May and June are traditionally the ‘Art Trail Season’ where thousands of artists around the country (UK) throw open their studio doors to welcome in members of the public. Even I have just taken part in such an event! A friend of mine is a regular contributor to the Dorset Art Weeks exhibition at the Othona Community (www.othona-west-dorset.co.uk) near Bridport, and as I am originally from around that area I thought it would be a lovely day trip out to see her work and combine this with a visit to my parents house.
Recently we have had some dreadful weather and I simply couldn’t believe my luck when the day I had chosen dawned fine with clear blue skies. After an uneventful drive from Sussex to Dorset I found my self passing by familiar landmarks such as the Red Post on the A31 at Winterbourne Zelston.
The Red Posts (there are actually 3 of them) of Dorset are fairly well mired in folkloric meaning for their existence. The most popular stories suggest that they are way markers where formerly hanging gibbets stood warning travellers that felons would not be tolerated in the area, and those found to have perpetrated a crime would find retribution wreaked upon them at Judge Jeffries “Bloody Assizes”. Other stories suggest they were collecting places for convicts about to be transported to the colonies while other suggestions promote the idea that they are in fact simply way markers for illiterate travellers or collection points for the distribution of mail (hence the existence also of White Post as well as Blue Post). Predictably the hanging gibbet site is the most common story locally, but whatever their origin, they are maintained in their colourful livery by Dorset County Council.
Driving on past Dorchester I followed the A35 passing signs to oddly named villages such as Muckleford and Grimstone towards Bridport up and down the hills turning the road into some sort of elongated crazy scenic rollercoaster before turning off down narrow lanes bounded by deep banks, topped with hazel tunnels and lined with a myriad of grasses, seedheads swaying in the breeze alongside a host of wild flowers. This route takes you through tiny hamlets such as Chilcombe and Litton Cheney with their small terraced stone built cottages and Winterbourne streams which, this year were still full of fast running water. Through the bizarrely named Puncknowle and on to Swyre where a right turn takes you on to the B3157 Old Coast Road to Bridport and Othona can be found a short way along the road on the left. It occurred to me while passing through these remote and picturesque small villages and hamlets just how many homes had the Dorset Art Weeks banner outside, but on picking up the DAW (www.dorsetvisualarts.org) brochure it became clear, as there were over 1000 artists taking part in 2014! That is a truely phenominal number of artists in one county.
Othona itself is an old house nestling in a steep bank which slopes down toward the sea. The community is Christian based, but acts as a Retreat for people from all walks of life, faiths and those of no faith. Attached to the main house is a lovely stone built chapel for contemplation, but which was playing host to the exhibition of art by users of the Othona facilities. Inside the chapel to one end is a recessed area which acts as a kind of ‘alter’ while on the wall at the other end is a large hinged wooden carving which looks like a cupboard with rough doors, but on opening the doors a quite breath-taking carved scene greets you. It was made by a Community member who died recently, and to my shame I cannot remember his name.
Incredible carved wooden screen
On either side of this wooden screen were two pen and ink drawings by my friend Emma which complimented the carving perfectly. (Find out more about Emma and her work at www.tabor.me.uk).
The exhibition itself comprised 5 artists – two photographers, a textile artist and two painter/printmaker/drawing, of which one is my friend Emma. The work was as varied as it possibly could be ranging from literal pictorial interpretations of the landscape in textiles, through abstract and conceptual ideas about painting, printmaking and drawing to explicit, but sensitively photographed images of the naked male body. These latter two artists, one male and one female using their work to investigate the vulnerability and emotions attributed to men and masculinity. I found this work to be particularly interesting as it challenged the viewer not only in terms of their own attitudes to male nudity, but also questioned the way men are perceived, turning the “Male Gaze” on to the male.
interior of the chapel at Othona West Dorset
After studying the exhibition I met up with Emma for a welcome cup of tea and a guided tour around the grounds of the retreat, meeting some of the other ‘retreaters’ (not sure if that’s what users of the centre are called) in the process, and who all made me feel very welcome. The grounds are tremendous, being set around the main buildings on steep grassy banks which descend gradually down through semi-wild woodland to fields, reed beds and finally the beach.
the Art Room at Othona West Dorset
This year has been a good year for Bee Orchids, as well as Orchids in general, and I was lucky enough to be shown the area where a tranche of Bee Orchids grow naturally. They are just lovely!
Bee Orchids (this picture does not do them justice)
secret stepped path down to the beach
view from the bottom of the Othona gardens across Lyme Bay with Weymouth to the left and Bridport and Lyme Regis to the right
On leaving I followed the coast road back towards Weymouth and paused to admire the famous Chesil Bank which stretched out into the distance surrounded by a glistening blue sea, before turning back across country towards Dorchester and on to my parents’ home. While not being of any religious persuasion myself, I came away from Othona feeling relaxed and positive. Perhaps it was because it was such a beautiful day spent in a lovely area, or possibly it was the atmosphere at Othona, or may be something else again?
Chesil Bank from the Old Coast Road