Last night I received a lovely present from one of the pupils of Brynmill school who was inspired, after my talk with her class, to paint one of my paintings. I was absolutely charmed and delighted by this gift.
Nia told me in her accompanying note that “instead of paint, I used Sharpie (felt tip pen)”. What really tickled me is that she then added “when you came to my school your advice when doing art was to sketch it first and then continue”. She had followed this advice brilliantly. She’d had sketched the figures in pencil and then added colour in Sharpie pen.
I was really impressed that she had caught the shadows on the men’s jacket & coats. I liked her use of flat colour and the relationship between the figures. There was something “Hockneyesque” about her work! I hope she keeps on creating. An excellent painting from a budding young artist. Great to see!!
I was invited to visit my local junior school as part of their St David’s Day week celebrations. I was representing Welsh Art, as I have lived and painted in Wales most of my adult life. Although I had been a Secondary school teacher for 17 years, I was surprised at how nervous I felt beforehand, although I clearly had absolutely nothing to fear from a bunch of 9 and 10 year-olds. I think it was my body getting ready for a “performance” after two years away from the classroom.
I live opposite this large red-brick school. I hear and see the very little children playing the yard several times a day. Sometimes, they call out to us, asking us to fetch a stray ball for them. I had not been inside this school since 1998, when I had done a week’s observation before I did my Secondary school teacher training. I wasn’t sure how visitors got in these days. I eventually figured out that the school reception was on the opposite side to where I lived. I passed several gates with big padlocks and even the one that opened into the school-yard had a massive unlocked padlock on. Security is a big thing in schools these days and I spent a couple of minutes tapping my details into a screen, having my photo taken and being given a pass with my photo on and barcode to wear around my neck.
I was taken upstairs to a lovely airy hall with a polished parquet floor. I passed tiny children wearing daffodils and wearing tops, one was dressed as a dragon (with a tail an everything). The school building was similar to the Edwardian Primary school I had been to as a child. I think Britain is dotted with variations of these school schools. They have high ceilings and long windows, that let in lots of light but they are so high up so you can’t actually see out the window.
A group of 30-40 Year 5 pupils (9 and 10 year-olds) were brought in quietly and they all sat crossed-legged on the floor. They waited quietly, looking at me with great interest. Their teacher introduced me, one class had been studying my work (I felt humbled by that information) and they had lots of questions.
Then the floor was mine.
Ah, that second before you speak. It may only be time to draw breath, but it can feel like it goes on for ages. I had not prepared what I was going to say, as such. I had some slides on a powerpoint but I only had some vague points that I thought I might make. So in time honored teacher-style I asked them a question.
“Does anyone know what a professional artist is?” A few hands go up, I ask the girl sitting to the side of the class. “It’s an artist who is very, very good and has been painting for a long time”. “That’s a good description, but it’s also someone who makes a living as an artist. They make money at it. It’s their job.”
I then showed them my series of slides with a small selection of my paintings.
I talked about how I liked to paint what I could see on my doorstep. So that meant places on the Gower Peninsula like Three Cliffs Bay and Swansea Bay.
Then I showed them a few of paintings I’d done of the streets surrounding their school in Brynmill. There was some excitement and laughter when one boy excitedly exclaimed, “That’s my house!” (forth one along)
My final slide was meant to introduce the other side of an artist’s work. That of promotion. I explained that I spent a lot of my time on social media, online galleries and blogging so that people might see my work.
So this is where question time slot opened up. Lots of hands go up. I was very impressed with their excellent manners (absolutely no calling out) and very thoughtful questions they had. It was a bit like being one of those pop-stars being interviewed by children on Saturday morning telly in the 1980s & 1990s. I will list as many as I can remember. I will give a shortened version of my answers. I did go off on many tangents.
“Do you ever get bored of painting?” – no. I run out of inspiration, however, at times. I don’t like that. I have to wait for my next idea to come along.
“What is your favourite place to paint?” – Gower and more recently, Donegal, Ireland.
“Do you ever make up what you paint?” – no. All my painting are real places.
“Why did you change from being a teacher to being an artist?” – I have them the super simplified version. Being a teacher made me ill so I became an artist.
“What is your favourite painting?” – I have two, one of a Gower pony, and another of the cat that used to live in the DIY shop in Brynmill. They are both in my bedroom.
“How much do your paintings sell for?” – It depends. Anything from £1700 to £20.
“What were the most ever paintings you have sold in a day?” – 8 (it might have been 6 actually).
“What is your favourite colour for painting?” – purple – I use it for shadows. There was quite a discussion on colour here. One of their teachers had pointed out to them that shadows were not black or brown. I talked about looking and seeing colours. I also pointed out that few things in real life are really black, if you really look at them. I used the example of a boy’s black trousers – I said the light makes it look, yellow and grey, maybe very dark brown and dark blue but very little black
“What advice would you give young artists?” – paint as much as you can, every day if possible. The more you practice the better you get. That’s true with any skill. Footballing or painting. One boy perked up here. He was clearly a keen footballer. “Footballers make a lot of money”. “Some footballers make a lot of money, lots don’t” I said. His teacher repeated the point (probably not for the first time). I went on to say, “Some artists make a lot of money, look at Damien Hirst, but most don’t”.
“What did you want to be when you were younger?” – ballerina and then a famous writer! That puzzled them.
“How many days of the week do you paint?” – 6 sometimes 7.
“What was your favorite sport?” – rugby. The football fan’s friend punched the air at this point, this had clearly been a hotly debated point of discussion between them.
“What sort of dogs do you like painting?” – Jack Russells
“Have you I ever painted your own house?” – Yes.
“Have you painted the inside of your house?” – Yes.
Then suddenly the questions dried up and the pupils, whose attention had been faultless until now, started to fidget. I recognized this. “Is it break soon?” I asked one of the teachers. Yes. it was. I was then thanked by a teacher and presented with a box of chocolates! I wasn’t expecting that.
A small group of girls approached me and asked for more advice on painting. They were clearly keen practitioners. So I repeated, my point about painting frequently. I explained there will be many failures on the way (hide them under the bed) but they would need to find their own way of drawing and painting.
Two girls had been appointed to guide me back to reception (I needed their help as I shot off in the wrong direction at one point). I then had to return my ID badge and the computer said “good-bye” as I opened the door. “That’s a creepy portent of the future”, I remarked to the friendly human receptionist, and stepped out into the sunshine as the bell for midday break rang.
But there’s more to tell – click here for the footnote
Twilight is one of those words that sounds like a contraction of two longer words – like fortnight used to be “fourteen nights” or Goodbye used to be “God be with you”. The word has Dutch and Germanic origins. It was first used in England in the 14th century and probably is a contraction of “Tween” and “Light”- meaning light between, or half light. In Welsh, “cyfnos” means dusk, twilight but “gwyll” also refers to dusk, gloom, twilight. There is a very good Welsh language crime drama (Welsh Noir as they call it) called “Y Gwyll” (Dusk). There is an English language version (same actors, and storries but dialogue in English) but they changed the title to “Hinterland“. I much prefer the Welsh language version (click on the link to watch a clip here with English subtitles). Dusk suits the brooding nature of the landscape and the story lines much better, I think.
Dusk is a strange part of the day. It does not last long. It happens in the morning as well as the evening but it’s twilight in the evening I particularly love, especially in winter. The sky rapidly slips from light blue to a wonderful mauve before becoming darkest blue of night. The strange soft mauve glowing light is caused by the sun even after it has dipped below the horizon, as the sun’s rays are reflected from the atmosphere. A few minutes pass and lights are switched on indoors against the fading light but curtains have not yet been universally against the cold winter night. Just like Dylan Thomas’s “starless and bible-black” night in Under Milk Wood.
Wednesday morning with was bright and crisp. I decided to the cold blue sky and bright autumn sunlight was similar to the conditions in which the original series of the “Hollowed Community” paintings were created. I want to compare the empty almost desolate streets of August with the very crowded ones of early November.
The children are back at school and students have returned in even greater numbers than ever. The number have supposedly increased by 20% and there certainly seems to be more noise at night times and cars in the day time.
In 2015/2016 there were approximately 21,800 at Swansea University and Trinity St David’s Swansea Campus, including 18,340 full time students. When many HMO (Houses of Multiple Occupation) houses have up to 6 students living in them (some of the very big HMOs on Bryn Road have 12 residents) and some streets have over 70% HMO housing, the streets get VERY crowded. Students are supposedly discouraged from bringing their cars to Swansea but about 25% don’t live in the city and drive in from the surrounding areas. There are now two campuses for Swansea University, one on our doorstep in Singleton and the other new campus, the Bay Campus is five miles to the east of the city in in an area that used to be known as Crymlyn Burrows (Burrows means “Dunes”). So students live in Brynmill and Uplands for the social scene and drive to the Bay Campus.
Many of the long standing residents of Brynmill report that they have “never known the parking situation to be as bad as it is now”. Its not just the student but also lecturers and research staff looking for free parking on the residential streets. The University has only a limited number of parking spaces on campus that fill very quickly in the morning. There is parking on “The Rec” on Oystermouth Road but that has recently put up its parking fees so you find students and staff will jammed their cars onto the corners of narrow streets rather than pay the fee. All this is compounded by the loss of paper parking permits so that residents do not know whose cars are entitled to park in residents bays.
My photographic project is called “Crowded Community” to contrast it with the summer paintings. I take my tour and find cars where I didn’t realise they would be, down the back lanes.
Parking on the pavement was a surprisingly common too.
Or on double yellow lines
On some roads I found it difficult to find a space to take a photograph from.
Its not total “carmageddon” as such, has in other places there are spaces in the residents parking zones or on the forbidden zones like double yellow lines and bus stops.
Bus Stop (back of Brynmill Launderette)
And finally, a shot with no cars just a woman with a pram – but it is double yellow lines along here.
The distinctive pitched roofs of the red brick Brynmill School dominate the area. Sitting on the crest of a hill they can be seen from miles around. From the seafront and beach to the south as well as from Uplands and Mount Pleasant to the north. It is one of two local primary schools. It is a handsome building. Bold red brick. Confident and happy looking. The other is the Welsh-medium school Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Bryn-y-mor, which had previously been Brynmill Infant’s school.
Brynmill School was opened on 31st August 1896 and was big enough to accommodate over a thousand pupils. In its early days, boys and girls were taught in separate classes. The girls were taught in classrooms on the ground floor and the boys on the first floor.
During the Second World War many buildings in Brynmill were damaged. On 21st February 1941, the girls’ school was hit and the school had to close for a fortnight. Rhyddings House was also badly damaged by a bomb and it became known as “the bombed house” and a place where the local children would play.*
The school undergone quite a few changes. The many tall chimneys and the tower on highest part of the roof are gone. Extensions have been added at the front and back of the school. There are relatively few school-aged children that live in the heart of Brynmill, those that attend the school most seem to walk from Uplands or are driven in from other areas of Swansea. Schools are at the heart of sustainability. Many rural communities have lost their post office, pubs and schools and then cease to fully function as communities. Brynmill School, however, has clearly worked hard to keep their numbers up and continue as a beating heart of the community.
*Information about Brynmill School came from an article by Juliette James “Life in the district of Brynmill in the early 20th century” published in “Minerva: Swansea History Journal, Vol 24, 2016-7.
We took the train down to Cardiff on Friday to look at the venue for my “Gafnu Cymuned: Hollowed Community” exhibition in the
madeinroath 2017 festival. It was great to visit Cardiff again. I used did my degree and PhD in Cardiff in the 1990s and I used to know the areas close to the university, Roath and Cathays, very well.
The city has changed massively in the last 20 or so years. It has become more European, in its feel. The centre is full of massive shops and eateries. Around the edges of the main shopping district was full of building work, where lots of purpose-built student accommodation was being put up.
My exhibition will be in the Inkspot Art Centre, off Newport Road. I have the wall by the windows on the right hand side and a hall with a beautiful Victorian wooden ceiling. The Festival runs from Sunday 15th to 22nd October 2017.
Here is a view of the length of Bernard Street from the South end, looking towards Uplands. It was quite hard to paint as I felt that I was trying to capture an absence. The light cuts across an empty road. When I saw this scene late on a Sunday evening in August I was struck by this emptiness, absence. No people. No cars, anywhere along its length.
Usually there are are cars outside the convenience store half way along the road, but it was closed. In term time the road is crammed with cars belonging to students, some who live in the streets that branch off from Bernard Street, some are parents dropping their children off at the local schools, some are passing tradespeople, many more are students attending lectures on the Singleton Campus. Yet, on this summer evening there was no one. It was like a ghost town. This one image, more than any sums up the transient community that Brynmill has become. It has become an unsustainable community. A community without families, especially those with children is a dying community.
Brynmill and Uplands suffer from the fact that the majority of students are absent for about 4 months each year. The situation has parallels with that in North Wales and Cornwall, where holiday homes mean areas are practically deserted in the winter. This has resulted in businesses closing due to a lack of all year custom and for the same reason has led to closures of libraries, schools and GP practices. Here, and in Uplands many shops and businesses have closed and have been taken over by bars and coffee shops. Are the losses of our library, post offices, banks and local businesses due to the lack of all year trade?
In Brynmill there are no banks, post offices, libraries, swimming pools or leisure centre. The Victorian swimming baths opposite Victoria Park were pulled down years ago. The public toilets were also destroyed (the week before the preservation order was to come in place). We have two junior schools but few of the children live locally. You see children walking to school but that’s only because their parents have parked in places like Bernard Street and walk them to school. The pollution caused by all this additional traffic has a negative effect on the environment and people’s health. Yes, we do still have a chip shop, a pub, a coffee house, a community centre, a bread shop, a convenience store, a launderette and a DIY store. But for how much longer? Its difficult to sustain a business on 8 months’ trade. It was probably a large part of the reason why The Cricketer’s pub closed down.
Yet, Brynmill has so much to offer. It has two fantastic parks; Singleton and Brynmill. There is a university on our doorstep. It is 5-10 minutes walking distance from the seafront. There are several well attended churches. I love the sea air. It is mild here. We rarely have frosts. It has a Bohemian feel to the place. As an artist, I don’t think I would thrive in suburbia where people would expect you to be neat and tidy. I am not neat and tidy. I love the hilly, terraces and the mix of people. People are friendly. You can start a conversation with anyone in a shop and they talk back as if they know you.
I want this community to live and to thrive, not to become a hollowed out dead place full of strangers who know nothing about the area. This project has been part of that. I have asked questions and have found out about the people who were born and grew up here. I walked up and down streets and back lanes. Again and again, trying to catch the shadows at different times of the day. Morning is my favourite time. I have counted the number of houses that no longer have lounges with sofas at the front of the house but rather desks and beds for students. The official figures are wrong. There are many more student houses (HMO) that are on the council register.
This has become an unbalanced and unsustainable community. The Local council and Welsh assembly are ignoring the problem. Chasing short-term profit at the expense of people’s lives and the local economy. I have seen the place where I have lived for 18 years in a different light and I have only scratched the surface. I want to keep digging.
This library was a “cwtch”. That’s a Welsh word that is widely used by all who live in Wales, both Welsh-speakers, and non-Welsh speakers. It has a dual meaning. It can mean a hug/cuddle or it can be used to describe a small safe place, like a cubby hole. The two meanings are intertwined and often indistinguishable. This place was both.
I loved visiting this tiny library. It stood on Bernard Street – the artery that runs through the heart of Brynmill. It should have been too small, but it wasn’t. It was just the right size. It was about the size of someone’s living room. It felt like someone’s front room. The walls were filled with books and talking books. There was a computer with a printer which I used to use before we had the internet (back in the time of dinosaurs). There was a children’s books’ stand and a notice board full of community notices. It was a nice place to hang out. The librarian was a lovely, peaceful lady who has a welcoming air about her.
The tiny library had been there since 1952. Once upon a time it had been an ice-cream shop. It was run my Irene Mann’s grandfather. Irene is a local councillor. The library was closed in 2010. Austerity killed it. The council had starved it of funds and then said it was tatty and should go. Everyone was against the closure. There was talk of a twice fortnightly mobile library that would visit the Uplands half a mile away. I never saw it. I am not sure it ever came.
Now there is a “community library” in the Community Centre that is run by volunteers for three short sessions a week. The only mobile “library” I have seen in the area is the Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore, a large van that visits the Uplands Market once a month. But that’s not a library. I still occasionally see the librarian out walking her dogs.
The library was eventually replaced by a photography studio run by two friends, Geraint and Gary. It’s called Safelight Images. It’s great to have a local business here. They do a lot of weddings. There also large imposing photos of dogs and babies are displayed in the window. I am sure that it’s just the right size for a photography studio.
Nothing sums up my Gafnu Cymuned:Hollowed Community project more than the sight of The Cricketers public house now shut and boarded up. It is just across the road from the St Helens Rugby and Cricket ground where sport has been played for over 140 years. On 19 June 1928 the ground was the venue of a mile race, for Swansea Grammar School’s Sports Day, won by a teenage Dylan Thomas; he carried a newspaper photograph of his victory with him until his death. Seven years later, Swansea RFC defeated the New Zealand 11-3 at St Helen’s, becoming the first club side to beat the All Blacks.
A famous cricketer, Gary Sobers, once hit six sixes in a row, in one over, during a cricket match in the nearby St Helens cricket ground in 1968. The final ball of the six sixes supposedly sailed through the air and crashed through the window of the Cricketers pub. In later years this great sporting feat was commemorated with a cricket ball drawn in the window that the ball supposedly crashed through all those years ago.
Sadly, an important piece of local and international history, has been bulldozed by the march of Swansea University. Now this window is boarded up and like much local history rubbed out by the advancement of student houses (HMOs) and the student ghettoisation of Brynmill and Uplands. Its rather curious, that despite being surrounded by students in Bryn Road and King Edwards Road, that this pub was not a viable business. A rather telling piece of evidence against those who always claim that more students bring more money to the city. They didn’t bring enough money to this local business.
Recently, stories have appeared in the local press claiming that discarded needles have been found around the back of the pub. These claims have been fiercely rejected by locals who see the newspaper reports as fake news planted by the developers, in order to strengthen their case for another massive HMO. I don’t think Dylan Thomas would have approved of the passing of this historic pub.