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  • James Stewart

Art and Agriculture

Updated: Jul 4

During our South Stoke Idyll exhibition in May 2024, we presented a talk on Art and Agriculture, in aid of The Sussex Snowdrop Trust.


The talk was led by artist, researcher and agriculturalist, Adam Stead and farmer Ryan Haydon with exhibiting artists Matt Bodimeade, Nick Bodimeade and Emma Hurst.


Art and Agriculture Talk at South Stoke Barn - image credit: Nigel Cull
Art and Agriculture Talk at South Stoke Barn - image credit: Nigel Cull

The talk/discussion in front of an audience of 100, was in three parts (set out in detail below):


  1. Ryan Haydon talked about how two of the artists, Matt and Nick Bodimeade had long historical links to the farm at South Stoke before some thoughts on how farmers can affect the landscape (and how they cannot). He finished with a brief summary of farming since before the Industrial Revolution.

  2. Adam Stead discussed his phd studies in Ireland and how current academic thinking can be applied in practice. Whilst most people in Ireland have a close connection to the land and farming, this is not so true in the UK, there is a greater divide between the urban and the rural. Adam's research position is that artists can bridge this divide by giving voice to rural communities, farmers and agriculture in a world with an increasingly urban population.

  3. Adam Stead then opened up the discussion to include contributions from the three artists: Matt Bodimeade, Nick Bodimeade and Emma Hurst. In this discussion we find out how growing up and working on South Stoke farm has been fundamentally influential in the art of both Matt and Nick Bodimeade. Similarly for Emma Hurst a move from Worthing to the foot of the Downs at an early age is reflected in her work.


The full talk can be viewed on video here:



View a short (16 minute) video tour of the South Stoke Idyll exhibition, this film ends with footage of people arriving for the talk on 24 May 2024:





Below we present detailed extracts from the talk including the introductions by Ryan Haydon and Adam Stead to set the scene, before the wider panel discussion including the three artists as well:


Ryan Haydon



Ryan Haydon welcomed everyone to the barn, and said that art is not often exhibited there, since it is more usually host to weddings and other celebrations.


Both Matt and Nick Bodimeade had worked for Reg Haydon (Ryan's father) in the 1980's with Ryan.


"In fact Matt believes he was sold to the farm aged 9 for £5!"


The two brothers joined the farm at a young age, both at South Stoke and on the Haydon's farm in Wales, more than this they 'grew up' with the Haydon family. the farm became part of their DNA and this is evident in their work.


Ryan then talked about how farmers can affect the landscape.


In the physical farming landscape their are three elements:


  • The hills and valleys - we cannot change this

  • Trees, hedges, walls etc - we can change these but they are long term issues

  • Crops grown, animals grazed - these are short term matters that we can affect


The latter point covers the visible elements that we notice, lush green fields, cows grazing etc.


Food production is still at the heart of what they do at South Stoke farm, but the detail is determined by the land that they have to work with.


"You grow what you can in the climate you have"


Sheep graze on the hills, cattle for beef and milk on the plain and grow crops on the strip in between.


Farming has become more mechanised and less labour intensive over time.


The emphasis has changed as well, the need to produce food is still there but other elements have come in.


This is what the artists have represented in the South Stoke Idyll exhibition.

Farming has changed substantially in the last 200 years.


Before the Industrial Revolution farming was mainly subsistence: you grew what you needed, what your could and bartered for other things. Food did not have to travel far.


Livestock headed to the grass on the Downs. The concept of hay making for feed revolutionised this.


There was very little structure. In Constable's time, the farming was represented as a rolling landscape. The during at the time of the Industrial Revolution rotating crops came in and Jethro Tull invented the seed drill.


Prior to this seeds were scattered now farmers could plant in lines. This changed alot: fields were created, boundaries made with hedges and walls. More order, more structure, more productive.


These changes were needed as the population was also growing.


The next big transformation came in WWI - "Dig for Victory". There was a massive requirement to produce food. Fields were expanded, the hedges came down and crops were grown where they should not be (i.e. on hills in Wales).


However, over the next 30-40 years it went too far. Farm subsidies encouraged more and more. This resulted in the 80's with food mountains, wine and milk lakes all over Europe.


We had gone too far, it was time to change course and reduce production. Support for farmers was. still provided on an area basis, but food production was not the key driver.


Farmers were encouraged to create a green and pleasant land for the increasing number of leisure seekers visiting the countryside. Buffers were created on the edge of fields for wild flowers and food came in increasing quantities from anywhere in the world.


The choices now for farmers is to farm for food and make a green landscape, to produce sustainably. Choices are made to affect what we see as well as how the land is used.


Ryan then ended his introduction with a few thoughts on farming:


  • Today the UK only produces 61% of our food needs, the biggest import is beverages (tea and coffee as well as wine and beer).

  • There are a quarter of a million miles of hedgerows in the UK, and this has grown by 5% in the last few years.

  • Contrary to the current trend in vegetarianism, the demand for dairy and milk is still high, and not declining.



Adam Stead



Adam Stead introduced himself as an artist, agriculturalist and academic, then continued:


[Excerpt/quote below from ongoing PhD research conducted by Adam Stead, South East Technological University, Ireland.]


It was initially through a series of conversations with Tanya Haydon about my PhD which led to a meeting with James regarding this exhibition and the subsequent invitation to work with tonight’s panel on a deeper conversation concerning their practices under the theme of art and agriculture. So my thanks goes to them as this represents an opportunity for me to disseminate and apply my research internationally.

 

I am currently conducting research at the South East Technological University in Ireland between Art and Agriculture. You might be wondering ‘what does this look like’…, well in Ireland nearly everyone I meet has some connection to land, either through big farming enterprises holdings, down to an acre or less. This is important because in Ireland this means that there is a broad and prevalent understanding of land, rurality and agriculture amongst the general public. In the United Kingdom there is the same tacit connection to land however it is often less prevalent. Where it is found in England, it should be shared and cherished as there is a danger in this contemporary time to disregard and inadvertently forget the knowledge.

 

What my PhD research aims to do is register how the cross disciplinary practice of creative practitioners in Ireland engages in contemporary rural land use where there is a broader concern internationally of the climate and ecology crisis. There is a wealth of practitioners in Ireland whose work is invested and connected to climate, ecology, land use and farming practices.


My research positions, champions and platforms creative practitioners in registering the value and impact that artists can positively benefit and give voice to rural communities, farmers and agriculture in a world with an increasingly urban population.

 

What kinds of changes…, changes that address the climate and ecology crisis through influencing agricultural policy and practice, land use, food production, consumption and distribution, land access, lifestyle, education and much more.


It is multifaceted, multidimensional and art can elicit societal change.

 

My film Project FEED, shown as part of this exhibition, was produced during Covid 19 in 2020.


‘FEED’ was made in response to a research project investigating the significance of growing grass for both indoor and outdoor dairy farming systems across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. The film, which was commissioned by Agricultural Sociologist Dr Orla Shortall from The James Hutton Institute, sets out to highlight the geo-economic and socio-economic challenges and differences from a variety of dairy farms across the UK and Ireland.


The film portrays voices of and video footage from farmers from across the UK and Ireland, I had provided them with leaflet instruction books and so the farmers used their mobile phone to shoot footage and send to me via whatsapp.


These films and voices were then superimposed on my own footage filmed at South Stoke Farm.


The resultant film, FEED, gives agency to farmers and provides the audience with insights into their processes.

 

Artistic representation of landscape


The work of the artists in this show is not only about representing or illustrating a landscape.


This special event starts to dig into the knowledge and experience of these artists. Ryan’s increasing support in the arts and James Stewart facilitation of this panel discussion provides a neutral space which embodies aspects of an art form known as dialogical practice eg: which is to say the facilitation of the conversation becomes the art. Here at South Stoke we are at the beginning of discussions concerning landscape, agriculture, food and farming.


Cultural geographer Iain Biggs validates the need for kin-ship and cooperation when he suggests both a theoretical and practical proposal which celebrates the artist within the community as a means to engage many different types of people with the rural.


Biggs states that ‘we need, at the very least, a common, empathetic, and respectful sensing of the plurality of lifeworlds from which to recognise, acknowledge, and argue our differences’. Biggs proposes to re-intertwine the plurality of currently separated and siloed social-economic orchestrations of rurality by tackling three normative positions of rurality in Ireland:


  1. Dismissive positions which do not consider the agricultural community;

  2. Conservative positions which lock rurality into romanticised images, identities and traditions;

  3. Managerial positions which commodifies the rural as a resource, often orchestrated to support the urban.


There are two key elements which enable this:


  • The skill and knowledge of an individual, and

  • A communal place in which to share it.


Biggs’ identifies the importance of community places as a space to enable this, where sites such as the local municipal water pump, the post office and the pub act as a locus for exchange.


Biggs recognises the value of rural communal spaces through the artists he examines in Ireland and their attention to these communal spaces which are increasingly under threat and disappearing. The disappearance of these places has coincided with the advent of nationally structured agricultural programs and the federal pan-European CAP policies.


But there is hope in art to reinvigorate this, there is hope and possibility for re-thinking and conversation here in South Stoke.



With this idea of the artist acting as a facilitator and in speaking about my film, FEED, it is important to highlight our connections with this particular landscape that we are gathered in this evening.





This panel discussion both aims to explore the interconnectedness of the works, the artists who have created them, and our tacit and tentacular connections to this landscape here at South Stoke and Offham.


An important part of the research work that I am doing in Ireland revolves around engaging in conversations and story telling. What we may consider traditional rural labour activities were learnt through the telling of stories and the watching and repetition of manual work, in affect teaching and training the next generation in how to work, manage and care for the land.


Biggs uses the phenomenological term lifeworld as a way of describing how the landscape is ‘experienced by individuals, subjectively, in and through their everyday life and work’ (Biggs, 2014, p. 261).


Biggs’ work is an understanding of rural people, through the artwork of Irish creative practitioners, as multi-faceted, multi-skilled and deeply interconnected with the landscape using Tim Ingold’s notion of the taskscape (Biggs, 2014, p. 267) to support this.


A taskscape is ‘a pattern of dwelling’ (Ingold, 2000 cited in Biggs, 2014, p. 278) where individuals collectively perform skilled tasks within the context of, and in response to, a specific landscape environment.


[Excerpt/quote above from ongoing PhD research conducted by Adam Stead, South East Technological University, Ireland.]



Panel Discussion



Adam Stead opened the panel discussion by asking each of the three artists to speak about their own individual tacit connections to the landscape around Offham and South Stoke.


Adam started with Nick Bodimeade, who currently lives in a small hamlet also called Offham, pronounced 'Oafham', in East Sussex near Lewes. This Offham is strikingly similar to its West Sussex counterpart in terms of geographic charateristics.




Nick started by outlining how he started work on the farm at South Stoke aged 18, before going to art school. He loved everything about working on the farm: the physical labour; the landscape; developing practical skills; problem solving, inventive with materials. Then when at art school these same skills were needed: problem solving and working with materials.


Working on the farm and attending art school were very different, but at the same time deeply connected. From that moment on Nick wanted to combine his interest in these two areas - 'It was extraordinarily exciting'


Nick lived on the farm in one of the tied cottages at Offham, just by Offham island, about 200 acres created by a canal closing a big meander in the River Arun.


Years later after having lived and worked in Oxford, Nick moved back down to Sussex to the East Sussex Offham, which is also close to an island in the River Ouse, created by a canal on a large meander, on the edge of the Downs overlooking the flood plain.


This Offham was strangely like the Offham he had grown up in geographically. As an artist, he feels deeply embedded in these agricultural spaces.


Adam commented on the interesting mirroring that is going on between the two places, then asked Emma Hurst about her connection to the landscape and how it affects her work.


Emma descibed how she moved, aged 6, from Worthing to the countryside just outside Storrington at the foot of the Downs.


For the last ten years her studio, shared with matt Bodimeade is on the farm at Offham.



Emma describes her work as being very tactile, this reflects the feeling of the landscape.


She likes to work on a big scale, it can be a battle between chaos and order, very labour intensive, the paint infiltrates through the material, folds are made in making theartwork. It is very heavy when wet, she has had to makes own tools including a trough for folding and adapting a printing press to be more like a mangle. The spontaneous mark making and other processese are seen in the final work.



Emma referred to her 2020 installation in South Stoke, here she exploded landscape to create an artwork to walk around:




For South Stoke Idyll in 2024 in the barn undercroft she use the architecture of the barn, responding to the landscape and nearby farm buildings, it is truly site specific.


Adam moved on to Matt Bodimeade, making the comment that his paintings are all within a short distance of South Stoke.


Matt Bodimeade feels an absolute connection to here. He has spent 49 years on and around the farm, working, building, making art. This experience and memories combined with the many changes over the years (initially the work was quite labour intensive, now not so much) feeds into his work as an artist.



Matt continued to say that he is very luck to have the studio in the heart of the farm. The view is down to cow cubicles, and another view to farm yard seeing silage being loaded, farm activity, bustle. The beat of the farm goes through him into the painting, he gets caught up in the activity of the farm. Not just the landscape.


Adam commented that the paintings seem tio mimic the rhythms on the farm before asking about the bright colours in Matt's paintings.


Matt works as a landscape gardener, mostly outide and usually in torrential, miserable rain. So the studio is his idyll, where he can change the landscape, move hills, and change the mood, lift his spirits with colour. He pulls something out just to change the mood, picks up on colours, pinks from the concrete. He uses alot of green but add others to suit the compostion and mood.


Adam then discssed the concept of the artist farmer, does this bring advantage/considerations to Nick's art.


Before answering this question directly Nick described how he would travel to Wales with Ryan, asking questions on the way on the long car journey. Through these discussions he developed a deeper knowledge and understanding of farming. This also helped Nick when he travelling to other places on research trips, New Zealand for example. The gained knowledge meant that he could ask the right questions to gain an understanding of the new places too.


Nick has always been interested in landscape painting, and even made a few sculpture too.


At this point he referenced Simon Schama's 2004 book Landscape and Memory. Prior to this the only subject that was getting any attention in the art world was the body: gender, sex, body issues. Analysed from a range of different perspectives, nothing similar was being applied to landscape. This was considered a fluffy area, about aethetics and soothing the soul.


Following Schama's book a load of other things start to happen. Suddentlythe area of landscape became interesting and people were writing about the cultural, social, historical, economic and political importance of the landscape.


The Lane by Nick Bodimeade, oil on canvas 36 x 41 cm
The Lane by Nick Bodimeade, oil on canvas 36 x 41 cm

This lead to a wider panel discussion on the way we look at the landscape and in partcular Nick Bodimeade's window works.


These are a reference to the old farm house Nick lives in, and how the view can be different depending on who is doing the looking.


When Ryan looks out a window on the farm he sees his workplace, the weather, what needs to be done, how he can finance what needs to be done.


Who is doing the looking and what they bring, is the concept behind Nick's window view paintings.



Adam then asked Emma Hurst about her installation, referencing the fact this and his film Feed worked in trio.

Adam followed this by asking Emma about the colours used in the right hand pane, much more subtle that the other two which were rich greens and bright red/yellow.


Emma outlined how this one was intentionally much more washed out, chalky, as in the landscape. The colours also relate to the sky, and the effect the weather has on the landscape. Emma does not consciously think about the colours, and working with Matt in the studio they pick up on colours each use.


Emma added that for her making art was "not about the finished product, the journey determines how the piece looks at the end"


Ryan then mentioned that he sees art with farmers eyes, he agrees that the colours that Matt uses lift the soul, but does draw on what is outside.


Nick then talked about a field that had been ploughed, disc-ed over and over again has few marks left so that you could miss where you have covered. This is minimal abstract art of the landscape, he added that sees this in Emma's work.


Adam said that he really enjoyed Matt's titles, evocative of working in the landscape, there was on in particular that referenced Ryan working with his dogs moving sheep.




Come By painting by Matt Bodimeade, oil on canvas 100 x 150 cm
Come By painting by Matt Bodimeade, oil on canvas 100 x 150 cm

Matt continued the story: He had been working on the painting in the studio, and was finding it hard to come up with a title, so he left the studio to stand in the field admiring the view, taking it all in. Then the peace and quiet disturbed by the sound of an approaching quad bike, then a little bit later the farmer shouting "come by............come by...........COME FUCKING BY!' .


This became the title, it was of the moment, he returned to the studio and completed the painting.


Adam posited that the resultant piece articulates the frustration of farming, art can enable different perspectives. Art facilitats a neutral space to talk about these things.


Nick then raised another of Matt's titles 'thank span bleaching' which is based on the What Three Words location. Nick continued to say that the fields at South Stoke had old names Hamiltons, Foxes Ove, Glovers......lovely names. The poetic history on field names, are being lost with new technology, strange degrading, ref the 2018 Lost Words book Robert Macfarlane. The book listed the a number of outdoor and natural words being displaced by the indoor and virtual in the Oxford dictionary. Macfarlane and others saw this as a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.


Then the discussion was opened up to the audience for questions.


The first question was asking how long Emma Hurst takes to create her installation. This is about a labour intensive process: folding, painting, drying until achieve the magical connection with the landscape. Then before installation drawings are created. Installation takes a number days with help from Matt and James. It went well, but never know if it will ne a failure until complete. The paintings started in Jan, so from January to May, five months.


Second quesiton was a suggestion for a further reference Mike Coolley, author to do with tacit knowledge. In his 1980 book 'Architect or Bee' he describes human-centred systems, as used in economics, computing and design, aiming to preserve or enhance human skills, in both manual and office work, in environments in which technology tends to undermine the skills that people use in their work.


Third question was about the demise of church being the center for rural communities, church patronage, has that affected artworks.


St Leonard's Church, South Stoke
St Leonard's Church, South Stoke

Ryan answered saying the church is a very important part of the village, there had been a demise, but renaissance recently from poeple from Arundel. It is he says the focal point of village, and he is very grateful for all who support it. The church continues to inspire, it played a much bigger part in the past, when more people lived at South Stoke. Ryan then continued to say that art has become more of a leisure activity, cf recording places and people.



Nick added ideas to do with the sublime, look at landscape and feel sublime or terror, powerful emotions, connected to the works of God. we would then feel small in relation to the works of God.He added that this is not a very common view in the art world today, and in society generally.


Churches still have a connection to sublime, as we look up we respond to space, inhalation of breath, the demise of churches may be also connected to the increasing demise of the concept of the sublime as a religous experience more to do with a different kind of awe in the landscape.


The final question was about the representation of labour in painting, there being no people represented in any of the works, but evidence of human intervention in all of them. Nick says Matts paintings are full of carved landscape, creating a physical space, Matt was a sculptor before painting, using heavy machinery, on a large scale, so his paintings now reflect the physical labour on a farm, manipulating material and space.


Adam then drew the Art and Agriculture talk to a close, thanking the panel for their contributiuons.










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