Commissioned by South London Gallery, 2013-2015.
Sponsored by Bloomberg as part of SLG Local. With thanks to Highshore School and Frances Williams.
A Shadow Curriculum
No school that day. Instead we left the city to cut down the tallest tree in the forest.
The chainsaw was noisy.
It fell towards us, whoomph, a terrific wind full of pine needles.
Then split it into three.
Brought here on a lorry, to our school, left in our playground.
We stripped the bark, carved scales into it, painted it black with tar.
We played on drums and danced whilst it was loaded onto carts.
Six stallions, foaming, pulled it through the streets of London towards our new school.
There, cranes put it up again, like it was in the forest, now held with big metal rings.
Now it is like a sign in the sky announcing school is here. A finger pointing towards the stars.
And we play around it. It smells. It is heavy.
It is the Lightning Tree.
Heather and Ivan Morison, 2015
An overview of Shadow Curriculum by Nicola Sim, doctoral researcher, Tate/The University of Nottingham.
This text tells the story of a two-year exchange between artists Heather and Ivan Morison, and students and teachers from Highshore School, a mixed needs special secondary school in south London. The central character of this story is a 34m high Douglas fir tree, which would be felled from a forest and brought to live with the school, as an agitating focus for making, playing and debate about the future. The film and artefacts on display are records of the tree’s journey from Sussex woodland to Peckham, where it provided physical and imaginative material for the school to weave through its curriculum.
Work began in 2013, when Highshore was on the verge of major change, with a move to a new school site planned for the following year. Accompanying this daunting period of transition, Heather and Ivan Morison collaborated with the art department and the wider school to realise their bold idea, inspired by the community tree-felling traditions of southern Italy, where villagers participate in ritualistic celebrations of the tree as a symbol of renewal. Their idea held particular resonance for Highshore students and staff, who would be leaving behind a much-loved weeping willow in the playground of their old school.
A commissioned film witnesses key milestones in the project: the spectacular tree-felling presided over by 150 pupils and teachers; the transportation of the tree to Highshore; the carving and painting of the bark and the final movement of the work on horse-drawn carts for installation at the new school site where it stands today. While the work itself is contained within Highshore’s grounds, passers-by can peer up and see the towering Lightning Tree from the street. According to the artists, its name is a nod to a type of tree that grows in the Amazon, taller than any other, which acts as a guiding landmark, or natural lighthouse for people navigating the rivers.
This public commission is part of a rich history of works in art, design and literature, which take the tree as a potent metaphor for life, growth and learning. From the Tree of Life motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, to more contemporary examples by the likes of Joseph Beuys and Gustav Metzger, tree imagery has long been associated with utopian ideals and calls for social change. For Shadow Curriculum, the tree is a catalyst for an ambitious venture and a generator for creative pedagogies, which are central to Highshore’s own curriculum, yet can be undervalued in the wider secondary school system.
Under the custodianship of Highshore School, the curious totem-like tree, and the story of its appearance, may eventually become part of school folklore. For now it stands as a reminder of a period of transition and change, and signifies a flag in the ground for the school community, as they claim the new site as their own.
Light Sleepers Awake,
30 x 20 x 8cm
The film of Shadow Curriculum as it unfolds over two years.
Large trees uprooted,
95 x 25 x 25 cm
244 cm x 152 cm