Pethau Brau - Fragile Things

Tamara Krikorian on the art of Catrin Williams

It is a universal truth that human beings do not exist outside of their culture, their society. A biologically human animal is not fully human without, for example, language which is a cultural, political phenomenon. To speak of an alienated society is to speak of people robbed of their culture, always so that some political system can exploit them. That is what makes culture so important to liberation and that is why it can never be considered as a separate piece of human activity.
Jimmie Durham, A Certain Lack of Coherence (1993), p. 12

In talking to Catrin Williams and looking at her work, I recognise the essential difference between the fight to maintain a language and culture on one's own terrain and the pride in their culture maintained by refugee families.

The strongest memories which I have of my childhood are of roaming around the farms of rural Dorset during the long summer holidays and being treated by the farmers and their families as one of their own. Four months of each year were spent collecting eggs, feeding pigs, bringing in the cows for milking, helping with hay making and the harvest and planting rows of runner beans.

In contrast, I spent an entirely urban existence for the rest of the year and lived in one of those suburbs of London where everybody is a foreigner, whether they come from Hampshire or South America. Italians, Hungarians, Scots, Welsh and Irish and in our case Armenians lived alongside each other in harmony, following the same rhythms - school, work, commuting, shopping in the supermarket, keeping a tidy garden, speaking across the garden fence - the identical pattern of the lives of millions of people all over the world. But behind those suburban facades lay and indeed still lie strongly held cultural traditions and beliefs, different religions and different memories - memories in many cases haunted by traumatic events and, in the case of our family, massacre, displacement and diaspora - families torn apart and spread across the world.

From the age of five years old, I recognised the meaning of ‘difference’ in the cultural sense. I was the only child in the school with a non-British name and when I went home in the evening my grandparents were speaking a different language. In exploring the hedgerows, tiny streams and the lichen covered stones of the old churchyard in the village near my grandmother's farm, I must have found a modus vivendi, a balance between the ‘difference’ and the shared, and the recognition that I too could belong, in spite of never being able to return to my roots.

At the end of the twentieth century, this is the story of millions, up-rooted, and dispossessed and corralled into anonymous urban areas to suit international capitalism. Rarer are the stories of those who have been able to survive in relatively stable circumstances in their own communities, on their own land, speaking their own language. Questions of identity were raised again amongst artists in the 1970s as the exploration of the personal, of gender, sexuality and politics, took over from conceptualism.

Questions of cultural identity and difference however were raised more rarely. Modernism still frowns on the personal once it starts dealing with cultural and thus political issues. The Art World bolstered by international capital cannot afford to look too closely at issues of cultural/political difference. To look back is to raise memories. Looking forward raises the possibility of rupture. The political artist must do both to establish a language of radical change. Each of us acts as a cultural signifier through our ancestors and personal history. Through a collective memory we can pursue the goal of establishing a national identity. Catrin Williams is an artist who has quietly pursued her own identity. Through a detailed analysis of her own background, she has established a language of signs and symbols related to her up-bringing in rural Wales and through painting and performance created a space in which others can search and share in the collective memory.

Thomas McEvilley, quoted by Iwan Bala in his essay ‘Custodial Aesthetics’, appears to be optimistic about the possibility of individual cultures surviving in a post-colonialist world. Iwan Bala hopes that a multi-cultural society can be attained without destroying the individualities of the various cultures within it. He recognises however that in Wales we are not living in a post-colonialist world and have still to attain that level of political and cultural independence.

If we really support the ideal of a multi-cultural society we should embrace all cultures and allow them to thrive but this also means allowing the will of those people to develop and become established. At the moment, it seems as if far from creating a multi-cultural society we are entering a mono-cultural society dominated by trans-continental pizza toppings and the culture of big capital.

Catrin was brought up on a farm at Cefnddwysarn near Bala in the district of Penllyn, one of four children. All the farms around were farmed by friends and relatives. In the 1960s, this was entirely a Welsh speaking area. It was a community with a clear sense of identity, whose life centred around the family, school, the chapel and the Eisteddfodau - a community. These farms, however, were small and could barely sustain a whole family. The farmers and their families had to do other jobs such as taking in paying guests, forestry and other outside contracting.

Catrin and her peer group all had to leave home in order to eventually find work. All four children in her family went to college. The fragile economy of rural communities in Wales at that time was not a new phenomenon and probably had as much to do with the undermining of culture and thus the language, as any other force. The community which Catrin grew up in was in any case deeply scarred by the traumatic events of 1963 when the village and surrounding farms of Tryweryn nearby were flooded to make way for a reservoir to serve the population and industry of Liverpool. This corner of Wales was no rural idyll, the community was struggling to keep together.

There were teachers in Catrin's family, in particular, her aunt, her grandmother's sister who had gone to Normal College in Bangor in the 1920s. She was interested in music and amateur dramatics and it was in her house that Catrin found books on art and other sources of future inspiration. From an early age she was encouraged to perform, to sing and to paint.

The tradition of singing, dancing, recitation and playing musical instruments, which Welsh children go through from a very early age is systematic. Almost everyone in the community performs in the Eisteddfodau. This encourages confidence and a striving for excellence - a sense of competition under the best circumstances. A number of artists brought up in the tradition like Catrin, John Meirion Morris from nearby Llanuwchllyn, Angharad Jones also from Bala, and Christine Mills and her cousin Eleri Mills from Llangadfan are fine musicians and singers as well as being visual artists, and were tempted with the idea of studying music rather than Fine Art at an early stage in their careers. This discipline, which comes directly from a Celtic tradition of music and performance rather than via Central European ‘Classicism’, represents a powerful force behind much of Welsh art today being transposed from one medium to another. From singing to dance to theatre to the visual arts, it emerges almost as an explosion of symbols and signs, a celebration of the inde- pendence, which is still to come.

The painting Sunday School Trip evokes a summer picnic. The pair of shoes marks the period. The shoes were those which Catrin used to find and try on when playing in her aunt's house. It was when Catrin had started college that her parents finally sold the farm where she had been brought up, a particularly painful event for Catrin. She sees it as marking the beginning of the end for small farmers in Wales and a point at which the community in which she grew up began to alter radically - with strangers coming to the countryside, bringing their problems with them.

Catrin recognises how vulnerable the new generation is. The students she teaches at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor at Dolgellau come to college often having no knowledge of their family background or from where they originated. With her own children, she is hoping to instill a clear sense of identity through a similar formation to her own.

The Eisteddfod tradition has supported the development of a unique culture with creative energies. The area around Bala has fostered many generations of poets, singers and in more recent times visual artists. For the Roots project organised by Cywaith Cymru for the 1997 Eisteddfod Bro Meirion Dwyfor in Bala, Catrin arranged to take-over Heulwen, an empty building in the main street of Bala. On the ground floor she set up a series of installations under the title of Pethau Brau (Fragile Things). As one of five artists invited to take part in the project which included Iwan Bala, Angharad Jones, John Meirion Morris and Dylan Jones, Catrin also courageously took up the challenge dealing with the issues surrounding Roots in a bold and flamboyant way. All five artists have moved away from Bala though their families still live there and they confessed to feeling nervous about the exposure of their work so close to home and in such a small community. An intimate expression of belonging can sometimes cause embarrassment.

Banners painted by local children in a series of workshops run by Catrin in the weeks leading up to the Eisteddfod were initially paraded up the high street to announce the opening of Pethau Brau. These were then installed in one of the rooms. Another space contained large wall hangings, back-drops as Catrin describes them. More intimate items included clothing and family photographs as well as a series of painted self-portraits on plates - a poignant reminder of the fragility of life. The installation of plates grew out of the drawings and paintings of the dresser at her parent's home and the idea of a family portrait. The plates, everyday objects which fall and break, became the carrier of a deep melancholy and Catrin chose instead to paint her own image on them. At the opening the rooms of Heulwen were filled with friends and relatives who together were able to share their memories - a true example of Cof Cenedl.

Amongst the many objects assembled as Pethau Brau, the Nodau Clust appeared for the first time. Catrin collected the markings of sheep's ears and started a new series of works in black-and-white cut-outs, hanging sequentially in the gallery like sheep's parts in a slaughterhouse - but each with an individual mark identifying it with its owner. The markings are cut into the ear of the sheep for identification on the open mountain where the flocks from neighbouring farms will often mingle. Each farm is allocated a particular ‘cut’ which is recorded in a book. These are the signs which will quickly disappear with the fragmentation of the farming community and the economic decline of agriculture. The Nodau Clust were brought together in an installation at the Swansea Arts Workshop in the spring of 1998.

In the series Welsh Teas Catrin's paintings are strong and bright and evoke the intimacy of a family get-together. The performance in which Catrin collaborated with Angharad Jones at Bro Colwyn in 1995 organised by Cywaith Cymru, offered different elements and focused on the cliches associated with the Tourist Board's vision of Wales - Welsh women wearing black hats serving tea. The holiday postcards bought by millions of people are potent symbols of repression. The tourist in search of a ‘Welsh Tea’ is like the tourist who would happily restrict the natives to picturesque activities, ignoring the cultural meaning of these events - the bringing together of the different family members, entertaining the minister or commemorating the passing of a friend. In exploring the cliches of images of Wales as seen by tourists, Catrin is gathering every fragment, new and old.

Catrin wants her work to be available for everybody. She is not precious about her work and uses many techniques to get her message across. She goes back to her sketchbook, draws in black and white with charcoal or paint. She also uses monoprints a lot. She will then cut out the monoprint and use it as collage on a canvas, building up layers. She prefers to work from life rather than from photos and sets up still-lifes for herself. She mixes media and often uses spray paint and emulsion, particularly on the large back-drops.

With the constant sifting and shifting of objects both in her performances and in her paintings, incorporating identifiable cliches as well as icons related to Cof Cenedl, Catrin is quietly leading us out of mental torpor towards a political struggle. Unlike the tourists, Catrin has avoided the greatest cliche of them all, painting the mountains of southern Snowdonia. For her, the land is a place to be worked, to give succour, to animate, to offer a means of living, to be shared by the community. The concept of landscape so heartily embraced by generations of romantic painters does not enter into her language.

A number of women artists in Wales share the same farming background as Catrin. They include Bethan Huws, Ann Catrin Evans, Catrin Howells, Pegi Gruffydd, Lois Williams, Eleri Jones, Christine Mills and Eleri Mills. Catrin's view of her own upbringing on the farm was that it gave her confidence. She was treated as an equal with her brothers and she learnt to be practical. Many other aspects of life on a farm serve as a foundation to becoming an artist and focus on the contact with natural materials - grass, flowers, leaves, straw, and wood - hours spent sorting and stacking and ordering.

Catrin's teachers - Glyn Baines at school, and Peter Prendergast on the Foundation Course at Bangor - had a considerable influence on her early work. It was when she was a student at Cardiff in 1987 that she travelled to Paris and Brittany and discovered the clean and simple lines of Matisse and the bright colours of the Pont Aven Group. She later explored a more primitive style in child-like drawings for performances with Cwmni Cyfri Tri, inspired by Paul Klee.

Collaboration and performance have always been powerful aspects of Catrin's work. Although she admits the psychological need to paint on a regular basis, she is generous with her time and support of other artists, and is also prepared to spend time on experimentation and taking risks.

Since leaving college she has worked with a number of groups including Cwmni Cyfri Tri, Hwyl a Fflag, Arad Goch, Cwmni Cortyn and the Beca Group. She also went on tour with the band Anhrefn to Slovakia, Moldavia and Germany, painting on stage while the band performed. Her early performance work was inspired by the music of John Cale and she carried out a number of installations with bright back-drops, unveiling each one as she sang. Her response to John Cale's music was immediate. She was affected by the clash of chords reminding her of her own early attempts at playing the piano.

She confesses to enjoying doing things on the spur of the moment. She frequently breaks into song at unexpected moments as she did at her opening this spring at the Swansea Arts Workshop. At Glynllifon when performing with Cwmni Cortyn, she embellished the standing stones which are part of the Children's Amphitheatre in what appeared at first sight to be an act of vandalism but on consideration turned out to be another example of her work in shaping images of our collective memory while presenting some future bright vision.

The brilliant colours, strong lines and confident images which are the hallmarks of Catrin's work sing out with pride for the culture. But beneath the surface, amidst the fragments found on a dresser or in the Doli series, is a darker side. Catrin's deep concern and realisation is that this is a culture under threat. The memories of childhood which she evokes in her painting are not idealised or romanticised, but they help her to realise that the idea of ‘community’ which she grew up with has altered irrevocably. Other structures need to be sought to carry the culture forward. Through collaborating with artists, performers and musicians Catrin is creating a sense of community, less secure perhaps, but strong and able to stand on its own.

Hawlfraint © Catrin Williams
Cynllun - Almon