In a corner of the seaside town of Margate is a walled garden that blooms community spirit. With an aim “to promote inclusion and reduce prejudice by bringing people together,” the Garden Gate Project supports adults with both learning disabilities and mental health needs, offering the opportunity to “engage in meaningful health, educational, creative, social, environmental and leisure opportunities.”
Welsh photographer Jason Evans lives in nearby Ramsgate and has been working with The Garden Gate Project for the past two years, offering his photography skills which boast a history of exhibitions at the town’s Turner contemporary site, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Britain and MoMa in New York too. The result is a series of projects that merge photography, set design and flower arranging into a joyful compendium of smile-inducing photographs.
Smitten with the project ourselves, below we chat to Jason about his involvement with the community garden and the importance of “visual literacy”.
How did you hear about the Garden Gate Project and why did you want to get involved?
I have been thinking about alternative outlets (other than galleries and editorial) and different kinds of audience engagement to complement the other kinds of work that I do. Garden Gate Project has a great reputation in my neighbourhood and I wanted to be outside and doing something new, it just ticked a bunch of boxes. The garden has a special, gentle environment where a broad range of people and abilities get along with supportive good humour. I was interested in its horizontal management model too, it’s what I would call a healthy institution.
Can you tell us about your involvement in the workshops?
I have been volunteering at the garden for two years now and these pictures are the result of the second project I have run there. First off we turned the tool shed into a dark room making photograms using the flash on a digital camera instead of an enlarger as there’s no mains electricity on site.
Whatever project we do also needs to be accessible to a range of abilities. A Hasselblad on a tripod suited our purposes for this project, not distracting from the act of selecting and arranging flowers, leaves, or whatever. Different backdrops were available, some were printed on site in workshops with Charlie Evaristo-Boyce and a range of florists’ frogs and vases were brought in. Except during high summer when it was weekly, we would meet on a fortnightly basis of an eight-month period. If you keep the choices reasonably simple, the personal creative differences between participants shine out.
What did you want people taking part in the project to gain from the experience?
At one end of the scale, I think basic visual literacy is an important skill to have in our image-saturated culture. Remembering that photographs are constructed, and having the experience of being an author, allows for deeper understanding of the pictorial messages around you. At the other end of the scale, I think we had fun, the act of coming together to construct without inhibition or expectation is its own reward. I like to approach creative expression as a form of play — everyone can use some playtime.
Historically, flowers are associated with beauty and a positive natural energy. For me it was an exercise in broadening the idea of what a flower arrangement can be, different participants brought different criteria to bear. Some were working with numbers sequences, while others sought to be illustrative and others worked with spatial intuition.
What was the process of creating The Garden Gate Project book and choosing which images went in? Will there be a sequel?
We had a show where prints were for sale (and still are via the Garden Gate’s Facebook page accessed here). The zine was a was a way for participants to share and show their experience and the selection demonstrates the broadest range of work that was made over the year. We are currently thinking about the photographic content for the coming years of the garden, maybe growing our own light-sensitive materials. We’ll definitely be going on some field trips to look at other work (Anna Atkins is a favourite), and hopefully bringing in a portable camera obscura as well as workshops for the open days which are scheduled next for 14 April, 21 July and 6 October.
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