"The disability employment advisor advised me to sign on sick and go and do some day centre activities, namely, basket weaving. [...] This project is a reclaiming of that basket weaving."
Kristina, it seems to me that although your work Basketcase is inspired by the Forest of Dean, it’s about so much more than just forests. I was wondering if you could start by telling me a bit about the impetus behind this project and the issues you wanted to address in creating it.
When I started the project, I was using baskets as metaphors for people weaving through barriers in their lives. It was drawn from my own experiences at 21, leaving university with a degree and a disability, and then going to get a graduate career and finding the job market wasn’t accessible. The disability employment advisor advised me to sign on sick and go and do some day centre activities, namely, basket weaving.
For a number of years I kept being directed towards basket weaving. Partly, I think, because it’s synonymous with rehabilitation. The term “basketcase”, which I adopted for the project, came from soldiers returning from war that were (reportedly) carried around in baskets, because they’d had their limbs amputated. Then there’s the more recent use of the term as somebody with mental health issues. It seems fitting to the whole disability narrative.
Eventually, 20 years later, I thought, actually, I might quite like to try some weaving. Up until that point, every time somebody asked if I would like to do it, I’d think, ‘weave your own basket!’. I got to a point where I was quite interested… but if I’m going to do it, I want to do it on my terms, in my way. This project is a reclaiming of that basket weaving.
At the same time, I was thinking about the opportunity to have a commission with Unlimited and the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust, and about how those two things – baskets and forests – might fit together. At that point I didn’t know much about the history of the forest, so I was very much focused on the natural world and the fight for survival. Shoots reaching for light, roots searching out water, creepers creeping up tree trunks, and all those simple, symbiotic relationships. I liked the idea of resilience in the forest.
Then I started hearing stories about mine collapses and mine closures and the hard work of quarrying, and I could see that there was a parallel between resilience in the natural world, and its human inhabitants. But I also quickly discovered that the only stories that I could get hold of were ones of men. And I thought, well, where are the voices of women? Because the terrain is so inaccessible, I also wondered about the stories of disabled people. There’s actually a higher than average number of disabled people living in the forest area, which seems strange, because it’s a difficult place to get about – public transport isn’t very well connected. As it is a very white area, I was also looking for the voices of black people. And then I spoke to a community worker in Cinderford who told me that they’d just had their first ever Pride event. I’m really interested in these stories – but they’re difficult to find.
Social engagement is obviously an important part of what you do, and I think that comes out especially in Vibrancy in the Forest. Out of all the people you met, were there any stories that particularly inspired you, or changed the way you thought about the forest?
A couple really resonated. There was a guy who I spoke to who talked about his grandfather, who found some ammunition left over from the war hidden in the forest. They took a bullet and put it in a vice and whacked it with a hammer, just for fun, because they were kids, and it shot off his grandfather’s arm. They didn’t have transport to get anywhere and he was eventually taken to Monmouth Hospital on the back of a cart. And then the local ostler built him a prosthetic arm so that he could carry on working. That was quite a story.
In more recent memory, I spoke to one young person who had been bullied a lot. She said that in a small town that’s really hard – if you’re targeted in any way, it’s very difficult to escape. But she’d gone off to university, and she’d still decided to come back. I thought, would you not just want to get away and go somewhere else? But she said “this is my home – where else would I go?” I was really inspired by that resilience, that strong sense of place.
It’s exciting to see these new artworks in the Forest of Dean that are looking to unveil these lesser-known stories, the ones that aren’t necessarily about mining or industry. I’m thinking about Soil unsoiled as well, these kind of urgent, contemporary social and political questions that we might not expect to find in the forest.
Yes. I interviewed Khady Gueye as part of the project, and it was really interesting to hear her story – a black woman growing up in the forest, and the relationships she had with peers. I also spoke to a gay disabled artist, who said that being gay in the forest had never been an issue for him. That’s not to say that it would be the same for everyone, but for him, it had never been an issue – but being disabled was an issue.
The difficulty for me was being able to make contact with people to get those stories and to get an understanding of what life is like. Lockdown happened in the middle of it all, but I also had an accident, which meant I was laid up and unable to get there, so some of those interviews were done by Zoom. Initiating those conversations was quite difficult.
"I thought, would you not just want to get away and go somewhere else? But she said “this is my home - where else would I go?” I was really inspired by that resilience, that strong sense of place."
I understand that your plans had to change quite a lot over the course of the project as a result of the pandemic, and of your accident. How did you deal with working with the forest from afar? Did you struggle to find intimacy in that remoteness, or did it emerge in unexpected ways?
That wasn’t so difficult for me, actually. Because I struggle with mobility, I’m always looking for different ways of connecting with things if I’m stuck inside. When I went to the forest I brought some items back with me – I have a lump of limestone from one of the quarries which my support worker very kindly carried over to the boot of my car. That was amazing, to see the different colours down the side of the rock and feel the weight of it. I also had some branches which I brought back as well, and some buddleia that I’d collected and dried to make into natural dyes.
Roger Deeks, who I met at the Heritage Centre, sent me a massive big box with four different sheep fleeces in it – some from his personal flock and one from a sheep badger. I went through the whole process of laying them out in my garden and picking twigs and thistly bits out of the fleece, so that I had a sense of the sheep’s journey through the forest.
And then the conversations as well. When I made Vibrancy in the Forest I collected comments via an online survey, and asked the Brass Band of the Forest of Dean to record the voices for the video. When those recordings came back I hadn’t spoken to anyone in the forest for quite a while, and when I loaded them into my computer it was like, wow, I hadn’t realised how thick those accents and how different it sounds, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I was there, but bringing them into my space in the southeast, it was really noticeable.
I feel like your work brings to light the idea that the forest itself isn’t a static thing. It doesn’t stay within its geographical confines, but spirals through our lives and homes in lots of ways. Had you worked with those kinds of organic materials before, and what kind of meaning did you find in them?
It’s a mix of things, I think. I’ve always enjoyed the countryside anyway. I borrowed a Tramper all-terrain mobility scooter which allowed me to go deeper into the forest than I’ve been able to before. Usually I can only go as far as the car park, where it’s always a bit sanitised. In the Forest of Dean, I was able to see places where they’d been doing forestry management, and more untouched areas too.
In the past, as a child, and with my own children, I’ve always loved collecting things like leaves, acorns, and sycamore seeds, and the project has allowed me to revisit that and play around with things. But I learnt new processes like using shou sugi ban to char sticks, drawing the sap out to make it insect proof, fireproof and waterproof – a way of making the wood more resilient. Watching the wood’s changing properties really allows you to connect with it.
In my previous work, I tended to have an idea or concept and then decided which materials would be best to use. But with this, I let go of any agenda. I just explored the material, feeling how fibrous or pliable it was and seeing what came of it. I drove some ochre-dyed sticks into the insect-holes of a rotten piece of wood; it became a vulnerable, delicate fragment of the forest, guarded by spiky lances rising up to defend it, which got me thinking about the Hands Off Our Forest Campaign, the fierceness and determination of those people and the solidarity of coming together to save the forest.
That sounds brave – to go into something without really knowing what it is you’re going to produce.
Yeah, and I’ve never done a research and development project before. At the start, Cathy [Mager] kept telling me that I don’t have to have a final outcome. It was really difficult for me to let go of that idea! I came up with probably five or six different final project ideas right from the start. I didn’t go ahead with any of them because I’d find something else that was really interesting and move on to that. And that’s what you’re meant to be doing – exploring, going through the process, and seeing what happens. That was all very new for me.
Is there a final piece on the horizon?
Vibrancy in the Forest was the main thing I wanted to make, and I’m looking for places to exhibit that now. I’m also making a bench as well, because I liked the idea of having a place to just sit and contemplate and observe the forest – drawing on the practice of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. It’s not a basket, but it’s going to be steam-bent out of oak, so there’s an element of winding and weaving which also reflects the wistful Wye snaking through the valley. We’re looking at safety aspects at the moment – I wanted to have something that people could interact with, sitting on it or walking along the length of it, but you have to make sure it’s safe. These considerations are new for me as well.
"In my previous work, I tended to have an idea or concept and then decided which materials would be best to use. But with this, I let go of any agenda. I just explored the material, feeling how fibrous or pliable it was and seeing what came of it."
One final question for you. Earlier you raised the problem of mobility in the forest – are you hopeful that this work will draw attention to questions of access?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve spent a lot of my life as a disability equality campaigner but sometimes I just want to be focusing on my role as an artist, I just want people to see my work. But obviously the two are interlinked, so there’s part of me that wants to pave the way for people to come in the future. In the built environment you can campaign for ramps and signage and lifts, but you can’t flatten the Forest of Dean, because it wouldn’t be the Forest of Dean anymore. So you have to find ways to work around it.
It was quite bold of the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust to invite me to come in to somewhere they knew I couldn’t access, but it was with a view to making things work. I know they’ve been doing work with other groups that find it difficult to access the forest as well, like young carers. It was difficult, but you do hope that there will be a follow-on. Being able to go in and look at things from a slightly different perspective might create a knock-on effect for other people. And other organisations can look and see that it can be done, even in a place that’s really quite inaccessible.
Kristina Veasey, in conversation with Dr Beth Whalley, Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust Associate Historian, 2021. Basketcase was commissioned by Unlimited in partnership with the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust, with funding from Arts Council England.