Made up of the counties of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and the more southern Ceredigion postcodes, West Wales has some of the UK’s most desirable beaches, wildlife reserves and unpolluted skies. It also boasts, in Coleg Sir Gâr (Carmarthen School of Art), one of the country’s oldest dedicated art schools, which opened in 1854.
The college offers a wide range of courses that orient towards traditional skillsets: casting, carving and construction are covered by the BA (Hons) Sculpture; painting, drawing and printmaking make up the BA (Hons) in Fine Art.
Just outside of Carmarthen is New British Art, an alternative art school working out of a farm in Porthyrhyd. It offers regular residential casting, carving and bronze courses, an increasingly popular alternative for peer-to-peer learning which is twinned with guidance and support from master sculptor Mark Halliday. Anyone interested in developing a sculptural practice is surprisingly well catered for in west Wales.
At the heart of the west Wales art ecology is Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Carmarthen. A white cube space with a busy programme of contemporary arts and crafts, it also has a shop and a strong focus on education, making it a real focal point for the region.
Converted from the original Carmarthen School of Art building in 1991, Oriel Myrddin reflects its educational heritage through Sketchbook walks, in-conversation events, medium-focused workshops for all ages, and Young Artist Club trips. Major shows from artists such as Angharad Pearce Jones, Clare Thornton and Cecil Johnson-Soliz bring in audiences from further afield, while the annual Makers Market and regular collaboration with curatorial partners and venues ensure that group shows maintain a healthy relationship between the local, national and international.
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Carmarthen also has two small artist-run cooperative spaces for the exhibition and sale of painting and sculpture. King Street Gallery and Greenspace gallery show a small but sustainable clutch of local contemporary art, all of which is soon to have an economic injection when S4C (the Welsh-language television channel) relocates its headquarters from Cardiff to Carmarthen. Local practitioners and organisations need to make the most of this opportunity early on to ensure culture and creativity receives ample attention.
Further west along the A40 is Oriel Q in Narberth, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. Based in the multi-purpose arts centre Queens Hall, it utilises four exhibition spaces to provide stimulating exhibitions of artists at different stages in their life and careers. Significant voices such as John Selway (1938-2017) and exciting emerging artists such as Geraint Evans have all helped put this peripheral town at the centre. This activity is supported by an educational programme that encourages pupils from primary school through to sixth form and art students to engage with the gallery.
Continuing west from Narberth you’ll find The Lab in Haverfordwest, an initiative of the arts and regeneration project Confluence. This aims to devise and test new and imaginative ways of working in the town, aiming to bring the community together to inspire and shape the process of urban planning, design and regeneration.
These ambitions are critical, and as murmurs about its continuation bubble up following a three-year pilot programme, there’s a clear need for infrastructure to be in place to ensure time-limited projects such as this are not just boxed up in an archive. Look out for Cardiff-based artist Ethan Dodd’s misanthropic installation practice coming to The Lab in August.
The UK’s smallest city, St Davids is known for Blue Flag beaches as part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Oriel Y Parc, the visitor centre in the city, also plays its part in the area’s art ecology. It offers residencies for artists in tandem with loaned works from National Museum Wales (NMW), with the focus on Graham Sutherland’s relationship with the area who first visited Pembrokeshire in 1934. Sutherland left a number of works to Wales, now in NMW’s collection, stating: “Having gained so much from this country, I should like to give something back.”
Away from the institutions, artist-led initiatives give that all-important breathing space for artists. Rhôd focuses on the urban/rural dialogue in contemporary art and is based in a former water mill building at Melin Glonc in Drefelin. The annual Rhôd artist festival is a chance for artists working locally and further afield to explore how to work, respond and (temporarily) live in a sustainable space, focused on dialogue.
In the spirit of dialogue and collaboration, Cardiff-based hyper-local arts festival Made in Roath regularly exchanges artists and platforms with Rhôd. Other artist-led projects of note are Colony and Popty.
At a crossroads on the A485 in the village of New Inn, north Carmarthenshire, you’ll find Oriel Blodau Bach (‘little blossom gallery). Set up in September 2015 by Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Kirsten Hinks Knight, it offers joy in its simplicity: a former village noticeboard converted into a space for exhibition. There is a freedom in this small gesture, and projects from artists such as penny d jones, Jessica Dent and Jonathan Powell add versatility and variety to the west Wales cultural offer.
In Cardigan, Oriel Mwldan has been providing temporary exhibitions since 2012 through collaboration with Oriel Davies in Newtown. The relationship provides curatorial support, and with practitioners and resources often thinly spread, this kind of collaboration between institutions is invaluable. In west Wales the distance between practitioners can be problematic, another reason why venues like Mwldan are so important.
While the spread-out nature of the scene undoubtedly has its issues, it hasn’t stopped it from developing. And its combination of permanent exhibition spaces complemented by artist-leds and flourishing education programmes gives the area its unique and disparate character.
Bob Gelsthorpe is one of eight a-n members selected for the a-n Writer Development Programme 2017-18. For more information on the writer programme, and to read more of the latest cohort’s work, visit the 2017-18 programme’s blog on a-n.co.uk or use the a-n writer development programme 2017-18 tag