During March and April the poet Emma Must and myself spent a fabulous few weeks out and about round Belfast trying to gather up local people’s memories of the Tropical Ravine in Botanic Gardens. The Ravine is currently closed to facilitate a substantial restoration project and the outreach officer, Cailin Lynn, (all round legend that she is), wanted to make sure the people of Belfast didn’t forget about the building whilst it was inaccessible. She needn’t have worried. The Tropical Ravine, it soon transpired, has a very special place in the hearts of people from all over the city and beyond. Everyone had a story about it. We met elderly couples who remembered the Ravine back in the post-war era, Methody students who snuck out of school to hide and smoke illicit cigarettes behind the tropical ferns, couples who’d enjoyed their first kiss inside the Ravine and children who couldn’t contain their love for the giant goldfish and turtles which populated the little pond. There were, literally thousands of stories about the Tropical Ravine.
Emma and I visited community groups and local schools. We set up camp for a day in the Palm House and lost about half a stone in sweat as we coerced visitors into adding their Tropical Ravine memories to our memory tree. We spent a fabulous afternoon in the Ulster Museum hearing stories and making art. We wrote our own responses to some of the incredible, and oftentimes bizarre, historical events which have taken place in the Gardens. We had an absolute blast and collated several books’ worth of stories, poems and little pieces of flash fiction which we then passed on to the illustrator Peter Strain, apologising profusely for the fact that the “thirty or so” pieces we’d promised him had actually turned into something closer to three hundred. Peter was a trooper. He doesn’t fluster easy. He took our stories and created the incredible, eye-catching, colourful and intriguing twenty seven metre mural you can currently see snaking round the Tropical Ravine’s hoarding. I’m a little bit in awe of what he can do with a pen.
I went to visit the site today. I walked up and down the mural reading out little bits of texts, and remembering the individuals who’d written them as part of our workshops and open days. Children, older people, adults with learning difficulties, couples, parents, tourists, historians and gardeners have all contributed to this amazing piece of art. Most of the participants had never written a poem or prose piece before, many were reluctant to try and yet it’s absolutely incredible to see what they managed to come up with. If you hang around the gardens for long enough you’ll see participants walking up to the mural to look for the piece they contributed. You’ll see visitors taking pictures of the beautiful illustrations. You’ll see locals reading the stories out loud to each other and adding their own memories. It’s the sort of artwork you can’t actually walk past without stopping for a closer look.
As far as community art goes, (a genre which fails as often as it succeeds), this is pretty inspiring stuff. The workshops associated with the project weren’t just engaging and beneficial for participants, the outcome of the project is also a piece of really beautiful artwork. It’s a fitting tribute to one of Belfast’s best-loved spaces that such a large and diverse number of people have contributed to the piece. Make sure you pop down to Botanic Gardens and spend some time discovering all the little stories folded into ourmural. I’m pretty sure you’ll discover something you didn’t know before. I’m absolutely certain it will make you smile.