Artist Diana Heeks, based in Llanrhystud, West Wales, is developing a project in the Black Mountains inspired by Raymond Williams‘ unfinished novel People of the Black Mountains.
The project comprises four, week-long visits to the region and is funded by a ‘research and development’ grant from the Arts Council of Wales.
PEAK is a project partner and supporting Diana through artist mentoring and promotion. PEAK will announce details of an open studio day and talk with Diana to conclude the project in the autumn.
“Literature has influenced and engaged me since childhood, and this book evokes feelings which I have an almost visceral need to explore in paint. The Black Mountains is a cluster of steep-sided parallel ridges east of the Brecon Beacons, mainly in Wales but partly across the English border. In two volumes this book tells a series of linked stories about the history of the area, from Neolithic times until the Norman invasion, encompassing a grand sweep across thousands of years and tens of generations, offering both a bird’s-eye view and ground-level intimacy. For many years I have read and reread this novel. Its qualities of imagination and humanity, and its sense of the influence of place, attracted me as a painter from the outset, especially as the location has long been a favourite. The stories and evoked imagery have accompanied me whilst working plein air and on walks and explorations in the actual locations and landscapes of the book. I want to attempt an equivalent in oils on canvas.”
- Diana Heeks
“Press your fingers close on this lichened sandstone. With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct, but all suddenly present.”
– Raymond Williams, People of the Black Mountains
First Visit – 16-23 March 2015
Second Visit – 15-22 May 2015
Third Visit - 4-11 September 2015
Fourth Visit – 16-23 October 2015
During this last week of the project there have been autumn colours and glorious sunshine, but the nights draw in and at early evening the view from my door at Broadley has darkened. The sweep of hillside opposite shows glimmering pinpoints as outlying farmsteads switch on. The ridge horizon line, along which Glyn searched in the link chapters “Glyn to Elis”, is black against a luminous sky, mauve, orange-pink and deep blue, with arching clouds in flow, until it quickly darkens. Next time I look there are stars.
This fourth and final week has been taken up with organising the Open Studio, which took place on 22 October. This event summarised and displayed my preoccupations and activities over this last year.
In his opening chapter of “The Beginning”, the first volume of People of the Black Mountains, Raymond Williams describes the colours he finds in the BM landscape: “From a distance, in good light, the long whaleback ridges are blue. Under cloud they are grey cloudbanks. But from within they are many colours: olive green under sunlight; darker green with the patches of summer bracken; green with a pink tinge when there are young leaves on the whinberries; dark with the heather out of flower, purple briefly in late summer; russet with autumn bracken, when at dawn after rain the eastern slopes can be red; pale gold in dead winter bracken, against the white of snow. Yet black, a cellular black, under storm cloud; a pitted honeycomb of darkness within darkness.”
I enjoyed this passage so much that I simply wanted to list his colours visually and associate them with colour situations in which I was already involved (eg the blacks of Malevich … difficulties around vermilion). They became contained within shapes which I find pleasure in as visual archetypes of landscape, for example a sharply defined cloud shape emerging over a sky line or a field against the plunge of a hillside. In the Open Studio these ideas crystallised into a floor piece which I titled “From a distance, in good light … ”. The work is essentially a piece of collage, with much of it derived from recycling old work, but there is interest and mystery when the cast-off becomes something else.
The pieces titled “Glyn to Elis/Cist” comprise a suite of medium-sized paintings, drawings and collage pieces which are my intuitive response to the book’s account of Glyn’s night-time journey along the ridges looking for his missing grandfather Elis. His search takes him through a landscape in darkness, sometimes moonlit, in which lie the cists and their contents: arrowheads, pottery and the bones of long-ago people which have lain in the dark for millennia. There is a sense of what some Celtic peoples call the “thin place”, where the separation of reality from other worlds is weak.
The larger pieces in the OS came about partly through my need to “brush broad” – maybe as a physical rebellion against my previous small work on Black Mountains themes, or maybe as a response to the broad sweep of RW’s subject matter. For many of the larger pieces I have researched particular elements of the stories, and this research has enriched my experience of them, particularly in the cases of “Bibra in Magnis” and “The Gift of Acha”, both of which I found especially moving. The materiality of paint, the combination of text and gesture, RW’s lyricism and other aspects were also building blocks.
The Open Studio, while an important opportunity to see the work through the eyes of others, could be seen as the culmination of a year focusing on one place and one book, both immeasurably rich worlds with much to teach us. But it is also a beginning, a laying out of a palette of possibilities, a chance to examine and evaluate. Some of the work produced can be seen as exploratory and some as development, but I am aware that only a few pieces have achieved resolution and therefore there is much more to do. The elements which have emerged from this exercise may converge, combine, burgeon or wither. We’ll have to see.
I have witnessed Diana’s work developing over the past year and I am continually struck by the vitality of colour and form in her paintings. There is an innate confidence to Diana’s work and this is reflected in the way she writes about her experience with uncluttered, authentic language. The work she has produced while resident in the Black Mountains (and further developed in her studio in West Wales) stands alone as an artist’s abstract response to landscape. An understanding of Raymond Williams’ PotBM novels is certainly of interest but not essential in appreciating this new work. PEAK looks forward to continuing to support Diana and several other practitioners who are now discovering or revisiting Williams’ fiction and academic writing to produce contemporary, creative responses to his legacy.
Arts Development Manager
Images: Nathan Morgan & Laura Heeks
For more information about Diana’s work visit: www.axisweb.org
For more information about PEAK, Contemporary Art In The Black Mountains, visit: artsalivewales.org.uk/peak