As the leaves fall, family trees are flourishing. David Whetstone talks to artist and wordsmith Ira Lightman.
AUTUMN may not be the growing season for trees but they will be sprouting up like nobody’s business in one small corner of Northumberland today.
We’re not talking Kielder Forest here. No, Asda at Ashington is where you will find Ira Lightman and his tree propagation enterprise.
What you might also find is a queue of people eager to create a family tree, for it is genealogy rather than aboriculture (that’s like horticulture but with trees) that is the essence of Ira’s latest art project.
He wants to “grow” hundreds – even thousands – of family trees through the project Woodhorn Our Woodhorn.
Instead of a spade and a barrow load of compost, or whatever it is saplings like, you will just need access to the internet and some knowledge of the people to whom you owe your existence.
In fact, even that might not be necessary. Ira says the modern family tree can’t always be made to conform to the mother, father, grandmother, grandfather model.
Indeed, it’s debatable that family trees ever did conform. For generations society has had a way of papering over cracks or explaining away certain awkwardnesses and discrepancies which would spoil the symmetry of the ideal tree.
But first a word about how the project took root. “The old Woodhorn Colliery Museum used to be a very big, central part of a large community and they wanted some sort of art/education project that would foster that sense of ownership again,” explains Ira who lives in Rowlands Gill, Gateshead.
“Woodhorn reopened as a much bigger attraction not too long ago but they wanted a project that would encourage people to take it to their bosom.”
As its full title suggests, Woodhorn: Northumberland Museum, Archives and Country Park is a repository for a great deal of information relating to the way local people used to live and work. Already this makes it a magnet for people interested in researching their family tree – a pastime which is flourishing across the developed world.
“I decided to do a project which would have more people researching their family trees than anywhere else in the country,” explains Ira.
This meant circumventing much of the necessary but – to many – off-putting bureaucracy involved in accessing documents, the presentation of identification and suchlike.
Ira says: “The staff don’t have time to give one-to-one attention to everybody who might want to use the family archives. What I wanted to do was to give everyone the chance to make a family tree as simply as possible – and I wanted it to be fun.”
He commissioned a Newcastle-based company called Isimo to work with him in creating an interactive website which would enable users to create a family tree.
With your surname as the trunk and your parents’ or guardians’ surnames forming the main boughs, you can then add as many branches and twigs as you fancy. And, in an appealing quirk, any extra information can be added to the branches in the form of a little digital leaf or apple.
There have been various family tree growing workshops at Woodhorn and around the region. Today’s, from 11am to 1pm at Asda, Ashington, is the latest opportunity to get involved – although anyone with access to a computer can participate by visiting www.iralightman.com
Already, says Ira, about 200 people have created a family tree. Even Sir John Hall supported the planting scheme by contributing a tree although it isn’t as flourishing a specimen as that of the participant who could trace his roots back to the 1550s.
What Ira is aiming for is a family forest to flourish at Woodhorn, including many local trees and other more exotic ones from people around the world.
As Ira creates a Whetstone tree to illustrate his scheme, I am forced to reveal that my paternal grandfather, being illegitimate (father unknown – at least to us), was given his mother’s surname. This means that my surname is a bit of a sham.
Ira makes a gleeful “Aha” noise before my revelation and says: “I’m jumping to conclusions here, aren’t I?”
He then reveals that his own name offers little clue as to his own genealogy. Ira Lightman is a construction of his own making, covering up an awkwardness on the paternal bough of his family tree which he doesn’t talk about – although no doubt young Freddy, aged six, and Albert, eight months, will learn all about it one day.
Ira says: “The more I have conversations with people about their histories, the more often I hear things like, ‘Oh, there was an adoption in the family…’. I have no problem with people using pseudonyms. If people want to make up a fantasy family tree and say their dad was Superman, that’s fine by me.”
As the tree idea took root and flourished, all sorts of fruitful spin-offs sprouted. You can now get your family tree printed on a tee shirt or a greetings card – and Ira demonstrates how Isimo wizardry can put a dusting of seasonal snow on to the digital branches.
Ira, who attained at PhD in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, describes himself as a poet who has moved inexorably into the realm of art – and, more colourfully, as a lightning conductor for other people’s bright ideas.
He was an award-winner at The Journal Culture Awards in 2006 for a similarly inspired project in Spennymoor, County Durham. The Spennymoor Letters project, which resulted in poems on gable ends, involved nearly everyone in the town.
The Woodhorn Our Woodhorn project, commissioned by Wansbeck Initiative and the Inspire arts project in South-East Northumberland, has an even greater potential reach.
Meanwhile Ira is also working on word-based projects for Gateshead College’s new Baltic campus and for Bede’s World. And you can hear him on The Verb, on BBC Radio 3, on November 23 celebrating the 450th anniversary of the “equals” sign. The = sign, you will learn, owes everything to the seldom-sung genius of a Welshman called Robert Recorde.
Before his intervention, according to Ira, the parallel lines ran vertically instead of horizontally. He tipped them over and changed the appearance of mathematics forever.
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How to nominate your candidate
IRA Lightman’s Spennymoor Letters project won the Arts Council Award for a community project at our inaugural Culture Awards 2006. You have until the end of the month to nominate people for the Culture Awards 2007, helping to raise their profile and reward their creativity.
You can nominate online at www/journallive.co.uk /cultureawards or obtain a nomination form from Julie Moorhouse on (0191) 201-6119 or by email via firstname.lastname@example.org