MA Ceramics graduate Mandy Biscoe: Reviving ancient crafts to connect with nature
In a time when reconnecting with the natural world and restoring the land is more important than ever, MA Ceramics graduate Mandy Biscoe has been using her experience as a horticulturist, nurse and artist to revive ancient crafts, engage people with the land around them, and use oral storytelling to encourage urban environmental and biodiverse stewardship.
We caught up with her to hear about where it all began, her upcoming plans, and how her multi-disciplinary arts practice communicates her connection to the natural world.
Hi Mandy, can you tell us a bit about yourself as an artist and your practice?
I have 25 years of experience as a clinical nurse specialist in child and adolescent mental health, working with vulnerable children and their families in the community in South London and more recently Devon.
My first encounter with clay was at my secondary school in Bristol. We had a large ceramics room (Kate Malone MBE, one of the UK’s leading ceramicists, was in the year above me) and I have found ways to work with clay ever since. As a socially engaged artist, I have worked on numerous art projects in the community.
I am also an experienced horticulturist and currently work part-time on a two-hector plot producing vegetables, flowers, and herbs, alongside adults with complex needs. I received my MA in Ceramics in September 2021 with a special award for community engagement and was featured in the ‘Green Grads 2021’ Exhibition at the London Design Festival.
We saw your work at the MA Summer Show Open in 2021 and your use of technology, ceramics and nature was really engaging. Can you tell us more about the work and how you are using the arts to connect people with nature?
The focus of my inquiry during my MA was about how a connection to the natural world can be supported through artistic participation, and in turn, impact our stewardship of it. The aim of my MA was to develop a socially engaged art practice concerned with nature connection as a joyful act that builds an understanding of reciprocity in our relationship with the natural world, resilience, and action in the community.
If we consider art and life in constant interaction, then there does not need to be a line drawn. The manifesto for projects archived with Art Util, set up by Tania Bruguera, proposes that art needs to come into the real world as “a tool for social change in everyday life.” (2021). Social practice can be seen as moving art into life, so one of my aims is to embed art into everyday life.
The ‘Storied Seed Bank’ is a participatory art project, a work in progress that continues to grow. It is a collection of short audio recordings lasting one to three minutes. It aims to highlight and share the collective knowledge we have about plants and seeks to represent the importance of plants in people's lives and the connections we have to them in the 21st century.
Traditionally our living connection with plants revolved around knowledge passed down from generation to generation. This included how plants could be used for shelter, fuel, food both grown and foraged, craft and medicine. Much has changed, some knowledge has been lost and new knowledge found, but plants continue to inform our language, folklore, and culture. Plants are part of the seasonal landscape we know and live in and link us to places and to the people in our lives.
The ‘storied seed bank’ draws on an oral tradition of plant lore storytelling. I wanted to have the spoken word as part of the piece, and this led me to learn about Arduino electronics so that I could incorporate oral storytelling into the work. If you have a story you would like to share as part of the Storied Seed Bank project then check out our website.
You co-founded the Exeter Seed Bank during your studies with us. How did that project come about?
I set up the Exeter Seed Bank in April 2020 with a friend. I wanted this to run alongside the ‘Storied Seed Bank’. We applied for CIC status in November 2021, of which I am co-director. This allows us to apply for funding for projects more easily.
Our aims include reviving the ancient craft of community seed-saving; delivering activities that support environmental sustainability, circular economy principles, and encouraging urban environmental and biodiverse stewardship; and making links with academic, arts organisations, other seed banks and libraries and community stakeholders to share learning and research about seeds.
Over 2020 we did lots of community engagement events in parks outside community centres and on allotment sites. We received a grant from Exeter Northcott Theatre and commissioned a local designer to create a cardboard pop-up kiosk/ information centre for events. A film was made of the piece being put up in Exeter Cathedral where it spent a month. This piece and the film came with me to London for the London Design Festival. It has spent a month in the Central Library and at numerous small events such as CopExe26 in Maketank Exeter, Transition Exeter. It is booked for two events with the University of Exeter for this year.
A project we called ‘20 Foundation Seeds for Exeter’ has found us making connections to 20 community gardens, market gardens, individual allotments, and back garden gardeners as well as a farm school. Each one will grow one vegetable, flower or herb and collect the seed for Exeter Seed Bank to be distributed free to the community. There is an exhibition about this project up in the Phoenix Arts Center Walkway Gallery from February until March 2022.
We are continuing with an urban meadow growing project I started in lockdown during my MA. The idea is inspired by the work of the Harrisons project ‘Endangered meadows of Europe’. Also, the lifelong work of a local botanist Keble Martin and his comprehensive and beautiful drawings of 1486 wildflowers in England. A parcel of land between the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre and RAMM has been identified as a site for our urban meadow, we hope to collect and distribute wildflower seed from this free to the community.
What are your plans for this year?
This year Exeter Seed Bank has partnered with ‘Exeter Phoenix Art Centre’ to run a seasonal programme of events over the year including, seed packing and seed distribution events, talks, films and creative art, environmental and horticultural workshops in the community.
We have just submitted a bid to Arts Council England (ACE) for an intensive three-month programme to run from April to June. This includes working with 11 artists whose disciplines cover, body art, dance, woodwork, music, video, photography, design, gardening, and ceramics. Fingers crossed for this!
What drew you to Plymouth College of Art over other universities?
I was lucky enough to do a part-time BA in Contemporary Crafts at Falmouth University before the course closed. I was looking for a similar standard of facilities and cross-disciplinary encouragement to stretch and give freedom of expression to my creative practice.
At Plymouth College of Art, I was able to get support to use wood, laser etching in the Fab Lab, blown hot glass, ceramics, Arduino electronics, printing, illustration and paper making. I also used the electron microscope at the University of Plymouth. I have continued to use the facilities at the college on occasion as an alumni. I was impressed with the talent and varied art practices of the lecturers.
Can you tell us about a highlight from your time at Plymouth College of Art?
I was able to take part in two very professionally run exhibitions organised at the art college that taught me a great deal and pushed me to deadlines for completed work. I also had an excellent ceramics tutor at that time. I loved seeing the work of the individual group members develop and improve. Our critical evaluation and peer supervision of each other's work was key to my progress.
What did your Master's experience add to your making and learning experience?
This experience took me to a completely different place in my work that I never could have imagined I would go to or reach at the start.
What was it like being part of a large cross-programme cohort?
It was all about sharing ideas and skills no matter what the discipline. This brought interesting perspectives from designers, writers, filmmakers, makers, thinkers and artists into my ceramic bubble and sphere of interest.
My current projects work across disciplines, and I find it more natural than I previously would have considered, for instance, dance, music, film, text, science, ecology, botany as all being part of the same project.
What top tips would you give current students?
Embrace the academic, it is not my strength, but I learned so much through the reading, critical analysis, and conversations I had with both the academics and learning support. Experiment madly in the beginning and really enjoy it and then focus in. Stay as open as you can to all possibilities, let that creative mind roam and share it.