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What's On, Culture, Art

Breathing of Life: Helen Edwards at The North Wall

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Helen Edwards will be exhibiting at The North Wall, Oxford from 3 July-10 August. She is as an artist, integrative arts psychotherapist, eco-somatic therapist, and dancer, having trained in environmental art and dance in the UK, Europe, Japan and Indonesia. She has an MA from the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education and is Chair of Oxford Urban Wildlife Group. Her latest work represents a transformational journey undertaken as she weaves together her work exploring ecological art and community in Oxford, marrying aesthetic connection with environmental images which are rich in colour, texture and symbolism.  


How did you come to settle in Oxford? 

Oxford was always a place that existed in the cosmology of my world. Initially when I was a young child living in the North of England, it was a place where some relatives lived; relatives who would come up North and were clearly close to my mother and grandmother. I knew they lived in Oxford and that they were significant family. Oxford was also a place that featured in a favourite childhood book, The House in Norham Gardens, full of atmospheric landscape and imagination.  

  Later I discovered Oxford had been a place of possibility and freedoms for my mother, a place where my mother had ridden horses across the landscape, a place of dreams, a place she had studied, forging her future. I first came here in the 80s. I love the diverse communities and cultures living alongside each other, the rivers, the green spaces and the ancient land from which the city has emerged tracing the course of river and the seams of rock and clay. 

Can you tell us more about the projects with which you are involved in the local area? 

I’ve become involved in so many local projects over the years through my focus on creative living, ecologies and communities. I started running the Family Art Club in Cutteslowe Community centre in 2006. This is a regular weekly after school art club for 4- to 11-year-olds and their families. Parents and siblings are encouraged to stay if they wish and everyone has time to try out new ideas and, through a range of artistic media, explore self-expression. These artistic approaches help connect people with their own sense of growing identity as well as connecting participants to local places and ecologies and sense of shared identity. This summer sees 75 years of Cutteslowe Community Association (CCA), and this exhibition celebrates that with work from the Art Club over the last 10 years. Cutteslowe Community Centre is the hub for a huge range of welfare, educational and recreational activities and events for local residents of all ages.   

  I have also been working with Freshwater Habitats Trust in Oxfordshire for the last couple of years developing the use of the arts in deepening public engagement with their GroWet project. GroWet is a citizen science initiative, and volunteers help to grow on a selection of rare wetland plants that are at increasing risk of local extinction. The creative arts sessions have included art, dance and poetry and offered local communities opportunities to learn about the project and get involved in growing plants and discover more about local priority landscapes. The Breathing of Life project extended this vision, with funding from The Art Society Oxford.  

I have offered ecosomatic engagement through movement and dance with some of these themes in collaboration with a monthly outdoor movement practice group The Rivers of Life as well as Cafe Reason Butoh Dance Theatre group. With Cafe Reasons we studied the rare Fen Violet plant, the bog poems of Seamus Heaney as part of performative research and created the engaging site-specific Fen Dance performance conceived in response to this endangered plant and its specific landscapes. 

I have also developed and continue to run an arts-based communication in partnership with Fusion Arts, Oxford primary schools and GLAM in Oxford, funded by Children in Need.  

What can visitors expect from your exhibition at The North Wall? 

In my own daily practice I make time for solitude in nature, for connection with the heart and body both of myself and of the earth, through coming to the present moment in body and awareness. This could be through meditation on the breath, movement/dance and swimming. I might find myself sharing moments with humans and the other than human aspects of the natural world.  Working to connect body, breath and imagination I’ve sought to explore ways of making visible felt traces and aesthetic connections with environmental images through colour, texture and symbolic detail, in painting and photography. 

  Colourful paintings are juxtaposed with underwater photography bringing exciting new perspectives to the landscapes and waters of Oxford revisioning ways in which the vitality of rivers and lakes of urban landscapes might be felt. Other aspects of the exhibition include artistic responses arising from connecting local communities to the ecology of Oxford.  

  I hope visiting the exhibition will be an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a pause, to enter a portal and extend their perceptions and sensory experiences in new ways. There is an invitation to reimagine the landscapes of Oxford from an underwater perspective, an imaginative perceptive and through the eyes of children. 

  I wonder if such transformation might offer the taste of a way of life which places landscape and ecology at the centre of life, as resourcing, as alive and vital, and to listen to nature; to attune to nature rather than take from nature. I hope to offer a space in which it may be possible to explore feelings of intimate connectedness from within ecology, understand the vitality of living systems and find love for the earth and hope for the future amongst new connections with sacred and evolutionary aspects of nature deeply relevant for our times.  

How does art feed in psychotherapy and vice versa? 

Working with arts in psychotherapy offers so many ways into human emotional landscape and view, and aspects of a person’s ‘seen world’ in terms of inner and outer world reality and ways of discovering the underlying beliefs which shape this. The inter-relationships of size, shape, line, space, texture, shade, tone, colour and distance in a painting can reveal the reality of the self. The art image offers a canvas, a frame which can supports people to stay and look more deeply in the exploration of themselves and inner world when, without it, this may feel overwhelming.  

By staying with the image form arising (whether visual, textural, sound, dream, movement or felt image) and amplifying this through sensory engagement and refined focus, as in Carl Jung’s practice of Active Imagination, it can become possible to discover new meaning and transcend old beliefs, both in art and psychotherapy the practice may bring encounter with these threshold moments of change. 

  I work in an integrative way weaving across the senses and imagination through a range of textures and dimensions to allow that which is seeking to become conscious to become visible and known. I very much place value on the moments needed to stand back and contemplate from a distance, to reflect and listen to allow breathing space for the process of assimilation. 

And then how does ecology form part of this? 

Working with ecological awareness brings in vital attunement to the turning year and seasons, the stories and traditions associated with those cycles of the earth, the planets and the cosmos. Fostering this awareness in both the arts and psychotherapy ensures a deeper extension of practice in which the body is felt as part of the delicate systems of life and the soul of the earth. This may enable a deeper relationship with nature and recognising the ways in natural world having a deeply powerful on our experiences and perceptions. 

  In ecological work, both in art and psychotherapy, there is the possibility of remembering, as a species, we are co-created in nature and as individuals we cannot exist, or be understood, without the wider systems we belong to, because of this biological bond with the natural world.  

  Many people are deeply fascinated by nature; childhood encounters might emerge as well as new connections for those unaccustomed to the natural world. Visual or sound documentation of flora and fauna can rekindle an old memory, a deep feeling or sensation, a deepened sense of presence, a love of a species and might open new perspectives and horizons. Remembering to look at both distance and foreground, the ground and the sky, to smell the grass, notice the insects, hear the birdsong as well as recognising the changes shadows of the seasonal sunshine can bring delight to many as well as deeply relax the body. Breathing these moments into everyday life might earth nervous systems, soften human societies and enhance peace. 

How might you see your work developing  

I am interested in co-creating approaches in ecology, art and community which seek to create a reciprocal relationship between the human and the non-human and make visible the depths to which sustainable creative living in harmony with Earth might evolve. These are ideas that align with deep ecology and transpersonal ecology. I hope my work might help ecologies adapt to future change. 

Helen Edwards: Breathing of Life is on at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford 

3 July – 10 August 

Various events including family art sessions, dance and poetry workshops will run throughout the summer. For more information visit and more on Helen’s work can be found at 


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