Imagination, play and art

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pictured above: RHS Flower Show 2021 Allotment Garden with Cultivate London

Karen Francesca writes about her journey from a play-filled childhood to studying a masters in art psychotherapy. She describes how she combined her passions for art and gardening to forge a career in community and public art, which creates meaningful connections between people.


Listen to Karen narrate her article:

From an early age, I found solace in my sketchbooks and diaries. I created imaginary worlds where I could live as I wished. I later discovered that these are just as important as any external reality. Some of this sublimation was manifested through crafts, some through growing plants. This was facilitated by living in a house full of raw materials: cloth, thread, needles, paints, paper, pencils, books, music and a garden, mud pies, secret gardens, seeds, fire, and a big poplar tree to look up at. This is where I learned that transformation is possible; that things are not always what they seem. I was fortunate to have these resources available. 

Psychologist Melanie Klein wrote about the importance of children’s play in making a symbolic connection between fantasy and reality: ‘Two cannot dream together but two or more can play together.’ And we know that playing together is an important step in socialisation.

Unsolicited street art shrine

I was also inspired by my best friend’s mum who was an artist and had a studio in her house. She had divorced her husband, looked amazing and had flamboyant furniture and cool records in her house. This was my refuge and a part of my future- self plan. So I learned the potential and actuality of the creative process in engendering agency.

“Every desire takes before long the form of picturing its own fulfilment,” Sigmund Freud proclaimed. I found that by achieving something in the external world, I returned to reality and that’s what drives the public part of my work.

I love restoration projects. The regeneration of spoiled sites, whether derelict land or unused buildings. Many of my projects have been temporary; exhibitions in squats or on borrowed land. And some have been in response to a place being devastated, like the UK road protest movement of the 1990s. 

My first public commission was 25 years ago at Crewe bus station in Cheshire, where I pulled together a group of local artists and some of my artist friends to create a mixed media extravaganza with the support of Arts Council England funding. That was my first large mosaic work. We worked from an empty shop and turned the semi-derelict bus station into something that looked like a palace. 

Elm Tree of Life, Finsbury Park

From there, I never looked back. I founded the company Living Space Arts with Carrie Reichardt and ATM Street Art, and together we pledged to bring the decorative and political arts to our cities. We’ve been making work both separately and together for the last 25 years, producing a huge amount of interventions in the UK and internationally.

Karen pictured with Carrie Reichardt at Carrie’s Boston Buoys project

I’ve always practised and taught art and garden-making in communities, as interchangeable activities. I’ve used both processes in my clinical work as an art psychotherapist too. Engaging with natural materials like raw clay is a physical process that helps us get in touch with our bodies and address dissociative states. 

To work with soil and absorb the mycobacterium vaccae that has an anti-depressant action, or to breathe in the sweet scent of flowers and listen to the wind and the birds as we work in the outdoors, provides an archaic physical attunement to our surroundings. It seems the value of experiences like these has been valued more greatly in the last two years during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

State of Nature

If a plant in a room can be prescribed to increase wellbeing, imagine what working in a vegetable patch will generate in the psyche and heart? Or a walk in the woodland with its nourishing colours, oxygen and carbohydrates? 

Then too, experience the magical transformation of fragments of materials for mosaic production, which come together to make a unified, harmonious whole. Working alongside other people who have the same intention and vision, and creating a permanent testament to that time and place, is indeed reparative and transformative. 

Artwork made collectively by “playing together” in communities can hold and convey an unconscious meaning that may otherwise be missing from corporate and commercial spaces. Our public spaces are increasingly filled with advertising and we need to challenge this by being producers of culture; generating ideas and feelings, rather than passively consuming. In my public art, I aim to facilitate the audience as a participant/maker. By bringing together local groups, including the marginalised, and meeting with those who do the important work of supporting and advocating, I aim to raise the level of empathy (the antidote to shame) and humanise our urban spaces.

I’ve developed my practice as an act of survival; the mediating force in my life. And I want to share this, as sublimation traverses the body, the psyche and the social. Let’s create the spaces we need.