I knew I’d get on like a house on fire with artist Donna Vale the moment she opened the door to her studio space, ‘For Every Cloud’ in Langport, smiled at me and said, “ Come in! I’ve got something for you to make”. YEAH!!! :)
The 'something' was actually a Somerset Cool mug, because as well as the mountains of other cool stuff Donna does (more on that in a bit), she’s recently started printing on mugs. The day I went for a chat, she’d used disperse dye to print out our signature Somerset cool cow and Tor image, and it was all ready for me to cut to size, attach to the ceramic and pop into the thing I’ve affectionately nicknamed ‘the marvellous mug making machine’!
We baked it for a few minutes at 360 degrees and hey presto…
It was time to have some tea out of it of course (another clear indicator we’d get on - tea and biscuits as a priority - plus she loves artist Rob Ryan) and for me to discover more about Donna’s art and all the things she’s been getting up to.
Quite simply, Donna gets up to a lot! :)
As well as screen and T-shirt printing, glass engraving, calligraphy, sign writing, upscaling furniture and her marvellous mugs (handy if you want a personalised present by the way, as she can print pretty much anything on them and she’s just done a run of Shawn Mendes mugs don’t you know!), Donna runs all kinds of creative workshops.
For Every Cloud is a perfect place for them, with a homely downstairs, a great upstairs space that’s flooded with light, a small collection of her artwork on the walls and an original Dansette record player *swoon*!!
Anyway, from now until Christmas, Donna’s running Calligraphy for Beginners workshops, Printmaking, Needlefelting, Shibori and Block Printing, Experimental Textiles, Christmas Calligraphy and Lino Christmas Card Making. The classes are a mixture of one day sessions and longer courses, so if you’ve ever fancied trying your hand at something new, check out the dates and times here. I couldn’t resist and have already signed up for one!
Once you combine all this great stuff with the 40 art exhibitions she’s either created, hosted or held at For Every Cloud since she opened it, you’ll start to get an idea of just how passionate Donna is about everything she turns her hand to. This passion, enthusiasm and the feeling that anything is possible is totally infectious. For me though, the thing that stands out about Donna is the way she does things differently.
“I’m always thinking about the stories of people and places I can bring to life - the more undiscovered the better” she told me. “I’m always thinking where’s the next place... where’s the next place!”
Creating art in locations no-one’s ever tried before really drives Donna, and this love of telling stories through art in unexpected, unexplored places, started with a project she created in the village of Tyneham in Dorset.
Some people call Tyneham a 'ghost village'. It was evacuated in December 1943 to provide a training ground for American soldiers before The Battle of Normandy. Families had made their home there for generations, but after the evacuation the villagers never returned. After gaining military permission, Donna created a body of work based on the village’s past families and how they lived and she exhibited it in the old, decaying buildings of Tyneham… something no-one's ever done before.
There are many pieces Donna made for this project that really touched me. For one piece, ‘George’s smock’, Donna spent over 100 hours creating it as a response to one of Tyneham’s great characters - George Richards - the last person in the village to ever wear one. How she had the patience to perfect the art of smocking is beyond me :)
As Donna says,
“Memories never fade if a story is retold”,and she definitely finds ways of retelling these almost-lost stories with a beauty and quiet dignity that’s truly moving.
When Donna and I chatted, there was really just one project on her mind though - year two of ‘Sense of Place’ at the National Trust Brean Down, where she’s Artist in Residence. Well, it is a pretty big deal… an art exhibition ‘on the edge’ of the stunning cliffs there, in what remains of the old military fort. You can’t get more unexpected than that!
The thought-provoking art will be their collective response to the stories of the people, landscape and buildings of the fort. It’ll bring these stories to life and connect those of us who go to see it with the families who originally lived and worked in this dramatic place (as well as with the surroundings). For an art installation space, Brean Down fort is utterly unique and last year’s exhibition attracted over 3,000 visitors during Somerset Art Weeks. That doesn’t surprise me, having visited there a few days ago.
To give you a quick recap, Sense of Place 2015 included wartime letters, photographs and textiles all combined with beautiful live singing, which echoed throughout the chambers of the stoney remains, stimulating all the senses. A large animated Zoetrope, made by Matt Bjerregaard, also lit up the dark space inside the Officer's Mess and sat alongside huge installations that brought the landscape and seascape to life.
This year, there’ll be lots of different creations in store to surprise, delight and evoke personal reactions from everyone who walks the mile across the beautiful cliffs of Brean Down to visit the fort and experience the art. We’ll be writing a series of blogs about it over the coming weeks too, so watch this space - and of course, go visit if you can :) It really is magical, breathtaking and a little bit eerie... all wrapped up into one fascinating bundle.
To be completely honest, the exhibition at Brean Down and my chat with Donna about her work reminded me again what an awesome place Somerset is for celebrating and embracing creativity... whether you’re a visitor to the county, or have lived here for 40 years like Donna. There are so many cool things to get involved in, try your hand at or experience - and that makes me feel incredibly lucky to call Somerset my home.
P.S. If you want to find out more about Donna’s work in Lyneham here’s a link to her blog. For all things Sense of Place, go here. #donnavale #foreverycloudlangport #somersetblog #somersetcool #breandown