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Fusion Talk: In Conversation with Curator, Producer and Artist Bryony Benge-Abbott

24/03/2021

Bryony Benge-Abbott is a British-Trinidadian visual artist, curator and producer currently based in rural Kent. Through oil paintings, public murals, surface pattern designs, exhibitions and ‘wild drawing’ walks, Bryony creates interventions and experiences that invite a deeper exploration of the natural world and our relationship with it. She is also part of our Artist Research Labs programme, which aims to help artists discover the next chapter of their practice.

For the programme we have brought together five artists who are interested in exploring, researching and reflecting on their practices, closely focusing on the question “what can make my practice sustainable?”. The artists are keeping in contact over three months to investigate these ideas, feeding back their explorations and developments throughout. We caught up with Bryony to find out more about her work, how her practice engages with mental well-being and how her art is evolving over the course of Artist Research Labs.

Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic practice?

"My interdisciplinary art practice is centred around creating immersive and inclusive portals to the natural world, through which we might encounter alternative ways of understanding our place within the landscapes we share. I’m interested in concepts of interconnectedness and place, and through my work I explore different cultural, social, ecological, political, historical, physical and spiritual dimensions of our experience and perspectives of landscape. At the moment, I’m creating a new body of work inspired by my own ancestral landscapes of Trinidad & Tobago and the ancient woodlands of rural Kent.

I also deliver participatory, socially engaged projects, which are focused around the potential of combining art and nature to enhance mental well-being and resilience. Currently these are all taking place online. For example, I’m running a Wild Drawing through Lockdown group with residents in Camden and delivering mindfulness drawing team workshops for different organisations.

"As a curator and producer, I work with clients ranging from academics, health care providers, government, cultural venues, community organisations and charities to design and deliver public realm science engagement projects. I’m passionate about supporting organisations to meaningfully and imaginatively engage, involve and inspire communities and public audiences in their work."

Most recently, I set up and led The Francis Crick Institute’s public exhibition programme, curating and project managing exhibitions that explored the Institute’s biomedical research into human health and disease. I was also one of the artists commissioned by Fusion and Oxford City Council to create a mural on Manzil Way last September, which shared a public health message relating to Covid-19."

Woman standing in front of wall mural
Bryony painting the Manzil Way mural, September 2020. Photo by Martin Stott
oil on canvas
L-R: 'Kingdom of roots (i)', oil and gold leaf on board; Detail from 'Tobagan Forest', oil on board; 'Lichen Heritage', oil on canvas

How do you address or engage with mental health/well-being in your practice?

"A thread that weaves its way throughout my curatorial career and increasingly through my creative practice too, is an interest in deconstructing systems of thought or values that segment or divide us as humans, and distance us from the natural world and our own natural instincts. It’s my belief that nature disconnection is a root cause of so many of the challenges we face socially, politically and, of course, environmentally. There is so much research showing that contact with nature is vital to our mental health and well-being.

Through projects such as mindful colouring Roots zines, wild drawing workshops, and public-realm projects that integrate co-creation and participation, I’m interested in sharing tools and techniques that empower us to find alternative ways of seeing ourselves, our environment, our communities and our history, in ways that emphasise interconnectedness and celebrate diversity. Within my wild drawing practice, I’ve recently become interested in integrating exercises that activate the parasympathetic nerve, which helps slow breathing and calms our fight or flight mode. I am also working to design these practices so that absolutely anyone can take part regardless of art experience, or availability of materials / time / space.

"At the moment, a lot of my research is concerned with challenging dominant Western, egocentric views of the natural world and finding different ways to heighten an ecocentric awareness of the dynamism and myriad layers of connections that exist around us."

By integrating these concepts into my participatory art practice, my intention is to support a greater sense of groundedness, compassion, resilience and belonging - all of which will be essential as we face the looming mental health crisis in the UK, life post-COVID & post-Brexit, and address the growing environmental challenges ahead."

People Drawing
Images from Wild Drawing Walks as part of The Big Draw festival, October 2020

In what ways are you hoping to develop your practice using the Fusion Artist Research Labs programme?

"The timing of the programme couldn’t have been better. Last autumn I took the plunge into the world of full-time self-employment so as to focus more energy on my creative practice. Therefore, having the support of Fusion to carve out time to think critically and strategically about my artistic career, in the company of others also exploring sustainability, has been hugely valuable.

I’ve been using this time to deepen my research into areas that really inspire me, namely nature connection and concepts of place. Just within these few months my practice has evolved so much in terms of the materials I’m experimenting with and my exploration of working in a more spatial / installation-based way.

I’ve also been reflecting on the skills, networks and experiences gathered over the past 13 years of creating contemporary science and social history exhibitions alongside my fine art and socially engaged public art practice.

"A significant milestone for me in Fusion’s Artist Research Labs was the moment I decided to drop the artist studio name Bryony&Bloom and to simply work under my full name across all areas of work."

This decision emerged from a process of initially considering whether I wanted to integrate these different areas of work going forward or continue to keep exhibitions and art separate, and then using the remaining Art Labs time to really consider what I wanted this to look/feel like."

Woman sketching
Bryony working on a new installation piece for a forthcoming group exhibition at Orleans House, opening May 2021. Photo by Ewelina Ruminska.

Could you recommend another amazing artist or creative resource for us to check out?

"There is a wonderful online exhibition of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, curated by Paintings in Hospital, which is based around the meditative qualities of her art. I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for a mindful, nature-inspired digital experience, something beautiful to help you unwind.

Some of the writing that I’ve found particularly inspiring recently are Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul, which explores the ecopsychology of human development; Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild; and the beautiful essays of Akiko Busch. I read her book How to Disappear at the start of lockdown and it really influenced some of my new work. Emergence magazine commission some fantastic stories too, which are often recorded so that you can listen rather than read. I’ve also just come across the Bind collective, who share creative works that challenge traditional ways of engaging with the natural world. And finally, I’d recommend checking out the blog of Dr. Miles Richardson who has been undertaking some fascinating research into the impact of nature connectedness, specifically around the manner in which we engage with nature (rather than simply time ‘in nature') as a key factor in enhancing psychological well-being.”

To discover more about Bryony and her work you can follow her on Instagram, Twitter or visit her website.

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