I read a fascinating article published in The Guardian a few years ago which reported that artists were heading for the countryside in droves. In the 80s and 90s, being considered a serious artist meant living in a city, specifically London; and if we’re talking even more specifically, somewhere quirky and central like Shoreditch.
For me, though, I’ve long felt that having a connection with the natural world is hugely conducive to the creative process. Although I wouldn’t call myself an artist, I do have to think imaginatively for my work and I find that getting out into the countryside even for a walk - soaking up some daylight, hearing the leaves rustling and bird chirping, breathing in some fresh air - really aids my clarity of mind. Some of my best ideas have popped into my head while I’ve been pacing down a country lane!
And now, finally, it seems I’m in good company. Damien Hirst has a country place in Gloucestershire; Alex James (formerly of Blur) lives in Oxfordshire on a 200 acre cheese farm. Sarah Lucas, once the naughtiest of the ‘90s Young British Artists (or the YBAs, as they were known) has turned to a far more quiet, rural existence in Suffolk - lots of tea and lounging about in her pyjamas in a house once owned by Benjamin Britten.
Clearly there’s the issue of affordable living and studio space in London - creative heavyweights like Hirst, James and Lucas aside, most would-be artists simply cannot afford to live in the capital. As Bedwyr Williams, who has represented Wales at the Venice Biennale, said in The Guardian article about his Caernarfonshire home, “At least if I am skint here, I can look at the mountains.” But there’s also been a more subtle change in attitudes towards rural art. The stereotypes of old ladies and WI handicrafts (I’m a big WI fan, just for the record) is terribly outdated. Suddenly it’s cool to be into nature, and for your art - whether its visual art, music or writing - to be inspired by rural life.
We are afforded with vast amounts of beauty here on our doorstep in The Hills, and when you consider that there are numerous scientific studies pointing to the measurable benefits of a) art and b) nature on our mental health and general wellbeing, it’s not surprising that one of the best ways to boost your mood is to enjoy art in nature or art inspired by nature. In fact, Arts Council England have funded scientific research into this very topic, and a study led by artist Mark Ware recorded participants’ brain activity using an MRI scanner to show that sounds from nature (birdsong, running water, wind etc) decrease the likelihood of deep, troubling thoughts and improve our overall concentration.
Another ongoing study has looked at the impact of visual art on our brains, with stunning canvases of digitally-produced symmetrical patterns inspired by nature displayed in locations such as the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Exeter Cathedral. Participants were invited to view the art and then complete some specially-designed tasks, all while their eye-movement was monitored by specialist equipment. Analysis is ongoing, with the intention of using the findings to produce more artwork which deliberately evokes a positive mental state in the viewers. Put simply: art can make you feel better, but art that focuses on the natural world can make you feel even better.
So if I’ve inspired you to get out and get arty, where are the best places to enjoy nature-inspired and outdoor art in the UK? Well, you could do a lot worse than visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which celebrated its 40th anniversary of promoting ‘Art Without Walls’ last year. You’ll be wowed by sensuous Henry Moores, can indulge in some Simon Armitage poems written especially to commemorate the park’s birthday and if you’re really quick, you could catch Zak Ove’s 80-sculpture exhibition before it closes on the 3rd June. In the south you could always try the Pride of the Valley Sculpture Park in the Surrey Hills (and even make an artistic purchase - all of the works are for sale) or Scots might want to head for Jupiter just outside Edinburgh for a dose of Gormley and Goldsworthy. The National Botanic Gardens of Wales in Lianarthney is well worth a visit - there are sculptures galore, many of which were commissioned for and inspired by their countryside surroundings.
Of course, if you’re an artist based in the countryside, whatever your discipline, I’d love to hear from you. Check out the photographers, illustrators, designers, thinkers and makers who’ve already joined The Hills to promote their artistic business as one of our Collaborators. I am thrilled to be able to welcome them to our online space and provide them with a platform to share their skills and wares. Are you an artist in the Hills, or art afficionado with a penchent for nature? I would love to know!