The project involved six women artists exploring the lives and work of three women hill farmers – living and working closely together with them at significant times during the course of one year.
THE FARMERS: Mary Lou North, Sue Peach, Juliette Rich.
THE ARTISTS: Louise Evans & Jennie Hayes, Tot Foster & Maddy Pethick, Penny Klepuszewska & Anthea Nicholson.
It was an exhibition of fragments and impressions – the sort of fragments that we somehow know are important, and that we all gather and hoard for a while, or carry inside our heads as memories: photographs, drawings, notes recorded in sound, video or written form, bits of string, curious stones and bits of metal or wood picked up off the ground, old cards and messages , snatches of conversation…
Now, a few days after coming away from the exhibition, a collection of fragments is exactly what I am left with: drifting half-remembered words, sounds and pictures – of people, animals and land – which together conjure an intense experience of a particular time and place. Except that it was not my experience. I have not actually been to these Dartmoor farms, and have never met the people concerned. But I feel as though I have.
Amongst my internal collection I have: A large b/w photo of a long-haired girl feeding a lamb : “the first thing I do when arriving home from school is attend to the animals”.
Charcoal drawings of the landscape, that speak directly of its special character.
A large illustrated journal, bound in a feed sack – (Some of Anthea Nicholson’s beautiful notebook drawings and writings can be found on the Aune Head Arts website).
The Cabinet of Curiosities – a couple of Edwardian specimen cabinets or dentist’s cabinets, containing intimate personal memories – so personal, so universally significant. Open the drawers and hear the voices of the people telling the stories – of tough times, of caring for the livestock – the voices drawing attention to the objects within.
I stood mesmerised by a colour photograph of a drowned mouse, as I heard the voice in the background saying ‘ … its nose was just breaking the surface of the water, and I thought of the hours and hours it must have spent struggling before it died… every whisker was spread and enveloped in surface algae.’ Thus, inescapably, I was drawn into what in another part of the exhibition one of the artists described as ‘the knowing intimacy with life and death every day’.
At the same time, a continuing light background of birdsong reminded me that I was not actually there. I felt a strange dislocation of time and place – detached, yet profoundly moved, and I mused upon the unsentimental and apparently callous impartiality of nature.
Having myself recently experienced a year living in a remote rural area, I recognised absolutely the comments of artist Tot Foster elsewhere in the exhibition – “Farming for me has a confusing ambiguity – simultaneously caring and brutal, innocent and cruel”.
And on the sadness and cruelty of nature, she continued – “the farm has a dignity that cannot ultimately be undone by whatever stories are told, or whatever happens. The sound and flow of the stream can be threatening, but it is also redemptive, purifying and healing. It embodies the ambiguities of this place”.
WOMEN IN FARMING runs at Exeter Phoenix until April 12th, 2008. Details on www.exeterphoenix.org.uk.
To find out more about Aune Head Arts and WOMEN IN FARMING, see their website, www.auneheadarts.org.uk .
PS – This is, of course, just my own personal take on the show. There are many other interesting aspects – but too long for a blog post.