Field Work: New Nature Writing from East Anglia (2020)

Poster designed by Emily Benton

Sarah Lowndes, Introduction

In recent years, the climate and environment have been increasing much on peoples’ minds, and this has even changed the words that we use. In 2018, the Collins Dictionary named single-use as the word of the year, reflecting the increasing global awareness of environmental issues, and the harmful impact of products (often made of plastic) made to be used just once, only to be thrown away after. The Oxford Dictionary chose climate emergency as the word of the year in 2019, defining the term as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.” Our changing vocabulary came about, to a significant extent, because of the School Strikes for Climate initiated by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in August 2018. Thunberg’s message was a simple yet eloquent one: “the moment we start behaving as if were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe.” A year later, the Climate Emergency movement had swelled, leading to the largest climate strikes in world history on 20 September 2019, as some 4 million protesters, many of them schoolchildren, demonstrated across the world for immediate action to cut CO2 emissions. Yet, while many began to modify their behaviour, for example, using a “bag for life” for shopping, buying less “fast fashion” or recycling as much as possible, still the world in general wasn’t listening to Thunberg’s exhortation to “act as if your house was on fire.”

Field Work publication designed by Emily Benton

Since moving from the city of Glasgow to live in rural Norfolk five years ago, I have become increasingly interested and invested in the natural world. In that time, I have worked on several projects that examine the relationship between the natural world and creativity, including my book Contemporary Artists Living Outside the City: Creative Retreat (2018) and the shared reading and creative writing project Like the Sea I Think (2018-2019). The anthology Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) was the culmination of a year-long project, which began with free shared reading and creative writing workshops at Cromer and Millennium libraries, and featured new writings by authors from across the region, sourced through a free to enter, open-submission call. Through the Like the Sea I Think (LTSIT) project, I became more aware of the widespread interest and enthusiasm for nature writing across East Anglia.

In the winter of 2019, I applied for Arts Council England funding to develop my work with local readers and writers further. This time I widened the remit of the course readings and exercises to address not only the coast, but to reflect on the wider natural world of flora and fauna and other forms of life, found in gardens, fields, meadows and woodlands. While the LTSIT workshops had been delivered at Cromer Library and Norwich’s Millennium Library, after consultation with Norfolk County Council libraries, I decided this time to work with two coastal libraries (Cromer and Great Yarmouth), to offer the workshops in areas where need might be greatest. Cromer is rated as being in the 20% most deprived areas in the UK, while Great Yarmouth is one of two local authorities in England and Wales with the smallest proportion of over-16-year-olds with level four and above qualifications (higher apprenticeships and degrees). The workshops were designed to be accessible to less confident readers and writers, as they were offered free of charge in public libraries – and used a shared reading approach, to encourage participation in personal creative expression by those who might not otherwise access creative reading and writing opportunities. The workshops ran for six weeks from the beginning of January until mid-February, aiming to offer an uplifting distraction during what is for many, the darkest, coldest and most difficult time of the year. For those who missed out on a workshop place or who lived outside the region, each week I posted the readings and exercises online so that they could follow the course remotely.

I decided to call the project Field Work, in reference to Seamus Heaney’s seminal 1979 poetry collection, although, as with the readings for LTSIT, I planned to use the workshops to explore some of the less obvious nature writers. My intention was to use the project to provide an opportunity to engage with nature writing written by women and people of colour, to challenge the conception of the genre as predominantly white and male. In order to show the development of nature writing as a genre, I chose to move chronologically, spending the first three meetings reading poetry: beginning with Seamus Heaney’s Digging (1964) and Blackberry-Picking (1966), then Audre Lorde’s poems The Bees (1972), The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches (1973) and Coal (1976) and after that, reading Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese (1986) and The Summer Day (1992). We then moved on to read excerpts from three contemporary prose writers: Helen Macdonald’s, H is for Hawk (2014), Max Porter’s Lanny (2019) and Elizabeth-Jane Barnett’s The Grassling (2019).

Along the way, we ploughed through difficult ideological and emotional terrain, discussing environmental issues alongside and in relationship to our thoughts on class, sexism, racism, mental health and processes of grieving. Field Work was not only a project about reading and writing but also about how we can come together in groups, to learn together. As Audre Lorde writes so memorably in her poem Coal, “Love is a word another kind of open.” Through our readings, discussions and sharing our writings we were able to reach new understandings of literature and ourselves. Another important part of our weekly meetings in January and February was sharing food together: to each group’s six winter sessions I brought drinks, fresh fruit (satsumas, grapes, persimmons, cherries) and cheering treats like honey, fortune cookies and chocolate to energise and sustain our work.

Each week we carried out a number of creative writing exercises designed to draw out themes and modes of expression introduced in the readings. We began with things that were relatively approachable and got more experimental as we went on. So in Week 1, we read and discussed Seamus Heaney together and then I asked the groups to do two exercises. The first was: Write about a memory of growing something – it could be in a pot on a windowsill, in a garden or in a field. The second was, Write about foraging for something that grows wild – it could be blackberries, horse chestnuts, mushrooms… In Week 2, we read Audre Lorde and then carried out an exercise linked to her poem The Bees: Write about either bees or honey. Have you ever kept bees? Ever eaten local honey? Ever been stung by a bee? For our second task, I asked the groups to move outside of their own lived experiences and consider the experience of being ‘othered’: Write from the point of view of a “pest” of nature, such as a wasp, a rat or a pigeon. What is your experience of the world like? In Week 3, after reading Mary Oliver’s poetry together, I asked the groups to Remember a time when you felt at home in nature. Describe that place – what it looked like, the sounds, how it smelled. I then asked them if they had ever, paid close attention to a living creature, as Mary Oliver does the grasshopper? Can you describe what the creature looked like, and how it behaved? These early exercises were mostly reasoned from the writers’ own experiences and designed to draw forth writing informed by their own wellspring of childhood and more recent memories.

In the second half of the course, our focus shifted toward contemporary prose nature writing, and I introduced techniques for writing in less familiar ways, such as using found materials, cut and paste and word association. In Week 4 the start of the Chinese Year of the Rat coincided with our meetings, in which we read an excerpt from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and talked and wrote about watchfulness, seeing like an animal, slowing down time and grief – with some help from the Chinese zodiac and fortune cookie mottos. The exercises for that week were: 1) Identify which Chinese zodiac animal you are. Write about that animal in a way that doesn’t immediately give away which animal it is you are describing. 2) Pick words from fortune cookies. Write a text using them all. The words the groups had to choose from included KISS, SKY, NOW, EXPECT, SOMEONE, LUCKY, MIDDLE, SOUL, HUMILITY, LIFE, FORTUNE, BAD, COMMITTEE, CROWDED, MIND, FRIEND, HEAT, HEART, ATTENTION, AGREES, CENTRE, WASTE, CRY, IMPORTANT and SEEKS.

In Week 5, after reading the excerpt from Max Porter’s Lanny, in which Dead Papa Toothwort eavesdrops on the conversations and interior monologues of an English village, we collected countryside and family sayings from the group. In Great Yarmouth, some favourites adages were: Rain before 7, Dry by 11 / Ash before oak, you’re in for a soak, Oak before ash, you’re in for a splash / 1 for sorrow, 2 for joy / In April, a thousand rains. In Cromer, colloquial expressions known to the group included: On the huh / Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight / Once bitten, twice shy / Measure twice, cut once / Pride must bear a pinch / Pearls before swine / Cast ne’er a clout ‘til May is out. Each person in the workshop selected 10 sayings they liked and then wrote a 10 line poem: each line of the poem either quoted one of the sayings or was inspired by one. We then cut our poems into 10 strips, shuffled them, laid them out in their new order and read them aloud. In Week 6, after reading excerpts from Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s The Grassling, we took inspiration from her poem Eighty Yellows / for my father’s eightieth birthday (2019) and as a group composed a word association poem of all the greens we could remember seeing in recent days, which in the Great Yarmouth group included fairy liquid, malachite, fir tree, moss, faded tattoo, wine gum, tussock, traffic light, screen…

As part of the project, there were two additional free events scheduled, intended to add grist to the mill of local nature writers: in February, there was a screening of films about Art and Place, organised by Original Projects at St. George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth, followed by a discussion event which I led, on artists working in the landscape. In March, there was another film screening, of Paul Wright’s experimental nature documentary Arcadia (2018), which I organised under the auspices of Kunsthalle Cromer at Regal Movieplex in Cromer. The screening of Arcadia on 11th March was the last social event that I, and several of my friends and colleagues, would attend for quite some time – as in the following days social distancing measures began to be recommended in the wake of the growing Coronavirus outbreak.

On March 23rd the UK government ordered the first three-week lockdown to check the spread of the virus, after which people were only allowed to leave their homes for four reasons: infrequent shopping for basic necessities (food and medicine), one form of exercise a day (for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of your household), for medical reasons (your own or caring for others) or for work reasons, when you could not work from home. The rules on daily exercise were subsequently clarified to explain that a daily run or cycle of 30 minutes or a daily walk of an hour’s duration, in your local area, were considered appropriate – although the advice was to keep 2 metres distance from other people when exercising outdoors. In the warm spring weather, this proved difficult to enforce, as huge numbers of housebound people sought relief in green spaces and beauty spots. In high density areas, arguments broke out about the paucity of access to and availability of green space – and whether sunbathing or resting on park benches was permissible under the new rules.

Curiously, the recognition of the Coronavirus pandemic as a global emergency, had an immediate and positive impact on the ongoing climate emergency. With aeroplanes grounded and cars parked in driveways, global CO2 emissions dropped markedly. Smog cleared above megacities like Los Angeles, and in Venice the canals ran clear and blue for the first time in decades. In the cities, spring birdsong was audible in the early mornings, and bats, badgers, foxes, fallow deer and otters were increasingly spotted in urban areas, embolden by the new silence. Although it had often been said that the climate emergency would continue because people were unwilling or unable to change their behaviour, the Coronavirus lockdown proved that people could change their ways. They would work from home, they would stop traveling unnecessarily, they would walk or cycle rather than drive and they would only shop once a week for essentials. Greta Thunberg had long insisted, “Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long.” In the strange spring of 2020, some positives emerged from the terrifying catastrophe of the pandemic, not least of which was the opportunity to be made to try different approaches to how we work and how we live.

Field Work publication designed by Emily Benton

The 31st of March, a week into the first British lockdown period, was the submission deadline for this Field Work anthology. In that last week of March, the world had been gripped by new emotional, physical and financial challenges, not least of which was the entreaty to stay at home. I was delighted, then, to receive close to 80 submissions from writers across East Anglia, reflecting (somewhat poignantly) on the world beyond our windows, and the gardens, fields, rivers, broads, woodlands and beaches which make this region so outstandingly beautiful. From those diverse submissions, I made this selection of 40 writers, each of whom has something fresh and interesting to say about our natural world. 14 of the writers in the anthology attended Field Work workshops, but most are writers I encountered for the first time through the open submission call. Reading the new work of these writers at this time of great uncertainty, we can perhaps appreciate even more fully the power of nature to positively affect our health and mental wellbeing – and inspire us towards change.

 The Field Work publication includes contributions from: Viv Allen • Roy Ernest Ballard • Scott Barton • Molly Bernardin • Donna-Louise Bishop • Ann Browne • Pedro Cassimo • Mark Cator • Kaavous Clayton • David Cochrane • Jessica D’Alton Goode • Maddie Exton • Terry Flower • Louise Goulding • Rachel Goodman • Sarah Hudis • Lotte L.S. • Rose Higham-Stainton • Chris Mardell • Gia Mawusi • Lindsay Nash • Eoghan O’Maolain • Jason Parr • Fergus Partridge • Zoya Petrošiūtė • Simeon Ralph • Claire Reiderman • Elizabeth Lee Reynolds • Bruce Rushin • Kim M Russell • Tara Sampy • Holly Sandiford • Bethany Settle • Gaia Shaw • Anthony Smith • Robert F. W Smith • Lora Stimson • Phoebe Troup • Christoffelina Wuyts • Joshua Zelos

It is available to buy from UEA Publishing Project https://www.ueapublishingproject.com/product-page/field-work

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Workshops, Talks and Lectures

Sarah Lowndes addressing visiting curators to Dialogue of Hands, Glasgow International (2012)

 I often deliver public workshops, lectures and talks on matters relating to my areas of expertise, at institutions including Kettle’s Yard, Neues Museum (Nürnberg), the Scottish National Gallery, BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Scotland, Radio Scotland, BALTIC, the Serpentine Gallery and Camden Arts Centre, amongst many others, and I have been commissioned to produce printed and online interpretation materials on contemporary art for The Space (BBC), Tate Britain, National Galleries of Scotland and the British Council. 

Since moving to East Anglia in 2015, I have delivered workshops, lectures, talks and chaired discussion events in a variety of settings for University of East Anglia, Norwich University of the Arts, Norfolk County Council Libraries, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and the National Trust, for example, leading WWI poetry workshops on Brancaster beach for the 1418 NOW / National Trust project Pages of the Sea (2018), performing an oratory on Brancaster Beach for the National Trust / Katie Paterson project First There is a Mountain (October 2019) and leading a shared Reading and Creative Writing workshop for the Art & Walking project run by Art at Work Norwich in Mildenhall, Suffolk (2019).  Online learning, radio broadcasts and podcasts are all areas of public engagement that I have actively worked with in 2018/2019, beginning with uploading online all of the course content for Like the Sea I Think (including audio recordings of readings), working with BBC Radio Norfolk to produce local arts coverage for broadcast and recording a podcast for the Ear of the Edgeland series produced by Norfolk & Norwich Sonic Arts Collective and Original Projects.

Sarah Lowndes performing oratory of Samantha Walton’s poem Little Eye for Brancaster on Brancaster Beach for the National Trust / Katie Paterson project First There is a Mountain (October 2019)
Sarah Lowndes performing oratory of Samantha Walton’s poem Little Eye for Brancaster on Brancaster Beach for the National Trust / Katie Paterson project First There is a Mountain (October 2019)
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Like the Sea I Think (2018-19)

Shared Reading, Creative Writing and Publication Project, curated and produced by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, in collaboration with Norfolk County Council Libraries and UEA Publishing Project.

The following is an excerpt from Sarah Lowndes’ introduction to the anthology Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (Norwich: UEA Publishing Project with Kunsthalle Cromer, 2019), designed by Emily Benton. The book is available to buy here https://www.ueapublishingproject.com/shop

In early 2017, I established a new organisation called Kunsthalle Cromer in our nearest seaside town, with the aim of enhancing the cultural provision available within the town of Cromer and the wider area of Norfolk through the promotion of visual art, music, literature, cinema, performance and interdisciplinary art forms.  I established Kunsthalle Cromer to offer accessible, free and exciting cultural activity, which would bring people from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy meaningful shared experiences.  Since then, Kunsthalle Cromer has carried out two public art projects in Cromer: Panoramic Sea Happening (2017) a re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 happening, staged on June 11th at East Beach, Cromer and the following year, Esplanade: A Procession for Women (2018), a public parade of 100 local girls and women, each carrying a red parasol along West Promenade, Cromer, on March 8th, International Women’s Day.  For the third Kunsthalle Cromer project, which I planned to take place during the town’s low season, we had to move indoors, and so I sought a more sheltered corollary of the beach.  The public library located in the town’s Prince of Wales Road was the perfect environment – warm, welcoming, full of interesting material and free for all to use.

The idea for the Like the Sea I Think (LTSIT) project developed through discussions I had at Cromer Library with community librarian and artist Maria Pavledis.  While the previous Kunsthalle Cromer events had given participants a chance to physically become part of an outdoor artwork, the LTSIT workshops would equip participants with lasting transferable skills and provide an opportunity to become a published author, giving this project greater legacy and impact.  When in the spring of 2018, I first approached Maria with the idea of running reading and creative writing groups about the sea in libraries in Norfolk, she explained that shared reading groups (as opposed to conventional book clubs) had recently proved to be an effective way of attracting reluctant and/or less confident readers and that Norfolk Libraries would welcome the Like the Sea I Think project as a way of bringing more readers in to engage with shared reading and creative writing in Cromer Library and the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in Norwich.  We both wanted to support people to enjoy reading, creative writing and self-expression in a welcoming environment. We agreed that at each workshop, I would act as facilitator, and read aloud and discuss a text about the sea, with participants joining in as much or as little as they wished, followed by some time working on creative writing exercises related to the texts, designed to stimulate self-expression.  My idea was that people could turn up without any previous experience or preparation, empty handed, and participate without cost.  All materials would be provided free at each workshop, including photocopies of the texts, along with paper and pencils.  I planned to have the pencils specially made: dark green, each had a pink eraser at one end and the legend Like the sea I think printed along its length in a darker shade of pink.  As we would meet in winter, each week I would bring supplies of tea, coffee and biscuits, with mince pies and chocolates coins for our final meetings, just before Christmas.  

Beyond the workshops, I also planned to publish an anthology of new writing about the sea by East Anglian authors, seeking submissions from those who attended the workshops, and other people resident in the region, through an open-submission call.  After the book launch event, which we intended to stage at Henry Layte’s celebrated shop, the Book Hive in Norwich, we planned to distribute the anthology to local libraries and bookstores, via the UEA Publishing Project, who had agreed to co-publish and distribute the LTSIT anthology.  I hoped to work with Norfolk-born book designer Emily Benton, who had previously produced intelligent, tactile and beautiful publications for clients including the Words and Women Compendium and UEA Publishing Project.  These plans were all made possible thanks to Arts Council England, who gave full support to the project, with additional support being offered by Norfolk Libraries, who gave the free use of space in both libraries and the invaluable assistance of Maria Pavledis, who attended and encouraged the group at Cromer Library, which met every Monday afternoon for 8 weeks, beginning at the end of October 2019.  I led the Millennium Library group, which met on Thursday mornings, alone, but drawing upon the discussions we had at Cromer to enrich our discussions in Norwich from the start of November through until the week the winter holiday began.   

I designed the reading list for the workshops to feature equal numbers of men and women authors, and tried to pick writers who would illuminate different aspects of writing about the sea: ecological, dramatic, romantic, metaphorical, scientific, autobiographical, poetic and melancholic.  We read extracts from the following texts: Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us (1951), Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line (1917), Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves (1958), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea(1952), Jacques Cousteau, The Silent World (1952), Victoria Whitworth, Swimming with Seals (2017), Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave (2017) and the Julia Blackburn story, “A Box of Old Shells” (2018).  Shared reading is a very simple idea: “By bringing people together in small groups to read aloud a book, short story or poem, shared readinggroups create a safe, welcoming space where individual thought and feeling is recognised and valued. Group members can choose to read aloud, share personal reflections or simply to listen – in this way, individuals form real connections with the literature and with each other.”[i]  However, I was largely unprepared for the powerful effects of this approach: in both the Cromer and Norwich groups there were a real mix of ages and occupations, ranging from students in their 20s to midlife multi-taskers to retired professionals, and yet through shared reading we connected: we listened, talked, laughed, argued and sometimes even cried.  The Reader, who have spearheaded the use of shared reading as a practice in the UK since 2008, quote author James Baldwin by way of explanation: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”  

Part of the power of shared reading is undoubtedly derived from connecting with a particular text, but also from the communal energy generated as you read, listen and talk together: the group is larger than the sum of its constituent people.  The other important aspect of shared reading is that when you read aloud or listen to someone else read aloud, the reading moves at a slower speed, so you hear more.  As you stop every page or so to discuss, you also understand more, as in our case, the people in the group shared their inside knowledge of such things as how to catch turtles, the politics of translation or how to navigate by the stars.  Differences of taste and interpretation also led to richer and more nuanced understandings of particular texts – the two most hotly debated texts in the Like the Sea I Think workshops were Italo Calvino’s story “The Adventure of the Poet” and the first chapter of Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals, both of which were loved by some and strongly critiqued by others.  As the weeks went by, we critiqued everything more, and that critique was in itself a kind of love: real, close engagement with the text and with the group, as trust and familiarity unfolded between us.

Each week of the course I made a SoundCloud recording of me reading that week’s text and posted it on Twitter and Facebook with the accompanying exercises, to allow remote readers (who had either missed out on a place in the library workshops or lived beyond East Anglia) to follow the course in their own time.  Each week we carried out two or three creative writing exercises, such as, “Imagine yourself on an island and describe the sounds you might hear.  Describe a romantic encounter, either imagined or real, that happens on a beach.  Write about something special you found on a beach.  Write a poem from the perspective of a mother or a father on the beach. Describe swimming underwater. You could be scuba diving or perhaps, deep sea diving. Describe how it feels, looks and sounds…”. That was probably my favourite part of the workshops, seeing everyone bent over their paper, engrossed in their own writing.  There was such a peaceful atmosphere of concentration and industry around the table, that the hands of the clock would advance all too quickly.  It always felt a pity to still those pencils and bring the session to a close.

Well over a hundred authors from across East Anglia submitted their work to this anthology: I am very pleased that out of the 55 contributors chosen, 19 were people who had attended the Like the Sea I Think workshops.  The remaining 36 authors come from all corners of East Anglia, from Hunstanton, down to Sheringham and Cromer, inland to Norwich, down to the Waveney Valley, and back to the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and further south still, to Lowestoft in Suffolk.  If you read the biographies included at the back of the anthology, you will also note that the range of life experiences and ages of the authors is immense: the youngest author celebrated her 11th birthday in the summer, while the eldest author will be 87 this year.  Some of the authors were ‘born and bred’ in Norfolk or across the border in Suffolk, others have been drawn to East Anglia to study, to work or as a place to enjoy their retirement.  All of the authors have something memorable and distinctive to say about what the sea means to them.  Each response is unique – proof if any were needed, that all who live here, can also du diffrunt here.[ii]

[i] For more information see https://www.thereader.org.uk/about/whatwedo/ Accessed 12 March 2019.

[ii] Read the annotated version of Luke Wright’s poem about the history of Norwich Here (2018) at: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/the-story-behind-here/ Accessed 10 March 2019.

Roy Ballard, reading Mother care or Life on a Lowestoft Trawler at the launch of Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia, at the Book Hive, Norwich, May 2019.
Jessica D’Alton Goode, recording her poem Diggs, from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
Ruthie Collins, recording her poem Persephone Wakes (Mater Matters), from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
Sarah Walker, recording her poem Liwuli: Forsaking, from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
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Esplanade: A Procession for Women (2018)

Curated by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, Cromer Seafront, 2018.

Sarah Lowndes established Kunsthalle Cromer in 2017, to enhance the cultural provision available within the seaside town of Cromer and the wider area of Norfolk through the promotion of visual art, music, literature, cinema, performance and interdisciplinary art forms. Kunsthalle Cromer works together with relevant local community organisations, developing positive, supportive and sustainable relationships and offering accessible, free and exciting cultural activity which brings people from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy meaningful shared experiences.

Esplanade: A Procession for Women, curated by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, Cromer Seafront, 2018.

The second Kunsthalle Cromer public art project was Esplanade: A Procession for Women, a celebratory group promenade of 100 local girls and women, each carrying a red parasol along Cromer Seafront from the Zig Zag, along the Esplanade, and around the Pier, before ascending to disperse at Jetty Cliff outside the Hotel de Paris. The procession gestured towards Cromer’s historic beach culture and drew attention to stunning aspects of the built environment on the seafront, highlighting noted architectural features such as the Zig Zag, Esplanade, Pier, Jetty Cliff and Hotel de Paris. The 100 red parasols used in the promenade symbolised the 100 years since some British women received the vote in 1918 and thus functioned as a symbol of celebration, pride and unity on International Women’s Day, while the physical act of promenading also connects meaningfully with the 2018 International Women’s Day theme, Press for Progress.Esplanade was a celebratory performative communal event, which linked together ideas of performativity, empowerment, claiming public space and feminism.  

A Procession for Women, International Women’s Day, Cromer, Norfolk, 8 March 2018.

Lowndes explained, “I got the idea for this project after reading about an extended visit to Cromer by Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1887.  Elisabeth had many other titles including Queen of Bohemia and Grand Princess of Transylvania, and was a non-conformist who didn’t take well to court life; preferring instead to absent herself to go riding and hunting and to travel widely. She was revered as the most beautiful woman in Europe but after she was thirty-five she would not allow anyone to paint her or to photograph her.  Whenever she was outdoors she protected herself from prying eyes and photographers with a white parasol. When Elisabeth visited Cromer, she was 50 years old, and deeply concerned for her safety due to the growing anarchist movement in Europe – perhaps she came to Cromer seeking some peace. She brought her horses and even her cows and every morning a cow would be brought onto the Promenade beneath her window in the Lower Tuckers Hotel where it was milked and the uncontaminated milk taken directly up to her suite. She spent many long hours on the beach, reading and staring out to sea. (Her caution for her life was justified as 11 years after her trip to Cromer, she was stabbed through the heart with a sharpened needle file by an anarchist and died, aged 61.) I found the idea of the Empress with the white parasol on the promenade at Cromer rather haunting – but wanted to find a way to revisit that history in a way that was celebratory.  The parasol represents many things: shelter, modesty, privacy, shade.  But it also can be a prop that draws attention to the lady carrying the parasol, and has a stylish, fun aspect that is more to do with display than concealment.  This is especially the case when the parasol is red, a colour that signifies revolution.  

A Procession for Women, International Women’s Day, Cromer, Norfolk, 8 March 2018.
Esplanade: A Procession for Women, curated by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, Cromer Seafront, 2018.
A Procession for Women, International Women’s Day, Cromer, Norfolk, 8 March 2018.
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Panoramic Sea Happening (2017)

Curated by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, East Beach Cromer, 2017

Sarah Lowndes established Kunsthalle Cromer in 2017, to enhance the cultural provision available within the seaside town of Cromer and the wider area of Norfolk through the promotion of visual art, music, literature, cinema, performance and interdisciplinary art forms. Kunsthalle Cromer works together with relevant local community organisations, developing positive, supportive and sustainable relationships and offering accessible, free and exciting cultural activity which brings people from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy meaningful shared experiences.

The first public art event initiated by Lowndes under the auspices of Kunsthalle Cromer was the Panoramic Sea Happening on East Beach, Cromer in June 2017.  This event was a re-enactment of part of the 1967 happening, The Sea Concert (The Panoramic Sea Happening) by Tadeusz Kantor, first staged at Osieki on the Polish coast, with conceptual artist Edward Krasiński, dressed in a black tailcoat, conducting the waves from a stepladder while being watched by spectators in striped deck chairs. In Lowndes’s re-enactment, which took place 50 years after the original happening, the conductor was played by the proprietor of Norwich’s The Book Hive and Propolis publisher, Henry Layte.  In re-staging Kantor’s seminal work in this new context, Lowndes hoped to reach new audiences, who would directly experience the wit and magic of part of Kantor’s original “score”, but this time imbued with local resonances and the multivalent possibilities of the live situation.  While Kantor’s original work had several movements, which included motorbikes scrambling on the sand, the artist himself shouting instructions through a megaphone and the audience being pelted with fish, Lowndes’s re-enactment deliberated focussed on the best-known aspect of the work – the first movement, captured in Eustachy Kossakowski’s magical photograph of Krasiński conducting the symphony of the sea.

Henry Layte, as The Conductor, Panoramic Sea Happening, Kunsthalle Cromer, East Beach Cromer (2017)

Kantor’s work is an invitation to be fully present in the natural world and to see, feel and hear the beach, where, as he put it, proximity to the sea, works to “impose motion, rhythm and sound values not surpassing the abilities of human perception.”  The sizeable audience who assembled in the bright June sunlight on Cromer beach to watch the re-enactment, consisted of those involved in the art world and academia in the South East of England (including attendees from Outpost Gallery, originalprojects, University of East Anglia, Norwich University of the Arts, the Courtauld Institute and Coventry University), but also many locals who had attended out of curiosity after reading about the event in the Eastern Daily Press, or simply stumbled upon the happening and been drawn in, whether watching quietly or being inspired to get in the sea themselves.  Gary Clark lives locally and brought his family along to watch the event. He said: “It’s very fitting to the atmosphere here on the beach. We all think it’s marvellous.”  Another spectator who came across the event by chance, tourist Anna Hill, said: “What a unique thing to do. It’s not a sight I was expecting to see, that’s for sure.”  There were a wide range of ages present, including elderly people and many children, neither of whom had been in evidence in photographs of Kantor’s original piece, which had been performed during a three-week-long meeting of artists and art theorists.  Lowndes provided free drinks and a barbeque for the audience, and after the performance, the communal picnicking on the beach continued for some time.  Some local residents afterwards wrote describing their experience (their first of attending a Happening): “So we wandered along the beach feeling a little self-conscious to be honest.  But soon we were joined by a lot more people.  Some deck chairs were unfolded and lined up, flapping in the wind and a podium was dragged into the sea.  As the tide lapped up against the podium our conductor arrived, looking resplendent in black tail coat, carrying a baton.  Everyone watched as he climbed the steps and began conducting the sea!  Children splashed about in the waves and people sat having a drink in the deck chairs watching.  It was all very exciting and…. well, different!”

Henry Layte, as The Conductor, Panoramic Sea Happening, Kunsthalle Cromer, East Beach Cromer (2017)
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