2020. Updated 2023
"A flower's fragrance declares to all the world that it is fertile, available, and desirable, its sex organs oozing with nectar. Its smell reminds us in vestigial ways of fertility, vigor, life-force, all the optimism, expectancy, and passionate bloom of youth. We inhale its ardent aroma and, no matter what our ages, we feel young and nubile in a world aflame with desire."
- Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, 1990)
The Stewart family came from Scotland to Donegal as part of the Jacobean Plantation of Ulster. Alexander Stewart and his wife, Mary Cowan, bought a large area of land in County Down in 1744, part of which became Mount Stewart demesne.
2015 saw the completion of an extensive restoration of the house and its contents as well as the purchase of the wider estate re-uniting it with plans to open more trails to the public., reviving the elegance and charm of the house when it was home of the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry and her family in the early 20th century.
“Make love, not war, I know you've heard it before.” John Lennon
Neuroscience research into the hormone ‘oxytocin’, demonstrate the association with connectedness and empathy. Sex is one way to increase the production of oxytocin, hence it is often referred to as the “love hormone” but sex is not the only way. In fact a simple smile from a stranger can increase oxytocin levels.
In the Autumn of 2016 Beyond Skin & Mount Stewart team started a collaborative journey to create the next best thing in producing sensory oxytocin experiences merging Arts and Nature. The journey began with the development of a new National Trust festival at Mount Stewart called Conversations - Beyond Skin providing a diversity of international and local artists to compliment and encourage themed talks. Bitch n Monk duo Mauricio & Heidi and Imre Veeneman from United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) were our special international guests. UNOY had played a key influential role in the UN adopting Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace & Security.
During the time of Conversations Festival 2016 were ongoing discussions between Beyond Skin and the organisation Heartbeat, initiated by Trustees of Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Foundation. Heartbeat is an organisation uniting Palestinian & Israeli youth through music. Beyond Skin had also begun collaborative project development with Escuelaz de Paz (Schools of Peace), Colombia.
All these and more elements came together in March 2017 with Beyond Skin as the UNOY member representative in Northern Ireland hosting a Youth4Peace Conference (UN 2250 theme) across Northern Ireland incorporating International Women’s Day.
Assisting the Beyond Skin team to facilitate the conference, which was a creative open format, were artists and peace activists from UNOY, Colombia (Escuelaz de Paz), Sri Lanka (The Music Project), Israel, Palestine (Heartbeat), Tanzania, England, Wales & Ireland. WOMAD Foundation & Arts Council Northern Ireland funded the four members of Heartbeat to attend.
Recognising the need for facilitators (most who had not met), to have quality time together - the first day of the Conference was spent at Mount Stewart. No agenda, no workshops or programmed talks, just a space for the facilitating team to talk, eat, play music and take in the splendour of the Gardens & House. The outcome of this time in a beautiful place would go beyond everyone’s expectations and dreams.
There was something magical about Mount Stewart as if destiny and mother nature were playing cupid bringing a team of diverse and remarkable people together in a place of natural beauty - a constant reminder on all senses of what we love and what we were fighting to save.
The bond between the facilitation team grew strong during the week and a Whatsapp group was formed with Shelley Deane from Brehon Advisory suggesting the name ArtsDialogue, inspired by a comment from Mark Smulian from Heartbeat. “Music does not assist dialogue, Music is the dialogue”
"You don’t always appreciate precious moments until the memory." This was the case at Mount Stewart as throughout 2017 it became a physical place for our shared memories of time together, this was amplified by some of the ArtsDialogue team returning in October 2017 for the 2nd Conversations festival. Dr Ahmad Sarmast (Afghanistan National Institute of Music) & Shalini Wickramasuriya (The Music Project Sri Lanka) shared their Orchestras of Peace projects with Shelley Deane facilitating the session. International and local artists from the ArtsDialogue team once again provided a diversity of interactive dialogue with music, dance, art & laughter as the narrative.
In February 2018 with the sad loss of young Natali Marquez who passed away with a brain tumor, Mount Stewart became even more precious to the ArtsDialogue group. Memories of Natali at Mount Stewart in March 2017 emotionally through shared grief galvanised ArtsDialogue team more tightly together as a family – Mount Stewart a shared home.
Natali was from Colombia and it was there that environment community arts programmes by street artist Robison Sanchez and Campo Alegre Arauca were influencing Beyond Skin’s project delivery. ‘Reconciliation’ or ‘Healing with the land’ became an integral part of the Northern Ireland Colombia peace arts project led by Beyond Skin and Escuelas de Paz.
A tree was planted at the entrance of Mount Stewart by her sister Ingrid in memory of Natali and The Natali Marquez foundation was launched at Mount Stewart
Schools and Youth groups would visit Mount Stewart to take part in environmental arts workshops, sensory experiences – using arts to learn about the natural environment as part of the Colombia project,
The 3rd Conversations festival took place in September 2018 and was a great success attracting new audiences, Beyond Skin once again bringing a dynamic international team of facilitators together including members from the ArtsDialogue team and guitar legend & producer Justin Adams. Unfortunately Rebecca Hovhannisian & Hajer Sharief, peace activists connected with UNOY had visa complications and were unable to attend. Beyond Skin management knew the risks considering the UK Government’s attitude to people travelling from the African Continent and Middle East, but the Mount Stewart team without hesitation backed Beyond Skin choice of guest speakers. This spoke volumes throughout the local and international community, that as a festival organiser the National Trust didn’t decide to take the safe option and only invite key guest speakers for which visa’s would not be a problem.
“We made the effort not exclude people that are racially profiled by the Home Office. That is so important and I hope other festivals as challenging as it is follow our example. I truly commend the National Trust for fully supporting our decisions knowing the risks that would have huge impact on the festival programme.” Darren Ferguson (Beyond Skin)
Conversations IV 2019. Beyond Skin once again brough a kaleidoscope of creativity to the festival including street art (VaneMG) and building a dark room outside on the festival site in partnership with fotosynthesis.
In 2019 Mount Stewart ranger George Angus, the man behind the Wild Flower meadow achievement, influenced the lives of young people in Keady Town sharing his Wild Flower achievement experience at a ‘Reconciliation with the Land’ project supported by Grow Wild Foundation as part of the programme with Colombia.
THE 100 YEAR BOOK PROJECT> The 100 is a project in Northern Ireland focused on sharing the stories from 100 women connected to this beautiful land.
A book contains 100 pages of unique art (poetry, stories, painting, photography, embroidery and more) created by 100 women. The book was created during 2021 - 2022 and centres on themes of belonging and connection to the earth. On the 15th October 2022 the book was planted as a time capsule for 100 years at Mount Stewart. The book will not be seen again until 15th October 2122.
A festival took place on 15th October to celebrate the book as part of the planting ceremony. This webpage will remain an archive of photos and information related to the project.
Over the years Beyond Skin has made every effort to include Mount Stewart as a social space for International guest visits or meetings. Mount Stewart has influenced and complimented Beyond Skin’s recent shift to challenge traditional Peace and Community conference models, recognising that those traditional formats don’t work with Human behaviour. We Humans function at our best around music, arts, food, drink and enjoying the natural world.
As the Arts have become synonymous with a building (theatre, arts centre, cinema, etc.), in contrast Beyond Skin and the National Trust with continued support from Arts Council Northern Ireland are driving the Arts into the ground, not literally of course but reuniting the natural world and creativity. This is not something new of course as there are many festivals, though very few integrate with the environment and educate the audience to respect the land. Many artists find their inspiration for developing ideas and projects through engaging with nature’s beauty and chaos. The composer Claude Debussy apparently always filled his room with flowers while he worked; it would remind you of the words from the French poet Baudelaire “Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air.” The mistake in the common follow up is that artists then tend to execute their ideas within four walls; in most cases they don’t have a choice as a service provider. Regarding peace & community conferences/gatherings - most frequently used are hotel conference rooms which traditionally are a sensory vacuum. Therefore most people leave mentally exhausted instead of refreshed.
All the evidence, and there is a lot out there, clearly demonstrates how the Arts and interaction with nature can provoke positive psychological states, with the potential to improve people’s wellbeing and aid stress recovery. As Northern Ireland verges on the edge of a suicide epidemic with a sharp rise in Mental Health cases, places such as Mount Stewart acting as hosts for Arts practices create very powerful therapeutic healing spaces.
Putting this into practice the Mount Stewart canvas with the Arts and Nature acting as the sensory catalyst for dialogue has invigorated and healed people, cultivating relationships that will last a lifetime. The place has brought together creative activists from across the globe that are collaborating and combing their gifts to build Peace from the ground up on a quest for equality to disrupt corruption, sectarianism and racism
Over the past collaborations and innovations harvested at Mount Stewart have changed the lives of many in Northern Ireland and beyond.
“One of the main acts of revolution and rebellion is to care for and protect the earth, recognising it as a supreme being that has allowed us to inhabit it” Robison Sanchez (Community Street Artist from Colombia who facilitated workshops at Mount Stewart)
“Oxytocin Helps Us Move From Tribe to Community. Herein lies the key to becoming a more trusting, more unified society. We will need to exercise our brains to approach each other with openness to connection.” Susan Kuchinskas (HuffPost Blogger)
The Mount Stewart Beyond Skin relationship has for sure been an enlightening journey. We never thought ourselves as an oxytocin incubator but as cognitive science has advanced dramatically in recent years giving us unprecedented insight into how the human brain works, making people feel good is exactly what we do. And we have creative fun ourselves facilitating this.
Beyond Skin & Mount Stewart will continue to collaborate as an experimental space for memories, new ideas and concepts - a laboratory integrated with the land, nature providing many answers and examples of interdependence, resilience and growth. Just as important the space will continue also to bring together and harvest innovative disruptors. Beyond Skin programme the Conversations festival with great thought. It is not a case of gathering a group of facilitors / artists together with only one aim to service the needs of an audience - the trick is bringing people together that you know will generate or strengthen a collaborative outcome or impact. Beyond Skin call this legacy programming.
Beyond Skin's partnership with the National Trust is a different Peacebuilding approach merging sensory forces to foster togetherness, empathy and solidarity action with our global neighbours whilst cultivating our inner Peace. The answer to world’s conflicts may seem a mammoth task, but it could be an easy as a walk in the park. Surely this alternative approach to Peace Building is worth a punt if currently extinction is our shared fate.
About the National Trust
The National Trust is a conservation charity founded in 1895 by three people who saw the importance of our nation’s heritage and open spaces, and wanted to preserve them for everyone to enjoy. More than 120 years later, these values are still at the heart of everything the charity does.
Entirely independent of Government, the National Trust looks after more than 250,000 hectares of countryside, 778 miles of coastline and hundreds of special places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
More than 24 million people visit every year, and together with 5 million members and over 65,000 volunteers, they help to support the charity in its work to care for special places for ever, for everyone.
For more information and ideas for great seasonal days out go to: www.nationaltrust.org.uk