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8th March 2021 – 4th April 2021

Hannah Whyte

Artists in THEIR Residence; A virtual Project

Each year The Wilson invites artists into the museum to take over a gallery, as an artist in residence. This year, we felt it was more important than ever to give 6 local artists a platform to exhibit their work and engage with local audiences. We have revised the traditional format for the residencies so they can take place safely from the artist’s home or studio, yet still have a presence within the gallery when The Wilson reopens in 2021, in the form of a group show.

Meet Artist in THEIR Residence Number 3: Hannah Whyte

I am an artist and writer from Cheltenham, with a love for puzzles, archives, and playing the accordion. After studying in Stroud, I moved to London and kindled a love for social history and storytelling, underpinning the work I make from poetry to drawings to radio shows. Now, living in Cheltenham once more, I am fascinated by the archaeology of our natural landscape, the stories beneath the soil, and the thick, leady pencil sketches we might carve into the surface.

My work revolves around the ephemeral, the misremembered, along with ideas of community and collaboration. I am interested in books, zines, events, experiences, spaces, and their radical potential for bringing people together, forming alternative structures outside of the gallery format. What does art look like when it isn’t nailed to a museum wall? When it’s free to be touched, shared, and crumpled? What does art look like when it isn’t for sale?

I often look to the past and its presence within the present. Social histories of medieval printing presses, early 20th century cinemas, and renegade Dadaist circuses all inform and underpin the things I make. This presence might be material, in the use of analogue mediums such as letterpress printing or replication of certain spaces, or it might be more theoretical, in the repurposing of forgotten stories. Transforming the happenings and hauntings of our ancestry into tangible experiences is, to me, a pursuit tied into thoughts of historical engagement, dismantling hierarchies, and collaborating in a horizontal, anarchic way.

Transforming the happenings and hauntings of our ancestry into tangible experiences is, to me, a pursuit tied into thoughts of historical engagement, dismantling hierarchies, and collaborating in a horizontal, anarchic way.

Through words and walks, ephemeral activities radical in their own right, we find the solitary and the communal in an eternal tryst; for each and for every. Collage – arrangements and re-arrangements of words, objects, and memories, allows us to smudge the ink of the history books, to drown out folk-tales with their own accordion music.

My work is often theatrical or performative, flaunting music, poems, and doggerel. That said, I do engage with quieter means of making; writing stories and essays not as an addition to, but a force within my practice. These ideas coalesce in the form of charcoal-stained drawings, tomes of handwritten notes, and events – walking tours, cinematic evenings, anarchic salons, and local radio shows, all underpinned by a site-specific, explorative archaeology. What stories can we learn from dusty footprints? What poetry can we discover in archival data? What history can we tell from the perspectives of ordinary people, rather than military events?

Introduction to my residency

I intend to use drawing, writing, and storytelling to trace the community history and folklore of Leckhampton Hill. Following in the footsteps of Gloucestershire’s forgotten troubadours, I will invoke music, ritual, storytelling, and archival history, the project culminating in a poetic walking tour around the hill and its surrounding area.

There is a tangible, magical narrative of folklore, activism, and community in Leckhampton Hill, from its life as an Iron Age hillfort right up to the more recent story of the Leckhampton riots, a tale founded in the right to roam in public space. Weaving together archaeology, poetry, and radical ideas is a pursuit informed by the landscape itself, along with its fascinating folk history.

In drawing, storytelling, and even walking, we can trace the steps of those who came before. From troubadour faeries to Iron Age battles to protestors tearing down cottages, the past is present within the present. What can we learn from social history? What mysteries will we uncover in these dusty footprints upon the soil? What secrets hide in the fallen tree-trunks, and how can we unravel them?

 

And what more apt time to explore and archive our natural history than at a time when trespassing might soon become a criminal offence, and our environment, along with the people who exist as part of it, is in the hands of a dire future? An ecology founded in archaeology, archaeology founded in anarchy, and all the ologies and archies and discoveries and poetries bubbling and frothing together, spilling out over the hill. By intertwining the social history of the hill with its natural ecology, we can come to appreciate humanity’s place not as a force acting on nature, but as a part of it.

Over the course of the residency, I will take on the role of a poetic-historian, tracing the stories (and mythologies!) of Leckhampton Hill through walks, sketchbooks, and ongoing research. Eventually, these ideas will coalesce into a walking tour around the hill, invoking music, poetry, and the natural landscape to share the folklore; re-contextualising it in an anachronistic, accessible and rhythmic format, knee-deep in its own narrative.

Archaeology and poetry, woven together in woodlands, up on the hill.

Introduction to my studio

My residency environment will be twofold; my home and studio, as well as Leckhampton hill. The latter and the former will weave in and out of each other, as I am lucky enough to live within walking distance of the hill itself. The in-between, the murky brown between the green of Leckhampton and the beige of my studio desk, forms the basis for my residency. The studio becomes the archaeologist’s study, and the hill remains the expanse of history, poetry, and natural exploration it has always been!

Leckhampton hill is home to swathes of wildlife, diverse woodlands, and of course, history. Underpinned by my studio-based research, I will physically trace the locations of various archaeological, mythological, and historical moments in the hill’s lifetime; the quarry, the hillfort, the rioters’ land, in written (and spoken) accounts, along with charcoal drawings, studies, maps, and diagrams. This, culminating in poetic walking tours, and perhaps even printed, poetical stories from the hill, will create a dynamic, investigative residency!

Filled with dusty pencils, collected trinkets, and my favourite armchair, my home-studio is the basement of my parents’ house, and my own secret cavern. This familiar space will transform as the debris of my hill-walks becomes cohesive work, the studio in turn becoming something of an artist-archaeologist’s study as it fills with large charcoal drawings, archival notes, and folk instruments.

My residency will be thoroughly rooted in Leckhampton hill, and my studio’s thankful proximity to it. Treating the local past as the creative repository it always has been, and retelling radical history, along with ecology and folklore, will corporealize in the form of writing (spoken and printed), alongside ongoing artmaking across a wide range of eclectic materials, from charcoal sketches to cartography.

Creating Work 1

To kick off my residency, I’ve been wandering the woodland paths of Leckhampton hill, tracing both its wilderness and wild stories! On my routine expeditions, I’ve been making notes, sketches, and archival drawings, connecting with the archaeologists and poets who have long rambled these winding peaks, their traditions united in the acts of walking, writing, drawing.

Pictured are my first notes on the hill; the chimney, the mushrooms, and the great mountain of mystery itself. I’m trying to take on the role of an archaeologist, tracing the histories of the hill via its terrain. Over the trodden down desire lines, we feel the ghosts of quarry-workers’ boots. Under this mound of grass, an Iron Age burial site. What faeries and folklorists roamed through these liberty caps?

Take the Devil’s Chimney, a phenomenon not quite understood. It’s said to have been formed by erosion, built by quarry-workers, and even shaped by a prankster shepherd. My favourite story, however, is a Leckhampton folktale that tells of the devil sitting on the hill, and throwing rocks at the churchgoers. Eventually, the people of Cheltenham throw the rocks back, and the devil is pushed deep under the soil, erecting a chimney to allow the smokes of hell to escape.

This is just one of many historical, apocryphal, and fabled stories serving as inspiration for my writing and drawings, making up a sort of archaeological poetry I hope will converge into a more concluded project. For now though, my AITR project sits in my sketchbook, a portable means of making most advantageous to a maker-on-the-move. This allows me to keep all my cluttered thoughts, drawings, and pieces of writing in one place. My little green book is home to memories and ideas in the form of pencil sketches and handwritten notes, many of which will eventually morph into larger, more cataclysmic pieces. Right now though, this compact process is perfect for my research expeditions.

Creating Work 2

Lately, I have been converting my research into writing. Small poems, verses, and trains-of-thought make up an ongoing document uniting the history of the hill and its natural landscape. As I was writing in autumn, this led to comparisons between the hill’s stories and its seasonal wildlife. For instance, the relationship between riotous campaigns for rural freedom and the aptly named ‘liberty caps’ growing on Leckhampton’s peaks, or the auburn leaves and the red of Jurassic creatures.

Many footpaths on the hill were formed organically, by hikers and troubadours stepping over each other’s footprints. These are desire lines, that is, scribbled tracks across the landmass, marking, in their winding ways, the choices millions of boots have made over centuries. I’m trying to take on this same approach when writing, taking on the infamy of thousands upon thousands of individuals and actions, and playing with it, re-shaping it, to create an anachronistic, cartographic narrative.

Academic talks and walks on archaeology and folklore, whilst fascinating, often tend towards a dry, serious tone that can be difficult to engage with. We’re dealing with life, all the remnants and ephemera of human memory! What could be more poetic? What could be more exciting? Therefore, in my writing, I opt for a more whimsical, expressive tone, allowing folktale and fancy to drift in and out of the words themselves, rather than keeping to any sense of rigidity. Why should history be dry? When in truth it is inked and tear-stained, bloody, muddy, wet and soppy? The writing will tell of the great tomes that make up this woodland hill – the riots, the legends, and all the little walks that make up the natural architecture of this place.

I’ve also just written a letter to the residents of Tramway Cottage, a building with immense importance to the hill’s tumultuous past, torn down in the early 1900s by rioters in response to the cordoning off of public land. Hopefully, they’ll be interested in the magnificent histories of Leckhampton hill, and might even be open to the idea of an eventual walking tour involving their residence.

I’d really like for the writing to be read aloud, likely interspersed with more details of the hill’s history in casual, accessible language to disrupt both the whimsy of my own writing and the typical expectations of historical talks and walking tours. I’d like to construct my own structure to work within, not sticking entirely to ordered academia nor unbridled art-writing. Ultimately, I’m hoping to take the words I’ve been writing and turn them into a real-life event, once it’s safe to do so.

Creating Work 3

After spending some time on the hill this week, I came home with a hat full of mushrooms, foraged from the peaks and their surroundings. These were shaggy inkcaps; local, edible, magical. When left to their own devices for a week or so, these mushrooms melt into iridescent blackness. Ink. Holding within themselves the essence of Leckhampton hill, its scraps and soils and stories, these dissipating fungi carry with them the tale of the hill itself!

The recipe for an inkwell potion is simple, almost entirely decayed mushrooms, but with a few drops of an aromatic oil (cedarwood my ingredient of choice) to mask the musk if you so desire. You will almost certainly desire this, mushroom ink is magical but it reeks! The blackness is somewhat incandescent, glowing like an oil spill as I transfer it from my mixing bowl to a little glass jar. I add the oil, screw on the lid, and bottle the potion.

I’ve since been using the ink to write and draw, most pertinently studies of the mushrooms I’ve seen up there. In this way, the material carries the trace of itself, the essence of the hill and what grows atop it. Writing about the hill using this pigment, as well as drawing studies of it, feels so exciting, almost like giving a voice to the hill, as it can in effect describe itself! The stinky, faded brown calls to mind the misty tree-trunks and mud stains that clutter the hummock.

Creating Work 4

I have been working on some flags, harkening back to the protest flags used in the Leckhampton riots, only involving sketches of the hill and its peaks, perhaps as I imagine them. Research takes an active role within my practice, and this is clear in the flags I’ve been making, spouting riotous and historical watchwords like “HILLS CAN NEVER BE DALES!” as well as my own writing.

Tellings and retellings of past stories and happenings, a cycle of memoriam, are crucial to what I’m interested in. As an integral part of my working process, I spend countless hours on assorted websites, from obscure Wikipedia articles to local history blogs, scouring these pools of information for any forgotten treasures. I think the most magical finds, whether in dusty tomes or on the web, are the ones coming from ordinary people. I’m not so interested in history as tales of Kings, Queens, and politicians, but rather history as diary entry, oral tradition, storytelling. Perhaps it’s more pertinent to archaeology; artefact, the ephemeral remnants of people’s lives.

 

In my research, I came across a really wonderful website run by the Leckhampton Local History Society, which contained an extract from a poem by George Townsend, twentieth century baker-poet-rioter extraordinaire. George lived next door to the Wheatsheaf pub (a local haunt for many an old rioter), and wrote shanties and ballads of the Leckhampton riots, one being “THE STORY OF THE FIGHT”.

 

Telling stories is a tradition almost as old as humanity itself, and by engaging with oral tradition we can bring to life the ghosts that lie within words, stories, places. I clambered up the beechy moors over Daisybank, passing Tramway cottage on my way, and found a tree-trunk to settle on. There, in my own strange way, I found myself conjuring the spirit of the bold Mr. Townsend. His words, this place! The land on which these verses walk. I sat on this spot and read out a few moments from the poem, a fiery lament on injustice, atop the hill. Big thanks to my mum for filming, by the way. What would he think of this new life his tale is living? Here on the very same hill.

Creating Work 5

In collaboration with The Whittington Press, in Cheltenham, I’ve been working on a series of linocut prints inspired by the sights I’ve seen on the hill; the chimney, a skull, the plants. (Thank you for helping me with this, Pat!) This has given way to more linocuts exploring the history of the hill, its folklore and riotous archaeology. ‘HILLS CAN NEVER BE DALES’  is a watchword painted on many a sign during the early 20th century Leckhampton riots, whereby the people of Leckhampton protested Henry John Dale’s cordoning off of public land, after his acquisition of the hill’s limestone quarry.

Along with linocuts of the landscape, the Devil’s Chimney, and a badger skull, I’ve made a rudimentary woodcut based on the Leckhampton rioters. Lino and wood are fantastic mediums to work with in that they are printable, and thereby extremely distributable; lino prints can be copied, repeated, and shared over and over again cheaply and accessibly. It’s also a very hands-on means of making, utilising every nook and cranny between your fingertips as your hands work the way hands have worked for centuries. Printing is so historically significant, particularly as we talk of protest, riot, and activism. What a way to repeat information! Information not distilled through computers or edits, but straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, or straight from the rioter’s hand.

 

Still, as much as I loved making these prints, and I am happy with how they ended up (even if they are a little haphazard), I always end up coming back to drawing.

Drawing and writing go hand in hand for me, they always have. Hands have held pencils, quills, and other such instruments for so long now. Wrists have leant on wooden boards for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Holding a stick of graphite, it seems there is almost no separation between the hand and the page, the fingers and the drawing, even the mind and the words. As much as I love getting to know other media and means of making, returning to drawing-writing (one and the same) always feels like coming home. The pencil in turn becomes an extension of the hand, a limb more than a tool. Or an extra digit, without any buffer.

I’d really like to do more work with the letterpress, and with printing in general, engaging with the historical significance of the medium whilst also creating something that’s lasting, repeatable, and distributable! The hope right now is to find a way of integrating my drawing practice with The Whittington Press’ capabilities; it seems natural to link drawing and writing together physically, in the plated metals of a historic local letterpress.

Creating Work 6

“His existence had already been proved by the accordion, the landscape and soft words.”

– Tristan Tzara on God

I’ve been working on some semi-improvised music, inspired by the trails and tramplings all over the hill, and its folklore. Throughout lockdown I’ve been teaching myself to play the accordion, slowly and tentatively, but learning still. An instrument steeped in its own tradition, from folk dancers to punk bands to Dadaist poets, the accordion is truly magical.

Thinking again in terms of research-as-art, I’d like to take the opportunity share one of my favourite albums, and one of the reasons I wanted to learn accordion in the first place. Oidupaa Vladimir Oiun’s ‘Divine Music from a Jail’ stirs whirring, melancholy accordion-drones with traditional Russian throat singing, creating in the process something that is not quite hopeful, and not quite hopeless. It is chaotically methodical, ambient yet soulful, and full of enticing contradictions. In its confusion there lies clarity, and I think that’s something to do with the accordion. By all accounts it doesn’t make sense; each hand must behave individually, each finger even, all while gusts of air are being swept up back and forth over your lungs. But it’s so mechanical, so systematic, almost like clockwork, in its ins and outs and presses and pulls. Its sound is one of absolute ordered disorder.

 

Whilst I’m (clearly) no Oidupaa Vladimir Oiun, I’m figuring out this charming, strange instrument button by button, and thinking of the melancholy, tumultuous history of our hill (and all its stories) seems to charge the sound with so much! All the myths and legends of this place, all the desire lines and trodden-down footpaths and riots and injustices and inebriated mushrooms and songs and voices and trees and tales!

So I’m making up some music. Perhaps I’ll eventually be able to play it aloud, over the hill, alongside the writing I’ve been doing. All these words and sounds and stories will eventually come together, I hope, as a public walking tour, drenched in all the poetry and magic of our not-too-distant ancestors.

Creating Work 7

Continuing with my writing, I’ve been planning a walking tour around Leckhampton hill, breathing life into the poetry with trees and grasses! I’m excited by the ephemerality of this idea, happening one moment and gone again in an instant, much like many historical stories on the hill itself.

Still, I’m also interested in making something that’s lasting, a repeatable keepsake of sorts, not only so that the walk could be experienced over and over again (by whoever wanted to experience it!), but also so it could exist as an object. In this way, it continues to exist after the walk, and far after the stories said walk encompasses. Something handheld, art existing not in a gallery, but anywhere anyone might take it! There’s something really important to me about the portability of things; art and writing outside of confines or academic structure. Not specific to any institution, but open for autonomous decision, belonging utterly and entirely to whomever holds it in their hand. With this in mind, I’ve finally figured out a way my drawings and my writing can sit together, with Pat from the Press’ help of course!

Pat and I have managed to begin transferring my research sketches into metal plates, which can sit in the letterpress just as lead letters can. Combining my research, my poetry, my drawings, and my affinity for traditional artmaking, we are transforming the walk (to come at a later date) into a book. The old, clinking letterpresses are so important to me, and to this project, as we are engaging physically with a bygone time, embracing anachronisms not just with our words but with our hands, too! The cycle of human memory is ever shifting!

The next steps for me, over the next few months, are all about planning a walk and making a book, transferring research to drawing to writing to event and finally, to story. The event, as soon as it’s safe to run, will be free and public! I’ll take adventurers all over the hill and share with them all the writing I’ve been doing, in the form of spoken words! Perhaps the accordion will join in too. I’ll also make several copies of the book, a compilation of all my words, drawings, and time spent in the letterpress.

Final reflections

I began the Artists in THEIR Residence project with drawing and writing in my own little sketchbook, actions which were distilled into poetry, and a wide range of methods and materials. I’ve made ink from mushrooms, read and written whimsical stories, played with a printing press, and even tried my hand at the accordion. But the constant, throughout, has been the presence of Leckhampton hill, the great looming hummock that has been with me all throughout childhood, adolescence, and now, thanks to a pesky pandemic, my adulthood too.

All the research and making I’ve been doing over the last few weeks has boiled down into a longform piece of writing, earthly and historical, which I hope will be possible to read aloud sometime in early 2021 as a poetical walking tour, retracing the steps of all those souls and stories present on the hill throughout its erratic history.

 

Right now, I’m working on converting the writing into a letterpress printed book. The typesetting, printing, and binding will take at least a few months, but once it’s done, all the echoes and ghosts of this Artists in THEIR Residence project will be translated into something to hold, portable, and shareable. The walk, rectified in maps, drawings, and poetic writing, will be endlessly repeatable by anyone who carries it. All the words, set in metal and now ink, sat comfortably on paper which in turn can be taken up the hill.

This book will of course go hand in hand with the poetical walking tour, espousing the whimsical writing I’ve done over the course of the residency. I’m hoping to run this as soon as it is safe and viable to do so. The conclusion of my residency is, in this way, a collection not only of all the tales and trails of the hill and its histories, but also a collection of all my adventures up there. Endless streams of disconnected, excited thoughts, travelling up on over the hill, and into your hand!

Summary

After weeks of walking and talking and writing, the residency ends right where it began. Even though this project has taken me in all sorts of directions with regard to media, method, and workplace, Leckhampton hill has remained constant. It seems magical, that this hummock, once my childhood playground, then an adolescent haunt for those of us too young to go to the pub, became the hearth of this project and in effect my experience of lockdown.

The hill, and all its histories, have become so present in my mind and in my life over the course of making this project. One of the most exciting parts of the residency for me has been the ability to research unknown or untold local stories. We’re seeing history not as an upward slope (a mockery of what a hill really is!), but as an anachronism, a back-and-forth traipsing, a lost hiker’s footpath. We’re seeing history as changeable, collated, complicated, and mysterious! Desire lines, that is, paths forged by feet themselves rather than any predicated entity. On this same line of thought, I’m so excited to have learnt so much about Leckhampton’s history not as Grand Narrative, no Kings or Queens or Spa Towns, but rather as the gathered traditions and anarchist folk-tales from all sorts of people all across time! That is what history is!

I am looking forward to taking the project further, setting up a poetical walking tour all over the hill, exploring its past from the Leckhampton riots to the Jurassic period to the Iron Age hillfort up on the peak! Right now, I’m working with Pat at the Whittington Press to translate this walk, with its words and map, into a distributable letterpress-printed book full of my own drawings. It took some time to get to this point, experimenting with all sorts of media, but I’m sure this is the right conclusion for my residency to come to.

 

The residency has transformed time and time again, always impacted by the shape of the hill and all its histories. Through walking, reading, and making, I have been able to discover our local times gone by, collecting them and soon transforming them into something new! Perhaps even aligning myself with those climbers and shepherds and quarry-workers and rioters and farmers. It’s been so exciting to take all these stories and warp them with pencils and presses and poetry. Even in music.

Where else might we go, and what might we discover?

Project Funding

This project was funded by the Arts Council England Emergency Support Fund

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