To The Lakes

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a PEAK research visit to Grizedale Arts, Cumbria.

Artists Richard Harris and Morag Colquhoun joined me on a visit to Grizedale Arts, Cumbria for ‘another epic art speak trip’. This trip was different because it revealed the artists’ personal connection to Grizedale Forest and how their experience in the Lake District profoundly affected their lives. Proceeding northwards, to Coniston Water, we retraced roads travelled by younger selves…

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Morag served an apprenticeship as a horse logger in the forest in the 1990s after time spent as an archaeologist in Peru and the Hebrides. She still owns her first logger horse, Molly, now grazing in the fields at Penpont, Brecon. Molly was a gypsy horse, unused to hard work but soon developed the discipline and muscle needed to rear against the weight of enormous logs as the horse teams determinedly set to shifting their heavy cargoes. Horse logging has always been difficult and dangerous work. The loggers kept sharp knives with them at all times to quickly free horses from their collars to prevent choking. Morag’s stories from that time created a picture of the forest as a living and working place.

Richard was the first artist in residence in Grizedale over thirty-five years ago. As an artist he worked alongside the foresters who once supplied the UK with timber, which is now imported from across Europe. Richard lived in a caravan in the woods during his six-month residency, with a break during the worst of the winter weather. Richard also met his future wife at Grizedale, sculptor Sally Matthews. We visited the original work he created in 1978. Grizedale Forest has changed enormously, the car park has doubled in size, a café and visitor centre now replace the redundant sawmill and timber yard. I came across Richard’s sculpture in a small dell just to the right of the forest track. Layered slabs of stone poised on hinged posts of wood – the materials merging together in my mind as I think back. The structure is a path, a slim, curving arc creating a transition, connecting one place to another. Cracks had started to appear in the stones and green moss had gathered. The sculpture made me aware that I’d not taken any notice of where I was – no attention paid to the trees, wet earth, stones – and my relationship to it all.  Richard carefully walked back and forth across the structure, filming his journey. It felt like a rare moment to witness an artist revisiting a work they created at a formative age, free of life’s responsibilities. Richard explained that the themes and concerns he explored then are the same now. Artistic progress isn’t linear, perhaps it is more cyclical or seasonal. We subtly and continually repeat ourselves.

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29th  July 2014

The car crawled through the forest up a winding gravel track to Lawson Park, a RIBA award winning converted foresters cottage and home of Grizedale Arts.

We were met by Director Adam Sutherland and it quickly became clear that the directorship is no day job. Adam lives in a small cottage on one side of the building and Grizedale is clearly driven by his vision and energy, he almost has a guru-like status and the resident artists seem reverential towards him. Adam is immersed in the village life of Coniston – dealing with anything from local politics, issues concerning the impact of tourism, second home ownership and planning applications, to villagers fiddling the honesty shop.

We met Fernando, a Spanish artist in residence who was working on a project to lease a cheese-making machine to local milk producers and we were introduced to Jin and Jina, two Korean curators researching the history of artist residencies at Grizedale.

We had a guided tour of the garden terraces of home grown fruit and vegetables – raspberries, artichokes, beans, lettuces. Indoors, the house felt intense with a display of the Grizedale collection of modernist and post war design – glassware, pottery, furniture, prints, books. A visual overload of charity shop treasure.

The ever-changing household of resident artists and curators live communally, allocating responsibilities for cleaning, cooking and gardening. We shared an evening meal, a fusion of dishes, beetroot gratin, stir-fry and sticky rice, seaweed broth, blackcurrants. Exhaustion and wine started to take over. I felt speechless. Maybe I could manage a day here, I thought to myself, then I’d have to leg it – escape through the woods. “Want to watch a video about Japanese pottery?” No thanks. I sloped off to the twin bedroom, a vase of sweetpeas on the chest of drawers and fell asleep in my cold, creaky single bed.

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30th July 2014

The next morning we visited Coniston Institute. Grizedale got involved in the management of this village hall in 2011, to renovate the building and develop a cultural and educational programme. Originally built in the mid 1800s with a quirky façade of arts and crafts architecture, the institute houses a reading room, library (designed by artist Liam Gillick), kitchen and large hall. The honesty shop offers an eclectic range of homemade products created by the villagers – knitted hats and teddies, drawings, candles, ceramics and cakes.

Conveniently the Ruskin Museum is next door to the Institute. John Ruskin (1819-1900) spent the last twenty-eight years of his life at Brantwood (where he suffered several mental breakdowns), overlooking Coniston Water. Ruskin’s critical writings on art, architecture, aesthetics and his views on social justice and educational philanthropy were an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement.

Adam guided us through the museum collection of watercolours, crystals, plaster moulds, drawings and personal objects. Ruskin’s life and work clearly informs the curatorial approach at Grizedale Arts, which has evolved from a genuine place, from artistic and social principles that were sincerely practised at Coniston during Ruskin’s time – an effort to connect people, art and craft in a relevant and useful way.

Sometimes this process works, sometimes it doesn’t, but maybe attempting it is enough. Adam told us a revealing story that illustrated this thought. In 1874, as a Professor at Balliol College, Ruskin instigated a project to repair the main road of Hinksey village, Oxfordshire, which was regularly flooded. Ruskin was joined by twelve of his students including Oscar Wilde (“entrusted with Mr Ruskin’s especial wheelbarrow”), historian Arnold Toynbee and painter WG Collingwood, in an attempt to improve the lot of local residents while educating themselves in the nobility of manual work, much to the hilarity and scorn of local labourers and the fops of Balliol. Wilde summed up the initiative, “And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp.” Although this project failed in the short term perhaps the mere attempting of it was able to instigate a modest shift in Victorian social attitudes and values.

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On our return to Wales we stopped to see Richard and Sally’s sculpture studio at their cottage in Rhosgoch. I stepped into a rough barn and was confronted by an extraordinary menagerie of greyhounds, horses, wild boars and sheep alongside drawings, paintings and maquettes. It was refreshing and stimulating to observe the essential forms and materials in the studio. The space was evidence of two artists totally dedicated to their work, living and breathing it, through productive and fallow periods, combined with home and family. What the Black Mountains have, that is not so visible in the Lakes, is a resident community of exceptional artists.

I still feel unsure of what I think about Grizedale. Morag and I have had several conversations about it since. The one thing you can’t feel is indifference and I’ve taken away the importance of ensuring PEAK’s creative projects are genuine and distinct to the place they originate and that they sincerely attempt to communicate with people.

– Rebecca Spooner

With thanks to:

Adam Sutherland

Artists and staff at Lawson Park, Coniston Institute and the Ruskin Museum.

During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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