CACiS 2018: Grooming the Land

A story of love, loss and creative angst.

It is said, you can never go back- similar to the idea of not being able to step into the same river twice. The water is moving, everything in the world is in a state of constant flux including our own internal landscapes. I am always reminded of this when I return to one of my favourite places in the world.IMG_20181101_165930.jpg

This was my fourth visit since 2010 – for a month’s duration at the same time of year – to the outskirts of a small town in Cataluña just North West of Barcelona.  Getting into what I will call the low foothills of the Pyrenees sits the small of town Artes surrounded by some local manufacturing, lots of vineyards and other agriculture. CACiS -3 km out of town- is the home of a community that in some ways runs parallel to my own. Roser Oduber and Joan Vendrell began CACIS in 2008 with the desire to host artists on their land to connect with the place and the community. They have raised their family on this past site of a lime quarry; rehabilitating the surrounding land by replanting terraced areas into forest in which old Roman road emerge.

Centre d’Art Contemporani i Sostenibilitat basically translates to Centre for Contemporary Art and Dialogue in Sustainability, and I have been so fortunate  to participate in creating work on site and witnessing (and being part of)  Roser and Joan’s community growing deeper roots. David and I become more connected each trip to the people we have met, the various trees and rocks we sit and work beside and everything else so much the terroir of the place.

Somehow it feels like a second home that is a nine hour time-zone change from our first home.

I sink into this place unlike any other and feel like my eyes can’t drink up enough of the landscape- can’t build enough internalized moments for later recall – of watching the grasses blow in the breeze or how the sun shines through the pine trees …the landscape is fragrant with juniper, pine, rosemary, lavender and thyme -did I mention that part?

I want to drink up as much of the place as I can literally with soups and teas made from foraging and if I was there longer I have no doubt I would want to try to start a distillery.

So there I am this October going back- stepping back into that river, knowing it will be different – not what I have experienced before – yet I am still taken by surprise in where the unexpected is found. In the past I have been thrown off by how dry the plants were after a 4 month drought, versus the abundant flexible vines and plants I harvested for weaving on my first stay. I have also been thrown off by complete language fails in regards to successful communicating. It is always a time of being aware of my human-ness and experiencing both connection and disconnection.

A part of my adjustment always comes from feeling like 4 weeks is such a short precious amount of time to connect to a place and engage in some meaningful way so everything is more intense. I need to be able to make every day “count” in some way- moving towards whatever the eventual project or outcome I have planned.

The other piece to this is of course what I have left behind… the ‘ who I have stepped out of being’ to come this place and live another life for a month.

As a person with a seasonal calendar to my work life, it turns out when I arrive at CACiS I am always trying to skid to a stop after a summer of workshops and events followed by September harvests. This year it was going to be a definite slow down and internal speed reset after the Land & Sea Project and Local Threads Exhibition which we took down the day before I left town.

My intentions this time was to build upon my last trip of  weaving shoes and directional walks and adapt the current group walking and spinning practice from Vancouver to the forest at CACiS. Using the spun wool, I hoped to then push my understanding of back-strap looms from ‘nothing to something’ so I could weave on the land and leave a piece behind. My own natural dye practice has developed since I began coming to this place, I have recognized many plants when I walk and wanted to add this way of knowing a place to my own vocabulary with the land.

Artist’s Angst, enter stage left.

Days spent walking, carding wool, walking, spinning, carding wool, walking, carding, spinning wool. It was good medicine to shake off the city and a life driven for far too long by a full days of a never-ending task-list. Everything was lush, green, water was flowing like I had never seen before and there was evidence everywhere of how powerful the water can be with newly exposed roots, new cuts in the land and puddles that looked like ponds. I found places where the madder roots were exposed for harvesting, and where the land was so wet they just lifted up from the land. It was curiously the most visceral, invasive and intimate experience I have had there; digging my bare hands into loose soil and running my fingertips up the madder root length and choosing what to pull up or leave behind. I have spent the last year planning and hosting conversations around history of place, traditional land access, inherent land/resource rights for Indigenous People, and delving into how challenging and complex this issue is and here I am, this  ‘landless, placeless’ person arriving and digging my hands in the ground pulling up roots questioning the whole time if my work is worthy of the invasion. How do I make something good enough to justify this?

The answer is I didn’t. After a week of walking spinning, dying etc., I started into the loom research. Using camera photos from a book as a reference for a jump into unknown territory I intuited my way as best as possible through understanding how to get the sheds working.

Managing the huge length of warp I somehow felt the need to burden myself with proved my first hair-pulling, near-tears challenge. David got to be the hero by dropping what he was doing to make me a warping board from a pine branch with a few cuts and clever joins. Phew. Lucky David, he gets to be witness to all the Artist Angst and played hero with regularity on this trip.

So, after having my head down problem solving method and process, Spending another week getting to a place where something was working, I came out of the fog long enough to realize I didn’t like what I was making- I couldn’t get past that I was basically crafting a pink scarf  to go on the land somehow. It camouflaged to some extent  and the colours were  certainly of the place, but somehow the wool- versus working with the plants themselves- just looked garish and I couldn’t get past feeling like I was making some yarn bomb land experiment one would have seen in the ‘60’s. More angst, maybe a nap, then a beer, then I will feel better and have direction clarified -right?

Week 3 finds me in a definite daily rhythm that went something like this:

  1. Postpone getting out of bed reading and window gazing, second coffee, gather materials from studio and go out to newly selected site
  2. Try and be confident that this idea and location was going to click for me and be something I was happy with- THIS TIME- it was working. Eat a picnic of excellent cheese, bread and olives and admire the amazing beauty surrounding me.
  3. After a few more bullheaded hours of pushing something, realizing it wasn’t going to go anywhere, give up, go for a walk to clear my head. Artist Angst pairs nicely with a cold can of Estrella and a Good View by the way.
  4. Find another magical spot that somehow resonated to return to the next day. Wash and Repeat.

Finally I got past the time invested in the pink scarf and felt bold to just give up on the weaving, cut off the loom and use the yardage for some kind of installation- like roots, or embroidering the warp by trying to replicate what the wool lines were laid across, to make some kind of camouflage install- basically trying to artfully hide the fact I was putting materials on the land that did not come from the land direct. What was I doing again?

It was a wake up moment when I realized I have not been an artist who works direct on the land with the materials at hand since my last time there 3 years ago…. It was like I had to relearn what I figured out 15 years ago in Ireland when I took the Mother’s Dresses project to install. My work over the last number of years has turned to much more of a social-based practice and stewarding the two city parks as my hand-on interaction with plants and a place. Making actual sculptural work from/with a place had somehow drifted out of my wheelhouse when I wasn’t paying attention and it was a humbling experience to realize  the level of disconnect between what I had intended to do and how that fit the locale.

It is tempting to say I wasted 3 weeks, although I did learn fibre stuff I will apply later in different studio based ways, it didn’t relate at all to making a work I could leave behind as a gift to the place and community and as exchange for accommodation at the residency. If current Sharon could go back and tell past Sharon to just relax and enjoy the view over those long dark tea times of the soul I would say, “don’t sweat it, just enjoy this and   know you will figure it out- it will all be OK in the end, just different from what you imagined”

I was  happily distracted from all of this when local artists Eva and Alexia with daughter Gisela joined me for a few rope making and spinning/walking sessions.  I was struck by these sweet moments where Gisela would stop rope making and start finger combing her mom’s hair and French braid it- hands can move in such a similar way through human hair as to bundles of plant fibre. Such a lovely spontaneous moment of nurturing and caring. In a similar way I had been connecting with Roc, one of the local dogs with a big personality who was happy to be a therapy dog during Artist Angst moments. He loved to be brushed, and I had been brushing and spinning his hair as one of my main fibres in the angsty weaving that went on each day.

Two days before I was to be presenting something for the ephemeral festival – and not knowing what- I  absentmindedly started running my fingers through the long grasses, and began organizing them, and then braiding them into a pattern that followed the hillside. It began in an unintentional way -as a simple act of love- of feeling like this place was already so perfect, not needing my presence or intervention in any way.

It is funny that this is nothing I haven’t done before – braiding harkening back to summer camp or  rope-making which I do almost daily now – yet I made something I had never imagined before and stumbled into a new way of approaching a landscape to which I intend to return- nothing was harvested, nothing was removed or added. I simply followed the existing lines of how the grasses lay on the hillside from the rains and winds. Starting and stopping as the grasses thickened and thinned on the hillside.

Grooming the Land as an act of Love.IMG_20181104_114642


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