You know how you sometimes extend your neck into the clouds and tell yourself… “if only I had time… if only I could escape from under the weight of my responsibilities… if only I didn’t have all these distractions…”
If only… if only….
If only we knew that life is all about this real stuff- that that is what gives the fabric of our world its depth, its colour and texture. It’s all too easy to use these ‘distractions’ and responsibilities as a reason for not doing the hard things. And this, friends, is what I learnt (again) during the few weeks I spent in North Wales in February/ March this year.
Let me back track.
I was privileged to be offered a Residency at Stiwdio Maelor in Corris, on the southern edge of the Snowdonia National Park, in North Wales. I was given a spacious attic room with space to make art, sleep, eat and think and read and stretch out my yoga mat and just BE.
An artist residency offers an opportunity for an artist to escape from real life for a period of a few weeks- in some cases, months, in order to immerse themselves in an intensive way into an inspiring space in order to catalyse some element of their creative practice. Sometimes a particular project, or to explore new ideas with no fixed outcome.
This is what I have been craving for about, oh, 22 years !
My children are now nearly-adults, and independent enough to leave in charge of a house full of animals and a husband who works crazy-long hours; and my mum, though living with Dementia, is still living independently, though with support. And so I feel I have a window of opportunity to stretch my wings and fly, in this case, across the hills and mountains and rivers of mid Wales, South to North, to Corris. So I packed up the car with a healthy supply of art materials, and headed off for 3 weeks.
What were my intentions? I’d been planning for weeks- to have so many projects and ideas bubbling around in the ether is exciting, but it’s hard sometimes to pin them down into a proper strategy for moving them on from concept to reality. It’s like trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathwater… Surely a three-week residency purely for the purpose of making art would be the ideal opportunity?!
I made a note of my plans before I went. Sleep. Yoga. Walk- a lot. Reading and note taking and journaling. Photography- iPhone , and my DSLR (note; this stayed firmly packed away unused for the duration. Long live iPhone photography!) Experiment with materials in different combinations. Mark making. Play. Listen for downloads, connect with my intuition. Examine the interaction between words, photographs, paper and paint. Explore the effect of space and environment upon the Self. Oh, and prepare work for the two shows I have coming up. Sounds a lot, but I have 24 hours a day to play with, right?!
Stiwdio Maelor is run with a passionate desire to support artists and on a shoestring budget, by Veronica Calarco, an Australian now fully immersed in Welsh village life. Her ethos is to run an ecologically sustainable, independent, low cost residency – and she does it brilliantly.
I arrived a few days before my fellow artists from Ireland and from Liverpool, but within hours of their arrival we had formed a bond made stronger by our common passions for art and visits to the pub next door and of course the very special café a few doors along; , an unexpectedly delightful gem of a village shop/ eatery/ gathering place (with wifi -SM itself is wifi free). Community turned out to be a huge part of my time in Corris; the comradeship and support of likeminded artists, living together like students again! And meeting the locals, each and every one of whom were warm and welcoming and curious about our activities and full of advice and stories about the local area. We even joined in a singing bowl ceremony taking place in the village!
And what an area. Always profoundly affected by my location, this part of North Wales was a revelation to me. I fell hook, line and sinker for its rugged and raw charm; its subtle colour; its sense of shared history and community and resilient spirit. I fell for the more-than –hills-not-quite-mountains, the verdant valleys rinsed constantly by waterfalls and rivers and transient streams finding their way over fields and pathways; even the low, slate-dark skies that only lifted after the first 10 days of my visit to reveal a watery sun. I walked for miles every day, often in cold hard rain, exploring the pathways and hillsides and tumbling watercourses. It was bloody brilliant. Having the time to get to know a place like this is a privilege; to get a sense of an area you have to look at the details, and I studied clusters of lime-green lichen on the sharp talons of blackthorn, the blooms of moss in greens of every hue on the fallen boughs and boulders underfoot; the rusts and purples and mustard furze of the high moorland. Even the ubiquitous slate upon which the land is built dances with colour, especially when washed with rain; jet black shadows leaching to veins of silver, pink, purple, gold. Even the broiling, leading skies have a leaden charm… up to a point!
The landscape and a sense of place unravelled itself to me over time and with every mile that I walked. In the first week I felt disjointed, detached and slightly homesick. In the second week the connections I was making with the people and the landscape were beginning to sustain and nourish me. In the final week I began to wonder how I could leave this place, or at least recapture the atmosphere and spirit of the place in my life and in my art.
What did I take home with me?
An understanding, again and finally, that the things that I went to escape from are the things that make my life meaningful and rich. Without them, I wouldn’t have meaning and purpose in my life, and I certainly wouldn’t have anything to make art about.
That I can’t actively make art for 24 hours a day, or even 12. Like everything important in life, balance is the oil that balms and nourishes. Without thinking time, exploring and just being, without time to connect with community and culture and environment, there is no art. It’s not just about hours in the studio.
More than anything, I strengthened my belief that a sense of place is more than an aesthetic appreciation of a landscape, it is greater than the sum of its topographical, geological, sociological parts; the witnessing of its fauna and flora and its cultural heritage and its stories. It is all of those things, and more. It’s about personal experience, and emotion, and a kind of sixth sense, an unknown energy or vibration that we can’t see or touch, but we can certainly sense when it’s there- or when it’s not (I’m thinking of a ubiquitous shopping mall, hospital or school, where a feeling of heaviness and dread lies heavily in my stomach.)
Part of my experience was adapting myself to the Place, and not expecting the reverse to happen. I wore no make up for three weeks, washed my hair infrequently, ate and slept according to my natural rhythms and hardly planned my day, responding to the weather and my own whims. It was so liberating.
I strongly believe that certain places have healing powers, if we are open to them. Some of us feel a sense of calm and healing in churches or other old buildings, others at ancient sites like Stonehenge; for me it is the woods and by the sea, distant from traffic and man made madness. It is these feelings, which I was so lucky to be able to explore in depth, that will I think be informing my art- and life- in the months to come.
-Maryanne Hawes, AiR April 2017