Forest stories

Artist film maker Amanda Loomes is finishing a work that will uncover secrets of our forest industries

The Forestry Commission has a workforce of 3,240, most of them devoted to the care of our three billion trees of which there are 47 for every Briton, across almost a million hectares. Globally, trees are disappearing at an alarming rate, so that the role of the Forestry Commission - to “increase the value of woodlands to society and the environment” – becomes increasingly vital as diseases, old and newly discovered, attack our traditional woodlands and forests.

To mark its centenary this year the commission has contracted the artist film maker Amanda Loomes to make a film that reveals the intensity of the operation to perpetuate our forestland, but as a work of art.

Loomes’s career has been in making documentary art films, using filmic techniques in the same way as a painter arranges colour and shade. “This is a wonderful story, and hardly known about” she says. “But art is better than information systems, and it’s not about making sense. In terms of using documentary style, I can be very playful with it as an artist, and the job is to get people’s empathy more than just interest, because when you have that you go away with understanding and something truly memorable.”

The film, The Custody Code, will be seen first at Alice Holt Forest in Hampshire, one of the four forests featured in the film, and where the commission’s seed laboratories are, in an installation. She has designed a bespoke wooden building – “definitely not a shed" she says, “it’s a ‘sustainably constructed wooden building’” – self-sufficiently powered by solar panels, from which sounds will echo through the surrounding trees from the building, into which visitors will be able to look to see her film. It opens there on July10 running until September 2, and will then be seen at Kielder, Northumberland, where the commission operates its programme of harvesting and replanting, from September 16 to December 16.

The other two forests Loomes has filmed in are Delamere in Cheshire where the commission’s tree nursery is, and Thetford, Norfolk, the largest man-made forest in the country.

The title comes from an early email from Hayley Skipper, then the commission’s arts development manager and the vital link with the Arts Council who initiated the Forest Art Works series and later the head of its centenary programme. “It comes from ‘the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification’s Chain of Custody’, which guarantees that the timber you buy comes from a sustainable source” Loomes explains, “and I liked the notion of custodianship – who are those custodians?” In her film, they and their work speak for themselves.

Skipper was also the link for Jerwood Open Forest with the charity, ACE and the Forestry Commission for a competition to draw artistic responses to England’s forests, and Amanda Loomes was a runner-up in 2014. Although she didn’t win, later, when Skipper was putting together her centenary plans, Loomes was contacted with a potential commission.

“So you could say I’ve been working on it since 2013” she says. “It meant that I could develop the ideas I had then, but bigger and better, so really I was a winner after all.”

And though the end product is a work of art, the process of creating it has involved some of the traditional disciplines of documentary-making. That meant interviewing the “hidden workers”, as she calls them. “Having been given amazing access, I just meant spending a lot of time travelling around the country, and spending time with people in their working environment. It’s extremely industrial, huge pieces of machinery, and at the tree nursery Delamare there’s big production line upwards of ten people at a time, producing maybe eight million saplings a year. It’s not what you think of when you’re buying of timber".

Born in the agricultural communities of North Yorkshire, Loomes’s first degree was in civil engineering, but she switched to fine art for her second, at Chelsea Art School, where she made her first film. She went on to do an MA at the Royal College of Art.

The film is made as a diptych, two screens side-by-side, with the images arranged to tell the whole story of the trees and their custodians, their own voices  speaking for themselves on the soundtrack created by Loomes’s associates, Mat Clark from Sonica Studios, and her long-time collaborator the artist Alison Carlier.

“The discovery for me was the huge timescale involved in caring for our forests” Loomes says. “I’m interested in important but little-known work, and this is vital – you’ll see the processes on screen simultaneously, the seed to the felling, and the processes might actually happen 40 or 50 years apart.

“It’s an installation, a format that is new to me but I’ll continue to explore. The two screens allow me to tell that story without a chronological approach, and you can see it in the habitat itself, by looking into the building. It’s something visual that words can’t get across, and an intimate experience.”


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