Sarah Davies enjoys exploring art and photography inspired by the marshes
Currently showing at The Mill community centre is Tales from the Marsh, an exhibition of images, objects, sound, poetry, and most importantly, stories connected to Walthamstow Marshes.
The diverse materials assembled have arisen through artist Siobhan O’Neill’s engagement with local people. These include walking conversations with regular visitors as well as various workshops and collaborations with community members since 2014.
Siobhan has herself been a resident of Waltham Forest for over 12 years. Speaking to her about the co-creative process behind this exhibition, a fascinating picture of the marshes emerges.
Early in our conversation I am reminded that there are very few places in London where you can cast your gaze out to an uncluttered horizon. Similarly, our city is limited in areas where you might get really dirty trudging through mud and long grass, encounter livestock, rare plants or birds of prey. In these ways, and many more, the marshes are unusual to say the least.
Despite the contrast to the surrounding built environment, the marshes cannot be considered a preserved outpost of English countryside. Neither are they a bucolic idyll – you can always hear the roar of planes overhead and not-too-distant trains.
By working with local residents, Siobhan presents a multifaceted and realistic impression of this landscape. Here it is shown as a shared part of the urban environment; one that allows people to express their connections to the earth, to home and common bonds.
The differences between voices can be striking. For instance, Marie, aged in her eighties, remembers as a child leaving home with milk bottles filled with tea to spend the entire day on the Marshes, adventuring with siblings and friends. This is echoed in Siobhan’s photographs showing hands and arms covered in mud and berries oozing satisfyingly through clenched fingers.
Conversely, younger participants, such as students of Lammas School, at times revealed an aversion to dirt. Their poems describe the marshes as a place of fearful imaginings, encountering frightening dogs or intimidating teenagers.
In Tales from the Marsh, Siobhan has created a sympathetic account of various lived experiences connected to this unique, shared space. By allowing people to express and reflect on their memories, to creatively develop stories, poetry and images, the exhibition reveals the reality of the Marshes as a complex and inspirational environment.
Tales from the Marsh shows at The Mill in Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow, until 3rd December.