Draw Breath, the new exhibition at Oriel Mwldan, by acclaimed artist Stephen West, offers through the medium of dramatic drawings, a powerful statement about the lungs of the planet, executed with immense skill and magnetic vigour.The effect of the dark line drawing, used to create the deep tangle of branches and leaves on ash trees, now currently dying in their thousands, stirs the mind to acknowledge the dark threat in the underworld contained in the loveliness of the woodlands. There is therefore more to the current exhibition than the surface images which when focussed upon, and breathed in, illustrate a further understanding of the concerned, artistic mind of Stephen West. West’s recognition that the trees are the lungs of the planet, and that without them we are lost, is carried in these images of trees. They are not all of them images of The Ash, there are others including a dramatic Fallen Beech, and then, surprisingly the viewer faces a series of pictures entitled ‘Committee Meetings’ where it seems that all the characters depicted are in the act of talking or shouting at one another. These satirical drawings are neither realistic nor abstract, but there is a sense in which the level of reality tells a story, as in Bwrdd Europ, and spectacularly in his take on Picasso’s Guernica?’ His style appears initially to be loose and lively, maybe even a little wild, but the composition and the structure, are in fact very strong and controlled. The small crowd that gathered for the opening were obviously impressed. Artist Eleri Mills, who travelled some fifty miles for the show, commented on the work. ‘It has an energy that is thrilling,’ she said. ‘But there is also something essentially classical about it.’
Alan Hewson, Project Director, Chapter Arts, Cardiff, gave the opening talk to the invited viewers, and said that he has known West as a committed artist, ‘He has a deep dedication,’ he said. ‘and works with a fluency and skill which is admirable.’
West describes himself as a ‘drawyer’, a term coined to describe someone making work through the medium of drawing and his work can be seen between now and 25 January in Oriel Mwldan open daily. For visual experience of his work and to hear Stephen talk about his work see Jacob Whittaker’s film on Culture Colony.
What follows, with the permission of Alan Hewson is the talk he gave to open the show, perceptive and instructive, and certainly worth a read!
I was delighted to be asked to open Stephen’s exhibition. I have known Stephen for over twenty years, both as a committed artist and also an able and imaginative arts administrator. I say committed artist as I know the difficulty of trying to maintain your own practice as well as earning a living. It takes a dedication, persistence and courage.
The range of work in Stephen’s exhibition is wide, from the deeply personal to issues of national and global significance in which he conveys his skill as an artist or as he prefers it a drawyer and he clearly expresses himself through his drawings with great fluency and skill
I mentioned the deeply personal and the title of the exhibition gives a clue-Draw breath refers to a time of recovery and recuperation. With Stephen it was a response to the Glaucoma he had and the threat to his sight. It gave him a desire to work from nature and enjoy the delight of simply looking.
It is sad but true we take things for granted and only when our health is threatened by disease do we really appreciate the amazing value of life. But you can be respond in a positive or a negative way and in Stephen’s drawings he has chosen to celebrate the life around him.
But at the same time as celebrating life he also shows that everything is vulnerable.
Draw Breath also refers to respiration of trees inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen contributing to making this planet habitable for life.
His series of trees shows with great skill and vigour the beauty of the ash tree but at the same time it is a reminder that the ash like the oak, larch and other species is under grave threat from disease. Many remember the devastation of Dutch elm disease over thirty years ago and the millions of trees that were lost. We face that againwith this being part ofthe impact of Global trading making it much easier for diseases and insects to travel, carried in plants, in crates and containers. According to the Forestry Commission the UK has had as manytree diseases in the last 10 years as in previous fifty – another unexpected and unwelcome downside of the unfettered global market and a reminder how vulnerable and fragile is the world we inhabit.
It’s particularly poignant in Wales not only because of the ash trees link to the Welsh Bardic tradition but also through the work of David Nash the sculptor who has focused for 40 years on working with wood, with the Ash Dome being one of his earliest and most famous works and this too must now be under threat.
The threat to ash trees is from fungal spores spread by plants imported from Europe.
But it is not only the devastation of nature that we see for as the spores invade and destroy the trees so mankind can destroy like spores. In 1937nazi planes swarmed into Spain to create the massacre at Guernica whichPicassso turned into one of the most compelling symbols against the horror of war. Stephen uses this work for a stepping off point to explore its powerful imageswhich have now become archetypes embedded in our unconscious.
On a smaller and more insidious stage Stephen uses his wit and draughtsmanship to explore the bane of all those involved in the arts, the committee. Stephen says ‘I consider the power of the cultural committee can be another threat – this time to our art institutions.’
Drawing on my 35 years in the arts in Wales I hesitate to say that the satirical view of committees was drawn from Stephen’s personal experience but it’s true that the committee seem to be an intergral part of the arts landscape. A lot of time and energy can be wasted as Stephen shows in his drawings of the meetings consuming as he puts it ‘the precious oxygen in their often pointless chattering’. In his career in Arts Administration I am sure he has longed for the end of such meetings and to be out in the woods and fields drawing as I have.
But I feel that in some ways it is not just the committee itself that is at fault but lack of different voices within that committee. Not just within in it but in the wider sphere- Wales has not been well served either in the print media or on television on coverage and debate about the arts and those external and internal voices are an answer the power of the committee.
The committee in its best form is a symbol of the democratic process- Winston Churchill said ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time’- dicatorships brings certainty – there is one truth, one belief, democracy is shambolic and untidy and uncertain but so are we as people and if we have to put up with wasted time and effort if we want everyone’s voice then that’s how it should be.
Stephen’s art, as I said at the start, encompasses the deeply personal and the global and he shows his consummate skill in using his art to encourage us to meditate on the seamless link between our own experience and the world we inhabit.