Friday 30 July 2021

Here be monsters

Around Christmas time - and with another lockdown looming - I overheard some of my neighbours bemoaning the fact that all of their children's regular activities (including schools) would be shutting down. And, due to a ban on unnecessary travel, they couldn't go anywhere else. They wouldn't even be able to meet with their friends. 

Lockdown has had an enormous impact on everybody's lives. It's affected our jobs, our social lives and our mental health. It's also been a really tough time for kids. So I began to wonder if I could do something for them (and maybe help out their homeschooling parents too). I had an idea ... could I create a local attraction that would engage kids and get them out of the house and into the fresh air? 

I know a fair bit about problem solving and about running public art projects. And I have a pretty good understanding of how kids work too, having brought up three of my own and having two grandkids. I knew that kids like finding things - the joy of discovery is why books like Where's Wally/Waldo? sell so well. It's also why kids (and adults) love Pok√©mon Go. I also knew that kids are often completists - they like to collect everything in a 'set'. What I could do was create something for them to find. And then, maybe, get them to add to the collection of objects. 

But what to create? 

I'd seen some truly excellent trails made using scarecrows, or fairy doors attached to trees, or painted pebbles. None of those were quite right, I felt. I wanted this project to be all-inclusive regardless of gender, artistic ability, age, disability etc. I also wanted something that didn't require expensive art materials as many families don't have them, or the money to buy them. 

So I decided to make some monsters from household junk. I threw together a gang of six and hid them in a wooded trail on some local common land frequently used by families and dog walkers. And then I waited ...
Photos: By me and Chris Rowan 

It wasn't long before the first sightings popped up on the local area's Facebook page. Within a week of the first discovery, social media was buzzing and, every time I walked past the area, all I could hear was the sound of excited children. More and more photos started to appear online. The local newspaper ran a story on it, calling the anonymous creator 'Widmer Banksy' (the trail was on land between the villages of Widmer End and Hazlemere). 

It was at this point that I suggested that maybe kids should add their own monsters to the 'monster trail' and, very soon, new monsters began to appear. Lots of new monsters.
Within a fortnight a staggering 101 monsters were on display.

Children's imaginations had run riot and the monsters were all fantastic! However ...

While the monster numbers had increased, so had footfall. Hundreds of people were visiting the trail, which had churned up the wet, muddy ground. The woods has become a quagmire. And to avoid walking through it, people were straying off the path into the undergrowth and damaging shrubs (they were also doing this to create space, of course, as social distancing rules still applied). Of more concern was the fact that areas where wildflowers would emerge in the Spring were also being torn up - including a 1000 year old bluebell glade.

It was then that the trustees who manage this piece of land put out feelers to locate the mysterious 'Widmer Banksy' and I had to put my hands up. The trail had to be removed - for all of the right reasons. So, with a heavy heart, I asked people to collect their monsters and take them home. 

However, I was then bombarded with messages from people telling me what a difference the trail had made. 'We couldn't get our kids off their screens but now they're dragging us off the sofa to go monster hunting!' they said. Parents and teachers told me how it had helped them cope with the pressures of home schooling. In terms of people's mental health, the trail had been a tonic. 'Couldn't you find a new location?' they asked.

So, I started a new Facebook group called Widmer Monsters (link here) and encouraged people to sign up if they were interested in me finding a new site. 500 families signed up on the first day (it's now around 1400) which seemed to be a resounding 'yes'.

So I started to look around. And, to my delight, local farmers Andy and Melanie James said that they had a suitable space on their property. And it was just 10 minutes walk from the original site. 

The Monster Zoo was born.

Art boards by Dan Wilson

New monsters arrived almost daily. The Zoo soon had 100 monsters. Then 200. then 300 ... 

Visitor numbers were pretty solid at around 50-60 per day and sometimes up to 300 at weekends - but all socially distanced in a large open air space and in groups of 3-6 that came in at different times throughout the day. It gets so busy now the weather is good that we opened a tuck shop and a coffee/cold drinks stall. Profits go to animal charities or towards animal feed. Grange Farm, where we're based, was set up as a community farm and staff are happy to show children around. The regular litters of new piglets were always a bonus treat.

It's been a busy summer!

Farmer Andy and chum

Every day I was getting messages from parents telling me how good this has been for their families. Schools began using the space as a resource to run lessons on art, recycling and where food comes from. 

And then the Zoo was picked up and featured on series 2 of Channel 4's wonderful art show Grayson's Art Club (watch the episode here) It was a real joy to chat to Grayson and to see that all of the children's hard work had received national recognition. And what an honour to be featured in the same show as Banksy and land artist Andy Goldsworthy!

Some of the monsters that I made will be on show - along with a photobook of EVERY monster made for the zoo - at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from the 4th December 2021 as part of the Grayson's Art Club season 2 exhibition, which is very gratifying. The show will run for a whole year.

I've since advised several people on how to set up similar installations where they live in the UK, and I've run a community monster making day at the Arts Centre in nearby High Wycombe.

Oh, by the way, the amazing part-finished mural behind me is by Dan Wilson - the guy who created our Monster Zoo entrance boards. and my fantastic hat was created by the very clever Juliet Hamilton.

The Zoo now has over 350 monsters. But, to be honest, the rate at which new ones appear has started to slow now that lockdown measures are beginning to ease. But that's fine. The whole point of the Zoo was to help people get through the pandemic, which it does appear to have done. It's only natural for it to now to slowly run down. I predict that it will see the summer through and then close its doors.

But while it's lasted it's been glorious. A wonderful showcase of children's creativity, a safe open air meeting place for parents and children, and something that's put smiles on people's faces during these trying and scary times. 

And it cost nothing. Not a penny.

All it took was an idea, a bit of time, and some good old-fashioned community spirit.    

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