Art of the west: See Devon through different eyes
Fiona Sturges hires a VW campervan and tours the artists' studios around the county
Saturday 27 August 2011
'Art" reads a tiny signpost skewered into the hedge at the end of three miles of narrow, winding road. All is quiet here in Bantham, a remote seaside village in south Devon, save for the gentle whisper of the trees. I have an appointment with Graham Fish, a 60-something painter, ex-hippy and surfer who has a studio in a huge converted barn. Over the past 30 years, Fish has been bringing the coastal landscape indoors through his atmospheric oil paintings, many of which are propped against the his studio walls.
He loves the sea, not just for the surfing but for the way it changes colour in different conditions and times of day. On a table in his studio lie 50 or so exquisite postcard-sized seascapes. Arranged together, like a large watery quilt, they form part of an ongoing project in which he chronicles the infinite changes on the horizon day-by-day. "Every morning, I wake up to something new," he says.
This is one of several stops on my whistle-stop trail of artists' studios in Devon. Next Saturday, about 180 artists will open their workshops to visitors for two weeks as part of the annual Devon Open Studios event. So far, I have seen mosaics of angels constructed from broken porcelain; felt bunting comprising rows of naked, middle-aged men; shimmering russet-coloured prints of charred gorse; and black and white photographs of farmers hoisting animal carcasses on to trailers during the foot-and-mouth crisis.
Worlds away from the enormous price tags of London's Cork Street, or the glossy modernism of the Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park, London, Devon Open Studios offers visitors the rare privilege of viewing art in the context of where and how it is made. And, should you feel like buying something, you're unlikely to have to re-mortgage your house to do so.
The county has long captivated artists with its dramatic landscapes. Local institutions such as the Cider Press Centre near Dartington, the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey and the Plymouth Arts Centre have long provided visitors with the edited highlights of Devon's artistic life. But creative types are now keen to show their work on their own terms, hence the burgeoning success of the Open Studios project.
Now in its seventh year, the event has grown inexorably from a handful of artists showing work in their garages and living rooms to a well-organised trail. Weavers, potters, glassblowers, photographers, printmakers, sculptors, jewellers, quilt-makers and wood-turners are all more than happy to explain their practices to visitors for a fortnight, over tea. The event costs nothing to the visitor and there is no prescribed route. The best bet is to pick through the brochure to see whose artwork appeals and just turn up on their doorstep.
In keeping with the Open Studio's air of bohemian cool and to take in as many studios as possible, my family and I have a chosen as our means of transport and accommodation a 1972 VW campervan. Her name is Uma, she's daffodil yellow and she's not keen on steep hills, which is unfortunate since there are many. But no matter. Uma is wonderfully self-contained, she's pretty and my four-year-old daughter thinks she's a playhouse on wheels.
We concentrate our visit on the central and southern parts of Devon, from the coast that lies west of Salcombe, via Totnes and Dartington, to Chagford and Okehampton. These are areas that cover what Devon does best: sea and moor.
It pays to pace yourself: over three days, we visit eight artists, enough to get a glimpse of the breadth of work on offer without suffering cultural overkill and still leaving time to enjoy the wider delights of Devon.
Few of the people that I meet were born in the county, though since moving here all have become fiercely devoted to the place. Indeed, geography is crucial to all the artists who work in this part of the world. The natural beauty of the area, be it the glowering, granite-strewn peaks of Dartmoor, the dinky hamlets of the South Hams or the spume-whipped villages on the coast, is grist to the mill for those who invariably look outside for inspiration.
Across the bay from Bantham is Janice Walton, a landscape artist whose art is in thrall to what is outside her window in Bigbury-on-Sea on Devon's south-west coast. Her attic studio looks out on to Burgh Island, home to a renowned Art Deco hotel that was the setting for several Agatha Christie novels. So in love is Walton with this vista that she has replicated it on countless canvases. Bigbury-on-Sea is also notable for the hordes that unfurl their deckchairs in the summer on the stretch of sand that links the mainland with the island. We roll up our trousers and hit the beach to join the sun-worshippers taking advantage of low tide, with Burgh Island in the middle distance.
The next day, we move inland to the moor where leafy lanes give way to a spread of desolate, heather-clad hills. We pass through Chagford, where we meet a felt maker who creates extraordinary, flower-strewn shrouds, and a potter who works out of a garden studio roughly the size of a telephone box.
A few miles away outside the village of Throwleigh, we visit Chris Chapman, whose photographs grace the permanent collections of London's V&A and the International Center of Photography in New York. While my daughter helps to feed the chickens, he tells me how his work was transformed by his move to Devon in the early Seventies.
Chris has devoted himself to documenting all aspects of Dartmoor life, from portraits of weather-beaten farmers herding their sheep down country lanes and livestock auctioneers at work, to fresh-faced soldiers on exercise. He also gives us the low-down on Dartmoor's best pubs. Thanks to him, we have a fantastic lunch in Widecombe at the Rugglestone Inn.
Nothing teaches you about a place better than the people who live there, of course, and viewing local art at such close quarters is a terrific way to remove yourself from the tourist trail. After three days of being welcomed into people's kitchens, being fed scones and tea, and learning about their work, we start to see Devon through the eyes of the artists who live here. It's a spectacular view.
* O'Connors Campers, based in Okehampton (01837 659599; oconnorscampers.co.uk), offers hire of two-, four-, five- and six-berth VW campervans. Prices start at £375 for four nights in September.
* Barley Meadow Camping and Caravan Park (01647 281629; barleymeadow.co.uk) has pitches starting at £17.30 for two people. Children under six stay free.
* The River Dart Country Park (01364 652511; riverdart.co.uk) offers pitches starting at £17 for two. Under threes stay free.
* Devon Open Studios runs 3-18 September. An event guide is available at devonartistnetwork.co.uk.
Standard opening times are 11am to 6pm, though on Thursdays (8 and 15 September) some studios will open until 8pm.
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