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Art on the Edge - Brean Down Fort

Each year, SAW (Somerset Art Works) dedicates just over two weeks to showcasing the fantastic art and artists that live and work in our brilliant county. This year, the ‘open studios’ saw artists opening up their work space to anyone who fancied a visit - to see how and where they create and to perhaps make purchase or two! 

Over 200 studios were open to the public, from 17th September to 2nd October, and there was one space in particular that really excited us. That space was Brean Down Fort at the National Trust Brean Down, where three artists - Donna Vale, Lydia Needle and Joy Merron- have been working to create the exhibition ‘A Sense of Place - Art on the Edge’.

The complete exhibition opens there today and you might have read a little bit about it in our last blog (if you haven’t, why the hell not? ;)). In a very small nutshell, the exhibition is the artists collective response to the stories of the landscape, people and buildings of the Fort.

A couple of sunny Saturdays ago, whilst the work was in progress, we visited the National Trust Brean Down for the first time - to meet the artists at work, discover more about the project and experience their unique open studios… the ruined fort buildings on the very edge of the Brean Down cliffs. Err - wow! 

If you’re planning your own visit to Brean Down (& we’d definitely say go - it’s absolutely stunning), you drive past a fair few mobile homes along the way and it does feel like a while until you get to the beachside car park. There’s a National Trust shop and cafe waiting for you when you make it though, and it’s not a bad idea to have a cuppa or an ice cream before the climb to the top of the cliffs. Any excuse! :) 

Once you’re up there, the views across the bay are spectacular. You’ve got Western-super-Mare on one side, Brean on the other and you can see a fair bit of Wales across the water, if you get a clear day. There’s something very ‘King of the World’ about standing up there in the fresh air, just taking it all in! 

It’s then a mile or so to the tip of the cliffs and the Fort remains. It’s a really lovely walk and for us, it was the first time our dog Petal had seen the sea, so she absolutely loved it! 

Now, about those remains! To be honest, as soon as we spotted them we were in awe of the crumbling buildings as a place to create and exhibit art. The spot itself looks almost unreachable from the top of the cliffs, and as you climb down towards the sea it feels weirdly magical… a place that was once full of life and stories now standing empty, looking wistfully out onto the waves. 

We made our way down the hill, spied the yellow Somerset Art Weeks sign, had a quick nosey around the Fort and found Donna, Lydia and Joy working on their pieces in the old Officers Quarters. 

Donna showed me around the buildings and if I’m honest, I found some of them fairly eerie. Fascinating and steeped in history, yes… but spooky nonetheless! A place that time’s forgotten, apart from the names recently scratched, with some determination, into the cold stone. 

One of Joy’s pieces ‘Blighty’s Angels’ didn’t help me shake the shivers either! It’s a piece that focuses on the forgotten children of the Fort - their ghosts - a reminder that children once lived and played there… and bloody hell did it make me jump! :) I wasn’t expecting this when I turned the corner in to the small, dark room at the back of the Officers Quarters building. 

Of course, that’s the point. The impact is incredibly powerful and it’s hard to shake off. I think Graeme was a bit scared too, as he made an excuse to wait outside with Petal… and one of Lydia’s donuts! ;).  

Anyway, the room the artists set up as their working base was a lot lighter and stoney bright, with a huge window looking out over the courtyard and to the sea beyond - such an unusual and awesome place to create. When we were there, Joy was working away on another piece ‘tidal wave’. We absolutely love it and can’t wait to see it complete. Here's a sneak preview!

Joy often works with sea plastics and this wave of bright green is made entirely of bottle tops found on the beach and in the sea, or tops that were donated. When we spoke to her, there were already 1,500 bottle tops in the wave and the idea is to make it as massive as possible - get people thinking about where their waste actually goes. For me, it’s really a thing of beauty and when we saw it hanging out of the window of the Officers Quarters, it seemed to glint and glitter in the sunshine like newly-cut glass. 

Here’s one of Joy’s other installations - standing brightly in one of the darkened stone Fort rooms.

Containing 4,600 pieces of plastic, Joy’s aim here is to encourage people to think about recycling and where materials that can’t be recycled actually end up:

“I like making extraordinary things from discarded waste", she told me. "After my background in textiles, it’s really therapeutic threading all these bottle tops together too”. 

I’m just stunned at how bold and beautiful the work is - and all from the materials you and I chuck away every day! 

Next up is Lydia’s work - and If you don’t know about Lydia already then you’re missing out! One, because she makes the most beautiful needlefelt animals and two, because she’s one of the most smiley people on the planet which means she’s a lovely person to be around :)

As part of Art on the Edge, Lydia has used textiles and felt to create two stand-out pieces at the Fort. The first, Leave only footprints - evolution, had just been started when we visited. The idea came from an open talk she went to, which touched on the lives of Ice Age creatures that used to walk up to the Fort thousands of years ago. There’s no visual record of them, so Lydia decided to create a large hanging sculpture to bring them to life and to make visible the invisible legacy of these magnificent beasts (who 'left only footprints', despite their size). The installation will be made up of individual woollen animals - mammoths, giant elk, wolves, bison, wild cats - using traditional wet felting (the oldest form of fabric known to humankind) and needlefelt.

Lydia’s second piece, Leave only footprints - erosion, has seen lots of people donating materials to be incorporated into the artwork - materials that’ve been strung up in one of the old look outs, right at the cliff edge. Visitors will get to see how these pieces erode over time, how they’re mistreated by the weather, the sea and anything else coming their way! Only a footprint will eventually be left of the installation to show it was ever there… a bit like the families that resided at Brean Down all those years ago. 

And so to Donna! Donna had the imagination, spirit and sheer determination to get the project up and running at Brean Down in the first place. The piece of Donna’s I can’t wait to see is the one I’ve nicknamed her ‘metal man’! 

At 5am on July 6th 1900, a huge explosion rocked the fort. A gunner named Haines committed suicide by firing his rifle into a gunpowder magazine. Amazingly no-one else was hurt, but it’s still a mystery why Haines took his own life and the metal man (a male sculpture created from metal wire) will be displayed in the Gunpowder Store at the Fort to represent Haines. It will highlight the issue of male suicide across the UK - the rate equates to 12 deaths a day, according to figures collated by the group CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). 

When I visited Donna at her studio, before Art on the Edge began, she was starting to plan out how the metal man would take shape. 

We chatted about whether there’d be 12 small versions of him (to highlight the male suicide rate), or one of him illuminated with light, creating 12 reflections.  On our first visit to Brean Down, Donna was making his rifle and she showed me how metal man might be illuminated and the room he’d end up in. 

It was strange going down in to the chamber, and Donna admitted she was a little bit freaked out at the prospect of spending at least six hours down there in the dark while she finished the sculpture… but wow - what a powerful piece it’s going to be. I’ve got a feeling it will steal the show for me. 

Anyway, if any of this has tempted you to visit Brean Down Fort and see how the exhibition looks and feels now it’s complete, you can go along from today (October 6th) until October 16th, have a stunning walk along the cliffs and experience what ‘Art on the Edge’ really means! 

If you can’t get there, we’ll be blogging about the completed exhibition very soon.  


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