Combine to Create residency artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman spent the summer working with community groups connected to The Hub in Buckie. Here, in the first of two blogs, they describe the initiation of their residency and what took them to Buckie.
In the Beginning
Back in 2021 we were invited to work with the seven artists that had newly been appointed to the Findhorn Bay Arts‘ exciting new Combine 2 Create project. Using our experience as public artists, we explored socially engaged practice with the artists and developed shared values for the project.
We were then delighted to be invited to undertake a residency based in Buckie working with the local community. A great opportunity, but as we’re based in Dumfries and Galloway five hours drive away, how would we do it?
Initially we decided to visit Buckie to get to know the town. Our practice responds to place and context so we often go somewhere with no idea of what we will do. We have to trust that some idea will ‘snag’ us and that we can create a project within the timespan given.
On our first visit we chatted to everyone we met – on the street, in pubs and in more formal meet ups in the school and with community groups and organisations. We were met with the most incredible friendliness everywhere we went and totally fell in love with Buckie. Despite challenging times economically, the town felt incredibly rich with community projects working at different scales and with different groups. However, we were still to come up with a project that we felt excited by.
We Discover The Hub
On the very last day of our research trip, we stumbled across The Hub, a community space that was being set up on the main street and that had only just opened its doors.
We met Gordon McDonald, Chair of Buckie Area Forum, who explained that the cost-of-living crisis was really impacting the folk of Buckie and that when the opportunity of using an empty shop on the main street has presented itself, a group of volunteers had stepped in and helped convert the space to a ‘hub’. Here, people could access information, be signposted to services and could get a cuppa, friendly advice and use the internet. (Confirm Role of Buckie Area Forum)
During our next trip we visited the Hub again, and after a long and entertaining conversation with volunteers Kevin and Susan fuelled by coffee and cake, Kevin asked if we would like to see the garden that the Hub had just been given.
Going out through the back door, we were shown a large but very overgrown garden at the back of the shop which led down to a wooded area. Kevin explained that the idea was to tidy up the space and for it to become a wellbeing garden.
Then everything fell into place! We could offer to creatively activate the garden space while it was being developed, which in turn would help to engage the community with wellbeing through nature, with the garden space and with the Hub itself.
The Secret Garden #1
We decided to call our project ‘The Secret Garden’ as the main access was down a side alleyway that most people had never noticed. We put a proposal to the Hub’s committee and it was accepted.
We loaded the car, drove back to Buckie and set up our base at The Hub. The garden and courtyard had been cleaned and cleared by the volunteers and people had donated flowers in pots so we were able to make the space colourful and inviting. We added a gazebo, tables and chairs, nature books, microscopes and programmed a range of creative workshops and nature inspired activities which were open to all – volunteers, visitors to the Hub and other groups that we had met along the way.
The volunteers who were developing the garden had clear ideas about the space so we offered ideas where appropriate, but saw our role primarily as activating the garden as a social space and engaging people with nature and wellbeing.
And it worked! People gradually started to come along. Some came specifically to join our advertised workshops, others were volunteers at The Hub and some were just curious passersby who noticed our street sign. Once people had found the garden, we welcomed them and introduced them to the activities, the hub and the volunteers.
Our accessible activities included cyanotype printing using plants from the garden, making bee hotels, turning smartphones into microscopes using laser pointers, making willow bird feeders and creating simple things that would enhance the space such as nature inspired decorative bunting.
All the activities took place in the garden, which at the same time was being cleared by volunteers, and conversations about what was proposed in the space happened at the same time as our activities. The process was organic and developed day by day but in this way, the garden became a colourful space to sit, try out new things, relax and socialise. We gradually became part of the Hub ‘family’ and the garden became a multigenerational gathering place where we were able to introduce new people to both the garden and the hub in a creative conversational environment.
In conversation about the Hub, Kevin had given us a couple of choice quotes from his father that had helped him create an ethos for life, so we decided to ask visitors for the best advice they had been given, to ask them to write this on a paper tag and attach to the beautiful buddleia tree in the garden. As more and more tags were added, the tree became great installation for people to explore.
The whole period was relaxed and fun and ended with us collaborating with the volunteers to organise the very first barbecue in the garden.
The handmade bunting was put up, we bought a load of burgers, Kev bought along a BBQ, and at 4pm the crowds arrived! We carried on with activities and the garden was buzzing with volunteers, local folk and confused but happy holiday makers eating and chatting together. It was so busy that after 40 mins we ran out of burgers and had to get more supplies in!
We loved involving people in both creative activities and conversation, and as volunteers became more interested in and confident with the activities, some of them started teaching the techniques to visitors. There was a real sense of collaboration and excitement at how The Secret Garden was being integrated into and enhancing the day to day running of the centre.