Posted on 7 Comments

Hollowed Community Project

I am preparing a follow up photographic project on the “Hollowed Community” scenes but first I wanted to explain what the original project was about. So I have reproduced the the introduction to my exhibition catalogue for the madeinroath festival here:-

My project explores the theme that the community of Brynmill in Swansea has become “hollowed” out by the proliferation of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), which house an ever burgeoning population of students attending Swansea University. HMOs in many streets constitute in excess of 50% of the houses. This ever increasing transient population has had a devastating effect on the sense of community in Brynmill.

Families and children living in the area has have dropped markedly since the increasing number of HMOs started to swamp Brynmill. This has had knock on effects for sustainability as families normally sustain communities with services and business catering for these families.

My project looks at the visible signs of  this  “hollowing of community” by looking at the time when students are not here, such as in the summer months. It is in this absence of students that I have attempted to catch this ghostly silence, this funereal quiet.

In streets suddenly empty, devoid of cars, elderly people suddenly appear on the streets, as if from hibernation and, most tellingly, the sparse number of children start to play in the streets and parks but so much fewer than before.  It is as if the community is in a temporary mourning in this sudden quiet and the area looks more spacious, as it breathes out in the summer sun. This is I have painted, and documented, this lull before the next wave of erosion.

In this space I am reminded of those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper, Jim Holland, John Register, Frank Hobbs as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such as Christopher Benson, Leah Giberson, Tom McKinley, Micthell, Johnson,  Jessica Brilli and Emmett Kerrigan.  I aim to bring an American sensibility to a Welsh urban landscape in my “urban minimal”* paintings, to contrast their sunny optimism with our cold reality.

Emma Cownie

  • Urban Minimal

I wanted to capture this temporary calm of summer in paint.  So I started to take lots of photos of the local area with an eye to using them for the basis of paintings.

My “rules” for composition and painting

No cars

No People

Bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.

Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.

 

Urban Miminal Series.jpg

Posted on 2 Comments

Brynmill Primary School

Brynmill Primary School
Brynmill Junior School

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.

Pre 1920s Brynmill School
pre-1920 Brynmill School (from Graham William’s personal collection)

 

 

*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.

 

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Getting ready for madeinroath 2017

IMG_20170929_150323702
Roath Street Art

We took the train down to Cardiff on Friday to look at the venue for my “Gafnu Cymuned: Hollowed Community” exhibition in the

mir 7
Outside Inkspot, Cardiff

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.

MiR2017-BrochureA5pgs-Final-web.pdf - Google Chrome 01102017 101302
MiR  brochure

MiR2017-BrochureA5pgs-Final-web

Link to madeinroath 2017 Festival Page 

 

Posted on 16 Comments

Transient

Transient (unfinished)
Transient

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.

 

Bernard St with cars
Bernard Street – weekend before start of term

 

Posted on 4 Comments

Former library

IMG_1720b
Former Library

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

Former Corner Shop and Post Office.

IMG_1640b
Former Corner Shop and Post Office

The Corner of Bernard St. and Marlborough Rd.

Long before I came to Swansea in 1998, there used to be a corner shop and a post office, side by side on Marlborough Road. There were both there in 1986. There is a photo to prove it (see below). The Corner shop had gone by 1998. The building was completely renovated; the large side window on Bernard Street was blocked up, the upstairs windows made smaller, the front door was moved and the shop window removed and replaced with modern uPVC double glazing. The front of the building was pebble-dashed. The chimney was removed, presumably when the new roof was added.

I do remember the post office. It was still open when we moved to Waterloo Place in 2000 – I remember queuing to buy stamps and posted my Christmas parcels there.  Soon after, the government decided that there were too many Post Offices, and although people said that the elderly would struggle to walk the half a mile to the Uplands, to pick up their pensions, it was closed in 2003.

The red pillar box remains. The only clue to the former identity of one of these nondescript houses. The other clue is the lack of a boundary wall at the front of the former shop. Just an apron of grey concrete. They are both student houses now. There is still a “for let” sign in the window of the former shop. They sit in a street which is well over 50% student houses.

 

 

 

Posted on 3 Comments

Brynmill, past and future

Rhyddings Hotel from Brynmill Avenue (Park Place end)
Rhyddings Hotel from Brynmill Avenue (Park Place end)

The schools have gone back. Unusually its raining. When I was teaching, the first weeks of term usually would enjoy an Indian Summer. It made the pain of returning to work after  the long break a little easier.  Not this year. The students are returning. Term does not start for another month but quite a few students have been here over the summer.

The roads are starting to fill up with cars. The empty kerbs are vanishing. The stretch of road in this painting is often packed with cars on both sides. The local bus struggles round this bend and down the hill towards the viewer. The shadow to the far right is that of a rather tatty old coach house which has suddenly been converted into student accommodation over the summer. The Rhyddings pub is perched at the top of the hill.

In term time at the start and end of each school day a “lollypop lady” ushers the junior school children and their families across this stretch of road. She does her job well. She gives motorists a very fierce look as she steps out into the road with her stop sign. She says hello to all the children as they cross. I have not seen her for weeks. Today must be her first day back at work too.

It all looks so peaceful but recent events in North Korea remind me not to take peace for granted. During the Second World War, air raids killed several Brynmill people and damaged homes in the area. In September 1940, Brynmill had a lucky escape. A single plane dropped 3 High Explosive bombs over Brynmill just before 9.00pm. One failed to explode and there was slight damage to Langland Terrace but no casualties.

In the following year, in February 1941 was what is commonly referred to as ‘The Three Nights’ Blitz’ took place. It  lasted for nearly 14 hours, killed 230 people, injured another 397, wiped out entire streets of residential houses, made 7,000 people homeless and left the town centre of Swansea a terrifying inferno of total destruction. Some bombs fell on Brynmill too. The glow of the fires could be seen as far as Devon, and the west part of Wales in Pembrokeshire. My grandfather, who lived in Cardiff with my grandmother and mother, came to Swansea to help with the aftermath. Surprisingly, some of Swansea’s oldest buildings, the Castle, Swansea Museum, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery survived but the town’s commercial heart was razed, with the Ben Evans store, which seemed to have supplied everyone with everything for upward of fifty years, was flattened.

I think that Swansea people think that the blitz only affected the town centre and the docks. The last raid on Swansea was two years later on the sixteenth of February nineteen forty-three. The Germans called the raid “Operation Wasservogal”. It started at nine-thirty in the evening and the target was the docks.  A German bomber, possibly getting rid of its last bombs before it returned to Europe, dropped a bomb that fell on 24 Park Place and killed Elizabeth Fabian and Selina Mogridge outright. Selina’s 24-year old daughter, Hilda, later died of her injuries at Cefn Coed Hospital, just under 2 miles away in Cockett.

Thankfully, the Luftwaffe never came again. Later in the war, in spring of 1944 1,566 American troops were stationed in hundreds of tents at Camp X3 in Singleton Park in preparation for the D-Day landings. The officers, apparently, were stationed in Mumbles. The Americans were using Gower’s sandy beaches backed by cliffs to train for the D-Day landings on similar terrain in Normandy. Jim Owens has collected many stories about the GIs in Swansea in 1944. The local kids clearly thought they were both glamorous and generous.

Churchill visits Swansea 1941
Winston Churchill 1941 visiting Swansea after the Three Nights’ Blitz

 

If I remember rightly, there used to be photos of Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting Swansea after the blitz in the Rhyddings pub.