Blog Post

How We Made Animal Stories

21.10.20

Animal Stories is a project that has been developed by members of the Hounslow Exhibitions Group, which steers the creative direction and ideas for the Creative People and Places Hounslow Visual Arts Programme. Daisy McMullan tells us more about how the programme was developed and what the participants got out of taking part.

The Brentford Griffin

Animal Stories is a project that has been developed by members of the Hounslow Exhibitions Group, which steers the creative direction and ideas for the Creative People and Places Hounslow Visual Arts Programme. 

This particular exhibition project started off as an idea about telling stories of animals in Hounslow, suggested by a member of the group, Sonia, who is particularly passionate about animals. This conversation developed over several months, taking shape gradually. We decided to explore the history (both in the distant and recent past) of Hounslow through stories of the animals that live in the borough. We already had an idea about the highwaymen’s horses, and the unusual wildlife of Isleworth Ait, but we knew there would be much else to discover.

Another member of the group, Eve, enjoyed the process of discovery through the project:

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. We settled on a theme about the history of animals in the borough, of which I knew very little, apart from the peacocks in my local area of Bedfont. Contributions came from residents all over the borough and it was fascinating, surprising and eye-opening to learn of the many different creatures, great and small, connected with the borough. Even the name Hounslow had an association with animals, meaning "the dog's mound". From animals quarantined at Heathrow in the west to rare snails in Isleworth to the mythical Griffin in Brentford in the east, it was a fun, social history, geography and art experience all rolled into one.”

To find and gather these stories, we commissioned a researcher. We did an open call for researchers to work with us, and the group eventually selected Alistair Cartwright. The group put together a list of stories they knew about, and themes they were interested in, and then Alistair took our ideas, and went away and did some really deep level research, talking to local people and organisations across Hounslow. Alistair commented: 

"Working on this project, so often I was aware that it was the people I was speaking to -  wildlife watchers and ecologists, community organisers and archivists - that were leading me on a journey of discovery. Hounslow’s layers of natural and human-made history are immensely complex, vital and at times troubling. Thanks to people like Wendy Marks, who showed me the hidden riches of Cranford Park, or Kathryn Rooke, who dug out some of the more obscure documents attached to Gunnersbury House, I was able to piece together what I hope is a story of relevance not only for understanding the past, but also the future."

One standout visit was to the Laxminarayan temple. One of the Exhibitions Group, Kamaljeet, is a regular attendee at the temple, and she wanted to share with us her knowledge of the sacred animals that are depicted there. She showed us around and told us the stories of the animals, and the rituals of prayer and offering that are central to Hindu faith. This visit forms the basis of the Laxminarayan story. Kamaljeet reflected that:

“It has been exciting to be a part of the Animal Stories project, because I am from a country where we worship animals. It was a lovely experience to visit the Hindu temple with the team. We had an interesting exchange of views on religious belief. I really appreciate how the researcher and artist used their skills to create a beautiful portrait of Lord Ganesha.”

Laxminarayan Temple in Heston. Photo Lucy Thurley

Alistair had a really strong idea about using the stories to tell a history about how Hounslow has changed socially, demographically, and culturally. The stories touch on some powerful themes, such as empire, migration, social changes through modern air travel and the impact of Heathrow on the environment. The stories are fully cited, so readers can take their own journey through his research, and perhaps even be inspired to start their own research into the local area. 

We also ran a call out for an artist to work with us on the project, someone who could really bring the project to life, without making it too cute or cartoony. We met with several artists, and eventually selected Amber Cooper-Davies, a London-based illustrator. Amber works freelance for many companies and brands, and she had some great examples that really worked for the atmosphere we wanted the project to have.

Amber created these wonderful first rough drawings, that the Exhibitions Group reviewed with her, and we ran a session where the group shared their thoughts and feedback. 

Heathrow First RoughHeathrow Final RoughHeathrow Animal Reception Centre

These first ideas were refined into a second set of rough drawings that incorporated as much of the detail of the research and local area as possible. Amber chose plenty of really recognisable architectural features from across Hounslow, from the houses in the Pigeon drawing, to the motorway bridge in Cranford Park. 

 Many of these choices were informed through the process of collaborating with members of the Exhibitions Group:

"It was really interesting to work with the Group on this project, as each person brought their unique insight about the characters and spirit of Hounslow. Usually working as an illustrator I will only really get feedback from one person, but with the richness of Alistair's research and the knowledge of the panel, I was able to add much more depth and interest to my images. The members of the community really helped me to understand parts of the project that were outside of my personal experience, and showcase Hounslow's diversity."

Exhibitions Group members were fully invested in the process of selecting and curating throughout the project, offering their insights and ideas. Group member Gerald said: 

“I really enjoyed seeing the project develop, from the planning stages and initial meetings to the rough designs Amber made for the animations. I really enjoyed the openness of the brief which allowed the project to evolve in a very organic way. I was surprised about the wealth of history that Hounslow has involving people and animals, and the way the illustrations brought this history to life was exciting to see.”

Once the design for the image was settled on, Amber selected which elements to animate, and then created puppets by breaking down the images into their moving parts. She cut out each section from painted paper, and attached them together using tiny twists of wire. To make the puppets move, each one was filmed frame by frame against a green screen (or blue screen if the puppet needed to be green!) so that the background could be removed digitally, and layered up on the computer to match the still illustrations.

Pigeon Puppet. Photo by Amber Cooper Davies

The final collages were scanned, and printed for the exhibition. The illustrations will be activated by visitors using a mobile phone app, an exciting, innovative use of digital technology to create an interactive piece of storytelling. The animations are also available online, with the stories narrated by Tale Be Told Theatre, a Feltham-based theatre company.

Eve reflected that she really enjoyed taking part in curating this exhibition and the satisfaction of working on something complex and inspiring:

“I particularly enjoyed taking the project from inception to completion and watching it develop and grow into a colourful and exciting exhibition through the written word, illustration and digital technology. It felt good to contribute to something which all ages could enjoy, explore and treasure in their local area.”

The stories and illustrations are brought together in a printed book (which also animates if you hold your phone over when using the app). We felt a book was a great way to bring the project together, especially as the project will tour Hounslow’s Libraries – it seemed natural to have a book people can buy to read and enjoy at home. The book and exhibition have been designed by Bharat Patel, with lots of input from the Exhibitions Group, and Amber to create something exciting, original and inspiring for our local community.

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