DIG IN: Maisie Maris & Laura Mallows at Staffordshire St
Curated by Mariana Lemos
With the Autumn breeze comes change. We retreat indoors, wrap ourselves in wool and turn on the oven to cook roasts and warm, weighty, nourishing foods. Traditionally, it would be the time to gather around a bonfire and feast: celebrate the end of the summer harvest and prepare for the harsh winter ahead. DIG IN is the result of a collaborative project that looks at old and new ways in which food growing and eating shapes our relationship to soil, land, and each other – human or otherwise. DIG IN wishes to dig into the possibilities of transformation brought about by this time of change to foster deeper connections with the natural world and revive traditions of seasonality and reciprocity.
DIG IN is the expression of a strong desire to dig our hands into the dirt and feel its texture, humidity, and complexity; we want to grasp it, appreciate it, and feel grounded within it. Maisie Maris’ textile textures were formed by this urge to embody soil and ‘be landscape’. To think of bodies and landscapes as made of the same matter is to understand that bodies return to the ground, buried or burnt into ashes, but ultimately nourishing life; it is to acknowledge that we are also nature and bound to its cycles. Maris’ intention in creating a sculpture – a body-landscape – that is also a dinner table, is to evoke the haptic sensation of digging into the soil and bringing it closer to the idea of digging into food; it is to draw near the relationship between landscapes and the food that we eat – dig in! – Let's start the feast, celebrate and rejoice.
Maris’ sculpture ‘The Three Sisters’ (2023) is crafted from rope and dyed fabrics using yellow and red onion skins, black beans, and rust. Its title honours the indigenous agricultural method and metaphor of the same name, which symbolises the kinship of maize (corn), beans, and squash when planted and consumed together. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting all three crops, and the squash serves as a natural mulch, suppressing weeds and retaining moisture in the soil. This practice originated in Turtle Island (North and Central America) and can be used in the UK by adapting to local conditions, selecting crop varieties that are suitable for the climate and soil, and adjusting the spacing and timing of planting to suit local needs. For example, in the UK, sweetcorn can be planted with runner beans and winter squash, courgettes or pumpkins.
This horticultural concept promotes biodiversity and soil health, similar to some practices in the UK such as the Victorian English cottage garden, which featured a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables planted together in a small space. This approach has its roots in medieval times when gardens were used to provide food, medicine, and decorative plants for the home and were usually tended by women as part of their household management duties. Another example is the ‘four-field system,’ a rotational crop technique, also used in medieval England, that entailed dividing arable land into four sections and planting a different crop in each section each year. This helped to prevent soil exhaustion and maintain soil fertility. More recently, the concept of ‘forest gardening’ has gained popularity across the UK, this involves creating a garden that mimics the structure and function of a forest ecosystem, with layers of plants including canopy trees, shrubs, herbs, and groundcovers, working together to create a sustainable and productive ecosystem. However, The Three Sisters also carry cultural and spiritual significance, highlighting themes of interconnectedness, sustainability, and respect for the land. DIG IN is an opportunity to eat these vegetables together and celebrate their synergy as both nutritionally and agriculturally sound. When these three elements are combined in a meal, the result is a nutritionally balanced dish. The corn provides carbohydrates and energy, the beans supply protein, and the squash offers vitamins and minerals. Enjoying them together not only nourishes the body but is also a way to appreciate the importance of the plants as sacred and as figures of cooperation and alliance.
During this project, we have been greatly inspired by the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist, author, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, who has written extensively about the relationship between Indigenous knowledge, ecology, and the environment. Kimmerer’s writings tell the stories of interspecies relationships that thrive on mutuality, including those between humans and non-humans. She marries her Indigenous and scientific knowledge to create a narrative of reconciliation with nature and advocate for sustainable practices of restoration and regeneration for lands and communities. The ecology of food is deeply rooted in colonial, extractivist and exploitative practices that continue to contribute to the misplacement of peoples, mass inequality and the destruction of the planet. Changing our worldview by aligning our imaginary with forgotten methods and tales from our own cultural regions, is a matter of care, and the start of a decolonising process to rid ourselves of hegemonic forms of knowledge that reproduce unsustainable practices.
Seasonal ancient European celebrations, such as harvest festivals, are marked by key moments in the agricultural calendar, this includes rituals, feasting and expressions of gratitude, similar to Kimerer’s emphasis on acknowledging the gifts of the land and the reason why we have come together to realise this project. British folk tales and myths are rich sources of ecological wisdom, frequently containing lessons about living in harmony with nature, respecting the land and the consequences of greed and disregard for the environment. Kimmerer’s stories on moss, sweetgrass and especially her text titled ‘The Three Sisters,’ enable us to change our worldview and redirect our gaze towards our own local histories in search of marginalised forms of wisdom that can help us reconcile with the natural world in embodied and spiritual ways.
Throughout DIG IN, we have been thinking about various forms of knowledge including advice passed down by generations of mothers and grandmothers on how to cook or what to plant in the garden; realising how this type of knowledge is associated with work that has been historically reinstated as feminised labour. To call an agricultural method The Three Sisters is a manifestation of this gendered work as a personification of sisterhood – as three women working together on this collaboration – we are drawn to this. It conveys the message that these plants are sisters because they sustain and complement each other mutually, but also because women in agriculture and in society have the role of carers for their communities and environments. A ‘Shed of One’s Own’ (2023) is an ode to an old shed – or more accurately, a greenhouse – that belonged to Laura Mallows' family but has now been dismantled. A reminiscence of the place where Mallows learned to care for plants, learning from her mother who in turn learnt from her own mother. There they discovered and shared invaluable knowledge about the multiple purposes of plants and soil. Having access to this musty green space gave Mallows the tools to grow her own food. The title of this work references Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ to echo this intergenerational green space as a place for ‘woman’s work’ that nurtured creativity and creation.
Gardens in medieval Britain comprised a variety of herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes, usually tended to by women, who possessed a special knowledge of herbal remedies and were considered ‘wise women’ or ‘cunning folk.’ Gardens were places where women – who had less access to other forms of education – gained a kind of power. Making ointments that could heal people or alter their phisical or mental state was threatening to others who did not possess this ability. Some of the herbs used at the time, like mandrake or belladonna, became associated with witchcraft in medieval folklore, fear and superstition led to accusing women of witchcraft and ushered in the belief that witches used these plants for potions and spells, in reality, they had practical uses for healing or cooking. Medieval Europe was steeped in superstitions and people often attributed natural events or illnesses to supernatural causes, witches are depicted in folklore within this context. Yet, today, to cherish domestic knowledge as a source of magical power is a way of appreciating women’s work and affirming their expertise as valuable. Furthermore, witches in British tales also form more than human narratives and relationships with both the natural and the supernatural worlds, which contribute to the understanding of humans as part of a wider ecology of relations with nature. Fairies, goblins or ghosts are all humanoid creatures that were believed to be present during the turn of seasons.
Change brings uncertainty. With the approaching festivities of Halloween, we felt enticed to look for the connections between sisterhood, witchcraft, superstition and rituals. It is believed that during this period of change, all things supernatural come out to cause mischief, to tempt us or to warn us of the dark winter days ahead. While Halloween is not primarily a harvest festival in the traditional agricultural sense, its roots are in ancient Celtic and Gaelic traditions, particularly the festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was thought that on this night, the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred, and people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off malevolent spirits. With the arrival of the colder months, it was normal to fear the cold and the deaths to come. All Saints' Day (November 1st) and All Souls' Day (November 2nd) are a blend of Christian and pagan rituals that follow Halloween and express warning and grieving. These events at the end of October and into November reflect the historical and cultural significance of the harvest season in Europe, its connection to the changing of seasons and customs related to death and rebirth.
In the greenhouse, time passing is measured by the sound coming from an old rusty radio; in the gallery, the radio brings us the sounds of the allotment – ‘A Lot Meant’ (2023) is a collaboration between Laura Mallows and Phoebe Coco – for them, this is a place of care, community and shared knowledge. Mallows regularly works within feminised or domestic spaces, the greenhouse but also the kitchen, establishing them as her source of inspiration and unpacking the mystical aspects of domestic labour. Similar to Masie Maris’ use of textiles’ dying, sewing and stitching in this particular project, both Maris and Mallows used food as material and transferred cooking techniques and processes onto their sculptures. ‘Corzetti’ (2023) are several small medallions that Mallows made from salt-baked dough, these follow the motif of the traditional Italian pasta of the same name. Originally from the regions of Liguria and Genoa, corzetti are typically round, flat pasta discs, similar in shape and size to a small coin with intricate designs stamped onto each piece. Common symbols include family crests, flowers, animals, or geometric patterns. From the start of this project, we have looked at drawings of plant matter in places such as illuminated manuscripts to better understand their symbolic weight across the ages. Like The Three Sisters, the making and serving of corzetti has cultural and social importance associated with special occasions. Mallows' medallions have engraved the symbols of the four seasons and of grains such as flour. She is interested in how these small tokens, like real coins, take on accumulative value through meaning. This correlates to the economic value of material goods connecting how flour, for example, is traded and its economic value is directly linked to land and food production. However, beyond this, the symbols themselves become attached to extra material significance, circulating as culturally relevant and gaining value as sacred objects.
Salt-baked dough as a material, mimics the corzetti pasta, its use in culinary and artistic traditions has cultural value and is employed in folklore. The temporary nature of salt-baked dough sculptures, which eventually break down and return to the earth, is aligned with folklore themes of impermanence and renewal. 'Remnant' (2023) is a shop sign hanging from a chain and made from salt-baked dough intertwined into a wreath that was left to burn, forgotten in the oven. Like The Three Sisters, wreaths have three parts entwined in a circular plait, this signifies unity, continuity, and the cyclical nature of life. They are associated with specific seasons or holidays, such as Christmas, and can be used in memorials to honour a person or an event and are commonly laid at gravesites to pay respect to the deceased. In autumn, to celebrate the harvest season, wreaths are made from dried leaves and flowers, preserved in this way to bring together the final abundance of the summer garden. With these traditions in mind, Mallows has made a monolithic flower arrangement called ‘Robin’s Haerfest’ (2023) in honour of Robin Wall Kimmerer herself. This includes plants that she has grown or foraged, such as Aster and Golden Rod, Amaranth, Honesty, Fennel, and Nasturtium, amongst others.
DIG IN is for us a little like a medieval illuminated manuscript: a story within a story. Various scenes are depicted by windows within arches ornamented and framed with natural elements that form intricate metaphors, we have tried to give you a glimpse into this with our exhibition. Maisie Maris and Laura Mallows' artworks for DIG IN are in conjunction concerned with how symbols are created, charged with meaning and circulated across times and cultures. We recognise this as important because of how stories shape our culture, identity and perspective of the world. We felt that we needed to dig in deeper into the cultural significance of soil and food. In this text, we have tried to bring you a circular view of how knowledge is shared and disseminated, and how connected our subsistence to food is, not only in physiological and environmental terms but in cultural and spiritual ways. DIG IN is a celebration of the turn of the season, an exploration of sustainable practices, cycles, land, sisterhood, interspecies kinship and our connection to the food we eat.