The World in the Woodland – Artist Commission

“The stories of people, plants, land and politics are deeply entwined”, Sui Searle (2022

Introduction to ‘The World in the Woodland’ Artist Commission 

Tortworth Forest Centre invites applications to an artist commission, ‘The World In The Woodland’, which aims to explore the multiple histories, expansive geographical connections and new imaginative possibilities within the Tortworth tree collection. Using preliminary research carried out by the Tortworth Forest Centre team as a starting point, the selected artist will be invited to create a participatory and site-specific creative walk for Tortworth audiences. The form and content of the walk is to be determined by the artist, however, we ask that they draw upon the biographies of specific trees on the Tortworth site to communicate the complex ways that human and arboreal lives are intertwined. The walk will be shared with Tortworth visitors, volunteers and surrounding communities at an event on Saturday 17 June 2023. The artist is also expected to contribute to a small publication, which captures some of the project’s creative and organisational learning, to share with Tortworth’s audiences beyond this performance day. The selected artist will receive a fee of £5000 along with a separate production budget to undertake the commission.

Introduction to Tortworth Forest Centre 

Tortworth Forest Centre is a Community Arboretum based in South Gloucestershire which improves lives by reconnecting people with nature, through conservation, wellbeing programmes, outdoor events, courses and volunteering. 

Our Vision is a welcoming woodland, accessible to all, where people and nature thrive alongside our botanic tree collection.

Our Mission is to nurture the symbiosis between people and trees by:

  • restoring and managing the tree collection at Tortworth, with and for the community
  • creating an inspiring and inclusive community space where people nurture themselves and nature through learning heritage, conservation and wellbeing skills.

The arboretum’s collection of over 600 rare and champion trees was first designed and planted in the 19th Century and hosts an amazing and unusual ecosystem including wildflowers, deer, bats, butterflies and dragonflies, and many bird types. It suffered from serious neglect in recent decades, but Tortworth Forest Centre took over the management of the 20 acres of land in 2015, and have been working tirelessly since then to restore and open it for conservation, education, and wellbeing.

We work with people who wouldn’t usually access the countryside for wellbeing. We started the Hawthorn Project in 2015, to support self-identifying women recovering from addiction or struggling with poor mental health. Alongside this, we now run Woodland Management Volunteer Days and the Woodland Wellbeing Project, which are open to all genders.

Context to the artist commission 

Since taking over management of the Dell at Tortworth Arboretum, Tortworth Forest Centre has not only been in a process of restoring the landscape but also has been engaged in a form of slow research to make sense of the woodland’s tree collection. This is a large undertaking, part of which has been a process of filling in the blanks – there are still hundreds of unknown trees in our care. You can read a bit about this process in our recent blog post here

Beyond the immediate practical task of identifying and documenting the trees, our research and organisational thinking has prompted a critical internal conversation about how to share a nuanced interpretation of the natural heritage of the collection with our volunteers, visitors and wider communities. We would like to kickstart a conversation with users of the Tortworth site about what our trees can tell us about the ever-evolving relationship between humans and the natural world. 

Trees are monuments of continuity within our landscape that offer the opportunity to connect across time, providing insight into our rural past and helping to predict our climate-changed futures. Ecology as a discipline, and the global tree collection at Tortworth both developed within the era of colonial plant hunting, in which plants from across the world were gathered and transported to colonial centres, such as Kew Gardens in London, to support imperial economic agendas and ways of knowing. European ecologists benefited from colonial access to land for expeditions and indigenous labour and knowledge of local environments, to establish field stations that helped, and continue to help form foundational theories in ecology and evolution (2021, 2022). This historical context has shaped the types of seeds and trees that found their way to England, to be planted at the Tortworth site and the limited narrative lens that has informed the knowledge of their significance. Ancient Oak trees have also stood on the land at Tortworth prior to the development of the arboretum. Their folklore, fairytales and cultural meanings connect to histories of land use, enclosure and access in the UK across the centuries. Looking to the future, conserving diverse woodlands such as Tortworth is key to protecting against the impacts of a warming world for both people and planet. There are multiple, overlapping stories we can tell about Tortworth arboretum and the ways that people are both simultaneously entwined and excluded from the UK’s natural heritage. We are looking for an artist to help us bring some of these insights to life in an engaging and accessible way. 

In initiating this commission, Tortworth Forest Centre is asking: 

  • How can art and creativity support meaningful interpretation of the Tortworth tree collection and our natural heritage for new and existing audiences? 

This is an ongoing enquiry, which we do not expect to be resolved at the completion of this commission. We understand ‘The World In the Woodland’ as a small initial step to experiment with answers to this question in collaboration with an artist contributor. 

Artist Commission Process Summary 

Application Deadline Closes: 5pm, Friday 3 February 2023

Applicants selected for interview: Tuesday 7 February 2023

Interviews held on: Monday 13 February 2023 

Commission begins: Monday 13 March 2023

Walk performance event: Saturday 17 June 2023

Commission completed by: Friday 30 June 2023

The artist fee is £5000, which is based on an anticipated completion of 20 days work towards the project, on a day rate of £250 per day. How the artist chooses to work the days across this period is to be negotiated with the Project Producer. An introductory period where the selected artist will visit the Tortworth site, learn more about the research on the collections so far, as well as developing a familiarity with the woodland will be held before the artist is expected to develop a creative strategy in response to the commission. 

There is an additional production budget available for the commission of up to £2000, which will also be managed by the Project Producer in coordination and collaboration with the artist.

What we would like to see:

The selected artist is expected to lead the creative walk twice on the day of the 17 of June 2023. We anticipate the walk performance lasting up to an hour and to draw upon at least 3 trees in the collection. This is general guidance however, and we are open to discovering other approaches artists may wish to consider. We would like the walk to be experiential, participatory and an accessible form of live interpretation designed to stimulate audiences to think creatively with trees. This could include storytelling, music, digital interventions, interactive activities or other performative elements. By the end of the walk we would like audiences to have an understanding of:

  •  the historical and ecological context of the original arboretum’s development
  • the trees’ myriad meanings, their multiple practical uses such as medicine, fuel, or food and their spiritual and cultural significance to communities within Britain and  across the world 

Who can apply 

The open call opportunity is open to artists and creative practitioners who:

  • Have an established art practice
  • Experience of devising and delivering site-specific walks, performance, storytelling or creative workshop facilitation 
  • Have demonstrable interest in creative research methodologies
  • Have a demonstrable interest in communicating about humans interconnections with the natural world
  • There is no expectation that the artist will have pre-existing ecological expertise. We aim that the Tortworth Forest Centre team can support you with resources and information needed to successfully complete the commission. 

How to apply 

We would like you to submit an up to date CV of no more than 2 pages, including links to 3 examples of relevant projects you have worked on before. In addition, we would like to see a cover letter of no more than 2 pages, which introduces us to your creative practice, demonstrates how you meet the person specification and tells us why you are interested in this project. Please send your applications to  

We recognise that written applications do not suit everyone. If you would like to apply by video, you can submit a video up to 5 minutes long in place of the CV and cover letter. Please get in touch at if you would like to discuss the application process further. 

We recognise that people with mental health issues, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, neurodivergence, substance misuse, survivors, working-class backgrounds, and those from the LGBTQIA+, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are underrepresented within the arts in the UK. We also know that half as many people from ethnic minorities work in the environment charity sector in the UK as do proportionally across the general workforce (2022). We particularly welcome applications from those who are currently underrepresented in the cultural and environmental sectors. 

References & Resources 

These are some of the references and resources that have informed the artist commission call out so far: 

Demos, T.J. Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (2016) 

Drori, J. Round The World In 80 Trees (2020) 

Fowler, C. Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections (2020) 

Gale, D. UK environmental charities lack racial diversity, research finds, The Guardian (13 Dec 2022)

Hayes, N. The Book Of Trespass (2021) 

Maitland, S. Gossip From The Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests And Fairytales (2012) 

Randall, T. Blossom Trees & Burnt Out Cars, BBC Sounds Podcast (2022) 

Searle, S. Botany, Power & Politics. Radical Landscapes: Art, Identity and Activism, 160 – 171 (2022). 

Shrubsole, G. The Lost Rainforests of Britain (2022) 

The Botanical Mind Podcast, Camden Arts Centre, (2020) 

Trisos, C.H., Auerbach, J. & Katti, M. Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 1205–1212 (2021).

Willis, K. Plants: From Roots to Riches, BBC Sounds Podcast 

Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players.