Ruth Packham

Borth based Felt Artist tells us about her work and recent artist's residence in Senegal

Words by Ruth Packham, Studio photos by Heather Birnie

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Many years ago I did a Fine art degree. At the time I worked with video ( on tapes) and photographic images but also with painted textiles. Pattern and colour are reccuring themes in my work.

I moved to Wales and had a daughter and started screen printing on on my kitchen table...again pattern and colour.

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I worked with hand cut paper stencils drawing on nature for ideas  and inspiration. I mainly printed onto fabric creating usable textiles as well as large one off images.

I had a son and exhibited regularly with Aberystwyth printmakers working from a studio in Aberystwyth. 10 years ago I was introduced to felt making and having moved my studio to my home in Borth, Ceredigion made the transition from print maker to felt maker.

My children are now grown and I am more free to travel.

It seemed the right moment for me to try and take part in an artist residency, so I applied to the Waaw artist residency which takes place in Saint-Louis, northern Senegal, West Africa. I had never been to Africa and knew very little about Senegal but the residency seemed accessible to me as a first timer; most international residencies are selected.

I did some research and Saint-Louis resonated on a number of levels...geographically it is similar to Borth/Ynyslas, on the edge, on an estuary and surrounded by water...rich in bird life, something that inspires me and with a textile history. It was at a time of the year when I am free of exhibitions and shows and I was lucky enough to be accepted for the August residency.

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I crowd funded my trip and although it was always my intention to   make a body of work in Saint-Louis I felt an added responsibility to those that had supported me to make the absolute most out of my time there. Every day I was there I was aware of what a privilege it was to be in such a special place and to be there as an artist, able, without any interference, to simply respond to my surroundings.

In my studio in Borth I am always making with one eye on the commercial, what might sell to make money, this is my profession and I need to try and make it pay. In Senegal this was absent from my creative decision making and I was free to do whatever I wanted to do...it was amazing.

I was the only maker taking part in the residency and had a great space to use where it was cool enough to work through the afternoon heat with access to water and a roof terrace where everything dried so quickly...not the days it takes at home in the winter.

I was sponsored by Cambrian Mountain wool who gave me wool tops to take with me. I also acquired some local wool from the sheep in the town...the sheep were tall and thin and not very woolly and so what I had was fairly coarse but I integrated it into a number of my pieces.

I made eight pieces which I exhibited for a week at the end of the residency. Each one was a response to aspects of Saint-Louis...the fruit bats, baobab flowers, birds made from discarded fishing net, embroidery in hoops made from plastic bottles celebrating the wall painting around the town, an outstretched hand like that of the boys sent begging by their teachers, composite figures, half pelican and sheep. 

All of these were made using wool fibre. I was free enough to make a piece of work not from wool fibre and not concern myself as to whether it would fit with the rest of the work; this was a miniature landscape of dead trees adorned with plastic like flags.

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Mostly my work is not conceptual but a celebration of nature, a study in the aesthetic and yet in Saint-Louis it was hard for me not to feel the need to reference the rubbish and plastic waste that littered the town, beach and sea in the work I made. I had to be resourceful as there wasn’t the wealth of materials available but I think this is something that goes hand in hand with being a maker, the need to solve problems...wasn’t much I could do when no water came out of the tap though.

I go back to freedom when I compare working as part of a residency to working in my studio at home; I had no pressures of every day life...yes I had to eat but when and what I liked, I didn’t have to think about how I was going to make money, paying bills, I didn’t have to hear Trump’s voice etc...and that was the truly amazing aspect of the experience in terms of my working practise.

I think as an artist it is difficult not to be influenced by what is around you, be that landscape, wildlife, people, weather…..These things may not be the singular focus of ideas and work but they have an affect.

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I have lived in rural Wales since 1994 and for a lot of that time I have worked as a visual artist supplementing my income with shop work, teaching and cleaning.

Since becoming a felt maker my work has become much more known but this is because I travel to take part in fairs and exhibitions around the country. I struggle to have a voice in Ceredigion and consequently I have a tendency to under value what I do, my audience is not here and that makes it hard sometimes. The upside of living somewhere so rural though is the space, the lack of billboards and traffic, the peace and beauty that is a daily joy, it is a bit of a bubble, leaving makes me aware of this.

Borth is a great little village and it is where I live and work. I am on the edge of the village, both geographically and socially but there is a thriving creative community here. I am part of Borth Arts a group of local artists who exhibit together.

My work is often informed by being here, I have a favourite place along the Leri brook on the edge of Borth bog, it is an expansive landscape filled with grasses, sheep, water and birds with a view of the hills to the north and east. It is where I feel as though I am in the wild west and it is magical.

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And so 5 months later I am returning to Saint-Louis. I feel as though I haven’t finished with the town, more to see and do,to experience all the things I missed because I was new and anxious and focussing on making work and so I  decided after a successful craft fair to just buy a ticket and go back.

I have been trying very hard with my French since coming back as I definitely feel it was a hindrance not speaking French very well, English is not widely spoken at all. I have several plans for the 3 weeks I am there, I hope to spend time with friends I made in August...speaking French and maybe learning some Wolof! 

I will be able to visit the Djoudj National park which is just outside of Saint-Louis and will be filled with over wintering birds, it was closed in August and so I am very excited about this. Also Parc du langues du barbaries where there are Pelicans and Gannets and violinist crabs en masse. I am also going to do a collaboration with Mai Diop who runs Tesss Gallery on the island and is a weaver. We are going to marry Senegalese cotton with Welsh wool...hopefully.

I will be taking photographs, drawing, painting, writing and enjoying the warmth too!

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