North Wales is proving to be the perfect backdrop for a wealth of artists and creatives. Janet Hill paints a beatiful picture of how the region is proving to be quite the inspiration…
I’ve long felt that art and nature have an ancient, deeply special relationship, and that having a connection with the natural world can feed – and free – the imagination. And looking at the wealth of creatives and artists now living and working in North Wales, it seems I’m not alone.
Forced out of London and other big cities by unaffordable housing and studio space, more artists than ever are leaving their ‘traditional’ habitats (think a shoebox-sized flat in Shoreditch) and setting up their home – and easel – in the countryside. As Bedwyr Williams, an artist who recently represented Wales at the Venice Biennale, said in an article in The Guardian about his Caernarfonshire home: “At least if I’m skint here, I can look at the mountains.”
But this shift from big cities to rural living is about more than just the recession and rising rents. As artists have started to look outside the big cities for their permanent home, they’ve also found a rich artistic history and a wealth of inspiration. Personally, I don’t have to search very far in my local area for an example: The Oriel Bodfari Gallery in my home village is situated on the Offas Dyke path in the Clwydian Hills and is a hotbed of Welsh talent and creativity. Established by ceramic artist Rebecca Parrin in 2014, the gallery has gone from strength to strength, hosting regular exhibitions, workshops, a range of local jewellery and homewares and an annual summer gala.
At The Hills, I’m passionate about promoting all kinds of rural businesses and enterprises, but I must admit that those organisations which represent the arts are perhaps closest to my heart. For example, Ruthin Craft Centre celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. It does a superb job of organising a full programme of exhibitions, talks, events and workshops, as well as a shop packed full of unique gifts from some of the top Welsh crafters and makers. There’s also Theatr Clwyd: an outstanding theatre committed to creating and promoting world-class theatre and supporting the future of the arts with their investment and nurturing of fresh new talent.
But this is really only the beginning – in North Wales, you really can take your pick of artists. Alison Bradley’s Gallery is based in Betws-y-Coed; a beautiful village steeped in a rich artistic history. As Alison proudly declares: “It was the home of Britain’s first Artists’ Colony from 1844 to 1914 before developing into the popular tourist destination it is today.” Her original oil paintings and charcoal drawings convey the essence of North Wales in pictorial form – the history, the nature, the character and, of course, the beauty.
Another hugely talented Welsh creative, Abbie Hulson, specialises in personalised animal portraits. Her work spans a wide spectrum from delicate and moving horse studies in graphite to dynamic and characterful ink and acrylic ‘adrenaline junkies’.
“I’m now venturing into family portraits. After recently finding out that I have such a rich history on my father’s side I’ve become obsessed with wanting to paint them. I paint using the same technique as I paint animals. The organic mistakes that happen create a worn antiqued effect a bit like the timeworn photos that I work from,” she says. “I have entered one into this year’s North Wales Open held at the Theatre Clwyd which, fingers crossed, gets accepted!”
In the future Abbie plans on paying visits to residential homes to listen to other people’s stories and share their photographs. “I find it quite sad at the local market when you see house clearances and someone’s history strewn across the floor as people rummage through for a bargain,” she adds. “I would like to take some of the old photos and to paint them, to give them a new lease of life like it once had when it was first taken. It would be great if someone recognised the painting and I could find the story behind photograph.”
Meanwhile wood sculptor Mike Owens has a beautifully deep connection to both his art and the materials that he works with and creates a priceless resource for those who follow in his shoes. “My family’s history is interwoven with my woods, providing a constant source of inspiration and pride as well as raw material,” he explains. “The wood from which I carve my sculpture and sculptural furniture pieces is from trees managed by my great grandfather and grandfather both. I hope that my own conservation and forestry management work will, in time, continue to provide a plentiful supply of quality trees for future generations of craftsmen and artists. I am very aware that this unique bond is at the heart of many aspects of the creative process.” This type of devotion to our countryside and creative process is surely a testament to his talents.
And last but certainly not least, one of my favourite Welsh contemporary artists is the astonishing Jan Gardner, born and based in Conwy. Her wild and colourful dream landscapes are half-fantasy, half-reality – free, fluid, vivid and wholly life-affirming. She describes them as being a “highly personal narrative about a sense of place” but also comprising “associated memory and emotion” and “the magic of the unseen”. Her pieces feel so celebratory, and much of that celebration is tied to her portrayal of the sights and scenery of North Wales. Her work on ‘Epic Shores and Inner Worlds’ will be exhibited in The Royal Cambrian Academy in Conwy from July until September this year, so you can see her paintings in person and get a real sense of their power. Who on earth stereotyped the countryside as sleepy?
But it’s not all paint and sculpture, we’re also blessed that the arts as a whole in North Wales are thriving, as playwrights ‘Murdering The Text’ have shown as they prepare scripts for am-dram groups all over the UK. What started as a murder mystery fundraising exercise has blossomed into a thriving business to much applause from local audiences!
We’re so fortunate here in North Wales to enjoy such a rich artistic culture, but that idea of ‘fortunate’ is both superficial and runs deeper. We’re fortunate in that we’re surrounded by beautiful images and artwork – and who doesn’t like to look at pretty pictures? – but did you know that there are numerous studies pointing to the measurable benefits of a) art and b) nature on our mental health and general wellbeing? In fact, Arts Council England funded scientific research into this very topic, and a recent study led by artist Mark Ware looked at the impact of nature-inspired visual art on our brains. Using stunning canvases of digitally-produced symmetrical patterns inspired by nature (tree branches, leaves and so on) displayed in locations such as the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Exeter Cathedral, participants were asked to view the artwork and then complete some specially-designed tasks while their eye-movement was monitored by specialist equipment. The result? Study participants found that the images evoked a more positive mental state. Put simply: art can make you feel better, but art that focuses on the natural world can make you feel better still. n
So if you’re feeling in need of a lift, my prescription is a simple one. Check out the wealth of talented artists in the North Wales area and indulge in some art therapy, starting right on your doorstep.
Janet Hill lives at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with her two children, six cats, six dogs and an assortment of wild ducks. She is the founder of The Hills, a new website that promotes the too-often unsung heroes and beauties of our British countryside.