild horses, beetles, bird song, trees, sunshine and mud. It was these themes, alongside appreciation of the colours and beauty, that Dave would use to create his artistic palette.
It was really important that the inspiration for the mural came from within the community and Dave’s approach had been critical to the success of that. He has a great understanding of how to work sympathetically with audiences and how get people inspired without it being transactional. From the initial consultation material that he produced, through to the completed designs, there was a real sense of inclusion and participation that gave the project its identity.
Dave’s flexible designs, easy tools and unpretentious approach, meant that anyone from the community felt they could get involved. For us this had been really important as we were able to work alongside our target groups in a fun and co-operative way, presenting a lovely and tangible record of engagement with communities. What’s more, the flexibility of design meant that the mural could continue to be informed by new influences as we went along – whether it be new ways of making marks, or adding other elements from nature, like bunny rabbits or bumble bees… things that didn’t result from the original consultation, but would arrive from passers-by and suggestions on the day. It would all lead to a huge sense of collective ownership and achievement for everybody involved in the project.
We had an on overwhelmingly positive response to the mural, which eventually took place over three weekends in June. Each weekend happened in a different neighbourhood location. We tried to focus on those areas where there would be good footfall, but also somewhere with a residential feel – a decent open space for people to just come and play about if they wanted. After everything that everyone had been through, it felt like a splash of colour and a group activity outdoors would be just the tonic. It was also a chance for people to put something wonderful back into the neighbourhood. After all, the hoardings were standing in front of what were once homes in the community – the dropped curbs and gate posts leading to non-existent houses a painful reminder of the displaced communities that had existed on these very spots. Instead of neighbours, a lot of people were living with just one uniform colour across the street, and our work on the hoardings could now be a place of transformation and a chance for “seeing something new every time” – as one resident put it.
During the first bank holiday weekend we had nearly 40 local residents come and paint over 30 metres of hoardings! The positivity of this event was a far cry from that first meeting we had, and it just showed the depth of generosity, kindness and community spirit that did exist in our local neighbourhood. People were giving up their bank holiday to come and paint – we even had the local PCSOs join us for an entire day. Passers-by would pledge to stay for 30 minutes and ended up staying for 3 hours to help paint. There were even people taking themselves off to weed other areas of the hoardings that would be worked on during following weekends – or offering to strim the area during the week because they were taking pride in the work being done. People wanted to do something about the area now, whereas before it had been an obstruction. The community were making their mark.
For others, it was a chance to escape other ills in the area. A young boy remarked how kids in the local park were drinking and smoking, and they were only 11, so he came to paint instead. Other families told us how they didn’t feel welcome in the area, so they came because they wanted to feel involved. Interestingly, this eagerness to be involved and people “want[ing] to say I’ve made my mark” as one person put it, has a very direct relationship to the nature conservation work we do. People who come and plant trees often do so because they want that sense of ownership and pride that comes with knowing you’ve put something wonderful back into the landscape – your own legacy, and that’s a very human thing. The mural was the same. It’s a collective effort, just in the same way tree planting influences a landscape, people could make their impression on the local area. Check out the video here we’ve put together here