An interview with Daniel Crawshaw - artist in residence
Daniel Crawshaw grew up in the Welsh borders and now lives and works in London. He makes paintings inspired by remote, mountain locations and has travelled widely in the UK and beyond.
In 2013 he was artist in residence in Australia’s Alpine National Park in Victoria. The resulting show entitled ‘High Country Gothic’ was previewed at the Sidney Nolan Trust in Presteigne before touring to regional museum spaces down under. A series of four large paintings made in response to Victoria’s unforgiving forests were acquired by the Gippsland Art Gallery in 2014.
Daniel retains a strong connection to Wales and has previously been in residence in the Snowdonia National Park. He is represented by Martin Tinney gallery in Cardiff and has exhibited frequently in Wales, gaining recognition for his sensitive and evocative paintings.
What drew you to the artist residency in the Elan Valley?
I grew up in this region and have been a practicing artists for many years living in London. From the outset the idea of returning to mid-Wales for a period of intensive study was appealing. I work with landscape painting and our connection to places so the prospect of exploring the Elan Valley, an overlooked locality that once lay on my doorstep was compelling.
Having a workspace in a busy city is extraordinary but, for me, life only makes sense if I can have time out in the landscape gathering material. My creative process is about bringing experiences back into the studio and working from memory in an objective space. Often I’m restricted to a few occasional days away- perhaps backpacking in the Pyrenees or occupying a Snowdonia bunkhouse. This residency was about having an extended period of time in a remote location allowing a thorough, immersive investigation. What a prospect!
Tell us about your project and how you’ve developed it.
I wanted to combine walking in the landscape with historical research so that my paintings might be informed by both observation and background knowledge. It is my usual practice to hike and photograph, here I also wanted to up open and embrace ideas and media that might feed my paintings in a more direct way.
I divided my residency into 4 separate weeks through the Spring. Walking most days, I explored extensively. Sometimes I wandered out of the catchment and returned, feeling the land under my feet as a traveller may have done hundreds of years ago. I covered a lot of ground and found my walks increasingly interesting as the location entered my consciousness in subtle ways - as if things were creeping in through the back door. I would find myself inspecting the surface of the water, trying to see through it, straining my imagination with the task of emptying the valleys and finding perspectives on the relationship between past and present.
My other research was varied; archive images of the dams under construction, the WW2 connections, maps of the pre-existing land, finding the course of the pipe to Birmingham and exploring the Shelley connection. (The poet made frequent visits, stocking up on inspiration long before the reservoirs existed) My studio began to fill up with a pick and mix of related images.
Finding a balance between introspection and engagement with the local community was also an important goal. From the outset I wanted to share my experiences with young and old minds. School visits and workshops became instrumental in allowing others to work directly with my material and view the locality from fresh perspectives.
In my studio I began working from my photographic references in a close series with a monochrome palette. On a small scale my paintings began to feel like ghostly miniature memorials, as if something lost from the past were trying to announce its presence. I also made drawings of objects in the museum that might have be swept away in a deluge and embossed them into paper as if they had undergone a high pressure treatment.
What’s been your favourite experience during the residency?
Watching classes produce works of great energy and sensitivity in their school time was fantastic. To an extent so removed from my long walks but as if they were bringing the spirit of the place into their paintings. It was rewarding offering tools, context and a creative space for them to occupy.
The wonder of painting is it is not inherently sophisticated so the key is finding some kind of alchemy. Students worked from my source material and executed some truly fantastic pieces. I also worked with adults at CARAD using the same sources and constraints so to an extent a body of work that crosses the generations has been produced.
Also given the spread of my weeks from January to May, I had a sense of Spring hauling itself out of the darkness. Feeling the warmth of the sun at 7pm on a May evening was a truly unexpected champagne moment. I thought of all those years when people had no electricity and limited resources. Its extraordinary for a residency to lead to such a simple insight.
What have you learnt about yourself/your work?
One of my intentions was to explore my family history and the legacy of dislocation that can haunt any resevoir scheme. Like many I had a story that informed my childhood but that I did not know in any detail:
The outline had been that my mother was evacuated to the borders from Birmingham following the death of her father in the 1940 Blitz. Myself and my siblings subsequently grew up in Radnorshire. Prompted by my residency my grandfather’s diary has come to light and I have found my mother's childhood home and the factory site where my grandfather died. He was a ‘fire watcher’ and spent the blackout nights playing cards with his work fellows in case the premises took a hit. At home he was out, when the freezing winter allowed, digging any inches to the air raid shelter he could gain. His account ends abruptly in October 1940 when Archdales was destroyed in a night bombing raid leaving my grandmother and my mum aged 6 months.
For me this tale is a reminder that often relocation is forced so belonging, identity and family weave a complex course. For me Wales and its landscape is very much an adopted home. Furthermore, I had not anticipated the inherent contradiction of the Elan valley, so obvious as to go unnoticed. That of a sublime, tranquil beauty that actually masks a setting that has undergone a transformation and historical trauma of losing a working landscape. I now have a deeper understanding that people and place are always connected and our locality informs our belonging and identity. Development schemes ‘for the greater good’ have to respect the conjoined values of land and community.
Time alone can be extraordinary and it is such a strong component to this residency. It showed me solitude and domestic hardship could be part of a discipline, crossing a line between place, belonging and creative development. I usually embrace isolation but this residency has completely redefined it for me as a tool of exploration.
How will your time in the Elan Valley influence your future work?
I have a wealth of source material to digest, photographs litter my studio and it will take a while to make sense of many beginnings. I like to work across a range of scales and have some large 2m canvases lined up to work on. My ongoing series of smaller paintings entitled ‘Ghost Notes’ have already had a showing and have been well received- some have even been snapped up by collectors! so there is plenty of incentive to continue those. I have also been painting on paper which is a new departure and is giving me a quality of ambiguity that I like.
Some of the themes from Elan correspond with insights I developed after time in Australia and I know these issues will continue to engage my mind for years to come. Particularly the underestimation we have of the connections between land, community, family and social health. My time has also reaffirmed that you don’t have to travel to far flung places to understand the relationships between place and resources and that many global issues are reflected locally.
In many respects my paintings are straightforward representations and this residency will give me a fresh set of reference points that might underpin works. I hope it will lead to a new paintings relating to absence in the landscape and what lies beneath or beyond the painting. I am always trying to communicate that tenuous thread of connection to place, that sense of recognition beyond geographical location. Elan has taught me that the legacy of the past, the 'ghosts' of former lives might be closer to our everyday experiences than we think.
To see more from our other artists in residence, see below: