Kari and Hazel had spent years outdoors, making art for events such as weddings and festivals. One day they decided to ditch the brief and make in nature, for the sake of making. The idea – a beach sculpture in West Cork. Discussions around the piece gave birth to TOMBOLO, the first project under their foundation Lay of the Land (LOTL). LOTL is all about supporting the artistic community and connecting with the wider one, all whilst immersed in nature. “For us art shouldn’t just exist in galleries and institutions or be something that you need an education to understand” says Kari “I think that everyone has skills and talent that they should be using to better the world. We are good at organising things and making art and we want to use that to encourage people to enjoy nature, to appreciate the natural environment more and protect it.”
Lay of the Land has hosted several projects over the past three years – TOMBOLO 16,17 & 19, two-week artist residencies that culminate in weekend long outdoor exhibitions and Res 1-3, incubators that provide artists with a space to develop their work, without the pressure of output. They also produced a documentary in 2018 called SILVA with Fellipe Lopes about their 2018 residency and exhibition. Their next project, Calafort is set to be a “Travelling Lab” which will travel around the 600 person community of Árainn Mhór in Donegal collecting stories from the “communities within the community” who have a heritage of fishing, textiles, natural dying and Gaeilge. They will produce a collective community art piece with the locals, and a documentary whilst there. At a time when the island is embracing technological advances, it will be a nice way to celebrate and honour what they have on their doorstep.
The TOMBOLO creations are based on site-specific elements that inspire the artists during their stay – be that the nature they are immersed in, a piece of history, or a story that they heard from a local. They work on individual pieces as well as collaborations. A great example is a creation called the Cyanotype, for which the sea was one of the artists. “It was such a group effort to make it happen and then the sea changed it in a way that no one was expecting. It really open our minds to creating something and exposing it to the elements.” says Kari.
The project attracts an array of diverse artists from all over the world. We chat about how the artists inspire each other during the stay. Hazel gives the example of Brenda Kearney’s work which is influenced by the Japanese philosophy of Shōka. Shōka is dedicated to the harmony and balance of natural landscapes. During Tombolo, Brenda created small ceramic sculptures and placed them on the ground. These complemented the environment’s subtler attributes, rather than competing with nature: the most impressive exhibitor. Despite being there every day, Hazel says, “It was the first time that I really stopped and looked at those small details. Her approach was so gentle and sensitive”. Kari jokes about the contrast to their frequent battle with nature pre-exhibition, “I will get this into the ground, It will go in.” Hazel says that the projects are always a humbling reminder that “you can’t compete with nature, you have to work with it.”
Kari tells me about an artist from Mexico City, Sofía Arredondo. Mexico City is running out of water, yet has enough rainfall every year to supply almost the entire population, but it isn’t being availed of. She created an artwork that collected rain-water in order to showcase a more simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution. With this background, they were very excited to have her on board.
We get chatting about how the TOMBOLO exhibitions are received. Kari and Hazel enjoy honest feedback, and just getting people outside to think and discuss seems to be success. “The locals don’t hold back, which is great,” Kari says. Hazel quotes one Cork man’s feedback and we laugh “I don’t like art, I don’t like art. I had a nice walk, I had a nice walk.” But this same fellow went to every part of the exhibition, so perhaps he’ll have to admit to himself that he does in fact like art!
I ask if they think a lack of context and backstory is the cause of distance in people like this man. She says that they include explanations in their exhibition tours but are conscious to strike the right balance and to not be too academic. “We’ve all been to a gallery, read the blurb and thought, I don’t know what that means. And we’ve also been there, looking at something, and thought, “ahhhh… if it wasn’t for this piece of paper I wouldn’t have had a clue what that was about,” says Hazel.
“I think there is a moment when people stop getting it,” says Kari. “When you’re a kid, you get it. We work with loads of kids and they totally understand every part of it. They get what concepts are, they get how things link. And then you go to school and you’re told you can’t draw and then you think you don’t understand art, and you don’t think about art again until you’re an adult. Then people start talking about art and culture and you try to dip back in but there is so much unknown that you don’t really know where you stand with it.”.
“People come to our workshops who work on computers. They say they never get to use their hands and they’re quite nervous about it, and then they produce these beautiful pieces and they are shocked by that. They get so much out of it. It’s therapy as well, you know, it’s meditative.” says Hazel.
Art in society
This leads us to reflect on the wider question of art’s place in society. Kari thinks that “people are creative in their every day and they just don’t realise it. In so many different ways. Balancing books is creative, you’re problem-solving, you’re using the same part of your brain. As a society I don’t think we put enough emphasis on that fact that everyone is creative and we should just take a little more time to do that,” she pauses, “And people should have more art around them, good art” she laughs.
The conversation progresses to making versus mass-produced consumerism. On their most recent residency, they made their own inks and dyes. Kari, who usually uses acrylic, a plastic-based paint, plans to experiment more with natural inks in her work. “To me art is freedom. If you learn to make, you don’t have to buy. If you can make your own house, you don’t have to buy one… and that scale can go down to ink.” But Hazel points out that this is, of course, a big shift for a lot of people in today’s world of instant, easy and accessible. To make is “labour intensive and takes persistence,” she says, “but the rewards you gain from making are far beyond any feeling you get from buying. It’s an unfortunate reality that people will buy on amazon because their neighbour’s handmade piece is a bit more expensive,” she continues. “It’s sad that people don’t place value on it. But I think it’s changing a bit recently”
I ask about the future of LOTL. They tell me that whilst they have had great support this year from the Arts Council, the future looks financially unsustainable. “LOTL will continue. We love it. Its an incredible way to engage with communities, other artists and the land, and those are the pillars of our practices, so there is no way it won’t continue, but it won’t necessarily be TOMBOLO,” says Kari. “I do think that society has a long way to go in valuing art. I find that art is sort of put on the end of things to make it feel nice, make it pretty, create a nice atmosphere. What we are trying to do is put art at the centre and everything else around it. We will continue to make art, it is our job. It’s not a pastime or a hobby. It is hugely important. We want to turn the project into a financially sustainable venture. We have loads of ideas that have been brewing since the beginning, now is the time to take a step back and put a framework in place so that we can achieve these ideas in a financially viable way. We’re excited by what’s to come.”
If you would like to contribute to LOTL, you can do so here.
Calafort is open to the public over the weekend 13-15th on Árainn Mhór after which they will be producing a feature-length documentary following the artists and community involved in their projects. Keep an eye on their Instagram and join their mailing list to keep up to date with their work.
The main photo is by Eadaoin McCarthy.