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4 November 2012

The Blackdown hills are alive with the sound of BHAAM!

When I first heard of the art group named BHAAM I thought that they were maybe a modern equivalent to Futurism or a Roy Lichtenstein comic-book pop art fan club (although that probably says more about me), anyway, I think the last thing I expected was to learn that BHAAM (short for Blackdown Hills Artists and Makers) was a membership organisation of creative practitioners who live, work, and have an interest in the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Devon/Somerset border. The mnemonic of BHAAM, however couldn’t be more  appropriately apt as this week saw the opening of a two years arts project, ‘Skills Unearthed’ and is currently packing a punch (of the good kind) and making itself known in the South West.
 I had a look-see around three out of a possible seven venues this weekend to see what exactly what was going on in them thar’ hills...
Liz Fathers displays her bloomers amongst an exhibition of cut-outs, sculpture and research about washing at Simonsburrow House, Hemyock.
At Simonsburrow House in Hemyock, Devon there is washing on a line, a fair bit of it to and come rain or shine or, well, more rain (after all we are in Devon!) it continues to hang there sentient in rows seemingly unaware that it is there to be viewed and maybe even scrutinized as it makes up the integral part of an exhibition all about laundry!
Artist Liz Fathers has created an exhibition that documents her exploration of the skills and practice of laundry. Specifically based on the memories of people living in the Blackdown Hills, Liz has researched into the cultural background of this domestic practice as it has evolved over the years with the advancement of electricity, indoor water and washing machines. Whilst I might not be the biggest fan of actually having to do the washing it doesn’t take much to convince me that washing laundry and washing machines and irons can be beautiful as well as interesting, culturally, as objects. Sold! In fact, it gives me an excuse to bring up the exhibition, ‘Dirt’ I visited and reviewed on this blog at The Wellcome Collection last year. Similarly to Liz that exhibition and saw artists working with research/items from the museum’s collection on the subject of waste, washing, dirt, recycling, health and hygiene.
Liz is one of the most thorough and prolific researchers I have ever had the pleasure to know and whilst she has used some of her findings to make some sculptural pieces, silhouette cut-outs (pictured specifically so I could drop a Kara Walker reference in-heh) and more. For me the greatest success is that the research becomes the actual art work itself. Liz knows this, and presents her findings in an openly refreshing way that is matched with a great sense of humour and conversation (aided by copious amounts of tea!) that she brings to the work. I’d love to see how she (if she chooses to) develops this work next.

 For all of the artists taking part in ‘Skills Unearthed’ the work shown this November represents the first stage of the two year project and has the aim of growing and strengthening the membership of BHHAAM as well as commissioning and exhibiting a series of new works and events that celebrate crafts and industries, past and present of the area. So whilst the work exhibited is very much finished there is still the opportunity that the work may continue and develop into the second part of the project which is exciting as in many cases there is potential to continue work on a similar theme and perhaps uncover even more...

A site specific trouve of intrigue at the Nissen Hut at Cherry Hayes Farm, Smeatharpe
Next on our list, was a Nissen Hut formally used in WW2 and one of several which are in use by the farmer on what was a formerly used as an airfield. This particular hut however, is kept free from farming and has a planned future use to be turned into a Museum by South West Airfields Heritage Trust. In the mean time, it is the perfect location that both contextualises and in some cases has also inspired the practice of several of the artists who are exhibiting here. Namely: Carly Batchelor, Ruth Bell, Sara Dudman, Jon England, Tim Martin, Michelle Ridings and Karin Sabin Krommes.  For example, Sara Dudman’s paintings have been created taking inspiration from the people and farming activities of the sheep farm that the Nissen Hut is situated on. Similarly Jon England and Karin Sabin Krommes (pictured) collaborative photography, ‘investigates the topography and ecology of the Blackdown Hills’ three World War II airfield sites: Culmhead, Dunkeswell and Smeatharpe (Upottery). Sited here specifically for their rural isolation the airfields present a terrain that is at odds with much of the rest of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ Tim Martin’s video piece, about the Young Farmer’s Club YFC made with the Culm Valley Young Farmers reveals an interesting link to the origins of the YFC being first established in Hemyock before becoming the national organisation it is today.

Carly Batchelor -Blackdown Blueprints

Karin Sabin Krommes at Nissen Hut on Cherry Hayes Farm
By now our feet were well and truly frozen, so it was off to our final visit for the day to see Gordon Field at Otterhead Lodge, Culmhead. Wish I had taken some photos to show you, I’ve had to pinch one I previously used from the SAW website to give you just one example of Gordon’s work.
Where Gordon works is more like a cabinet of curiosities than a studio, filled with objects like those pictured above, tools, ash tree branches, paintings, ceramics and more and more. However, the work he has made for ‘Skills Unearthed’ is presented throughout the Orchard and in the shed on the way up to the studio. Branches that have been used for dowsing have been painted and then placed in specific locations throughout the orchard mapping the pathways of badgers and bumble bees that journey across it. It doesn’t probably get more site-specific than this, but interestingly as the work influences how the viewer navigates the site of the orchard and garden, it also makes one consider the relationship within the greater context of the natural world as a whole. Again, perhaps the highlight (other than Gordon’s studio) was actually talking with the artist himself, as a novice myself into the mysterious art/or science of dowsing it was insightful and interesting to learn more about this ancient skill.
 They don’t call it ‘Skills Unearthed’ for nothing!
Skills Unearthed : artworks across seven different venues in and around the Blackdown Hills can be seen until  3rd - 18th November (most venues only open weekends please visit link to website below for further details on opening times and map) Other participating artists include; Andrew Bell, Louise Cottey, Alice Crane, Katherine Creasey, June Dobson, Sarah George, Maxine Green, Liz Gregory, Bronwen Gundry, Fiona Hamilton, Nick Meech, Pauline Rook, Andre Wallace and Gillian Widden.

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