The parallels between creativity and gardening: is community growth what we need most?

Community gardens have long offered support to individuals and the environment. They’ve even provided an alternative route into creative practices – something we need now more than ever.

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The positive effects of gardening, whether it’s a city window box or a larger plot of land, is a list that aptly grows. At first, pragmatic benefits come to mind. Accessible green spaces are undeniably beneficial environmentally, both restorative for the space being tended to and the wider location it occupies. In a health context, the act of gardening is therapeutic, physically and mentally. With a community focus, it can also aid greater social cohesion and pair together individuals in a way that creates social capital via shared knowledge. Skills development is a factor too, aiding employment and in some cases economic gain, while also reducing elements such as anxiety, depression and even food insecurity. For the individuals involved, the contribution often offers a wider personal gain: an alternative entryway into creativity.

Nature has of course always been a constant source of creative inspiration. As kids, the first art classes we take tend to involve plotting pieces with sticky leaves gathered from the playground and given pride of place on the fridge once home. The artists we see on those early gallery trips often seem to feature nature as their muse too, from waterlilies to starry nights. But it’s interesting to consider gardening as a creative act in itself; where shapes and colours are carefully cultivated just as they are in a notebook, atop a canvas or a fresh untitled document.

For instance, as the Ramsgate-based photographer, Jason Evans describes: “Creatively looking at plant life is like returning to the source.” It’s a realisation acquired by Jason while volunteering at The Garden Gate Project, a 1.5-acre walled garden in Margate. A community garden “by local people for local people”, The Garden Gate Project aims to promote inclusion while reducing prejudice in the act of “bringing people together whilst supporting adults with learning disabilities and/or mental health needs.” Jason himself began volunteering while depressed and in need of a “commitment to get out of the house,” he tells It’s Nice That. In time, the community realised Jason was also a practitioner and he soon began running photographic workshops for other gardeners. In fact, his practice is now pretty much dedicated to community arts as a whole.

“The moment you get into the garden, it kind of even changes your heartbeat.”

Manuela de los Rios
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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

Open from 10 am to 3 pm, Monday to Friday, The Garden Gate Project is a garden – not an allotment – divided into several zones. A gardener can settle wherever they like, social or quieter, dependent on their mood. Some areas grow food, others flowers, but both are a starting point for learning. This can be as simple as making a peppermint tea to ease a tummy ache, or through photography, woodwork and pottery workshops, and other craft activities. Recently, gardeners even learned how to create thumb pianos with a local Guinean musician, Falle Nioke. “Almost anything can happen in the garden, to be honest,” says Jason. “It’s a magical place. When you walk through the gates you can feel the pressure drop.”

A similar description is used by Manuela de los Rios, the garden mentor at Maxwell Centre, Dundee. “The moment you get into the garden,” she says, “it kind of even changes your heartbeat. Everything seems to slow down.” Manuela first began attending Maxwell via a Persian art group still running out of the centre, before making her way into its garden as a volunteer. Two years ago, in serendipitous timing, its then garden mentor was leaving and recommended she apply for the position. “I thought, I’m not a gardener – my background is actually in marine sciences – but my career has mainly been working with communities and the arts so I thought, actually, I can see myself here. I got the job.”

As a community centre and garden, the Maxwell Centre is a broad project. Inside you can find food bank referrals, visiting school groups but also groups of women, largely from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, learning English as a second language, as well as sessions which offer legal help. In the garden itself there are sessions on growing food, harvesting and seed collection, and workshops on edible flowers. Creative crossover begins to appear in workshops such as sun and block printing and a cooking group, which makes meals for volunteers with recipes reflecting each season.

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

“The beauty of a garden is that it responds to what people need from it.”

Manuela de los Rios
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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Left

Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

No matter the task at hand, Manuela’s aim is to create opportunities to gain a new skill. This is usually through activities that visitors can take home and continue themselves – an ethos embodied by the centre’s seed and tool library so people “can explore in their own way what they’re interested in,” she adds. “The whole point of the Maxwell centre is to help people feel well and do better in life. Although it’s about plants, it is more so about the people. The beauty of a garden is that it responds to what people need from it. If somebody is looking for peace and quiet, the garden can give them that. If they’re looking to socialise, they can do that. They might just be looking to find beauty and observe, maybe get into something artistic. It’s really nice how it works at all these different levels. You have a variety of people as well, from different backgrounds, different nationalities or social spheres.”

“You make so many mistakes in the garden and you just keep going which is a parallel to creativity.”

Manuela de los Rios

For Jason and Manuela as practitioners – Jason still practices photography and sculpture, while Manuela is also a printmaker – working directly with communities is also creatively nourishing. In Manuela’s case, the garden provides an endless source of inspiration, both in items that grow and its atmosphere. “I think it helps us connect in different ways with who we are and where we are. It clears things out of your mind to be able to see what you’ve got, to observe what is right next to you – a tiny insect, or the pattern of flowers through to the sound of the breeze,” she describes of a day at Maxwell. “Your impulse might be to do a quick sketch or record something, or just lay there and meditate. I think it’s just the simplicity of it.” The cyclical nature also helps when learning. Like any creative craft, “you make so many mistakes in the garden and you just keep going which is parallel to creativity,” she adds. “That’s the way to do it, isn’t it? Keep trying and if not this time, tomorrow will be another day. The sun will come out again. You can try again.”

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

Similarly, Jason adds how his work at The Garden Gate “isn’t totally altruistic, I learn so much from it,” he says. “I would really advocate it. There’s great satisfaction in running a session where you’ve got a number of different abilities being met simultaneously. When you create that balance for your constituents, that for me, personally and professionally, is the most gratifying thing.” Most recently this has been through the Despacito Art School programme, open to children aged between five and 12, established by Ayaan Bulale. Working in conjunction with the Speaking in Trees initiative on a summer programme offering access to a free arts education, learning in nature, “as part of the healing and recovery post-Covid,” explains Open School East, an independent art school who facilitate the sessions.

“I can’t change the government, I can’t change so many things in populist 2021, but I can make a change in my immediate community.”

Jason Evans

Facilitating these opportunities for creativity at a community level is becoming increasingly necessary in the United Kingdom. 2021 has been a year of significant cuts to arts education from multiple angles. 13 higher education courses – from music to art, drama, media studies and design – each began the academic school year this September with 50 per cent less funding, in a bid by education secretary Gavin Williamson to save £20m and concentrate on STEM subjects. A direct U-turn on the commitment listed in the conservative’s 2019 election manifesto to invest in the arts – stating a want for “young people to learn creative skills and widen their horizons” – there was no mention of such a commitment in Rishi Sunak’s budget announcement this November. Further destructions are in the pipeline, with plans bubbling to limit the number of students able to study creative arts (possibly via minimum A-level requirements) due to lower salary returns increasing unpaid student loans.

While the conservative government hacks away at the creative industries, not to mention failingly encouraging people to take up a career in “cyber” instead, it’s often difficult to see what difference one individual can make. 166,000 people signed against the government's cuts to creative education. The largest creative names, embodiments of how much this industry contributes to the GDP, signed against it and nothing happened. “We’re all exhausted by the powers that be and their bullshit at the moment,” adds Jason, who favours working in community arts to higher education, an area he left once fees were introduced. “The beauty of this Tory government is that they keep throwing bullshit at us and it makes us angry, but we have no outlet for this anger and internalised anger equals depression in the long term. Our energy levels dip and then we can’t pose resistance. I can’t change the government, I can’t change so many things in populist 2021, but I can make a change in my immediate community.”

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Jason Evans: WIP images from The Garden Gate Project (Copyright © Jason Evans, 2021)

Working within community arts is a decision the photographer now feels is its own “act of political resistance, to be honest,” he says. “That’s one of the things I love about doing what I do.” Not only do community gardens make room for explorative creative practices, they act as a direct example of placing corporate systems in the hands of the local community. Spending time learning about growing a garden may encourage an individual to shop locally for instance, or become more involved in environmentalism and the fight against climate change – another instance of taking community action. In Manuela’s case, Cop26 being held in Scotland, for example, has brought the topic “down to a neighbourhood level and casual conversations we’re having in the garden,” she says. “There’s a bit of a movement locally.” Whereas at the other end of the UK, each of these positives attributes of a garden offers Jason the opportunity to “work with people of all ages and get an intimate view of the way people perceive their options; part of my role is to show them alternative options,” he continues. “If we all did that we would start networking, starting spreading out.”

In fact, take the ability of a garden to often grow and bloom where it’s not wanted. To act, as Jason advises, “Like a fungus!”

Response & Responsibility – Cop26

During the next two weeks, over 120 world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to agree on the actions needed to pull the earth back from the brink of a climate catastrophe. The most important conference of our lifetime, in response, we are exploring creative responses to the climate crisis throughout the duration of Cop26.

Read the full series

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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