Exile, Art, Place, Courage and Covid

In mid-July 2021, Easel Art Space initiated and hosted further pastels workshops tutored by Rod Bathgate Thursday 16 July, and then by Stephie Clark on 17 and 18 July. The many attending artists’ mood and creative production over the three days made an active ‘atelier’ in the classical tradition, busy, concentrated. All days were exciting to witness, peaceful though very busy.

Photographs on Easel-Art-Space.com capture some of the works-in-progress emerging through participants’ physical skills, artistic interests, focused dedication all served by concentrated energy. Colour, shape, individuality, observed detail; eye-catching. At the close of the third well-attended workshop (see website for photographs), light-hearted mask-muffled accomplishment banter replied to Stephie Clark as she packed up. “I just love teaching here,” she commented. “The light is so beautiful, so important”. As the days closed all the art on easels conveyed similar cheerful affirmation; this is art making, within built art on its own historic place.

And so it is that at Easel Art Space there is for gallery and workshops alike, the arts within art.

Originally established in 1858 as essentially a ‘journeyman’ railway station in the early years of global railway development, these historic buildings were constructed later in that century with additions in the early twentieth. Their purpose and meaning were clear. As around the world at the same time the Station centred upon railway engineering to facilitate transport and commerce, but over time became central to industrial and social development. With little irrelevant artifice its optimistic architecture remains a metaphor for blended cultural confidence, civic development, practical work and trade, invention, new purpose, survival. Easel Art Space shares each of these vital values. The arts demonstrate them.

This is particularly true in the time of Covid-19 ‘pandemic’. A large number of Australians ‘stay at home’ for weeks in an attempt by regulation to moderate illness and its spread. Daily media report or just imply despondency in the wider community. Plainly the common day has for so many become more than common; it has become barren.

To the observable contrary, fortunate only in being affected by a ‘lesser’ local effect of Covid these July workshops in pastels were uplifting, patently zestful, usual, creative, positive, productive, sunny. In the early evenings as artists and tutors left, works and palettes in hand, notwithstanding Greater Sydney ‘lockdown’ and constant reporting of Covid a much brighter future was imaginable. Mandatory masks could not obscure the artists or tutors or their accomplishments. Fatigued happiness shone. In this tiny side-chapel of the world, here against all Covid could close down art and arts quietly triumphed.

Is there other similar evidence to help lift the spirits now, strengthen spines now, light the path now to that future? There is.

In the Atlantic Ocean, north of West Africa lies the island of Lanzarote (https://www.hellocanaryislands.com/lanzarote). Named from one of the aliases of Genoese explorer Lancelloto Malocello in 1336, the island is thought to have been first settled by the Phoenicians. Subsequently it was drawn into the global movement of European trade and war, finally now administered by Spain. For some time famous as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Lanzarote is a model of bright futures accomplished from dark pasts.

In 1730 volcanic eruptions caused havoc, burying areas of the best soil on the island which had supported the agricultural industry of eleven villages, all buried. Eruption continued until 1736; six long., continuous years. Drought followed in 1738/40 when needed rains did not fall. Flight was chosen by many. Diaspora found settlements in Cuba, Texas USA and elsewhere.

Inevitably, historical trade in cochineal disappeared. Lava eventually covered 25% of the entire island, forming an awe-inspiring area now known as Timanfaya National Park (www.turismolanzarote.com/en/timanfaya/). Stand silently and look.

Lanzarote’s remaining villagers moved to the coast; tourism and lava-planted wines eventually became the main industries. In 2021 the island continues as a popular semi-desert destination. Resident population has increased. Lanzarote’s lava-scape, sculptural but searing, in places allowing the cooking of food direct at ground level, still is a monument to resilient people. They remained through a volcanic and drought decade, to recover, re-build and ultimately revive lost freedom and livelihoods. It took centuries, but it was done and continues famously. Thousands visit to admire. Genuine market economy industries such as wines for export have developed. In all its facets this small island is exhilarating.

How did art, architecture and their foundation ideas assist then as now? Cesar Manrique Cabrera(1919-1992) (http://www.cesarmanrique.com/biografia_i.htm) was born on Lanzarote, studied architecture initially but eventually lived in New York where he became an accomplished artist. Successful, he returned to Lanzarote in 1966 where he became a leader in establishing the interface between Lanzarote’s natural volcanic landscape with integration of visual and sculptural arts. Building his own house mainly within five lava bubbles, Manrique was instrumental in developing within ancient lava forms many attractive responsive facilities, restaurants, research centres, viewing platforms and grottos – famously the Jameos del Agua. (https://turismolanzarote.com/en/sightseeing/cact-lanzarote/jameos-del-agua/)

Cesar Manrique was motivated counter-intuitively by experienced contrasts, by the special artistic and architectural language of an apparently desolate landscape. For him the desolation of New York, as he perceived it, to the creative desolation of Lanzarote was positive. Individually he and his associates together dug down, dug deep. That is the positive choice.

“…While living in New York, he concluded People in New York are like rats. Humans were not created for all this artificiality. There is a necessity of coming back to Earth. Feeling it, smelling it. That’s what I feel. I miss the purity of the nature‘. Observing directly from non-figurative expressionism, pop art, kinetic art and sculpture, his visual culture acquired a further creative dimension which was used in his subsequent works…” (www.theculturetrip.com/europe/spain/articles/cesar-manrique)

In the semi-desert of Lanzarote’s lava-scape Manrique and the island’s community built human-scale, convincing places – in part public art, in part private sanctuary, in part large-scale imaginative sculpture – that memorialise the volcanic eruptions of the 1730s and another during 1824. They also illustrate the eternal interplay of art and human purpose, prove once again that the human spirit invested in practical recovery and positive life prevails, time after testing time.

Lanzarote is always a surprise to the first time visitor, but it takes only a moment or two to see the glorious affirmation achieved when art, arts, place, people, long practice and persistence unite.

Confidence in a future foreshadowed by the exhilarating accomplishments of those Easel Art Space Workshops July 2021, through the work and colour created by tutors and artist participants together, is right. As in Lanzarote past and present, so here in our Place, present and future.


July 2021.


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