PUBLISHED: 12:38 17 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:39 20 February 2013
Sharon Chilcott visits the town which draws on its residents' creativity
Nearly everywhere you look in Abergavenny there is evidence of local peoples creativity, or their artistic interpretation of the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds them.
Take for example the labour of love that is The Abergavenny Tapestry. Proudly displayed in the refurbished Tithe Barn alongside St Marys Priory Church, this feat of creative endeavour was conceived to mark the Millennium, involved more than 60 local stitchers, some complete novices, and took just under four years to finish, having already been two years in the planning.
The tapestry depicts 1,000 years of the towns history against the backdrop of the Abergavenny hills. It was the brainchild of Sheila Bevan, who in 1999 recruited Sarah Windrum and Susie Martin, local experts in designing and producing tapestries, to help make her dream a reality. I was furious because nothing was being done to celebrate the Millennium, she says. But it turned into one of those extraordinary things. Her inspiration came at around the same time as plans for the renovation of the Tithe Barn were being developed, where it was agreed the tapestry would be put on display as a visitor attraction. And so it has proved to be. We opened in 2008 and we have just started our 14th visitor book, says Sheila.
When we decided we would do this we held a public meeting and 70 people came and 60 signed on the dot. Most had previous experience but some had none and learnt right from the beginning. We used 400 shades of wool and took seven threads to a needle and blended the colours like an artist mixes paint. The effect of that is that it looks 3D and there are no hard lines. Susie Martin designed it and made the cartoon and although there were guidelines on the canvas it was up to us to interpret the cartoon by eye.
The restored, 12th century Tithe Barn holds other clues to the wealth of creative talent to be discovered in and around the town. A crocheted version of The Lords Prayer by Maureen Perkins can be admired in the exhibition area near the tapestry and the walls of the food hall are adorned with textile mosaics representing Benedictine hospitality and a mosaic of St Benedict painstakingly made from crushed eggshells. They are the work of parishioner Elizabeth Brown, whose wall hangings are also on display in the adjacent church.
At Abergavenny Museum a display of items crafted by members of Made in Monmouthshire includes distinctive silver jewellery by Abergavenny maker Annette Yates. Annettes designs are often influenced by her Welsh roots and her surroundings and she is just one of a long list of professional artists and craftspeople that live, work and find inspiration in the town and its environs. I think there are so many creative people here because it is an area known for traditional crafts and where local artists and craftspeople are passionate about keeping them alive. The countryside is so beautiful, one cannot help but be inspired to make, paint or create. Its an area where residents and visitors appreciate, and actively look for, something special, something hand-made, something unique, with provenance, and in fact, visitors seem to come from far and wide for this reason.
Annettes work and a selection of high quality collectable art and craft by many of her contemporaries can also be found at The Court Cupboard Craft Gallery, at Llantilio Pertholey, just outside the town. The gallery is managed by The Black Mountains Circle, a co-operative of local craft makers, who display their own work alongside items made by invited artists and craftspeople, mainly from Wales. Work from around 45 makers is on show at any one time and currently includes embellished and stitched fabric pictures by textile artist Penny Turnbull, whose topics include scenes of Abergavenny town. There are also paintings by David Haswell of Gavenny Graphics who specialises in highly textured watercolours and acrylic paintings of the Welsh landscape, which border on the abstract. He describes why the Black Mountains, near his home in Abergavenny, provide a particular source of inspiration: It is the skies and their relationship with the mountains the shapes and the different moods created between them.
At The Court Cupboard the exhibitions are changed every few months. It is really important to have different things for people to see so they are enticed to come back, says Stuart Neale, chairman of the Black Mountains Craft Circle, who, when he isnt taking his turn to man the gallery, is busy keeping the art of hand weaving alive at Sioni Rhys Handweavers in nearby Pandy. Here, for more than 20 years, he has used traditional equipment and methods to produce carthenni (Welsh patterned throws) in pure new wool. The area was once renowned for wool weaving and Sioni Rhys Handweavers produces a particular range of diamond-patterned throws, inspired by those made at the former Gwenffrwd Mill on the nearby Llanover Estate. Stuart says: It is based on a piece of fabric which someone gave me, which her grandmother had bought from the mill in the 1920s.
Back in the centre of Abergavenny, theres plenty more to discover and enjoy. Landscape photographer Robert Jones, who lives and works in the town, produces a selection of his images as fine art greeting cards, available from Cariad Wales in Cross Street. Artist Caroline Downey works from her hillside home in the Black Mountains, painting vibrant and energetic images of moody moonshine and lyrical landscapes, inspired by the dramatic scenery around her and the magical atmosphere of the area. Cards reproducing her work and copies of her beautifully illustrated childrens books in the series Proper Dragon Tales are on sale in Abergavenny Bookshop in High Street, where about a third of the stock is by local and Welsh authors, or of local interest.
For art-lovers, Martins Framing and Gallery in Baker Street exhibits work by top professional artists, including Goff Danter who paints scenes from the life and area he knew growing up in Brynmawr. Portraits by resident artist Helena Jay are on show too she also takes commissions for animal drawings. The Art Shop in Cross Street holds regular exhibitions of work by established and emerging artists, including printmaker Alexis Snell who, as one-time artist in residence there, produced a body of work inspired by the town, its buildings and immediate landscape. In the nearby countryside, Monnow Valley Arts at Middle Hunt House, Walterstone, holds regular exhibitions, often drawn from important private collections. In the same area visitors can enjoy Christine Hunts work, inspired by farm scenes, market characters and Black Mountains scenery, on show at Cellar Gallery, Grove Farm, Walterstone, which is open to visitors when she is there (ring on 01873 890293 to check or make an appointment).
Abergavenny is also the centre for fashion designers whose work is admired across the globe. At their studios in the Workhouse in Hatherleigh Place, couture fashion design team Charles and Patricia Lester create the glamorous evening dresses and gowns which have won them their international reputation. Couture milliner Alison Tod has a studio and shop in Frogmore Street, where she sells an extensive collection of her ready-to-wear hats, bags and stoles and designs wonderful bespoke creations. We dye our own material and that is our forte as we can match any colour, she says. We get clients from literally everywhere. A lady from Hong Kong even made a special trip to buy a hat for her sons wedding.
There are plenty of opportunities to gain inspiration and expert guidance from the ranks of Abergavennys artists and makers, with workshops at The Art Shop and a varied programme at The Court Cupboard, where fused glass workshops, classes on watercolour painting, jewellery making and pottery are on offer. Theres even the chance to learn how to make emotional baggage an original fabric bag with special memories , with Penny who is also one of the tutors at Chapel Cottage Studio and Gallery, a small teaching studio at Llanddewi Rhydderch, four miles outside Abergavenny, which is run by artist Jantien Powell. Here there are weekly, monthly and day classes in a range of art mediums and textile techniques presented by Jantien and a series of guest tutors.
Chinese painter, calligrapher and art teacher Kwong Kuen-Shan has a dedicated following who meet for regular workshops at Llanfoist Village Hall. Two books of her paintings of cats have been published across the world and she also paints the landscapes of Wales, applying traditional Chinese techniques. Her painting Winter Moon, an interpretation of a scene from the top of the Blorenge, was chosen by the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales as the image for its 2012 Christmas card.
At Manic Ceramics, a pottery painting studio and shop on the corner of Castle Street and Cross Street, anyone can drop in and paint a plate or a mug and the venue also caters for painting parties. Others in Abergavenny have put their creative talents to work alongside professional artists, helping Abergavenny Community Trust to create a wall hanging for the caf in the community centre they are planning to open in the old school in Park Street once the centre is up and running, look out for art workshops there.
Ginevra Croft offers stitching, embroidery and felting workshops at her shop, The Wool Croft in Cross Street, once or twice a month in the evenings or on Sundays. The shop is transformed with two tables down the middle and all the colours and materials around us for inspiration, says Ginevra, the inspiration behind Knitting Out, a Wednesday evening event at The Angel Hotel. Her shop is a popular haunt for wool and fibre enthusiasts who come there to buy their supplies. She also sells a small selection of local items including miniature jointed needle felted bears made by Olwen Veevers on her nearby smallholding. n
Details of many of the artists and makers referred to, and others working in the area, can be found at www.madeinmonmouthshire.com