Lowland tribe & Mountain tribe

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a weekend visit from four studio artists based at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire: Lisa WilkensLawrence EppsCaroline Wright and Rob Smith

Artists Stefhan CaddickPenny Hallas and Sarah Rhys welcomed the visitors with a weekend of conversation, walking and subterranean digital projection in the Black Mountains.

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Friday 8th May 2015

As the sky began to darken and the wind picked up Lisa, Lawrence, Caroline and Rob arrived at Net House, a red brick cottage poised on the banks of the river Wye, between Hay and Clyro, surrounded by luminous fields of oilseed rape.

Net House is an eccentric and wonderful place; it was disconcerting to see the river’s fast flowing water from every window. The house is a warren of vintage fabrics, family photos, paintings and mismatched china. The artists instantly relaxed in this charming setting and although it was the first time we had all met together everyone hit it off, helped along with plenty of red wine and beef chili.

Around the kitchen table conversation touched on the dramatic difference in the landscapes we inhabit, the lack of younger artists living and working in rural areas, the benefits of a studio on a shared site, the Expanded Studios Project (initiated by the studio artists at Wysing and Primary in Nottingham) and unexpected shared friends and connections.

After dinner we lolled about on the sofas in the cosy living room in front of a roaring fire. Penny had bought along her new digital projector (purchased with support from the Creative Network mini-fund) and we shifted a painting off the wall for presentations from each of the visiting artists.

Click on the artist names for more information about their work:

Lisa  / Rob / Caroline  / Lawrence

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Saturday 9th May 2015

We met the next morning at the Arts Alive Wales studio for coffee and flapjacks to fuel a trek to Llangattock Escarpment. We were joined by artist Richard Harris, artist photographer Toril BrancherGavin Johnson a freelance consultant who has assisted PEAK and Gavin’s partner Lisa Meredith. We downed another coffee while we waited for a heavy shower to pass then donned our anoraks and headed to the escarpment in convoy.

With Penny leading the way we walked along the footpath to the Craig y Cilau nature reserve. Crossing stepping-stones and squelching through wet vegetation we passed through the bog, Waun Ddu. There was some excitement as Stefhan pointed out the Common Sundew, a rare carnivorous plant at the edge of a shallow stream.

As we walked Rob created a live film of the day’s journey: Click here to see the film.

We ascended the old sheep tracks, surrounded by tiny violets and primroses and broke the cover of the trees for perfectly clear views from east to west, taking in the Sugar Loaf, Table Mountain, the Darren and Cat’s Back. We made our way along the tramway ridge to Eglwys Faen cave, one of the largest cave networks in Europe. We tested each other’s metal with gruesome tales of being buried alive and unearthly presences.

We reached the mouth of the cave and descended to the subterranean landscape. I first visited the cave in 2011 for Frederick J Fredericks, an event devised by local artists and poets which presented installations, performances, readings and improvised music in and around the cave as part of Powys Arts Month. At that time I had an uncharacteristically feeble reaction to entering the cave; I instinctively and emphatically did not want to venture into the dark, wet and cold. This time I was more prepared but I could not summon up the enthusiasm of our Wysing friends who bounced into the cave like puppies to venture as far as they could before being called back.

Stefhan shared his emergency packet of custard creams and Penny found a level spot to set up the digital projector. Each of the Black Mountains artists showed short film clips.

Sarah presented a film from an international artist project, Al Mutanabbi Street Inventory, in which hands slowly turned the pages of a burnt book. The film had a strange 3D effect against the uneven surface of the rocks. Rob mentioned Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams; when illuminated by candlelight prehistoric drawings of wild horses would appear to gallop over the surface of the rock.

Stefhan showed archive footage of the Ebbw Vale steel works from the early 1900s; chimneys spewed steam and smoke and tiny figures battled against the filth and flames. In contrast he also showed a film created with 3D mapping data from NASA recording the surface of the moon. Stefhan made a connection with the archive footage of Ebbw Vale, which triggered his memory of Georges Méliès silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and the blurring of imagery between early science-fiction and documentary.

Penny screened footage taken from the window of a moving car driving past never ending road works, traffic cones and orange safety nets along the A465 Heads of the Valleys road. Eglwys Faen cave is part of the limestone quarry that served the industrial furnaces of Ebbw Vale and is one point within a network of historic tramways, railways, canals and pathways that link the Black Mountains with the Valleys. The film reminded us of those links which were perhaps more direct in the past than they are today.

After the films, boys and girls were allowed fifteen minutes to play in the cave.  I’d had enough and picked my way through the rocks to emerge blissfully into daylight and clean air.

We returned to the studio for lunch and presentations from Stefhan, Penny and Sarah. It was evident that the landscape and people of this region are integral to the artists’ work. What is sometimes mistaken as insularity was perceived as a strength by the visiting artists. Each artist had a genuine connection to place in which they travelled deeper rather than wider  – there is something universal in that approach to the local or regional.

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Sunday 10th May 2015

Sunday morning we were joined by artist Justine Cook and Project Assistant Emma Balch for coffee and cake at the home and studio of Richard Harris and Sally Matthews in Rhosgoch. We gathered in the self-built warehouse surrounded by Sally’s magnificent menagerie of animal sculpture.

As we eyed the wolves and stags we had conversations about the lack of studio space and visual arts community in Cambridge. It seems Wysing is the only organisation of its kind in the region. We also touched on the problems that affect the majority of artists (wherever they’re based), balancing artistic work with paid employment, caring responsibilities and the need to continually apply for opportunities.

The household’s three dogs were a welcome distraction from too much art talk. An informative conversation about the ear care of spaniels will always bring you back to earth. We said goodbye to Richard and Sally and sent four happy but tired artists on their five-hour journey back to Cambridgeshire.

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For me, the weekend highlighted our lack of access to artists outside of the Black Mountains, let alone outside of Wales. The visit demonstrated the importance of meeting in person to share experience, generate ideas and articulate practice.

The weekend reaffirmed the unique perspective of the artists we work with in this region. A genuine connection to place and people (past and present) is often central to their work. The visiting artists were responsive to the distinct qualities of our location and the attractive proposition it offers to artists outside Wales as a site for making new work.

We hope to arrange a reciprocal artist visit to Wysing Arts Centre later in the year. It’s so important for artists in Wales to build connections elsewhere. Sometimes you need validation outside your immediate circle to remind you that you’re on the right track.

– Rebecca Spooner

Photo credit: Toril Brancher

The visit was supported by  a ‘Go & See’ bursary from a-n, The Artists’ Information Company.

Rebecca Spooner and Artist Morag Colquhoun visited Wysing Arts Centre in July 2014 as part of a research project funded by Arts Council of Wales. Click here for a response to the visit.

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