On Groundswell

Dr Pamela Whitaker is an art therapist living in Ireland who practices under the name of Groundswell, a social enterprise working in the areas of art therapy, art and participation, environmental arts, and arts and health. She has written ‘Groundswell: The Nature and Landscape of Art Therapy in Materials and Media in Art Therapy’ (edited by Catherine Hyland Moon) and ‘The Art Therapy Assemblage in Art Therapy and Postmodernism’ (edited by Helene Burt).

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 1 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Pamela Whitaker: I am committed to working with people and their territories of meaning. This is influenced by my professional background within art therapy, which is also informed by political science, psychoanalytic studies and contemporary art practices. Movement studies, in the form of improvisational dance, choreography, and performance art, also have a strong resonance and influence. The artistic potentials of space, and the assembling and witnessing of surroundings is a preoccupation and pursuit. I work with what I find along a route of travel, as a form of psychogeography (our psychological responses to locations) that moves us across imagescapes, the imaginal landscapes of our lives that bestow impressions and determinations. This proposition impacts my teaching and writing as I wander and gather intuitively, observing experiences of people within social, geographical and environmental habitats.

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 2 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your ideas and working practice?

PW: I am influenced by art festivals and festivity in terms of the art of gatherings and artists whose public engagement creates events with hospitality. Feasting as an artistic occasion, and the marking of time, has also featured in my practice. I have created events in libraries, community gardens, schools, galleries, and in my own home. Festivals are also a commitment to collectivity in shared civic spaces. I also contribute to mental health festivals, literature festivals and arts festivals usually in the form of assembling a walking studio or art studio for collective making.

In my promotion of gatherings, and the sharing of art, there is also gift giving. I make a remedy for people to take home, in the form of a keepsake that reminds them of their participation in an event that is restorative. I am fond of the generation of interludes and liminal spaces that interrupt civic spaces with conviviality and creativity. Companionship and generosity are essential, along with the intention to construct a ritual for participants and passersby. People need to be given to—as loss, uneasiness and uncertainty prevail in the lives of many. The art of the feast, as event, is a composition that rejuvenates an optimism about community making. I consider this to be a form of public appeal art or the art of public relations. An opportunity for social mixing, pride of place and being present to each other through shared art making. The quest to rise to the occasion, and to make within encounters with people has been inspired by seasonal celebrations and references to metaphors and symbols that relate to heritage and culture. Art led gatherings are times to observe our whereabouts, our significance and our contributions to shared experience.

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 3 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

RB: Can you say something about your project Groundswell? What are its aims and activities?

PW: Groundswell (www.groundswell.ie) originated in the creation of a forest garden around my home in County Louth, Ireland. It exists in the borderlands of Ireland, and the garden has become a habitat, sanctuary and ecology. The forest is mostly edible cultivated as a biodiversity and ecosystem. It also acts as an apothecary garden for cures, tonics and solutions. The garden is inspired by the Means of Production Garden in Vancouver founded by Oliver Kellhammer (http://oliverk.org). The garden is a resource for living art materials that can be foraged for home or mutually created outdoor artworks—earth for pigments, flowers and plants for natural dyes, stones for landmarks, and branches for sculpted shelters. The garden exists as an intermediary zone, where one can be at home in an environment that is also home to others.

Groundswell is a metaphor for movement, support and spontaneous growth. In its conception Groundswell became a social enterprise that combined organic gardening workshops, land art and environmental education. It was a home place that offered sustenance to people through the sharing of skills, wild foods, and art making with natural materials foraged in the garden.

Groundswell’s ethos also facilitates art from the materials of life with relevance to experiences in the making. There is a consideration of the arts as an elixir to compensate for disillusionment and discontent. The goal is to inspire participation, representation and the enthusiasm to make a difference. The activities of Groundswell have extended into conducting art therapy within outdoor studios, civic engagement and teaching in higher education. The contexts of lived experience (for example built and natural environments) have become studios for social research and personal experimentation. The scope of practice is broad and extends in many directions, but the roots of Groundswell still exists in a forest garden, and in connection to experimenting with how plants and people are an artform in continual production.

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 4 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

RB: Walking features very much in the activities of Groundswell. Can you say more about this and the importance of walking in your art therapy practice?

PW: The Walking Studio is a method of art making found along the way of pedestrian travel. A walking route is constructed with situations and materials along our pathways and the givens of our surroundings. Walking has a link with research, response art, observation and curiosity. It is also a consideration of the commons, as publicly shared places and thoroughfares that offer opportunities for being together in mutual habitats.

The Walking Studio can be pursued either individually or collectively. It can also be a sharing of walks between people online, so that one walk informs another in terms of themes, discoveries and intentions. The art of walking can be documented through photographs, collections, words, and the making of milestones along the way (environmental art left in situ) and through commemorations of loss (memorials that are formed in parks and neighbourhoods). The commons is a shared canvas of narratives. Our stories are passageways within the scenes of a walk, and the imprints of our travel is a personal registry of impressions.

Walking also generates a cartography of distances travelled, which becomes an archive of where we have been, in terms of our patterns and divergences. In relation to art therapy, walking can be an artistic declaration within the world-at-large and a way to practice pursuing one’s own destination. It also evokes desire lines (self made paths) and the tracking of resolution by finding our own ways forward.

I have written a chapter in the book Found Objects in Art Therapy: Materials and Process (2021) edited by Daniel Wong and Ronald Lay on the art of walking, composing landmarks and performing territory. Below is a quotation from the chapter:

Walking performs a space, and the walker is a performer within the larger public body. Becoming part of the landscape situates art therapy outside within the movements of society. As such participants discover pedestrian serendipity, unexpected occurrences and happenings that enact personal reflections, insights and therapeutic content. The therapeutic relationship bestows an agency to walk within society as a cultural practitioner. What this means for art therapy, is that the world-at-large inspires an analysis of identity and the collective…The art therapy walk generates observation, discussion, reasoning, and the re-making of the taken for granted. Found objects are both sought out, and appear by chance within established routes and crafted paths, where self-initiative forges new ways of getting somewhere. These objects may become the milestones of moments, assembling landmarks that compose a journey. (Whitaker, 2021, p. 52).

Whitaker, P. (2021). The art of walking: Composing landmarks, performing territory. In D. Wong and R. Lay (Eds.). Found Objects in Art Therapy: Materials and Process (pp. 39-59). Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 5 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

RB: What do you understand by the word ‘Imagination’ and its relationship with art therapy?

PW: The word imagination is an enactment of the possible through a fascination with art that moves us along. The word imaginal can be used within art therapy to describe how a series of artworks remake perspective and instil a conviction to generate and extend outwards. This sense of production assembles our resources and the art we create propels us into dimensions both familiar and becoming. The image in art therapy is multidimensional and seeks its realisation in how we live with meaning and resolve. Imagination can compose new beginnings; it ignites artistry as a torch that illuminates the unknown.

Whitaker, P. (2021) Fire Ritual 6 [Photograph]. Dublin: Personal Collection.

RB: What projects are you currently working on or have coming up in the future?

PW: I am interested in compositions of grief and rituals of loss. I recently became a funeral celebrant as a way to further my knowledge and capacity to facilitate ceremonies that evoke an arts based memoriam. A celebration of life is a commemoration that offers support and remembrance. I anticipate growing an apothecary garden with botanical life forms that offer solace and aid bereavement. An apothecary garden is a sanctuary and a repository for finding symbolism and relief. I anticipate the garden being available as a gift for the taking, so during despair there is consolation and a remedy to take home. This apothecary cure could be lived with as a shrine, or consumed as a herbal tonic. A garden can be a resource in times of need. It is an offering and a refuge, and the art of botanical displays can feature within a ceremony that remembers.



All images copyright and courtesy of Pamela Whitaker



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