John Davies began his career as Shedman in 2002, when he won an Arts Council England Archi–TEXTS award for Architecture Week (curated by Mark Hewitt), to be a writer in residence at a place of architectural interest. John proposed to celebrate that great institution of British architecture, the shed, inside the Booth Museum of Natural History in Dyke Road, Brighton. The Booth is itself a shed structure and a listed building, originally built by Victorian ornithologist Edward Booth in 1874 to house his collection of stuffed British birds. During his residency John built a garden shed inside the museum and invited people to come and see him.

The response was phenomenal and John realised he had tapped into one of those arteries of hidden meaning that run like secret rivers through British culture. Everyone had a shed story – some funny, some tragic, some poignant, some plain daft. But everyone, of any age, gender, religious affiliation or ethnic background, agreed on the centrality of the shed as a place of separation, memory and escape – at least in the British Isles.

It’s a temporary structure, changeable, impermanent. As one architect put it, “the greatest possible space for the lowest possible cost, usually single storey made of wood or tin, with an apex roof”. Sheds are liminal, peripheral, often literally on a boundary. A shed can be treasure trove of memories, a store of secrets and a dumping ground. It can be an observatory on nature. It’s a place halfway between home and the wilderness, between order and chaos, between the artificial and the natural. A place in everyone’s hearts.

A shed is both threshold and container. A shed is a space of creative inspiration and endeavour, as it has been for dozens of writers, composers and artists from Mozart to Jilly Cooper, and for generations of model makers, woodworkers and engineers. But it can also be a zone of adventure, where people first try smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs as well as many another indulgence. For some couples in the first half of the twentieth century a shed was where they first tasted sexual pleasure. But it can also be a darker and more dangerous place, where the Unabomber made his devices, where children are abused, bodies are hidden in freezers, trophies kept.

Shed construction is the dominant form of modern architecture in the shedlands on the periphery of cities – from superstores to factories, warehouses to garden centres. The shedding of blood or light, tears or joy is the stuff of poetry. And there are connections with natural history – the sheds of insects and animals, skins, antlers and shells, as well as the little temporary houses insects and animals make or borrow for themselves. Sheds provide a treasure trove of meaning and inspiration.

John researches the cultural history of the shed and its place in literature. He explores famous and unusual sheds and he’s inspired by all kinds of sheds – from potting sheds to aircraft hangars, but also shed antlers or skins, shedding fears or shedding light. He creates residencies and workshops, using sheds as the focus for a unique interaction with all kinds of people, young and old.

Shedman has featured at Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival (2014, 2005), Fusion West Dean (2013), Brighton Festival Fringe (2012), Daventry Festival (2011) Dorchester Festival, Oxfordshire (2011), World Book Day & Night, Brighton Jubilee Library (2011), Sustainable Cities Day, Brighton (2011), Havant Literary Festival (2011, 2008-9), West Meon Literary Festival (2010), Pigbaby, the Sussex Literary Weekend Party (2010) Ledbury Poetry Festival (2008–10), Runnymede International Literary Festival (2006–08), The Big Weekend in Cambridge (2007), the Weald WoodFair at Bentley in East Sussex (2005, 2003), the Bird Fair at the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust Centre, Arundel, West Sussex (2003), Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Conference at University College, Chichester (2004), Small Wonder Short Story Festival at Charleston (2004), the Appledore Visual Arts Festival in Devon (2003); and the Redbridge Show, Ilford (2003).

He has collaborated with artist Sue Ridge on a number of major commissions: Our Storeys creating artwork for the new North Middlesex University Hospital, Enfield (2008-11 featured in the book Our Storeys – Art and Poetry in Healthcare) and at hospitals in Eastbourne and Hastings as part of the Arts in Healthcare project Outside In – Navigating the Hospital (2005). In 2011 he was commissioned to write a poem for the windows of the new Deakin Learning Centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

He’s run workshops for Poetry Ireland at Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival (2005–2014), for Arundel Writers’ Group (2004–2005), and for many schools including Second World War Shedman at Eastbourne Technology College for the WRVS, Pig Shedman, a special project for the Kent High Weald Unit, Ghost School (again with artist Sue Ridge) for Creative Partnerships in Hackney, and Rural Shedman – a week at Worle Community College in Somerset. Shedman has been poet in residence at the Cuisle International Poetry Festival in Limerick, Ireland and was the Cuilse Slam Champion in October 2011.

Whatever the reason for our fascination with sheds, they exert a magnetic attraction on anyone who passes by. When the shed door is open we’re all deeply curious to look inside. So Shedman creates a spellbinding community focus. “Although sheds are very much about an individual in a private space, they have an amazing ability to bring people together,” says Shedman. “Sheds are down to earth and unpretentious. They’re very close to our hearts and we enjoy remembering and celebrating them. They’re so like us – transient and fragile. They can represent a private space we all desire for work or play. They can be places of quiet contemplation, observatories on nature or shrines to our obsessions. They can be the threshold to risk and adventure, or a doorway to a different world of hobbies or the stored past. My shed is very accessible. Anyone can come in to tell me their shed stories, to bring anecdotes and poems, pictures and photos, recollections and fantasies. So, individually, members of a local community create a living installation. I interview the people who come to see me to create a multimedia record of shed life that can be shared on line or at a finale event. A shed is a great way of networking across a community, and of engaging people with poetry, creative writing and literature in an enjoyable and intriguing way.”

Shedman’s shed represents different things for different people: a garden retreat or a symbolic threshold; a stage or a sideshow booth; a place to seek advice about their own writing or a creative space where they can draw, make or write; a contemplative space where memories flood back and the past comes to life or somewhere to engage in lively discussion.

Shedman provides art materials in the shed for children and grown–ups to draw shed pictures. He writes poems and stories focussed on the residency location and can offer readings and performances at a knock on the shed door. During a residency Shedman also organises his special Shed Quests, exploring the local area and discovering sheds of note, especially suited to the adventurous 12–15 age group, who often use Shedman’s shed as a base and gathering place during a residency.

Alongside a residency Shedman will run workshops in local schools, homes and businesses, linking all the different strands of a community to create an intriguing and memorable mixed media arts project.

If you have a project that needs lifting out of the ordinary, please get in touch. Thanks for your interest!

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