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Somerset Art Weeks

September 20, 2013




Nadja McDevitt  After life dry 2

When the concept of art weeks was invented, Oxford and Dorset being two of the earliest, they generated huge excitement.  Here was an opportunity to visit artists in their studios, to talk to them face to face about their work, their processes and their ideas.  Art weeks and open studios have come a long way since those days.   Every small town now seems to have its own art week event and anyone is able to participate. With new events happening every week, ironically, despite the choice many events lacked variety and the public was left unsure of where to go and what to see.  What was needed was an injection of  quality and new ideas.  Somerset Art Works started hosting a biennial Art Week in 1994 and then in 2009 initiated a Festival event in the intervening year, consisting of small exhibitions in public spaces and non-art venues rather than in artists’ studios. This not only gave artists a break from the relentless march of feet across the threshold of their studios but also drew punters into cafes, shops, restaurants, hotels, pubs and anywhere else where the public might be likely to make a visit.  A location based rather than studio event boosted the tourist trade and significantly increased the footfall in these venues and it also drew some of the commercial galleries back into the fold.  Traditionally buyers have often seen Open Studios as an opportunity acquire works at a significant discount undercutting gallery prices. This culture is changing though, as artists and buyers begin to acknowledge the important role that many galleries play in supporting the arts and promoting the work of their stable of artists.  Hauser and Wirth, a major player in international gallery terms, are currently constructing five gallery spaces for contemporary international art in Bruton and the director Alice Workman will be talking about their plans during the festival. This new complex is bound to raise the profile of Somerset as an art destination.

Leah Hislop


Leah Hislop

Somerset Art Works has continued to evolve, searching out new venues and innovative ways of bringing quality art to the public, encouraging people to leave the virtual worlds of laptop screen and ipad and go and look at something tangible.  Maybe get their feet wet or even muddy in pursuit of art sited in a garden, a farm or a field. Autumn being the time of harvests and the mists of mellow fruitfulness, ‘abundance’ is an appropriate buzz word for Somerset Arts Weeks Festival 2013


Collaboration and inclusivity are important elements this year as the festival diversifies.  The National Trust, the National Gardens Scheme, the RSPB, commercial enterprises, local suppliers and producers of paper, stone, willow, wood and leather have all been drawn into the mix. The Abundance Art Trail curated by SAW and developed in collaboration with the National Gardens Scheme will take visitors through a range of different experiences, making connections between the creativity of gardeners and that of artists through newly commissioned installations in eight different gardens. Schools are involved too.  A ‘pop up’ garden full of wire and willow flowers, butterflies and bumblebees created by children from Taunton primary schools with the help of artist Freya Morgan, will appear at various locations in the town during the fortnight. The Brainwave Centre, which specializes in unlocking the potential of children with a range of disabilities, is showcasing artwork made by their children.



Contains Art

Many of the exhibitions and venues are multi layered. There are crossovers between architecture, food, plants and local communities.  The Abundance Art Trail leads from the work of a plants man or woman, through an artist’s innovative response to the location of the garden, to the community surrounding it, through to the visitors who come from far away.  Alison Cockcroft uses the walled garden at Cannington as a frame so that visitors actually enter the artwork rather than viewing it from outside.  At Aller Farmhouse Leah Hislop creates a woven labyrinth, in response to the winding pathways of the garden itself and invites visitors to lose themselves in her created structure.  Gillian Widden”s Horn of plenty at Little Yarford Farmhouse invites visitors to experience the six foot opening of the horn.

Simon LedsonSAW13


Simon Ledson

There is plenty of the standard fare which makes Art Weeks events appealing:   landscape painting, colourful still lives, pottery, photography, glass and textiles.  But these are balanced by other offerings that intrigue and entertain, ask questions and provoke. As an organization SAW delights in introducing visitors to new ways of looking at and thinking about art. In typically challenging fashion OSR Projects in West Coker are hosting an exhibition by a mystery artist group taking a sideways swipe at the celebrity culture at the top end of the art scene.  As part of the Abundance Art Trail Sue Palmer takes as her subject a garden that no longer exists.  She traces the journey of some of the seeds and plants, which were removed when Hadspen Garden near Castle Cary was dismantled. Her screen-based response can be seen at the National Trust Garden and house, Tintinhull. Some exhibiting groups like that at Shave Farm are already part of an existing studio complex and the artists’ work alongside each other all year round. But most of the groupings are a one off opportunity for artists to come together to exhibit for two weeks thus creating a new dynamic and making connections not only between themselves as practitioners but with the venue as well.



Melanie Tomlinson Left: ‘The Waiting Forest’ Praxinoscope and Right: ‘Somerset River’ Praxinoscope. Photos © Richard Battye 2013

In a specially commissioned SAW project ‘The Company of Cranes’, Melanie Tomlinson exhibits pre-cinema objects including zoetropes, revealing through illustration and the moving image, her journey from the collection of crane eggs in Germany to the eventual re-introduction of these birds, after an absence of 400 years, onto the Somerset levels. At Barrington Court, ‘Make the Most’ is another collaboration, between SAW, the National Trust and Craftspace from Birmingham who curated the exhibitions. Site-specific installations by internationally –renowned makers are scattered throughout the building and alongside these is an exhibition by more locally based makers. The inclusion of high profile artists and a range of work from cutting edge contemporary to quality crafts is a deliberate policy by SAW to raise the level of all the work on show and to encourage emerging artists to become involved.  SAW is keen to continue to attract the public funding which is essential in facilitating many of the commissioned projects.


All this exciting stuff takes advantage of existing organisations, businesses and venues in Somerset.  It places work of international, national, local and emerging artists in the same arena allowing a cross fertilization of ideas which is enriching for all those involved. This is part of an holistic approach which sees the work that artists do as part of the rich life that exists in a place.  It is part of the cultural life of these rural communities, cultural life in its broadest sense so that it includes history, the changing seasons, the growth of plants and animals, the making of art and music and the fostering of delight and excitement in all these things throughout every age group and every strata of the community.

2. Ship Shed, Footdee

Kirsten Cooke   Ship Shed, Footdee

© Fiona Robinson August 2013

This article was commissioned by Evolver for Somerset Art Works and first published in Evolver 77, September and October 2013



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