A ghostly, sunless landscape awaited us the morning we met with Rebecca Spooner at the secluded Llanthony Priory: looming trees, mist-shrouded fields, patches of snow scattered across the surrounding hilltops and the priory’s evocative ruins reminding us of the imposing abbey in Andrei Tarkovsky’s hauntingly beautiful ending scene of Nostalghia.
Absorbing quietly the strong sense of timelessness of the place, we conversed with Rebecca inside the hiemal, echoing walls of St David’s Church and around the Priory’s surviving arches about her role as Creative Director of Peak Cymru, the contemporary art scene in the Black Mountains and how to facilitate access to contemporary art and culture in the region.
What is fundamental to Rebecca’s intentions is her admirable drive to build bridges between the urban and the rural culture and to show that there is an abundance of noteworthy contemporary imagery emerging organically from an area so rich in secret or unappreciated places.
For people who don’t know you, who is Rebecca Spooner? Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in a small village on the Gwent Levels. I often went to Newport on weekends when I was a teenager and as soon as I got off the bus headed straight to the Museum and Art Gallery to look at the paintings. I loved the Peter Blake. The impact that regional galleries have on young people’s lives can be transformational. Going to art college, thanks to the encouragement of one art teacher in my comprehensive school, was the best thing I ever did. I was a visual artist for 10 years in Cardiff, specialising in film and photography installation, using older forms of technology like cine film and Polaroid. I always combined my life as an artist with working for arts organisations but when I made the move to the Black Mountains in 2011 to start working at Peak (formerly Arts Alive Wales), I realised I was spreading my energy too thinly. I made the decision to step back from my own art to focus entirely on developing Peak, which has been a very fulfilling experience. The training I received in the visual arts has been invaluable and it’s stayed with me. I know a good line from bad when I see it.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Staying out all day building dens in the woods with my sister and cousins. Total freedom.
Tell us about Peak’s visual arts programme. What is the driving force behind the programme and how is it received by the local community?
Peak works with professional artists and communities responding to our rural environment. We don’t have a gallery space, we work in the landscape and in unexpected places including caves, quarries, peat bogs, canals and an adapted horsebox as a mobile studio. All our work with artists reflects our context; we aim to make work that’s intimate, immersive, physical and grounded in a sense of place. To do this we collaborate with a range of organisations such as Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, Canal & River Trust, Green Man and Abergavenny Food Festival. I think people are curious about the interplay between new art and rural culture and how the two can inform each other.
We’ve got a wonderful loyal, local audience that has really supported Peak over the years. Although our arts audience is always going to be relatively small compared with an inner city, people make a real effort to get to our events, they want to be there and are attentive and responsive. We’re also starting to produce bespoke digital content alongside each project to reach a wider and diverse online audience.
Participation is at the heart of Peak. Our studio in Crickhowell runs a programme of classes focused on traditional skills like pottery, weaving and basket making. We run a year round programme focused on children and young people across the region including a creative writing project supported by BBC Children in Need and a craft project with young homeless people supported by the Health Lottery.
How has the contemporary art scene in the Black Mountains evolved since Peak’s visual arts programme started four years ago?
We’ve got brilliant artists based in the Black Mountains, Melissa Appleton, Helen Sear, Stefhan Caddick, Andreas Ruthi, Morag Colquhoun, Ella Gibbs to name but a few. I don’t think I’m imagining it but it seems like more contemporary artists are living and working in the area. I’m not saying that’s because of Peak but I’m very glad that those artists gravitate towards us when they get here.
There are a lot of well-established artists and not so many recent graduates, as you’d expect, but returning graduates tend to get in contact with Peak and we do our best to keep hold of them and support their practice. It’s important for us to nurture that healthy mix of younger and more experienced artists.
There are many complications for people living rurally, including lack of access to public transport, public services, higher education and employment opportunities. Access to contemporary culture is fairly low on the list of priorities but I think there’s a growing confidence in the contemporary arts in the Black Mountains, and more broadly in rural places. There’s a lot more opportunity to show new work outside the urban centres.
Throughout the years you have collaborated and developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales and beyond. Can you tell us about the biggest challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in the Black Mountains at this moment in time?
I think the experience I’ve had as a Creative Director working in the Black Mountains may in some ways be similar to that of our artists. You can feel isolated from your peers in a rural place, and feel slightly outside of the conversation. Most artists here make a concerted effort to travel and see new work, build connections and reach wider audiences. Conversely this proactive approach can give artists in rural places an edge over artists who stay put in the city.
Exchange is really important, I want Peak to develop more opportunities to support our artists in the Black Mountains to meet with other artists here and elsewhere. We’ve created links with artists at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire and The Art House, Wakefield that have led to collaborations. You don’t know what can come out of just one meeting. There’s a lot more Peak can do to encourage this exchange of experience and perspective.
What do you find is unique about the Black Mountains’ art community?
I find the artists in the Black Mountains very generous with their time and energy; they support each other – and me. The pace of the arts scene here is very different from a city, it’s softly spoken and considered. Many of the artists are deeply connected to a sense of place and/or community and their work reflects this. The artists travel deeper rather than wider. They have integrity.
What more could be done to raise awareness about contemporary art and to encourage people to engage with art on a wider scale?
There’s good and bad contemporary art. Let’s assume we’re talking about the good stuff. There needs to be more access to good art outside of the metropolitan centres. If people can access it easily they’ll generally go and have a look. There’s a real richness in work that is made outside the city and that doesn’t always get represented in major galleries. We could have more of a dialogue between an urban/international culture and a rural/regional culture. Hull City of Culture 2017 was excellent. The galleries were packed with all sorts of people of all ages and the volunteers were incredibly warm and welcoming ‒ you don’t find that often enough in galleries.
Providing our children and young people with an expansive, creative education is so important and yet it is simply not valued enough. When Peak takes a group of young people to a large gallery that they’ve never experienced before, like Ikon, Glynn Vivian or Arnolfini, within an hour they’re walking round the place like they own it. It’s great to see that confidence and the focus on looking at art, feeling, thinking and articulating (in that order).
What are you working on at the moment and where would you like to take Peak next?
I feel very fortunate to have been selected as the Arts Council of Wales Clore Fellow for 2017/18 and I’m working away from Peak until summer 2018. The Clore Leadership Programme aims to develop and strengthen leadership across the cultural sector. As part of my Fellowship I’m looking forward to a three-month secondment at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.
As for Peak, we’ll be developing a second international residency in the Brecon Beacons National Park following on from the first residency in 2016 with artist Rebecca Chesney. We’re also planning a large-scale professional development project to support emerging and established artists in the region to learn from each other. There’s a real energy at Peak and it feels like we’re just getting started.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Country and the City by Raymond Williams, 1973. Raymond Williams was born in Pandy, near Abergavenny, his father was a railwayman and I often think of Williams as a "signal man" – pointing the way ahead. I can never look at landscape in the same way again after reading this book. I became aware of the sheer amount of manual sweat and exploitation involved in producing the beautiful ‘view’ of the countryside and the interconnectedness and contradictions between the urban and rural – and all the places in between. I’d also recommend watching a marvellous documentary film, which was made for the television series Where We Live Now: The Country and the City, produced by Mike Dibb (1979). Many of the artists Peak work with are deeply influenced by Williams and his socialist perspectives.
A film: I was recently reminded of the film Radio On, by Chris Petit and co-produced by Wim Wenders, 1979. It’s essentially a moody road movie, cross-country from London to Bristol. It has an incredible new wave soundtrack and an odd cameo from Sting as an Eddie Cochran loving mechanic. Make of that what you will. The film is heavily influenced by European cinema and it’s really interesting to see that aesthetic applied to a British landscape and context.
A song: The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth, an English composer killed by a sniper in the Battle of the Somme 1916. I don’t listen to music much because it arouses my emotions too readily. Maybe everyone has some kind of place in them that they know they can never get back to. This song has an essence of that, something just out of reach. The song was introduced to me by a man with whom I had a transformational relationship, so it also has deeply romantic associations for me.
A circular walk: I like to make a day of this walk in the Black Mountains. From Crickhowell walk to the top of Table Mountain (an Iron Age hill fort) and down the back of it towards Llanbedr. From the village descend to the river and follow the woodland path south to Llangenny. Stop off at The Dragon’s Head for a swift half then follow the lanes back to Crickhowell. Walking in the Black Mountains in Spring can be overwhelming, the whole place feels richly abundant. I watch the lambs being born in the open fields. The land is potent. It holds you.
Rebecca answers Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire:
1 – Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
She walked quickly and determinedly across the bridge and skirted the dark perimeter of the park, aware that whatever was following her was still quietly in pursuit.
2 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3 – Look at your watch. What time is it?
4 – How do you explain this – or these – discrepancy(ies) in time?
I was close enough.
5 – Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
Yes. Ask any Radnorshire farmer.
6 – Do you believe in astrological predictions?
Yes. I’m your quintessential Leo woman.
7 – Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
No. Although a friend recommended learning astronomy as a useful activity for single women to practice so I might take it up.
8 – What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I try not to think about such things, just empty my mind and use my eyes.
9 – What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
The log fire.
10 – What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
Each place is quite distinct. I had a feeling of being stood in the clearing of a forest when I visited Canterbury cathedral. Partrishow Church, tucked away in the Brecknockshire hills is remarkable, you can sense a connection to old time, almost a pagan influence.
11 – What would you have “seen” had you been blind?
Something like the northern lights. Swirling luminous colour.
12 – What would you want to see if you were blind?
People’s facial expressions.
13 – Are you afraid?
On a surface level I’m nervous of lots of things. But on a deeper, soul level I’m not afraid of anything.
14 – What of?
The usual, I’m not enthusiastic about spiders, heights, public humiliation. The list goes on.
15 – What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
I watched The Triple Echo (1972) based on an HE Bates novella, with Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. Reed was suitably weird. A very tense ending.
16 – Whom are you afraid of?
17 – Have you ever been lost?
As a small child I got lost at Bristol zoo.
18 – Do you believe in ghosts?
Yes. Both my parents have had experiences of ghosts at different times in their lives.
19 – What is a ghost?
Perhaps a kind of trapped spirit.
20 – At this very moment, what sound(s) can you hear, apart from the computer?
The little dog barking next door. The radio in the kitchen.
21 – What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard – for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
There’s a famous M.R James ghost story called Whistle And I’ll Come To You. I watched the Jonathon Miller 1968 BBC adaptation. There’s a scene in which the main character is woken in the night to the sound of a sheet on the spare bed twisting and unfurling by itself in the dark. There was something about that sound that was terrifying – possibly the fact that it was made by a simple bed sheet but was so evocative of a malevolent human presence.
22 – Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
I select one Tarot card for myself every morning. Does that count?
23 – Have you ever been to confession?
24 – You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
Not likely. If you were a priest I’d gladly confess.
25 – Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
A contained space for a collector to display strange and inspiring objects.
26 – Do you believe in redemption?
What else is there?
27 – Have you dreamed tonight?
I’ll tell you in the morning.
28 – Do you remember your dreams?
Yes, mostly. I write down the important ones.
29 – What was your last dream?
A musician I know thanked me for introducing him to the book The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
30 – What does fog make you think of?
Growing up in a village on the Gwent Levels. When we walked to school on foggy mornings horns would sound from the estuary and you could hear the electricity pylons crackling in the damp atmosphere.
31 – Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
32 – What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
A beautiful oil painting of a triangle of light on the road beneath Maesycwmmer Viaduct. The artist Philip Watkins is a marvelous Welsh painter. I’m very glad to have this painting on my wall.
33 – If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
34 – What is a madman?
Perhaps someone who has become completely disconnected from themselves.
35 – Are you mad?
No. I’m not going to hurt you.
36 – Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
They don’t interest me.
37 – What was the last weird book you read?
One quite weird book I read recently (although I find the word ‘weird’ rather reductive) was A Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot. The story had a stifling atmosphere and was about the crumbling identity of a single, middle-aged, middle class woman in the second world war, who didn’t have much to fight for.
38 – Would you like to live in a castle?
Not particularly. They always seem damp and draughty.
39 – Have you seen something weird today?
No, but I heard something weird on the radio that stayed with me. It’s too complex for me to describe here.
40 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
I love the film ‘if...' by Lindsay Anderson, that’s quite weird.
41 – Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
If I could live there with some of my friends that could be quite fun.
42 – Can you see the future?
No, but sometimes I get a sense of where things may be leading.
43 – Have you considered living abroad?
No, I have too strong an affinity with the British weather.
44 – Where?
45 – Why?
46 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
I don’t own films.
47 – Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Yes, it sounds quite cosy.
48 – What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
Hard to pick one. The Hearing Trumpet by the surrealist writer and painter Leonora Carrington is wonderfully weird, it’s about the adventures of a group of elderly ladies in a care home.
49 – Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
50 – Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
Antique magnifying glasses.
51 – What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
Mud and weeds.
52 – Do you like taxidermied animals?
Yes. I have a lovely stuffed tawny owl on my bookshelf. A friend of mine found some lads kicking it around like a football and she ran in and took it from them. She gave it to me.
53 – Do you like walking in the rain?
Oh yes, especially in the Black Mountains.
54 – What goes on in tunnels?
A curious momentary collapse of time and space.
55 – What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
The golden lamp on the table in the corner of the room.
56 – What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
A vision of a lone hero battling his own demons.
57 – Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
I don’t know. How ignorant.
58 – Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
I like walking in the woods at dusk as the day turns into night.
59 – Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
A sudden and violent hailstorm chased the remaining mourners away from the fresh graveside.
60 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
61 – Look at your watch. What time is it?
7:49 pm. I’m getting better at it.
Thank you, Rebecca for the lovely company and eye-opening conversation.