Woollen Line

Turning right off the main road in the middle of Crickhowell, just before The Bear, up a narrow one-way street, you arrive at The Courtyard. Once a farmyard, the old stables have been turned into boutique shops, the farmhouse stands empty, and along one side is a large stone barn. Until very recently it was filled with left-over builders’ material, discarded furniture and piles of rubble. Pip Woolf and Gil Chambers have cleared out the rubbish, leveled the floor and prepared it for Woollen Line, an art exhibition curated by Kirsty Claxton.

There is a dark scar in the peat bog on the top of Pen Trumau in the Black Mountains just a few miles away from Crickhowell, the result of a fire in 1976 that exposed the area to the sun, wind and rain. Over the years the vulnerable peat has been scorched, blown away or washed down the hillside. Three years ago Pip took on the daunting task of attempting to repair the damage by laying lines of felted sheep’s wool along the scar. This, she hoped, would slow down the flow of rainwater, stop the erosion and allow plant life to re-establish itself. In doing this she was also working as an artist, drawing a line across the landscape (see http://woollenline.wordpress.com/).

I’ve been up to see the bog on Pen Trumau twice: it is a challenging hike, the last part very steep. It is bleak up there and the damage is very evident, with deep gullies furrowing through the black peat. Pip has been up there more times than she can count, often taking volunteers to carry and help lay out the wool. Several lines of wool have been pegged down over the damaged area, the newer ones bright white across the hillside, while the first to be laid have turned peaty brown and settled into the landscape.

Is this conservation or is it art? It is important that it is both at the same time. It seems to me that only someone with an artist’s eye would undertake such a project, see it in all its aesthetic, ecological and community dimensions, be able to navigate their way through the various interest groups and organizations—the parks authority, the graziers, the conservationists and many others. Maybe only an artist, less constrained by social roles and norms, would have the freedom, boldness and originality to approach such an enormous and complex task.

In contrast to the wide-open space of the hilltop, the exhibition space is enclosed and dark, the artworks picked out in pools of light. It’s a multimedia show with paintings and photographs, installations and videos exploring themes of fragility, fragmentation, carbon and collaboration, set in the strange beauty of the Black Mountains. Much of the work was first shown in the formal surroundings of the museum in Brecon (funded by the Arts Council of Wales). In this old barn, treading on a floor covered with reclaimed peat, with the window slots stuffed with wool, I felt closer to the work, more intimate with the artists’ response. Most of the people walking round with me are local, braving the cold and wet March evening. They seem to be more engaged with the exhibition than the usual crowd at a private view, as if they appreciate being shown something of their locality and its preciousness through a different lens.

There are important questions here. Can an artist’s eye give us a more encompassing appreciation of the world in which we live? As the exhibition brochure tells us, “A 1% loss per year of soil carbon would increase net Welsh carbon emissions by 25%…” Can an aesthetic response to the bog help us more deeply understand the science? Can it help us experience ourselves as part of the landscape and the planet?

The exhibition is open Saturday afternoons through to April 28 and at other times by appointment. The artists represented are Elizabeth Adeline, Kirsty Claxton, Crickhowell High School Students, Lin Charlston, and Pip Woolf.