JOY GREGORY


Invisible Life Force of Plants
Further reading



I have always been surrounded by plants and have grown up on the edge of a small town surrounded by the countryside and rural communities taking the environment completely for granted. I have to  admit to have been more interested in lying in an abandoned allotment reading the books discarded by the printer Hazell, Watson and Viney than learning the names or use of any of the myriad of plants that surrounded me. My parents on the other hand grew up in the Jamaican countryside. It was natural for them to know the names and uses of the plants in their environment. This manifested itself in the experience of having almost every mild ailment been treated with some form of tea concocted from plants growing in the garden. 

I've never given it much thought until I went with my parents to Jamaica as an adult in 1994. Visiting my father’s family land to pay homage to his mother’s grave I met Keith. Keith had looked after this vast area of greenery for many and introduced me to a new way of appreciating the land as a repository of food, medicine and cultural heritage. At that point I became very curious about my parents' experience and more specifically their cultural knowledge relating to this ‘homeland’ which they never really had an opportunity to share with their children. We grew up in a completely different environment in the UK than their childhood and youthful experience in Jamaica. We were familiar with the town and the city of northern Europe distanced from nature while their world was of a countryside of tropical abundance and surrounded by every plant you could imagine the knowledge of which was ingrained into their everyday life. While friends growing up away from their parents homeland were losing the language of their grandparents we grew up in the UK and lost a cultural understanding and connection to the land of our family in Jamaica.

Burgess Park is my nearest green place. It became a space of respite and relaxation to alleviate the anxiety around covid-19 when it first hit and we were locked down. Like everyone I was seeking something familiar in a very unfamiliar and frightening situation so I looked at every face as I walked in the park until they became familiar. I also started to pick up plants or leaves up off the ground that have been blown or discarded which I brought back to the studio.

The walks in the park were not really about exercising the body but giving a space for the mind to make sense of where we  were and what was happening. The building of this routine was an essential part of my survival -creating some form of certainty in a world where everything suddenly became uncertain. It was a particularly frightening at the beginning with  harrowing  images in every form of media depicting countless numbers of people suffering and dying every day - many of whom looked just like me.
For some reason I decided to return to the very basics of photography [the recording of light and time on a static surface] and began to make lumen prints. I was fascinated to observe on certain paper the material appeared to record the invisible breath of each plant -revealing it as an aura surrounding each imprint Inspired by Anne Atkins and the early pioneers of photography the plants act as templates for Botanic recordings of these seemingly silent organisms -so essential for our survival and that of the planet. I began to appreciate more and more our dependency on the plant world for food, medicine and our mental health – it seemed incredible to close parks in cities at the beginning of the pandemic forgetting the plight of those without gardens or any real space to call their own.  

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with an incredible group of young people at the Harrow Club alongside the club leaders. They are all incredibly enthusiastic and gave me an opportunity to think and reflect about the development of the work in many ways which may not have come to mind have I been working solo. It also encouraged me to contact you seed bank at Kew Gardens and to investigate in conjunction with the children the weeds that are commonly found on waste grounds and in our gardens. We discovered that so many of them had in the past been used as medicine but also contributed to the development of commonly known pharmaceuticals. We also used the sessions to look at biodiversity as well as the use of green spaces.

In the first session we explored the photosensitivity of Photographic paper through making lumen prints of weeds found on the grounds surrounding the club.  Everyone chose one plant to make a print and also explored and investigated its use as a health benefit or medicine - past or present. During the second session we mixed up our own photographic emulsion by combining two iron salts to make cyanotype. Everyone chose leaves from the garden to make a composition which they processed on site.

In the third session we explored and used Willow bark or Salix babylonica which is the basis of aspirin. The children used the last session to make large cyanotype life-sized prints of themselves on wallpaper having made smaller prints of the plant earlier in the session. Salix babylonica: Asprin; Willow bark, the bark of several varieties of willow tree, has been used for centuries as a pain reliever. The active ingredient in the medicine made from willow bark is called salicin.
As part of my research for the workshops and the project I visited the allotments Fiona Bailey and Gary Stewart  who showed me the magic of growing your own food. Most of us live lives that are so far removed from the source of our food it is almost unimaginable that a small seed is put into the ground and it comes back with a fruit 1000 times greater than its beginning. For me it is a bit like the magic of photography and many ways but also reminded me of my parents who always grew their own food particularly after retirement when they both shook on several allotments in Leeds.

I was particularly taken by the squash which seemed so alien but the beautiful flowers with them turned into magnificent fruit which took almost like an alien. This is an aspect of the work which I would like to extend and explore with the children at the club, alongside the link between health and the plant world should an opportunity arise. Plants as Breath – transforming CO2 into O2 for us.

I have chosen to work with two quite different forms of photographic material, cyanotypes which we made up  from the raw chemistry and lumen prints created by exposing commercially produced photographic paper.  now so unfamiliar to young people at the Harrow club (whose lives are surrounded by photography) who were totally entranced by this magical medium -where something appears from nothing. Purely by accident I found that when one put a plant or a leaf onto a piece of paper on certain types of photographic paper it would record the breath of the plant as an aura which would surrounded the imprint of the object outside of the plant itself.

Some years later after an extensive project investigating the relationship between Europe and the Caribbean which led to my reflecting on the rapid and devastating loss of languages across the globe. This in turn caused me to consider the disappearance or dilution of my own cultural heritage and the impact all of this is having on all of our understanding of our natural world. I now appreciate that the loss of a language is not just the loss of words but a way of seeing and reading the natural world around us.  I'm currently working in collaboration with the composer for the Philip Miller to develop a work which brings together the connection between the NHM’s Sloane Collection and the fading medicinal plant knowledge on the island of Jamaica. It also takes into consideration the bio-prospecting of the 17th century and its on-going legacy around the world in the form of the many diasporic movements of people, the natural world and culture. One of the most interesting things about doing this project is taking time to look at the plants and their origins. It is fascinating to recognise that plants and food with which we are so familiar reflect the history of bio-prospecting that took place in the 17th century.


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