A close up selfie of a woman taken underneath a canopy of trees
Practice in Place

Practice in Place - Laura Eldret

Lau­ra Eldret shares her expe­ri­ence as an artist liv­ing and work­ing in Dorset


Tell us about you & your practice

I am an artist, an educator, organiser, and an emerging commoner. I relocated seven years ago outside London, to the New Forest; then to the eastern edge of Dorset. I settled rurally, and this place deeply informs my practice. Where I live is for me a liminal space between counties and towns, ways of thinking and being. It is also where I spent a large proportion of my childhood growing up, and while I am glad I am here now, I am also glad that I left and came back. My networks are informed both by my life here, and by my years living and working as an artist in London, and the residencies and research I’ve undertaken in other countries including Mexico and Argentina.

Broadly, I make installations, posters, drawings, textiles, videos and events. I’m interested in the commonalities that bring diverse groups of people together and the productive tensions of social encounters. My art attempts to offer a gentle nudge to communal consciousness and action, bringing alternative voices to the fore. My projects have involved working locally and transnationally, in both metropolitan and rural areas around the world. I often draw on methodologies of anthropology, ethnography and sociology, exploring ways to contest art’s autonomy and affirm the value of conversation and social encounters. I’ve become most interested recently in combining commoning, social ecological and growing practices. I am also founder/director of More Than Ponies, an ambitious though occasional artist-led programme of contemporary art for/about the New Forest and surrounding areas.

The word ‘Commoning’ that I mentioned above refers to the collective care, creation and use of shared resources (a commons). For me, commoning is an open-ended process of art making, ecological and social practice. These concerns are informed by my extensive experience working with people, both within art practice and as an educator, arts professional and with communities. I am interested in commoning as an equitable approach to navigating the complexities of working, creating and imagining together whilst also addressing individual needs and honouring differences. I like to find non-extractive means to imagine alternative economics, shift hierarchies, building togetherness, in a cross-disciplinary and regenerative way in which all living beings individually thrive together. Commoning practices inspire and inform my thinking, including the Commoners of the New Forest.

I’m now in my first year undertaking a PhD at UWE in Bristol exploring these ideas through art making and research. I am exploring how commoning can be a creative social collective practice that brings people closer to our natural environments, creating new forms of environmental care and sustainable exchanges between human and non-human ecosystems. I’m interested in using commoning and social practice to establish new values of engagement, ruralities, collective imaginations and artistic exchange that foster wellbeing, resilience, and sustainable ways of being in our time of climate emergency.

A close up selfie of a woman taken underneath a canopy of trees
A print hanging on a gallery wall showing colourful diagrams and a text that says Foreesd Layiees

What are the great art spaces and organisations you love to visit?

Though rurally based we are within easy reach of an abundance of organisations with interesting programmes in Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and elsewhere. We are close to Southampton, which has the wonderful John Hansard and around the corner the gem City Art Gallery. Beyond there is the Aspex in Portsmouth. In the opposite direction is Bristol, with Spike Island and Arnolfni – and I’m looking forward to checking out Perennial gallery (I love the name!); in Bath the Holburne Museum and I also love a day trip to Modern Art Oxford.

I’m a big fan of Bo Lee Workman Gallery in a former Methodist chapel in Bruton, Somerset. Bruton is also well known for its outpost of Hauser and Wirth gallery, which is always worth a visit – both for the art and for the garden designed by Piet Oudolf (it’s best when all the plants are swaying as one, and buzzing with insects).

I have a love of small museums too. In the New Forest, there is the Heritage Centre in Lyndhurst – who I would love to collaborate with one day. There is a small museum local to us in Wimborne (The Museum of East Dorset), also with an idyllic little garden. Then also St Barbe’s in Lymington and for fossil lovers Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

Other art spaces include Giant in Bournemouth – now closing down, but has shown some fantastic artists. Giant was a former Debenhams that I used to go to when I was younger – so it was always an uncanny place to see art in. Hopefully Giant has set a precedent for more great art being shown in Bournemouth. The town also has the BEAF festival, co-run and established by the formidable Carol Maund. Also of note is the brilliant B-side Arts Festival on the Isle of Portland; the New Art Centre in Wiltshire, the list goes on!

A person wearing wet weather gear is standing under a horizontal tree branch which blocks their face. Another person is behind them, holding something up which blocks their face

What resources or facilities are there that you (can) access?

This is an interesting question because most of the resources I draw on as an artist are non-art related. For example, in Ringwood there is a supplier I use who normally does signage for local shops (they supported me a lot in my work with Nottingham Contemporary). I like to embed my art practices in wider society, so working outside of the art supplier framework really chimes with this. Sometimes for me it is about finding out what a place already has – and tapping into that. Maybe that’s why I find myself here, rather than a small version of London or an outpost of it!

The main resource here is the access to incredible spaces: beaches, forests and wide-open green spaces. I have also become interested in the material possibilities of the area and its flora – for example, I have been connecting with a coppice-maker; and I have worked with a charcoal maker in the New Forest; I am also interested in working with straw and hay, as well as locally produced food. Materials in my practice are a tool for social engagement, about the process rather than the outcome. I think resources ideally should be renewable, ecologically aware. I like accessing the local scrap store and reusing materials. I also have a wormery now where I'm composting my discarded drawings. Of course, when I need it, there are always specialist resources online for artists (!).

A small group of people are standing in a room with wooden beams and decorative wallpapered walls. There is a table in the centre if the images with a colourful tablecloth draped over it and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling

Cheerlead for your peers! - Who would you like to shout loudly about?

The first shout-out here goes to my fellow PaC artists who are the core of our artist peer group PAC Melanie Rose, Gemma Gore, Alys Scott Hawkins, and James Aldridge. We meet once a month in places across the New Forest to walk, think and talk. We all have very different practices, but this shared practice of being together in nature, or in an experimental outdoor ‘studio time’, has been phenomenally transformative for my practice. PaC was a lifeline during covid, and we continue to thrive – exploring, sharing and caring. PAC was originally established as PAP so shout out to those other artists who trusted me to get involved. They are: Lizzie Jones, Harry Meadows and Annabel Pettigrew; and Annabel has even gone on to set up a network with generous support from a-space too.

I’d also like to give a shout out to Somerset-based artist Simon Lee Dicker from OSR Projects, a fellow artist-run programm-er, he is both inspiring and completely down to earth. I have found him a great person to chat with especially with regards to navigating the ambitions and realities of running More Than Ponies, a programme in the New Forest.

It’s been a delight to access the Poor House Reading Room newly established by artist Melanie Jackson – thank you! Also based on the western edge of Dorset is artist and farmer Alexa De Feranti who runs Lower Hewood Farm, bringing critical contemporary art and rural life together. I’ve connected with some ace people from afar as part of the Constellations artist develop programme with Up Projects and Flat Time House – particular extra special shout outs here to Taey Iohe and Kate Mahoney. Uni’s can also be a great place of connection: special mention to magnificent artists Rachael McRae and Rebecca Lennon. Finally, a shout out to Dan Weill, who I’ve known since my undergraduate days, and who is an amazing professional photographer documenting contemporary art (and now based in Bristol).

A person wearing a flat cap is smiling andlooking at another person wearing a woolly hat who is tying something to her neck.

Where do you make your work?

Out and about, with others, in forests, gardens, online, in my head while walking …

But also after much blood, sweat and tears, I have a studio at home! It’s a wooden building in the garden. There are plants all around. We’ve got lots of human neighbours too, but we are also in a rural setting, and sometimes I can see a deer trespassing outside; and there’s a very tall and strange old 18th-century folly that I can see across a field.

I like the easy flow between home life, the garden and the studio. When I lived in London my studios were always in former industrial buildings, freezing cold factories and so on – so this set-up is quite different. My studio has a few different tables to work on fabric, paper (I love to draw), though I’m often found at my desk doing emails, writing, planning and so on. I’m on the cusp of launching The Plot – a hybrid virtual and IRL project, a fictionalised garden of sorts, a multi-part virtual and IRL project, exploring social, political and personal landscapes of gardening and cultures of growing. This is alongside lots of reading for my PHD, of course!

A large hanging screen shows a projection of a woman mixing something. In the background is the top edge of another screen and in the darkened gallery space we can see crowds of people watching the two films

What opportunities are there for artists in your area?

I think to be an artist in a fairly rural location like this, you have to be prepared to create your own opportunities and of course travel for others. I try to nurture existing networks and put effort into identifying and building potential new ones, both art and non-art kinds. Collaboration is a great generator of opportunities too. Working with artists has always been super important to me, but I’m also wanting to pursue a wider pool of creatives based locally; my papercutting potter friend Giselle Sonneschein aka Score and Fold, my yoga teacher who is also an ayurvedic practitioner, a local community farm and a florist i’m hoping to collaborate with in some way.

There are also of course some organisations who provide some support to artists including ‘a-space’ arts in Southampton. They have been great supporters of my practice especially with providing vital support for establishing and running PAC, and I’ve also exhibited at their space God’s House Tower - again the show was the result of a really fruitful collaboration with artist Paul Vivian.

A gallery space with stone walls and windows and a wooden parquet floor. There is artwork installed including a film on a monitor strapped vertically to a metal pole; items scattered on the floor and a large hanging fabric work with a slit in the middle

What or who helps you maintain your practice?

Other people – conversations, sharing – are vital to me. So of course other art-orientated people are key here, but critical is my partner and young children (getting their point of view on things is always enlightening!)

I also teach and I love it. I’ve been a visiting artist at various universities over the years and a visiting lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth for nine years. I’ve just finished a long-term artist residency in primary schools project with Nottingham Contemporary. Being part of individuals’ learning experience and seeing the role that art can play in enriching it, their lives, capacities, accessibilities etc. is a real privilege. It’s also of course hard work, but completely worth it.

I’m currently undertaking a year-long Permaculture Design course for creatives with Small Things thanks to a bursary from a-n. In this I’m finding ways to hopefully work with (rather than against??) complex and multifaceted ideas and communities, which also aligns with the sustainable permaculture ethics of fair share, earth care and people care.

On a more everyday level, my parents live just down the road – they have always said “you can do it!” and their support allows my children to grow up with rich multi-generational influences.

Two primary school children are stood in a school playground holding sheets of paper in front of their faces which have a single letter printed (U and S) on each sheet

What else would you love VASW's audiences to know about where you live and work as an artist?

I have no ‘fear of missing out’ here. I lived in London with its vast array of galleries and multiple art scenes for many, many years; but where I am now has riches of another kind. Besides, it’s easy to get to major institutions and London when I want to. I love living in a liminal space – on the edge of counties, close to a national park (the New Forest), and some key cities and towns. I am surrounded by a landscape of potent energies – for example, there is a neolithic henge circle nearby with an abandoned Norman church in the middle, and some fairy trees covered in brightly colour tied ribbons and handwritten prayers to the little folk (keep going north-east from here and you get to Avebury and Stonehenge). This all gives me the headspace to be, to make and to develop my practice. I feel embedded in a life of multiple ways of being and thinking. The countryside is a complex place – it’s not a desert of culture but a rich ground for being, thinking, making (alone or together with others). Dorset is a crossroads – everyone passes through Dorset at some point.

Surrealist Eileen Agar and Paul Nash were deeply inspired by Dorset landscapes, Elisabeth Frink was working a few miles away from where I grew up and Derek Jarman spent time making work in my local area. These are all things I didn’t have a clue about as a child but I feel like maybe their vibe has lingered.

A graphic and image that one one side shows a photograph of some green plants and on the other side a spring of berries. The text THE PLOT is written across the images

How can people find out more about your work?

Ah yes – after a long time of quietly tending to the roots of things, I am going to be able to have more to share so:

Have a browse at https://lauraeldret.com/
Connect on insta or X
And here for all things More Than Ponies / MTP

I’m also pondering reviving studio news and insights so sign up at the bottom of this page if you are open to the occasional email from me.

Laura Eldret, January 2024.