If you go down to Anston Stones Wood today, you may be in for a surprise. For this limestone forest near Sheffield, UK, is used as an open-air studio by James Brunt. On any given day, unsuspecting walkers might chance upon his hypnotic designs.
Under the yew, beech and ash canopy, beside brooks frequented by woodpeckers and blue kingfishers, he creates patterns out of sticks and leaves. The concentric circles and spirals he fashions appear to be both a natural part of the landscape and otherworldly, like woodland crop circles or rings left behind by fairies.
“I’ve always been an artist, but I never felt fulfilment until I started doing this work,” says James, who studied Fine Art at the Byam Shaw School and worked in galleries in London before returning to his native South Yorkshire 20 years ago.
Depending on their complexity, James’ installations take anywhere between two and six hours to create. Although he heads to the woods most days, he only works when the opportunity presents itself. “I might come across a composition where the landscape looks right, or the right moment where a tree has shed a load of catkins. If I don’t find anything, I don’t force anything,” he says.
From the explosion of adult colouring books to the proliferation of mindful art courses in recent years, many of us have discovered how tapping into our creative side can help improve our mental health. With James’ art, the process is intrinsically meditative, and comes with the added benefit of taking place in a naturally soothing environment.
“Whether I’m listening to the waves as I stack stones on the beach or spotting wildlife just behind my shoulder as I work in the woods, my head fills with a sense of calm,” he explains. “Because there’s a repetitiveness to what I’m doing as I place the leaves on the ground, I lose myself in the process. It’s pure immersion and I can empty my head of the daily thoughts that crowd it.”
How to make your own natural art
Making art in the outdoors is something we can all enjoy. “Working in nature takes us back to the basics of art-making in a way we were confident with when we were children,” explains Ian Siddons Heginworth, an art therapist and author of Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life. “It’s not about results or artistic ability; it’s purely about expression. It’s a sensual and evocative experience.”
Long before mindful art became popular, humans have always used natural materials in a way that is at once creative and therapeutic. For centuries Buddhist monks have made mandalas, painstakingly laying out coloured sand and stones in intricate motifs as a form of quiet meditation. From Native Americans to indigenous Australians, many cultures have traditions of shamans creating elaborate symmetrical sand paintings as part of spiritual ceremonies. In fact, so widespread are these practices that Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology, thought that these geometric images must be hardwired into the human brain.
“Today, particularly here in the West, we are very up in our heads, in our intellectual selves. Nature takes us back into the essential experience of being,” says Ian. “People can release themselves from cycles of thinking they would otherwise get stuck in.”
The creators of natural art aren’t the only ones who can benefit from it. Many of us find images of mandalas to be useful aids for focusing attention and for meditation. Likewise, by sharing images of his natural designs online, James hopes to help others feel a sense of order and calm. He also shares his work by leading workshops and creating installation art at festivals, like the Land Art Festival in Yorkshire, UK, (mid-September; activecoast.org).
Ultimately though, James says he mostly makes this art for himself. “It’s not about what other people perceive when they look at my work. It’s about the feeling I have as I create it,” he says. “There is something all the more meaningful knowing that what I am making might only ever be seen by myself and that it’s only going to be there for a short period of time.”
With this in mind, James tries to immerse himself in the process, rather than concentrating on an end goal: “I try not to plan or have a particular image in mind when I set off. When I do draw in advance, I always seem to be looking for something that I never find.” Like James, we can make this creative process a meditative one by choosing to respond to whatever we find in the forest or on the shore, enjoying the different finds each season brings, from blossom and seed kernels to fallen leaves and bare branches.
Rather than gathering all his materials first, then creating a piece of work, James prefers to work as he goes, placing some materials down on the ground, then pausing to go gather some more. James will typically start in the middle and work outwards, so that shapes and patterns emerge organically. “It gives me time to really stop and look around,” he explains. “I immerse myself in the landscape, not considering too much what is going to come next.”
If James finds he has created a motif that is aesthetically pleasing, he will photograph it and often finds passers-by stopping to admire his work. But the final result is never his focus. “I find myself so engrossed in what I’m doing, I don’t want to stop,” says James.
Feeling inspired? “Just go out and play,” says James. “All those natural materials are out there waiting for you. Don’t over-plan, just enjoy the experience.”
4 ways to make your own natural art
Choose your canvas
Look for a location that you can transform in some way. Woodland trails often have trees lining either side, providing a natural framework for your art. At the seaside, you may have cliffs, water and boats in the background. Think about your composition as a whole: how will your piece of work link to its surroundings? If you’re worried about distractions, opt for a quiet spot. But you may find that as you become absorbed in what you’re doing, you’re easily able to ignore passers-by or that you actually enjoy your interactions with them as they observe your creations.
Enjoy the process
Instead of focusing on the end design, slow yourself down and enjoy the organic process of making art outdoors. Take your time to explore, notice the natural materials around you and note how what is available changes with the seasons. Pay attention to the colours, shapes and textures of the leaves, stones or branches you see. Don’t just think about what might look good but what feels good. Take in the smells and sounds of your surroundings, being mindful of this multisensory setting.
Respect the environment
Be careful not to disturb untouched ecosystems. It’s best not to work in or next to fresh water streams as leaves and stones here often provide habitats for wildlife. By contrast, stones on beaches are often being moved around naturally with the tides. In woodlands, look for leaves, seed kernels and branches that have already fallen to the earth and don’t stray too far from existing paths. It’s not worth trampling flora in pursuit of making art. If you’re thinking about working in a sensitive site, such as a nature reserve, check with rangers first.
Part of the joy of making outdoor art installations is that they are, by their very nature, ephemeral. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make lasting memories of your pieces. Walk around your finished work and sometimes you will discover new perspectives. Consider taking photographs from all angles so that you’ll have a few images to reflect back on later. It can be fulfilling to make sketches based on the photos you’ve taken too.