Sarah Capes spoke with artist Alicia Gradon about her recent residency at Kingsbrae Gardens in Canada.
Last week I met with artist and writer Alicia Gradon. Alicia and her work have featured on the blog in the past, but I wanted to focus specifically on her experiences during her recent residency in July at Kingsbrae Garden, St Andrews by-the-sea, New Brunswick in Canada. Hearing Alicia speak about Kingsbrae was like listening to someone describing a botanical oasis; an expanse of perfectly manicured flora designed specifically to inspire and encourage artists, sculptors and all crafts. It conjured the idea of a horticultural Gesamtkunstwerk, where everything in the garden is itself a work of art and in turn compels artists to create, resulting in one enormous and constantly evolving artwork.
This seems to have provided the ideal environment for Alicia, whose hyper-realistic drawings are a result of her observations of nature in an attempt to engage the viewer with the world around them. Interestingly, however, Alicia’s work prior to the residency focused largely on taking these observations and making them fantastical, with the aim of intermingling the real and the imaginary. Alicia’s work often evolves from her writings, which themselves centre on imaginary creatures, plants, and far-off lands. During the residency, however, Alicia began to recognise that elements of fantasy can exist in the real. The garden exuded to her a magical quality in its variety of flowers, trees and birds; but everything contained within it was, of course, real and tangible.
After discussing her work with other artists carrying out their residencies there, Alicia decided to strip back the fantasy and use her surroundings as they are, to create visual manifestations of nature, that would in turn, force the viewer to reconnect and examine in detail elements from nature that they might be taking for granted. As a lover of early botanical illustrations and 17th century Dutch still lifes, I often question what it is that makes these sorts of observations so alluring. Why not go outside and look at the real thing? Talking with Alicia and looking at her drawings made me realise that the translation of the natural world into a two-dimensional image somehow offers more than doing that; it offers the chance to admire both the artist’s skill and the beauty of the object itself. What is impressive about Alicia’s work is that she renders this beauty entirely without colour. Her drawings are always in black and white. Alicia reflected that although beautiful and ethereal, colour can be a distraction and that by stripping it away, the viewer is able to focus purely on the form and structure of the subject.
The birds that she draws are vividly coloured in reality – bright red cardinals and ‘electric’ blue blue jays – yet what Alicia presents us with are the intricacies of those creatures laid bare; their purest, most fundamental structures. This monochromatic approach is certainly effective. Alicia recalls a fellow artist during the residency observing her drawings of a cardinal and thanking Alicia for reminding her of a beauty that she had forgotten.
Given the fickle and competitive nature of the contemporary art world, where many seek to achieve new heights by aiming to shock, it was refreshing to learn that there are still artists and initiatives that strongly centre on the idea of going ‘back to nature’. Hearing about Kingsbrae reminded me of the artists’ colonies that began appearing across Europe in the late 19th century. As urbanisation took hold of many cities and their surroundings during this time, artists began to seek inspiration from areas relatively untouched by modern culture. They were attracted to certain areas because of the specific light, the slower pace of the local life and the beauty of the landscape. Equally as important as the surroundings, however, was the intermingling of artists sharing their thoughts, theories and views on aesthetics. Van Gogh famously dreamt of starting his own colony in Arles, where this sort of philosophising and creativity could take place to create what he imagined would be ground breaking works of art. Though his dream was never realised, famous examples of such circles include the Barbizon School in France, where Rousseau and Millet featured; St Ives in Cornwall, where Hepworth worked; and Kirkudbright in Dumfires – a longstanding centre for the Glasgow school. Part of the reason that Van Gogh’s idea failed was because he was working with artists like Gauguin, who did not appreciate criticism and strove for autonomy rather than mutual creativity. But the opportunity to share thoughts, advise and inspire other artists is what is often so crucial in the development of an artist’s oeuvre.
Alicia shared Kingsbrae with four other artists – out of over 100 applicants from across the globe – each working in different media, from rug hooking to photography. They were all older than her and further along in their careers, but through her conversations with them she learned that even though she was abandoning the fantastical element that has always defined her work, the drawings she produced during the residency still very much had her own ‘filter’ applied. Each angle, each line, each shade; the way in which an object is observed, is still so reminiscent of her typical work. Alicia’s work is, essentially, always ‘real’; even when she sets her drawings in fictional scenes or creates hybrid plants and creatures, each element of those inventions and amalgamations come from nature. Yet by deciding to return to the pure, fundamental root from which her creations grow, Alicia’s observations acquire a certain rawness, offering a completely organic result.
Each weekend at Kingsbrae, the artists opened their studios to the public for five hours. This offered the opportunity for tourists, locals and other artists to visit and see a working artist’s studio. Although the area is certainly a tourist destination, Alicia describes it primarily as a hub for arts and crafts and mentioned the feel of an artists’ colony about it. She met an extraordinary variety of people, including local permanent artist in residence Geoff Slater, known for his large-scale paintings made with one continuous line. Geoff was also one of the ten panel members that decided on the final five artists for the residency, which, incidentally, was in its inaugural summer. Alicia told me that the attitude of everyone she encountered, particularly the locals, had an extremely positive and encouraging outlook regarding her work and her development as an artist, and that of other young artists working in the area. This sort of attitude was understandably refreshing, coming from London, where it can be incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door for aspiring young artists. The residency presented a variety of opportunities to Alicia; partly due to the people she encountered being so willing to want to help propel her art into the wider world. The residency has compelled her to apply for other residencies in Canada, the USA and Japan. Alicia also met other artists and writers in St Andrews keen to collaborate with her.
Kingsbrae Gardens was opened in 1998, having been founded by local couple John and Lucinda Flemer. The garden is based around the family’s old estate, where Mrs Flemer still lives. Set in 27 acres, Mrs Flemer’s creation has become both a tourist highlight and a treasured sanctuary for locals. Most importantly, perhaps, is the array of career and training opportunities that the garden offers. When the garden opened, St Andrews was an area hit by the falling employment rates that plagued the nineties. But with the garden came work possibilities for artists, sculptors, gardeners, chefs, and many more. Alicia described Mrs Flemer as an extremely enthusiastic lover of art, keen to bring in artists from all over the world to share in the experience of Kingsbrae. I imagine her as an almost matriarchal figure, encouraging, supporting and caring for all those that enter the garden walls.
Alicia hopes that Kingsbrae will continue to offer residencies after the success of her time there. The impact the experience had on her work and writing has been significant; something that would not necessarily have occurred otherwise. She spoke of having an enormous sense of how precious her time was there that month; she would begin working at 10am and continue into the early hours of the next morning – something she is not able to do in London due to a variety of distractions and obligations. Being surrounded by other artists and people with a similar mind-set was also unique to the experience and certainly affected her practice, causing her to reflect on and revaluate how her work is perceived.
Meeting with Alicia and talking with her was like engaging with a stream of consciousness; everything she said about art and our perception of it flicked a little switch in my mind that got me thinking about a whole array of other theories and questions. What was perhaps most clear throughout, however, was how inseparable Alicia’s art is from her very being. She carries it around with her at all times – metaphorically speaking – and talks about art as if it is something she has never and could never be without. She is not compelled by the commercial potentials that being an artist might glean; she went to Kingsbrae to explore her own practice, to be inspired and challenged by her surroundings, and to produce, as I hope you will agree below, some truly magnificent works of art.
Sarah Capes graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2011, where she completed her MA in the History of Art. She went on to The Courtauld to pursue a Masters in Curating that same year. Since then, she has worked in the London art world in various capacities, from museums and auction houses to conservation. For the last three years she has been working for a renowned Mayfair art dealer. Sarah was born in Vienna, grew up in New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the U.K. and now lives in Fulham.