Beginning a storytelling collaboration

When I’ve given a brush and some paint to my children and told them to “Go for it” on a canvas I’ve been working on, there has always been a sense of dread, loss of control, grief at the image (that probably wasn’t working anyway) about to be lost. This is part of how I feel at the outset of this project. I’ve never done this before and neither has the school that has agreed to participate.


As an artist I’ve always explored narrative via many media, including in the last few years, Social platforms. This is sometimes known as the OSMU model (One-Source-Multi-Use) of storytelling.

For the most part, the narrative started and stayed with me as the sole author. I worked first with paint. This in itself has manifold narratives:

  • the story of researching, the travel and photography, talking to people, finding out things
  • the transformation of me as a person by the story, being moved to tell it
  • the research I was depicting in itself
  • the narrative of the application of paint in itself
  • the narrative of perspective, or light, or colour
  • the narrative of the painting process; the mistakes, the diversions, the changes
  • add to that the narrative of the work being made in one country and sent to another; the narrative of distance, time and space

I not only worked with paint. I found I was driven to use other media too. I also used spoken word performance, video, sound and written articles.

I’ve always and still have the need to tell stories my way. It’s the selfish end of my work one could say, but there you have it. Work needs to be made alone sometimes. Often.

Disruption and the co-authored narrative

“If you look carefully at a lot of my artwork over the last few years, you’ll see lots of evidence of the interventions and disruptions of small hands. Scribbles, odd colour combos, blobs and rough painting blending into the overall image I finally arrive at. Again, involving my children in art making became necessary to be able to continue to make work at all…I needed that reality to become part of my practice and make it a positive force in art making. Hours of uninterrupted conversation with a visual narrative was a luxury not open to me because I had chosen to be a mum.”

-from The Identity Series Part II: The Parent.  November 26, 2015

Sharing my space and creative life has led me unconsciously a participator in trans-media storytelling. By trans-media I mean a group, either unconsciously or consciously co-authoring a story across a plethora of media. This is done over time or simultaneously and especially in today’s digital terms, makes use of social networks.

A mash up

The combination of this realisation about storytelling, my passion for learning and education made me see how my worlds as an artist, teacher, parent and learner could converge to make something very interesting.


#aWaterStory:  The 1961 Flood of Seville

When I’ve given a brush and some paint to my children and told them to “Go for it” on a canvas I’ve been working on, there has always been a sense of dread, loss of control, grief at the image (that probably wasn’t working anyway) about to be lost. This is part of how I feel at the outset of this project. I’ve never done this before and neither has the school that has agreed to participate.

April 2016 : Bilingial Artist in Residency and Trans-media Storytelling Project with the College of Beaterio de la Santísima Trinidad,  Seville.

On the 25th November 1961, the Tamarguillo river broke its banks and flooded Seville with four million cubic metres of water in what was the worst flood the city had ever suffered. The magnitude of the tragedy was reflected in the numbers cited immediately after the flood: 552 hectares were invaded by flood waters; 125,000 people were affected – 30,176 of those found themselves homeless. The worst affected were the poor. 1,600 shacks and substandard housing in the poor neighbourhoods of the city were destroyed completely, 29,386 homes were damned.

Excerpt translated from:

People have inhabited this fluvial zone, that reaches between Seville and the Atlantic Ocean, for thousands and thousands of years. The famous Tarsus, quoted in the old testament, was the ancient city of the Tarshish or Tastessos, situated in the south-western part of Andalusia. It is even thought that the great Atlantis was one of their cities and there are theories about its location being in the present day wetlands of Doñana National Park just south-west of Seville.

In this project, Spanish students of 4º ESO (15 year olds/year eleven in NZ) will investigate the story of this flood in their city, collect oral histories from people who remember it, and share what they find with me.

Artist in Residence

I, in turn, will respond with visual work, one week of the process will take place at the school to be able to share my practice and process with them. The students will also respond to the story in their own visual work. We will be storytellers working alongside each other.

I will be showing the work I make, as well as other aspects of out project in a show in Auckland in November 2016.

This is the first time that an artist has come to the school. The arts are not valued strongly in the Spanish education system. Academic subjects and paper exams are the main hoop that everyone has to jump through from the age of six. I want to use the opportunity to demonstrate other learning styles to the teachers. Change is coming and the recognition that change is needed is forming, but it’s slow.

Trans-media, social and the wider community

We will explore how we can share and co-author a story together using social media to document and communicate our experiences and responses. We will use certain hashtags such as #aWaterStory to help pull together the trans media thread.

As an artist, I want to explore the trans-media aspect in my own practice, the sharing of my practice in the community, while also developing my painting.

 flooding satellite

Eco-systems and our place in them

We will talk about the rivers that surround us, considering their future, climate change, how we have changed and affected their health and that of the wildlife that live around and in them. The protected wetlands of Donaña, is a stopover in the flight of migrating birds between Africa and Europe, and the higher mountainous regions.

As a quiet activist, I want to activate conscience and awareness: about the history of the rivers of this area and the history of connection these students have to place. I want to raise awareness of the “natural” environment and the history of the landscape that surrounds the city and lies under their feet, pushed underground or diverted, shunted and moved beyond recognition. I want them to consider how we can continue to live sustainably within a fluvial zone, and care for it.

“Spain is one of the world’s countries with a large number of reservoirs per inhabitant. This intense regulation of the fluvial network during the 20th century has resulted in a decrease in flood events, a higher availability of water resources, and a high development of the irrigated crop area, even in the drier regions. For
decades, flood perception was reduced since the development of reservoirs protected the floodplains of river; this resulted in later occupation of soil by urban, agricultural and industrial uses…”

“…The implications of this development have been widely studied in different parts of the world. In this way, Maheshwari et al. (1995), Magilligan and Nislow (2005), Frazier and Page (2006), and Wang et al. (2006) described how dams alter
the natural regime by reducing peak flows and rising lows flows with seasonal redistribution, and how the magnitude of average annual floods are reduced. This has direct effects on ecosystems downstream from dams…”
-Flood risk trends in coastal watersheds in South Spain: direct and indirect impact of river regulation, published 2015
M. Egüen1, M. J. Polo2, Z. Gulliver2, E. Contreras3, C. Aguilar1, and M. A. Losada4

Bilingual: English and Spanish

All of this, or as much of this project as possible will be done in a second language. This will be a challenge. To communicate content when cognitive and communicative levels do not align is difficult, but this is the challenge facing many schools around the world, New Zealand included, where second/heritage/first nation/other languages are the vehicle of learning. This school plans to begin a bilingual programme from next year and so, apart from the many objectives of the project, using English as the vehicular language is a way to introduce the bilingual process to the school. Teachers will have a chance to see bilingual learning in action and reflect on the process and scaffolding required.

A Manawatū response/mirror/parallel/extension

We would like to share this, our Andalusian water story, with Palmerston North, New Zealand. We also want to hear their water story. It will connect places and people and extend the story to the very antipodes of Spain-ultimately creating a wider story to tell.

I’m from the Manawatu/Rangitikei area – my great-great-great grandparents lived on Rangitikei Line. Our fluvial zone farm, out in the Kairanga, has been flooded twice in the last ten years, and I am well aware of the issues surrounding our rivers – silting due to deforestation, contamination from dairy farming, draining of land, loss of wetlands and issues over the use of water to sustain agriculture.

I want what we do in Seville to connect to a place that is facing similar issues, has similarities and differences of geography and culture to explore, similar problems to face.

A Cross-generational, cross-cultural, cross-curricular (a new one for Spain) and multi-lingual creative project.  This can’t help but make it even more meaningful.

On a personal Level: Fighting the “Disconnect”

I’ve lived away from New Zealand in Spain for ten years. Throughout this time, I’ve always shown work back in New Zealand through the dealer gallery that represents me in Auckland. I also show work here in Spain and in Edinburgh.

In recent feedback to an exhibition proposal in New Zealand, I was deemed a “possible disconnect with the audience”. It wasn’t hurtful to me, it just rang sadly hollow. I wondered what that meant. Was I no longer part of home? Did I have no voice there? Who decided that anyway?

Being away from New Zealand has given me insight that I would never have had otherwise. In our family, we have a taonga. Two feathers from the koekoeā, the long tailed cuckoo. The cuckoo would fly away from New Zealand and come back. It was associated with the outsider, the foreigner. I’ve often felt that I am manuhiri/visitor practically everywhere these days. Being told I am a “disconnect” confirms this. However, being an outsider has its benefits both for the outside and the community. Sometimes the koekoeā would bring stones or things from other lands in it’s beak. For that reason, apart form being an “outside” bird, it is also a bringer of knowledge from other lands.





About the author Emma Louise Pratt

Emma Louise Pratt studied at Ilam School of Fine Art, Canterbury University, New Zealand. She has been the runner up in the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award (2005), and a finalist in the Norsewear Award (2007) in New Zealand and finalist in the Focus Abengoa International Painting Prize, Spain in 2014. Emma is known for her landscape based work where she explores specific landscapes that convey significance to her either for their historical or personal importance, serving as they always have, as a personal travel map.

All posts by Emma Louise Pratt →

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