Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Introducing Tom Pointon Birmingham FOE's new Outreach Officer

Eleanor Hoad gets to work on the Edible Erdington project

My name's Tom Pointon and I started as Birmingham FOE’s latest Outreach Officer at Birmingham FOE at the beginning of May.

So far I've been finding out whats going on in Ladywood and Handsworth, having decided to focus my energies on these areas.

I’ve always been interested in architecture, the quality of the built environment, how to make cities enjoyable places to live. I'm keen to enable and empower people on a local level to have more influence over the quality of their environment.

Last week I was at an estate in Ladywood, meeting the Ladywood Project, which offers space for residents on an estate of tower blocks, low-rise housing, to meet, share childcare, get advice on a range of issues, have a coffee. A centre like this is invaluable for many residents in these areas and it was good to chat with the staff and learn that play areas and green spaces were being used and enjoyed by people of all ages.

Last week I interviewed two people for the forthcoming show BFOE will be launching on Rhubarb Radio, the web radio station based in the Custard Factory. Firstly I spoke to Carol Byrne, who runs LOVE, the organic and local food stall at Birmingham Central Market, and then Eleanor Hoad, who has a twelve month contract as artist in residence based in Erdington.

These two are a source of great inspiration. Carol graduated in Film and has made a number of short documentaries, mainly about the land movements in Mexico. Inheriting her market stall after her dad passed away, she's built the business into her own vision, selling a range of seasonal, local and organic fresh produce. You can hear her interview soon on Rhubarb Radio.

Eleanor Hoad’s projects show a new direction for art and culture which had me pondering ‘how do we decide what constitutes Art?’ In much contemporary art what's significant isn't the work of art, but the ideas surrounding it. This found its ultimate expression in the art scene of the nineties, with over-inflated prices paid for items like sharks in tanks, unmade beds and so on. Its through art we reflect on ourselves and our place in the universe, ability to reflect what distinguishes us from other mammals. Anything can become an art work. It doesn't need to be something tangible and physical.

In 2005 Eleanor spent twelve months touring Birmingham in a van powered by recycled cooking oil, towing a solar powered caravan. She was inspired by the way the city is continually being knocked down and rebuilt. Calling this project ‘Brave New Brum’ each area she visited was invited to nominate Seven Wonders and Seven Blunders, to get people to think about the area where they live. The entire project culminated in a treasure hunt in Kings Norton

Eleanor then ran a year long Climate Change Awareness Project in Wythenshawe, Manchester which culminated in an environmental festival bringing people's attention to climate change in innovative ways. Many local people who were involved with the festival rely on nearby Manchester airport for their livelihoods, which apparently they regard as a mixed blessing.

Through the Brave New Brum project Eleanor got to know an NHS scheme called Food Net to get people eating more healthily and working with residents of a large housing estate in Kings Norton, she had an idea she describes as ‘The Scattered Orchard.’ Kicking off on with a Valentine's day event subsidized fruit trees were offered, with 100 fruit trees planted in a day across the estate. Eleanor created a large map of tree locations. This was repeated the following year, with participants reporting on how their trees were growing. The project was so successful it was followed up by a ‘Scattered Market Garden’ where subsidized seeds were offered, a map created to record where everything was planted.

This is where imagination comes in, being key to creativity, because Eleanor was able to inspire people to plant in innovative ways, using containers on limited spaces such as window sills or balconies of tower blocks. The scattered approach is highly appropriate for urban areas. I was in London at the weekend and traveling by bus across Hackney and Islington was struck at just how much green space there is, little pockets of land all over the place. In Birmingham the low value of land could become a strength. Instead of more office blocks and industrial estates sitting empty for years we could be turning old industrial areas to productive inner city grow sites. Instead of endless schemes ‘helping people back into work’ for non existent jobs, we could work now, making ourselves more self sufficient.

Eleanor is currently running the ‘Edible Erdington’ project. Every Monday on Erdington High Street, volunteers gather to tend two planters opposite the Coop now bursting with growing vegetables. Shes also building upon her ‘Prepare’ project. Last year she went round the Erdington area identifying fruit growing in all sorts of places which were not being harvested. Apple trees in back yards, elderflowers on waste land, pear trees growing on railway sidings. Fruit trees grow in all sorts of random areas in a city, often down to food waste, discarded apple cores and suchlike. All sorts of activities spun off from this project such as an Apple festival last year at which more than fifty examples of the truly astonishing variety of English apples were on show – all, amazingly enough, harvested, foraged in Erdington!

In April a Prepare Swap Shop took place at Birmingham museum and art gallery where people swapped produce made from the fruit: jams, pickles, juices. You can catch Eleanor’s contribution to ‘In Our Backyard’ the culmination of year long residencys of four Birmingham artists. Its in the Community Gallery of the Museum (entrance on Gt Charles Queensway) and runs until 4 July.

You’ll be able to hear the full interview with Eleanor on our forthcoming Rhubarb Radio show very soon, in the meantime get down to the Museum and Art Gallery Community Gallery and see In Our Backyard.

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