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Getting in place

Updated: May 16

Being an 'artist in residence' and how I currently locate myself.

'You can’t paint reality: you can only paint your own place in it, the view from your eyes, as manifested by your own hands'

Olivia Laing*

I've called my art and farming project 'Imprinted Place'. Although the 'place' is the farming landscape of North Shropshire, it is also internal: a remembered place and a future imagined place and a parallel place. And other people's places. Imprints are created in printmaking by changing a surface and taking an impression, a process of reversal and transference that feels close to a magical ritual of uncovering meaning**. I've also increasingly been considering how we take imprints from the landscapes and places we inhabit and then bring our own over-layered maps and interpretations to what is in front of us: things imprinted on our selves and transferred back to colour our parsing of the world. Walking through my current landscape around Weston Rhyn where the flat Shropshire plains meet the Welsh hills I see what's in front of me with a welcome impurity. My connection to this place is misty with traces of previous places, current thoughts about what land is and how it works, and visions of the future. Everywhere there are imprints of other peoples activities: work and leisure going back hundreds of years. I collect something like 'dyestuff' but think of it as 'picturestuff'. It is a mix of imprints that are old, new, future, sometimes mine and sometimes not. It is drawings, conversations, thoughts and scraps of wool from the wire fences. I imagine myself as a sheep person: a big woolly creature rolling around in the landscape, crawling through hedges and picking up seeds and briars and muck and mystery that gets entwined and felted in the mix. I'll take this mix back and put it together into pictures in the studio. I have no idea if I can hold or shape it all or any of it but I'm willing to try.

Here are some of the imprints I might bring to the landscapes I see: I am Welsh and English and probably a lot of other things. I am an artist, a craftsperson, a maker, a farmer, a land-worker, a plant minded person and now a 'landowner' of a small farm. I work hard and with stamina and I love doing nothing at all. I'm into science and data. I recently discovered I like weightlifting, especially deadlifts. I have a deep interest in ecology, land and food based labour, and printmaking as an original art form. Drawing is important to me and helps with processing my experiences and thoughts. I grew up off grid on a smallholding in West Wales, the granddaughter of self sufficiency advocates John and Sally Seymour and located in a tribe of creative counter culture people who grew a lot of their own food and cared about access to land, connection to food systems and ecology. There was an emphasis on working with your hands, creating beautiful and useful things and art being a completely normal and necessary way to spend your time. It sounds idyllic, some of it was, a lot of it was hard and didn't really work very well. I worked for many years in sustainable agriculture, spending a lot of time on East African smallholdings, and this was where I started to make art.

Pembrokeshire around 1985

The inquiry that led to this project is fed by a life of interest in land use, concern about climate change and ecological destruction, food production, connection and wellness and how art and creativity fits in and around and through it all.

Despite having called myself an artist for about 8 years, I still so often don't really understand what this means or what to do. Then I do it. Despite some obvious privileges I have scrabbled a just-about career together the entire time lurching from commission to academia and very nearly going extinct several times. This first few days of residency funded by the UMFFTA have been an education in terms of what it means to situate yourself in an environment (in my case the lambing shed) whilst calling yourself an artist. The settling feeling of having time and space to think is truly profound after a busy few years of motherhood, often squeezing in guilty moments to make work. This feeling of peace and particularly permission to take time feels to me as fresh as the wind, an experience that is joyously ringing with possibility. There have definitely been awkwardnesses. It's a bit weird to hang around on the farm and draw and also pitch in with some jobs: often I feel like an interloper and often fail to get the right words out to explain myself to the patient people around me going about their daily labours. In the past this might have stopped me even trying, but now this awkwardness seems like a crucial 'picturestuff' and is absorbed into the whole. The outcome of the residency days on different sites will be several series of print editions and also some collaborative works. The few days I've already spent have been so rich with ideas I feel I could already fill a gallery with images. I think this is working.

On permission: coming quite late to a creative career I have found hangups accumulating like some kind of restrictive plaque on my spirit. Feeling not wanted or welcome in real world or thought areas has shut down areas of my map: locations I might otherwise have sent scouts to gather and bring back ideas, pictures and pathways. A recent stepping in to permission has occurred and with it a bravery to investigate and make art about areas I have shied away from despite a strong urge to travel there. The politics of land management, farming and food in a climate crisis are very raw and there is a lot of change happening across the UK. I have found the discourse of late is often very shouty, hierarchical and inhospitable from all sides, tending to funnel to a dead end and hopelessness. With the knowledge that all I'll ever really be doing is picturing ' own place in it', I will to try to open up a little space by making some pictures about what happens to land in my small home patch and how some of the people who live and farm here feel about it. I will also have the opportunity to share some of this art making with others through workshops and events and I'm hoping to cultivate real hospitality in what I do.

Supported by the Ulrike Michal Foundation for the Arts/ Cefnogwyd gan Sylfaen Ulrike Michal i’r Celfyddydau

*Laing, Olivia. Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency, Picador, Main Market edition, 2021.

**I highly recommend Jennifer Roberts lectures on printmaking as an artform:

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