“There’s an intensity to their round-the-clock work” – Patricia MacKinnon-Day on farm women.

Abbot Hall Art Gallery’s exhibition Tracing the Landscape: Cumbrian Farm Women looks at an often invisible workforce.

Women who make their mark in the male-dominated world of agriculture are the focus of the exhibition.

Artist Patricia MacKinnon-Day spent a year with five farm women, interviewing them about their experiences. The resulting exhibition is a multi-media art installation that explores their lives.

Here Patricia answers questions about the exhibition:

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What was the inspiration for the project? 

Tracing the Landscape evolved from a previous project in 2013, Rural Voices, working with 12 Cheshire women farmers. The inspiration evolved after discovering the strength and tenacity of women farmers and whose everyday lives were challenging. I was inspired by how they dealt with isolation, poor resources and economic hardship. Working closely with the Cumbrian farm women for a year gave me the opportunity to probe deeper and produce artworks that aimed to make visible their contribution to agriculture.

Why multimedia?

Tracing the Landscape at Abbot Hall Art Gallery consists of five sheds and a soundscape. Each shed shares a narrative, personal portrait that focuses on the infra-ordinary and the minutia of the farm womens’ everyday life (installed within the sheds are a range of ordinary agricultural and domestic materials, film clips with animation, interviews, photographic / print montages.)

I use the word ‘palimpsest’ to describe these sheds presenting an artistic process of excavating and investigating multiple layers of farm women and farms over a significant time-period. The element of time in Tracing the Landscape is crucial: as the materials examine the historical to the contemporary using a process of researching and embedding myself within their worlds.

How did you secure the trust of the women to let you spend time with them?

When I visited the women farmers I arrived without any pre-conceived ideas about the artwork I was going to make, spending hours, days or even months around the farm with the women simply trying to understand how they worked, and all the routine events going on around.

Making empathetic connections to women is central to my practice and helps develop an intimate knowledge and trust. Empathy is key to my research, as learning how it feels to be part of that community and becoming completely embedded as an artist on site is crucial to the success of the artwork. This process of developing understanding over time helps me to access complex meanings within a place, identify special codes, rules and the symbolic meanings of things: semiotic clues as to what is going on.

What was it that surprised you most about the time you spent with them?

As a city dweller I was previously ignorant of the intensity of their round-the-clock workload and of the everyday physical, emotional and economic demands. The biggest shock was to discover that their input has historically been largely unpaid and unrecorded. I was always humbled by their warmth and welcome even in the midst of crisis and during their relentless work schedule.

Hill farming in particular is a tough life and not financially that stable. Were the women committed to farming or was it the only way they felt they could make a living?

That despite the hardships and challenging lifestyle, they are passionate about their work but made clear to me that it wasn’t a job, but a way of life.

You’ve said the role of women in farming is overlooked but couldn’t you argue that, as women and children have always pitched in when there’s work to do, it’s actually one of the more egalitarian industries?

This exhibition offers a discourse to make visible the farmer’s wife who remains one of the most elusive figures in agrarian history. Women and children are always on hand to contribute to the workings of the farm but this labour has been largely unpaid and unrecorded. Although historians have acknowledged their role no attempt has yet been made to scrutinise in detail the whole range of tasks usually undertaken by them and the value attached to this work.

Does the rest of the country and particularly those who live in cities appreciate farmers’ contribution to our food security?

As a city dweller before beginning this research I envied the tranquil pace of rural life without any knowledge and understanding of the reality of farm production. This exhibition brings to the fore the historic, political, psychological, physical, social and personal endeavours of farm women who bring food to our table. The sheds offer to the viewer narratives that examine the diversity and complexity of their work which includes the battle with supermarket over quality and price.

Tracing the Landscape: Cumbrian Farm Women is on at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, until 9 June 2018.

 

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New Expressions: Developing Sky

Harriet kicked off today with a beautiful poem inspired by John’s reading last week from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, describing a memorable journey in the rain. We also sang Happy Birthday to Martin, welcomed Peter and Rosa, ate flapjack and explored the map! Geoff and Joan particularly enjoyed looking closely at moments within the map from recent weeks.

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Geoff found a moment from last week at Grasmere, his first glimpse of Uta’s blue sky in the rain.

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Harriet read an extract from AE Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad – ‘From far, from eve and morning / And yon twelve-winded sky, the stuff of life to knit me / Blew hither: here am I’. And this led into working on the inner panels for the parasol……

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The studio was full of beautiful shades of blue, and we very quickly got busy mixing colour inspired by the range of cloudscapes collages. Painted and printed pieces will be layered together and stitched into the inside of the parasol.

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And throughout the afternoon, the parasol itself began to be transformed into the sky….

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We ended the afternoon with a display of cloud paintings and prints and a discussion about the day. John had worked expressively in paint and with words – ‘in clouds of joy’. Mandy described feeling like a real artist, forgetting herself and just working really intuitively. Jack had struggled through a question about how to do it and resolved it! Geoff had brought photographs of him climbing in the French Alps and painted a mountain side reaching into the clouds. We talked about high walks and low walks and being out ‘whatever the weather’. Martin said he has always loving walking and described in detail a walk to Keswick many years ago. Annette communicated immense pleasure, and not just the pleasure of the moment of creative activity, but throughout the rest of the week she finds herself noticing more – looking up at the sky, looking at colours in nature. Pat was happy to be there, enjoying the buzz of conversation and activity. Nita worked on the parasol with great energy, at one point holding a paintbrush between her teeth as she used another to work paint into the cloth, maintaining a commentary throughout! Pat watched her with evident enjoyment.

At the end of the afternoon, Harriet crawled under the parasol and opened it up and we could see more of the sky that was growing – and have a look at the inside….lovely to see stains of painting flowing through. The parasol will find its way to Penrith on Tuesday for further transformation!

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Harriet listened as we talked and created a poem from fragments of the conversation. Lovely to have creative activity and engagement reflected back to the group so beautifully. A wonderful afternoon.

Wellbeing Matters

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Lakeland Arts is proud of our work with community groups, particularly older people who might not ordinarily visit cultural spaces, including enabling access for people in residential care homes such as the Leonard Cheshire Home at Holehird. A recent project, Powerful Objects, used The Great Picture and Lady Anne Clifford as inspiration for creating a Great Picture of our own lives using iPad technology. Wonderful stories are emerging!

Projects such as this are helping Lakeland Arts to play our part in improving “wellbeing”, which is a measure of physical, social, emotional and mental health. ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ have been identified by the Government – these are a series of “living well indicators” that, if present, will support wellbeing. The five indicators are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give.

Health and social care organisations, Council services, cultural and creative organisations such as Lakeland Arts and other charities such as Age UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, are using these indicators as a tool kit to help older people to stay healthy and to live more independently for longer.

We are embracing the wellbeing initiative by training all our staff to be Dementia Friends and promoting the Five Ways to Wellbeing in order to help people to connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. Donna Storey, Service Development Manager, Adult Social Care, Cumbria County Council, says that creative and cultural organisations have a crucial part to play:

“Support for people living with dementia and their carers is a priority for the Health and Wellbeing strategy for Cumbria as the prevalence of dementia is expected to increase across the county. The work that Lakeland Arts is undertaking provides a significant local contribution to the creation of a dementia friendly society in Cumbria.”

Anne-Marie Quinn
Engagement Officer