Cyfoeth: The Natural Resources Wales Environment Podcast

Sticky Sculptures: With Manon Awst and the National Peatland Action Programme

February 03, 2023 Natural Resources Wales
Cyfoeth: The Natural Resources Wales Environment Podcast
Sticky Sculptures: With Manon Awst and the National Peatland Action Programme
Show Notes Transcript

We are in Bangor, North Wales in this episode talking to local artist Manon Awst about her fascinating work to create a carbon storing sculpture informed by site research at Anglesey and Llŷn Fens. 

 Both are special areas of conservation. This work is in collaboration with experts from NRW’s National Peatland Action Programme and is funded through the Welsh Government to address both the climate and nature emergencies through peatland restoration. 

Matthew: Hello and welcome to Cyfoeth, the Natural Resources Wales Environment Podcast. My name is Matthew and I'm a Communications Officer working for NRW. We are in Bangor, North Wales in this episode talking to local artist Manon Awst about her fascinating work to create a carbon storing sculpture informed by site research at Anglesey and Llŷn Fens. 

Both are special areas of conservation. This work is in collaboration with experts from NRW’s National Peatland Action Programme and is funded through the Welsh Government to address both the climate and nature emergencies through peatland restoration. 

 Welcome, Manon – Croeso. 


Manon:Thanks for inviting me to speak. 

Matthew: Manon, before we talk about the project in more detail, it'd be great to get to know a little bit about you and your background as an artist. Could you give us a bit of an introduction to yourself? 


Manon:Yes, of course. So I'm an artist and I usually make sculptures and site specific installations, very often woven with ecological narratives. And I grew up on Anglesey, I went to Ysgol Uwchradd Bodedern, and did a foundation course at Coleg Menai before studying architecture at Cambridge University. 

 Straight after graduating, I moved to Berlin. I wanted to focus on my artwork and I was there for 10 years - moving a lot back and forth between Wales and Berlin - and I loved working in that urban environment but also bringing ecological narratives into the work as well, and still staying true to the landscapes that I grew up in. 


Matthew:Fantastic, and it sounds like you have been inspired by the landscapes that you've grown up in. Can you tell us a little bit about how those landscapes first caught your attention and where that led you? 


Manon: Yeah, definitely. As a child I was inspired by my immediate landscape. I lived in a very small village called Pencarnisiog and a few fields away was the Tŷ Newydd Cromlech and a Neolithic site called Barclodiad y Gawres. So these incredible ancient sites, full of history and really charged and they were examples of people and communities living very closely with land. 

 In my final dissertation when I studied architecture, I actually wrote about Barclodiad y Gawres and did more research into it, and I compared the way those Neolithic builders made that site and constantly returned to it over hundreds of years and compared that to new-build holiday homes that were in development in nearby Rhosneigr and just exploring the kind of tensions inherent in that and how we as contemporary people have lost that connection to nature and to landscape.


Matthew:Wow, that's absolutely fascinating. And then you took all that landscape and everything you you'd sort of grown up with here and then you moved into a completely different environment to Berlin, which is a very urban area. How did that inspire you? 


Manon:Yeah, I think I did bring elements of the landscape into those artworks. Even in an urban context. And I think the most obvious example is a long-term installation on Rosa Luxemburg Platz, right in the middle of Berlin, which is a huge section of wall that's covered in Anglesey mussle shells. I was working with Benjamin Walter, a German artist at the time, and we collected these mussel shells from the Menai Strait because they're farmed sustainably, and we collected thousands of them and covered this wall in these Anglesey mussel shells, so it feels almost as though I've left a bit of home in the middle of Berlin. 


Matthew:Fantastic thank you very much Manon. This is a really interesting project you're working on. Are you able to give us an overview and tell us a bit more about it? 


Manon:Yes, so the project is called ‘Sticky Sculptures’ and it's funded by the Arts Council of Wales and I'll be working with you - Natural Resources Wales - and also with the Biocomposite Center at Bangor University. The project is inspired by the Anglesey fens and I've been looking at how they function as carbon stores through the peat, so I've been looking much more closely at peat, so these landscapes are incredibly effective carbon source. 

 But they don't look very interesting; they're kind of generally quite flat. The landscape of North Wales is dramatic; we think of mountains, and we think of dramatic coasts. So, the fens don't look very exciting, but you have to look much closer, and I've been trying to do that. So, I’ve been taking peat core samples for example, and looking at the peat through microscopes and trying to get a sense of the materiality; also looking at muscles and the plants that shouldn't be there. 

 A lot of the plants, for example the molinia grasses have to be cut back, otherwise they would take over and take the space away from the more interesting and rare plants which grow there. And I've also been learning a lot more about the fenlands as well. For example, on Anglesey they're really special because of the geology.

 The bedrock is limestone and that makes the water calcareous and that gives way to these incredible plant species and create a really unique environment. So, I've just been trying to get my head around how these landscapes work. And using that as a as a as a starting point for inspiring these new sculptures. 


Matthew: So, you've been looking at the land you've been doing your research, and the next stage is looking into different materials to create this sculpture?


Manon: Yeah, exactly. Recently in my work I've been feeling limited by available sculptural materials - traditional sculptural materials - and I've come to the point I have to make my own and I want these sculptures almost to be giving something back to the landscape, not just taking materials out but giving something back, and so that's why I was intrigued by how peat functions and hopefully through these new materials that I'm developing, the sculptures themselves will also be carbon storing. So that's the challenge, and that's where the Biocomposites come in and their expertise in inventing new materials. 


Matthew: Wow, that's fantastic. So, you're gonna be coming up with a completely new material to make this sculpture, which is going to act in itself as a carbon store as well? 


Manon:That's the aim, yes. 


Matthew:Wow, that’s really fantastic and you've talked about landscapes and the interaction with materials; the interplay of art in this is to make these lands or these landscapes more accessible to the local community as well? 

 Manon:Yeah, I think the local community have a long-standing relationship to these sites. So, Natural Resources Wales have been working closely with nearby farmers to try and raise awareness of the importance of them, because pollution from nearby agriculture has degraded some of these sites, so this collaboration with local communities is essential in in their recovery. 


Matthew:And you're going to be working with some local schools as well?


Manon: Yeah, so a lot of the initial research has taken place at Cors Bodeilio and the local school is called Ysgol Talwrn. I know they're very keen to learn more about their nearby fenland, so I'll be conducting these workshops over the months of March and April with them, and I hope to bring their contribution into the creative outcome as well. 


Matthew:Fantastic and as this project develops and people are going to get more and more interested in in the work and will want to follow your progress, I'm sure because it's very fascinating. How can people see their work? 


Manon: The aim is to have a sculptural presentation at Cors Bodeilio in the summer, and there will also be an exhibition at Oriel Brondanw and at the National Eisteddfod in August, so different aspects of the creative work will be shown in all of these venues. 


Matthew:Fantastic and how important is it for you to have people come to interact and get a sense of this art and the landscapes? 


Manon: I think a creative process like this can involve people in different ways and people connect with materials. I think it's a very direct way of experiencing the landscape and getting to know more about a site as well, so it will appeal to a range of audiences. 


Matthew: Oh, that's fantastic to hear brilliant. So Manon, you've brought something into the studio for us today. Could you explain what you've brought? 


Manon: Yeah, this is a tiny little glass container with a sample of biochar. So I've been working in the bio composite lab this week, and this is made from waste grasses, molinia and other sedges. So before Christmas I went to the fens and the warden Emyr Humphreys kindly kept these bags of waste grasses for me and I took them home and I left them to dry on the kitchen floor for the holiday. And I was hoping to use these waste plants to make something productive. So this is the first sample of this bio char that's been burnt through pyrolysis, so without oxygen so that it stores, locks, the carbon in. We really didn't know if it would work or not, if it would just burn to ashes, but actually it's been quite a successful first try. So I'm really excited about that and it makes all this work and research worthwhile to see some of these outcomes. 


Matthew: So what we're getting there is a sneak peek of potentially what the material of the sculpture might be made out of?


Manon: Yes, and it will be a kind of mix of different materials, all connecting to the site in some way. 


Matthew: Fantastic and can you just give us an indication of where you are with the project now? Manon, where, where are you now?


Manon: The project has different levels really, so the material research which is the intense bit that I'm working on right now. So that involves site visits, meeting the warden, meeting experts on site and then taking what I'm learning back into the laboratory and testing different materials, looking closely at them and trying different combinations to see what works. It's a lot of trial and error, but that's the really exciting bit. Because at the end of the day I'm an artist and I'm not a scientist. I can be influenced by science, but I work on materials and experiment with materials and see what forms emerge.


Matthew: Well, it sounds like you've been very busy. So with the carbon storing it's difficult for people to see all the things that are happening underground and this project you're hoping to show people above ground what's happening underneath ground.


Manon:  Yeah, exactly to make those processes more visible and open a discussion about it as well. So for example, the biochar is an example of that, so the waste material from the site which has to be cleared, is transformed into a productive material. And elements of this carbon storing will be in the sculpture above the ground. But also one thing I'm really interested in is bog breathing, so this is a term that specialists are using to describe how water levels in a healthy bog is monitored. So in a healthy bog you would have a kind of wave which monitors the wetter periods and the drier periods. And it's almost yeah, it describes how the land breathes, and hopefully the sculpture will also connect to that and how that data is monitored.


Matthew: Manon you've talked through this project and you've talked about lots of interesting aspects of it, and one of the aspects running through this whole project is peatland and the importance of peatland in tackling the climate and nature emergencies. Peatland is the most important land we have here in Wales in terms of carbon capture and part of the work that the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales are doing is to raise awareness of that, and you've been looking into this in quite a lot of detail. What aspects of the peatlands has really captured your attention? 


Manon: Well peat forms really, really slowly, so it's 1 millimeter per year. So if you're looking at a meter of depth in the ground, you’re talking about 1000 years. So peat captures all of this history, it represents a deep time and it's a document of how humans have interacted with that landscape over that period as well. And it's really sticky stuff, and that's what inspires me. So you have the sphagnum mosses which are like sponges. They grow and they capture all of this water and as the plants die and start decaying, that whole process is slowed down and traps the carbon. So yeah, the sticking materiality, in a way is what's inspiring me as an artist and taking the peat samples out and looking more closely, you get a sense of what's underneath that ground, what's hidden behind the surface. So I'm hoping that audiences can be introduced to the secrets that the peat holds. 


Matthew: And that's one of the key outcomes of this project, isn't it? Is to get people to understand those processes that are going on under the ground and how important land like peatland that might on the surface not seem as interesting as the coast or the mountains, but is doing a very, very important job in terms of the climate.


Manon: Yeah, and I also think the Arts Council and Natural Resources Wales are working together very closely on a Creative Nature partnership and they're working towards a creative collaboration to make Wales more sustainable and working towards a net zero Wales and this all aligns with the Well-being of Future Generations Act, so projects like this connect directly to that, to that mission of creating a sustainable Wales where we as a community value our landscape and live more closely attuned to it.


Matthew: As well as the multi-layers of peat there's also the multi layers of creativity and not only are you working in sculpture, you also work in other mediums as well. One of those is poetry, and you've written a poem for us today to talk about this project.


Manon: Because I'm looking at the site more closely, the richness of language surrounding the sites also becomes more obvious, especially in the Welsh language. There's such a richness of names and terms surrounding the fenlands and I've been collecting these words. And I write poetry in Welsh in the form of cynghanedd which is the strict meter form, and here I've attempted to use the same rules but write in English, so here goes:

Raw weather for bog breathing –

deep down and soaked brown, to bring

that sticky, peaty pattern

near. Taste that earthy return.


Densely, all those hungry hues

gather under the sundews,

and wade across the mosses,

and sow time, just as it is.


Matthew: Amazing and those words give a real, put some really strong images in your mind about the landscapes that you're so inspired by and that you're working closely with. And I'm sure when people see the sculpture as well that'll have a similar impact. Diolch yn fawr Manon, Thank you so much for your time today. It's been a fascinating insight into the work you've done and the work you are doing. I for one are looking forward to seeing this project develop and they'll be listeners out there who want to keep in touch with how you're doing. Where can they go to get some extra information? 


Manon: I'll be regularly sharing images and how the work is progressing on Instagram and also on my website so that's the best place to check it out.