2020 - Ongoing
Funded by an Arts Council England 'Develop Your Creative Practice' project grant (2023 - 2024).
(The content of this project contains some references to sexual violence and paedophilia).
Bleeding Yew is a multimedia research project exploring the yew trees' (Taxus species) unique regenerative abilities. I employ anthropomorphic metaphors to consider yew trees agents of change in reparations following abuses of power.
Forty archival yew-related artefacts found in online libraries were collected throughout the project’s research period. These artefacts inspired new Land Art informed landscapes and still life works in analogue, as well as cyanotypes toned with beetroot emulsion and self-portraits in digital photography. By studying the regenerative growth patterns of yew trees, the project aims to shed light on often invisible histories of sexual violence.
Five locations across the UK are featured in photography made from 2020-2023: Leeds (West Yorkshire), Morvern (Scottish Highlands), Kingley Vale (South Downs, West Sussex), Cumbria, and Stanmer Village (East Sussex).
An early stage of the project involved applying vegetable beetroot paint to different parts of woodland trees, inspired by bloodlike ‘sap bleeding’ that occurs naturally on some yew trees, especially after rainfall. These open insides highlight the yew’s capacity to grow outwards. The application of the dye pairs the appearance of human blood drawn from traumatic injuries, both emotional and physical, with the regenerative potentials of the yew.
Bleeding Yew took as its starting point the purportedly neutral name of the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse crimes: Operation Yewtree. Savile, one of the most recognisable television hosts in the UK, was responsible for at least 450 sex offences (328 committed against children).
Popular national institutions became implicated in preserving a predatory media culture, helping Savile to hide in plain sight. For instance, Savile had close ties to the royal family, including Princess Diana and Prince Charles, who sought advice from him on how to connect with the public.
Operation Yewtree was launched in October 2012, the same year I graduated from a high school located in close vicinity of his flat in Leeds. In between, on ‘Soldiers’ Field’, were also the sites of where several Peter Sutcliffe (known as the Yorkshire Ripper) attacks took place in the 1970s.
The three 'Painted Bleeding Trees' works were made in close vicinity to these locations.
This series hopes to defy nonchalant violence. One element of this was to symbolically re-claim space in the land. In November 2021, journeying on public transport from London to the Scottish Highlands, I broadened my arboreal knowledge while considering the hypothetical danger of travelling alone.
During a weekend on Morvern with Woodland Trust foresters, five of us explored the land around their ‘Croft’ (a unique farmland ownership system).
I learnt that neighbouring mono-culture timber plantations dominating the wider Highland landscape contrast with the land across the Croft. There, ancient habitat-forming woodland ecosystems rewild and increase carbon stores, as Highland cows also help to do.
Akin to these patches of ancient woodland, ancient yew trees also provide manifold possibilities for animal habitats and food, as well as mineral and nutrient dispersion around their extensive root systems.
Yew trees emerge from this journey and my archival investigations as figures of wisdom and warning. Yew are negotiators of change: they grow to be thousands of years old and are commonly associated with death, purgatory, and re-generation, and are often found near religious sites of worship. The yew tree is not a neutral symbol.
Bio-electric studies have shown Taxus employs root systems with the highest vitality among trees, investing heavily in them as seedlings, making yew extremely adaptive (Yew: A History, Fred Hageneder).
Extended branches of the tree can root new trunks when they touch the ground. These rhizomatic, expansive growths have formed ancient groves like at Kingley Vale. In some trees here, patches of bark seep deep ruddy and mauve sap.
Many ancient yew trees are under threat due to various forms of woodland degradation. There are certain sites where these trees are facing difficulties due to soil compaction. However, a few organisations in the UK are attempting to protect them by constructing decking around them, so that people can view and appreciate these trees while preserving the space around their roots, allowing them to grow and thrive. Two notable examples of such initiatives are Newlands Corner (Surrey Council), and the Ankerwycke Yew (National Trust).
Furthermore, some trees, such as the Pacific yew, are endangered in part due to the taxol found in them. This compound is increasingly used as a cancer treatment. The entire tree is poisonous to humans, except for the fleshy red aril that encases the seed. As such, we must respect the livelihood of these trees and be mindful around them.
Some species of fungus, such as the sulphur bracket (commonly known as chicken of the woods), can break down the insides of the trunk’s heartwood. Yew thus becomes hollow with age, much like the slow rotting of the old establishment’s core.
The tree re-cycles decaying matter into re-territorialised growths, highlighting the possibility to rethink destructive features of contemporary society.
These processes, while disintegrating internal systems, can, over time, strengthen whole structures against breakages from wind - we need to be able to sway, growing flexibly and resiliently like yew.
If you, or anyone you know, has been or is affected by sexual abuse, these organisations provide information about where you can find further support:
Please also feel free to get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspects of this project.