Ceramics Monthly: The South London and Maudsley Grounding Project welcomes refugees and asylum seekers struggling with post-traumatic stress. The program includes horticulture, art, yoga, and therapy workshops. How did your collaboration with the project’s participants get started?
Julie Nelson: Luckily, a friend knew about the amazing work of the Grounding Project. I spoke with Dr. Gemma Eke, the clinical psychologist who runs the group with psychotherapist Myriam Sarens, and pitched my idea to teach clay bird-making workshops, culminating in an exhibition of the flock at the end of the project. Group members attend drop-in sessions, engaging with and responding to the positive benefits of nature. There are obvious parallels with the lives of birds who travel great distances and are vulnerable to situations out of their control but are helped by belonging to a group. The focus is on providing a safe environment and supportive community.
CM: Did the idea for Flock emerge from your introduction to the Grounding Project, or has it been percolating for a while?
JN: Two years ago, I was invited to create an installation in Brighton, on the coast, where I live. I took the starling murmurations as inspiration, as well as other birds that populate the city, and created a community of over 100, which I exhibited in a grand house. It was then I had the idea to expand the installation by holding workshops created for people who had migrated and to exhibit the results in one larger Flock all together. I hoped that the participants would find the making process therapeutic and that the exhibition would inform the general public. Following the success of the Grounding Project collaboration, we were able to create a series of workshops in the ceramics department at the Victoria and Albert Museum for Refugee Week. These birds, made by a supportive public, were also integrated into The Flock Project.
CM: Can you describe an inspiring experience from one of the workshops where participants created some of the 200 individual birds that are part of the installation?
JN: I was delighted by how quickly everyone took to the clay and started creating highly individual birds. I loved to see the level of focus and concentration. I brought press molds to one of the workshops and some members really took to the process so we had some shared bird production. A pinched head might be attached to a body created by someone else in the group. People were happy to collaborate and even help others who were less confident.
CM: How has the experience influenced your thinking as an artist, and your ideas for future projects?
JN: In a project like Flock, an artist can draw attention to something that is overlooked and everyday, helping the participants and viewers to pay attention to the environment around them. I am so grateful to have been given the chance to prove that the project could work. It is not always easy to quantify creative work, so we are lucky to have won a small grant to study the workshops with Dr. Humera Iqbal and University College London; we hope the results will inform the conversation about the positive effects of creativity on wellbeing. The Flock Project (www.flockproject.co.uk) will continue the workshops for refugees with plans to tour the UK. We’ve achieved a lot by simply believing in the potential of the project.