Cob, Creativity and Confidence


By Sarah Jane Hodges


Sarah Hodges is an artist who works with prisoners and has recently been awarded Arts Council funding for her latest project with Dartington LandWorks.

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For the past 18 months I’ve volunteered at Dartington LandWorks, a small community-led outdoors training and support scheme which works with current and ex-prisoners to help them find new lives without crime. It began with my final project whilst studying Fine Art and Art History at Plymouth University; I was interested in how an increasingly fragmented society impacts on socially excluded groups. Thanks to a meeting set up by my tutor, Steve Berry, the sculpture ‘Fragments of Society’ was created, with the help of one of the most cut-off fractions of our community: prisoners.

Now, thanks to start-up funding from Plymouth University, support from LandWorks (mostly in the form of manager Chris Parsons), and just-this-minute-confirmed Arts Council England funding (65% – £14,500), I’ve embarked on my first major art project since graduating last year: working with LandWorks trainees to create a cob wall timeline of the project. This will teach practical skills such as dry stone walling, cob walling and carpentry, whilst allowing trainees to express past achievements and future ambitions. Furthermore, the sculptural wall will portray all of this to the local community by creating a public visiting area.

A sketch of the completed cob wall timeline

























technical projects drawings by frame designer Jakob Benjamin

Just today we added the first bit of cob (a mix of clay, straw, aggregate and water, which when set has the same tensile strength as concrete) to the dry stone wall base, coinciding with the return of a trainee who helped with that first project 18 months ago.

He had great ideas then (we were reminiscing today about his suggestion of using a ratchet after I struggled to tighten over 100 bolts with spanners), and still has: “I’ve got an idea Sar, why not just dump a load of cob in that wheelbarrow, and put it straight on the wall, rather than rolling all these balls?” Good point! I was just using the technique that had been taught in very different circumstances, but here was Fred using his creative problem solving skills to save time and energy.

This points to why ‘socially engaged art’ – that is art which is created with a community or social group – at LandWorks makes a difference; not only does it provide a way for participants to express themselves freely in order to tackle personal and social issues, it also develops the ability to spot when things can be done differently and approach new challenges with confidence.

This growth in confidence and improvement in problem solving skills through art has been seen consistently with trainees at LandWorks: when Gary was asked if he’d like to have a go at some 3D sculpting out of insulation blocks, his instant response was: “I don’t really do art”. This is often the first reaction, and thinking about it – it’s hardly surprising. Art is often seen as some sort of ‘other’ – conjuring up images of exclusive, pristine white gallery spaces with mystified interpretations of work which bare little relevance to these guys’ lives. Yet, chisel and mallet in hand, Gary has a go at this sculpting malarkey. Two hours later and he’s transformed a nondescript square block of material into a perfectly formed hedgehog.

But the point here is not what he’s made, brilliant though it was, but the massive confidence boost – evident by the look written all over his face after making a thing from a thing, which he didn’t think he was capable of doing. A few days later, Gary proactively suggested we put up an art installation in the grounds, and helped to do so.

A beautiful cob sample from within the LandWorks plot – most materials for the sculpture are sourced on site

14 current and ex-offenders will help create the cob wall timeline over the next 6 months, in the process taking ownership of the work, building confidence in their abilities, developing creative thinking skills, and expanding links with the local community.