The story of The Magic Brick Tree – connecting people with plants through art

Words by Sally Lee
Edited by Kate Whittington

The Magic Brick TreeThe origins of this strange brick tree would likely baffle many a visitor to Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. The explanation for its bizarre appearance is that this wild pear tree (Pyrus communis) was bricked up, following the horticultural practice of the time, after a branch fell off in the 1960s.

In the summer of 2011, however, these mysterious-looking bricks became the starting point for a story, when 15 local children visited the Garden and worked alongside storyteller, Marion Leeper, and artist, Alex Hirtzel, to create a new children’s story book.


Like many other botanic gardens around the world, Cambridge University Botanic Garden is keen to encourage young people to connect with plants. As a result, they are currently running a project to use art workshops to engage with younger generations, one of the most successful of which involved a group of local young carers.

The project was run in co-ordination with Centre 33 – a local youth charity that supports young carers in Cambridge. They coordinate regular meetings where young carers can take some time out, make friends and enjoy games, art and cookery.  The group consisted of local children under the age of 16 who provide care for another person, usually a family member. These young people often have responsibilities that would normally only be taken on by an adult and as a result they can often lead busy and stressful lives. This group was selected to take part as it was felt that these young people might not normally get the opportunity to visit the Garden.

The aims of the project were for the young people to have an engaging experience at the Garden where they could:

  • Connect with plants and the Garden
  • Develop literacy, art, creativity and team working skills
  • Have a break from their everyday responsibilities and simply have time to be themselves

In addition to Centre 33, this project had a number of other generous partners:

DSC_0130 Centre 33 permittedThe Garden recruited two professional workshop leaders to run the sessions, plan activities and guide and support the young people in the production of the storybook.  A great deal of consideration was given to find people who, as well as having relevant skills, were confident working with young people, and were passionate about the Garden and the project.

Marion is a professional storyteller and so worked with the young carers to come up with the story ideas and words. Alex is a visual artist and took the lead in helping the young people create the book’s artwork.   Both workshop leaders gave the project a wonderful sense of energy, enthusiasm and warmth.

  • Cantellday – a small graphic design agency based in nearby Newmarket.
    When the Cantellday team found out about the Garden’s work with the young carers they generously donated their skills and expertise to the project.  They assisted with the graphic design by converting the young people’s images and text into a print-ready format after the workshops had taken place.
  • Cambridge University Press (CUP) – the University’s publishing business.
    After hearing about the Garden’s planned book project with the young carers, the Community and University Relations Manager at CUP kindly offered to partner them on the project and print 3,000 copies of the finished book free of charge.

Funding for the project was awarded through the ‘Percent for Art’ fund associated with the construction of a new laboratory within the Garden.

The Workshops

The workshops ran on 4 days spread over 2 weeks.  The young people were introduced to many different techniques including model making, lino printing, drawing with pens and creating storyboards.  Although instruction was given by the workshop leaders, emphasis was on allowing the young people freedom to explore ideas and techniques independently.

The plot, characters, words and title were all created by the young people themselves. In the story a garden angel called Lily and a curious imp both get trapped inside the Magic Brick Tree by story villain MC Stinger. The young carers drew great inspiration from things that they came across in the Garden, with foxes, flowers and frogs all making their way into the book in one way or another.

Despite its success, however, the project was not without its challenges. Time was a big pressure and the workshop leaders helped enormously by scanning, photocopying and collating work in their own time. The group also had to make some difficult decisions about which ideas were included and which were left out. The workshop leaders helped overcome these difficulties by encouraging the young people to work together to make editing decisions.

The Book Launch

The Book LaunchAfter printing, the book was officially launched at a party at a Cambridge Bookstore.  All of the young carers were invited along with their families and friends, along with staff from the partner organisations and Garden, as well as members of the public. Everyone involved was thrilled to see their creation on the shelves and eagerly opened copies to find the images, characters and story ideas that the young carers had come up with.

Whilst there wasn’t time for a formal evaluation, a few comments gathered by Centre 33 show how much the young carers enjoyed taking part in the different activities:

“It was fun because I loved making the models out of plasticine. I helped to make the fairy.” – Jake

“My favourite part was taking photos for the pictures in the book, but all of it was fun.”Damion

Like the story of The Magic Brick Tree, staff at the botanic garden feel that this project has a happy ending.  Art workshops can provide a useful ‘hook-in’ point for botanic gardens to engage with audiences.  It also provides a focus for repeat visits and gives participants the opportunity to create and contribute to the garden themselves.  Involving the participants themselves in the planning stages can also be useful as it allows workshop leaders to plan workshops that are interesting and engaging while also fulfilling the aim of connecting people with plants.

Since the book project finished, they have continued to work with the young carers.  In the summer of 2012 they ran a 4-day workshop based on the nonsense botany of Edward Lear and in October 2012 the group visited again for a day of autumn leaf artwork.  Plans are already underway for more workshops in 2013.  It is hoped that these experiences will have a lasting impact on the young people, whether it’s a greater connection with plants, memories of a fun summer, or a feeling of ‘belonging’ at Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about this project then why not buy a copy of the book?
All profits from the book sales will go towards funding future projects for young carers at the botanic garden.

If you would like to get involved in similar initiatives express your interest to be part of BGCI’s Communities in Nature programme by completing the on-line form, and check out BGCI’s education pages for more tips on how to organise your own Social Inclusion Project.

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