Lately I’ve found myself thinking about The Brownies in which I was enrolled at around seven years old. Here I am making my enrolment pledge and wearing my freshly purchased Brownies uniform…
The above photo leaves me with conflicting feelings: it was a little rite of passage and a magic moment for me, yet in the intervening years I’ve come to realise the originator of the scouting movement is a colonist and a patriarch. Too, the pledge I said in order to enrol was definitely something about being good and helpful around the house specifically as a girl (I don’t think my brothers had to say such things in order to join the Beavers or the Cubs…) and I had to endure a deeply problematic “Beauty Contest” at Brownie Camp (in which I was dubbed the loser and given a booby prize – the mind boggles at how anyone thought that was OK). Happily, The Brownies seem to have massively moved on from the 1980s and their parent organisation – Girl Guiding – is actively working to unpack and confront their origins and to embed a much more empowering and inclusive ethos at all levels. Seven year old girls no longer need pledge to do “a good turn” every day, and I’m pretty sure no 21st century Brownie camp would feature any blatant form of body-shaming. Still. I didn’t know about any of this when I was seven.
I can see that back then, being in The Brownies was many good things: an opportunity to socialise and camp with buddies from school outside of school; a place to learn how to make stuff; and the important context in which where I first learnt to see beauty in the overlooked everyday.
This week I’ve been fondly remembering one of the women who volunteered in the Thornton Heath chapter as one of the leaders for our group. I wish I could remember her name but I can’t, so let’s call her Brown Owl as I would have addressed her myself, back then. I don’t remember very much except that Brown Owl was also one of the dinner ladies at my primary school, was known for being strict, and seemed confusingly to be full of energy and vim but also impossibly old. She had eagle eyes, curly hair, and a beautiful wrinkly face which could be either very severe or very kind. I wasn’t the only kid who was a bit in awe: you didn’t want to get on her bad side. But Brown Owl was also really quite magical. She introduced me – very firmly and very kindly – to a positive kind of criticism. The kind of criticism that comes from knowing you can do better; a sort of accountability: “I know you can do more than this – I believe in you”. I think of her whenever I want to give my own students feedback which is both challenging and kind, and I think of her as a special person in my childhood and one of those examples of how powerful a good teacher can be.
Let me take you back to a dark wintry evening very much like the ones we’ve been having lately…
…I’d arrived very excited at Brownies, clutching MY ART and demanding THE ART BADGE. In the week between Brownie meetings, I’d been reading my pleasing brown and yellow handbook and discovered the requirements for obtaining THE ART BADGE to sew onto my uniform – it was something like “make a piece of art”. I decided to save some time and simply bring MY ART to the meeting with me and – BOOM! – THE ART BADGE WOULD BE MINE. I spent a lot of time reading the requirements for THE BADGES (all of which I passionately desired) and this one struck me as a a super easy win. I’d gone into the cubbyhole under the stairs which my Pops had fashioned into a small art-making area and knocked out a non-species specific BIRD drawing. It had feathers! A beak! Many colours. Sadly there is no picture of THE BIRD but here is a blurry selection of 1980s masterpieces from me and my brothers, to give you the idea.
But Brown Owl wasn’t having it. She narrowed her lovely twinkly eyes behind her glasses, inspected my drawing and handed it back to me, diplomatically saying that while it was very nice, I’d have to show her a little bit more dedication to win the prized ART BADGE. Dismayed, I was ushered into the tea-making area at the back of the draughty parish halls where we had our meetings. After rustling around a bit, Brown Owl came back with some drawing materials – I think they were pastels – and a piece of paper. Crouching carefully down to my seated height, Brown Owl pointed over to the filing cabinet in the corner, on top of which there was a spider plant in a terracotta pot. “I want you to draw that”, she said simply. “Draw that, and you will have earned your badge”. This was most displeasing to me and I whined a bit “but it’s haaaaaard” and wriggled on my seat and sulked that my wondrous bird had really been THE BUSINESS and that this was deeply unfair. The filing cabinet was SO UGLY. SO GREY. SO BASIC. And the annoying spider plant! So busy looking, so much tangled foliage, such a messy and displeasing thing!
Brown Owl was unmoved. She carefully put to me that if I found it hard to keep track of the leaves (I DID! There were SO MANY LEAVES!) I could help myself by focusing on, and drawing, the spaces between them. I could hear the others in the bigger room dancing, running around, playing… and Brown Owl watched me for a few moments and gently reminded me several times that I couldn’t draw the plant unless I was looking at the plant. “You’re looking at your paper, look back at the plant” she said, several times. Eventually, satisfied I was doing as told, Brown Owl left me to it. I sat alone at that round table, with the tea-making things to one side and the filing cabinet with its spider plant crown before me. Soon, the hubbub of the others in the next room blurred into a comforting background sound, and I found myself surprisingly transfixed and filled with quiet joy as, stroke by careful stroke, I discovered I was indeed able to plot the shape of the spider plant on the page by looking at the shapes of the spaces around and between its stripy, lined leaves. It was such a new sensation of presence and attention; such a revelation to realise I’d never really looked at anything properly before. The humble feeling that I was in fact wrong, and the happy reward of seeing that the spider plant was filled with unassuming interest and charm. Once I got over my initial dismay that I wouldn’t be able to use my favourite colour – PERIWINKLE BLUE – I took great pains over selecting the exact shades of cream, ivory, green and gold to try and describe the tones and colours of those lovely angular leaves. There was intense pleasure of seeing the plant’s likeness slowly unfolding on my page.
It was hard – much harder than it had been to make my pretty picture of the bird. I really had to look a lot at what I was doing, but I also discovered how much I liked this effort, and how nice it was to keep glancing from the thing to the drawing of the thing, back and forth, checking the co-ordinates as I plotted things on paper. The biggest revelation was just how much there was to see and appreciate in what had previously struck me as being a totally uninspiring context. The battered grey-brown filing cabinet with this basic houseplant balanced atop it struck my younger self as being UGLY, PLAIN and BORING. But truly – and this was perhaps the most memorable part of the experience, and why it has remained with me for over thirty years – the more I looked at these things that my glitter and Princess-obsessed seven-year-self found so unworthy, the more I saw there was, in fact, to see.
I think very often about that evening. When I’m searching for a mood of peace and creativity nowadays, the feeling I know I want is the same one I had then. Of total absorption, presence and attention. I wish there was a way to say thank you to Brown Owl. For pushing me – so gently, but with such encouragement – towards greater effort; for perceiving a real creative need under my bird-shaped bravado; for believing I could do more; and for the proud smile she gave me at the end of the evening when I showed her what I’d done. It was the most encouraging thing – my drawing wasn’t perfect but I’d done so much more than I’d thought I could, and her big smile and the way she admired my drawing made me glow with a feeling of growth and accomplishment.
Most of all I think about how a little window got nudged open, too, in that encounter by how Brown Owl picked something for me to do which forced me to see the world differently: I’m not sure I’ve ever thought anything looked boring after this.
For example on Tuesday I was walking down the road adjacent to ours and admiring the beautiful leaf prints in the paint.
A couple of weeks ago the road was resurfaced, and there were evidently leaves on the ground when the markings were laid down… when the wind blew away, negative prints of their outlines were immortalised in the lines. There’s a spread in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Playbook where Liz describes designing one of the Tarmac Tuesdays bunting flags with a motif inspired by this. Liz says “I really loved all the negative shapes in these photos and the way that the yellow road markings had been squished and worn into patterns”. You can see the flag on the left in this picture, and it’s based on a photo taken in Hungerford by Vivienne, and shared online under the joyful #TarmacTuesdays hashtag.
Yesterday, photographing the leaf prints joyfully, I reflected on my long process of learning to see and celebrate roads. Writing, scripting and recording my radio show Around the A4074 as one of my final PhD projects; writing and researching the chapter about the A4074 road for the Sourcebook; the wondrous fun of #TarmacTuesday posts in which we collectively explored all the amazing ways in which tarmac can, in fact, be beautiful; writing and researching the essay which accompanies the KNITSONIK Bunting: Tarmac Tuesdays edition chapter in the Playbook; and collaborating with my friend Liz to make charts for knitted flags which celebrate this underrated surface… It’s all creative effort which has transformed my relationship with roads and noticing their details. Roads can never just be roads to me now – I’ve invested too much and the more I look, the more I see.
The other day I noticed with glee a bitumen footprint on Elgar Road. It tells the sad story of a ruined shoe… but also immortalises the moment when someone stepped out into the freshly-laid road and then up onto the pavement. I always notice things like this, now: it’s like a reward for all the time I’ve spent contemplating roads and road surfaces as a rich creative context. Today, writing this, it feels like learning to see and celebrate the patterns, details and aesthetic of tarmac and road surfacing is a kind of progression from learning that a filing cabinet with a spider plant on top of it can be captivating and beautiful. There are points between – my amazing PhD supervisor, Paul Whitty; the British artist Bobby Baker; and the beautiful essayist Georges Perec need shouting out here as well; – but if I drew a line joining all the dots connecting my ongoing creative development as an artist, I feel sure the first one would land back there. In Thornton Heath, in the back room of a draughty parish hall, seeing for the very first time in my life the completely absorbing wonder of a spider plant on top of a filing cabinet.
Most of all, I wish I could thank Brown Owl for giving me that.