- OSR Projects, West Coker, Somerset
- South West England
West Coker is the pretty Somerset village that never quite managed to find its chocolate box, riven as it is by the A30 that thunders traffic of all shapes and sizes; the village that sounds so familiar and yet is not the neighbouring East Coker of The Wasteland. There is, unsurprisingly, class and social rivalries between the two, but that’s a story for another day.
I spend some time with Simon at the Twineworks. I feel immersed in the history of this place, as though it is still making twine and weaving sailcloth. I’m told with a genuine sense of local pride that this was the place that provided sail for Nelson’s Navy, that every cottage had a loom, that the flax and hemp grown here made the ‘best sails in the world’ to befit the ‘greatest Navy in the world’ of the country that ruled the waves. Simon has been in an extended artist residency at the Twineworks and has created a series of pieces that use different voices to tell its story. No ordinary residency this: West Coker is where Simon’s OSR projects is based, so this is his home (he lives with his family in nearby East Coker, so there’s that connection again). Although he speaks of the Twineworks (yes, a place where they made twine, an extraordinary building 100m long but not very wide – but I’ll come back to that) not just in terms of what it made and what it represented, but about its people. I hear all about the dedication of the locals determined to make this place real for visitors, to keep its fabric whole, to ensure its story is not lost. It all feels cosy and heart-felt, redolent of a society whose values we mourn.
But then there’s the shoe. I see the shoe before I see Simon’s artwork upstairs in the loft. I am unmanned by this shoe, lying in a box of other shoe remnants, discovered in a box nearby at river’s edge, analysed by one of the UK’s best-known shoe historians in the calm, clear, technical, objective language that archivists and historians use. But this show is whole and clearly belonged to a boy of 7 or 8. A little boy who worked here in this factory, making twine, probably scuttling between and under the long spinning looms capable of creating 200m lengths of twine. The warm fuzziness is stripped away, the harshness of life of the rural poor laid bare.
Simon takes me up the stairs built like a ship’s steep wooden stairs (the sea never feels far away here, despite being 11 miles inland), wide enough to be of use in an industrial space, but with a 70° incline that feels precipitous and manly. I look through the incongruous telescope focussed on something I can’t quite read at the other end of this long narrow building. It’s almost impossible to see the piece with the naked eye, despite the fact that it is sitting in a pool of light from one of the skylights in the roof, even on this grey day, an incongruous red, well, glowing presence. It feels alien. I’m not a regular telescope user, so I can’t understand what I’m seeing (it’s upside down, like looking through an old box camera). But I’m seeing something that pluses light, that is somehow evocative of this place and yet entirely not-at-home. Simon’s decision to use a brightly coloured fisherman’s twine is a unexpected choice that works inexpectedly: the space is remarkably colourless and muted, so this piece flickers in its pool of natural light. I have to look for a while before I understand that I’m seeing twine wound around one the large things-that-twine-got-wound- around (I don’t have any idea what it’s called but you can be sure there was a name for it). It’s a
difficult space for an artist to interrogate or place work in, and Simon talked about the difficulties of making a mark here. The decision to place the work in isolation at the far end of the building – across a floor no one can walk across and therefore inaccessible – is a brave one, and one that successfully explains the remarkable scale of this building.
I leave Simon and walk through the village towards OSR’s space, following the line of bunting that forms the second part of his work, marking the two cultural sites. At the end of a wet summer they are looking a little battered and weary. The decision to use artist’s canvas (the bunting is made up of undyed canvas with decorative stitching cut into the shape of sails from a wide variety of riggings) and not to finish the edges feels like a mistake here. I wonder if sail canvas would have been a little more robust in this context, but this is a niggle. The marking works and says ‘there’s something happening in this village, and it’s unusual’. Stop me and buy one.
I walk along the busy A30, scuffing through ankle-deep leaves and realising with some surprise that autumn has really arrived. The day feels cold, for the first time this year, cold in that winter-is- coming kind of cold. It feels palpable, bone-chilling.
As I approach the OSR Projects building I have my phone out taking a photo, I pass a garage next to a house under renovation. ‘Enjoying West Coker?’, he asks, a chap covered in stone dust and standing by a pile of stone. I ask a question about the stone, its honey colour so different from the granite I’m used to at home. He launches. I hear about the Ham Stone that’s soft and beautiful and shapeable “by a knife”, used to dress windows and doors here; about the local stone, seen as hard but junky, used for wall building; and about local brick which has its own distinctive colour, too. This is a man who loves his materials. But there’s local pride here, a sense of place through the shaping of stone, the re-use of materials that retain cultural as well as actual value.
Walking into the OSR building, a former village school, is a shock cocooning me immediately in warmth and silence. The Victorian school has been transformed into a clean white-space gallery with an exquisite and refined sense of design that is at once ultra-modern yet sensitive to the age of the space. There is hand-wrought ironwork and beautiful hand-built oak doors built by a local craftsman, shaped to the Victorian gothic shapes of the openings. The main space is filled with a series of drawings on paper that form the third part of Simon’s response to the Twineworks. Mounted on grey upright plinths, the display is beautiful, austere, clean and arresting. It allows close approach to the work, which is mounted at eye height, and intimate inspection. This displays not only a belief in the work, but a trust in the viewer – a trust that says ‘I’m an artist who believes in people’. We are allowed to access this work intimately to understand its own innate intimacy. The work is diverse, eight abstractions to tell a complex story: about people, about life, about yesterday, about today, titled ‘Unearthed’. I spend time looking closely, almost wanting to touch it. The marks are simple and delicate, the drawings detailed and representational; some feel abstracted, others more like Victorian etchings. Interesting to end here after being immersed in the heritage of this place, but I think even without this context already marked for me they tell a rich story, from the extraordinary beauty and complexity of ‘A seed that came back with me from a walk whilst thinking about Dawes’ Twineworks’ to the simple line drawing ‘Snapped flax on its way to twine’. The text is
as much poetry as description, more haiku than title. I love this work. It seems to embrace the people of the past Simon encountered during his time at the Twineworks, and I wonder how much this history means to the people living here now. There must be families to whom this is a living memory, but others whose history resides elsewhere who have little sense of this village as an industrial centre.
And here, again, is the shoe: ‘Child’s shoe found after 150 years underground’. This, too, has clearly resonated with this warm-hearted and friendly man whose artwork, above all, is about people and how they live with one another.
Richard Povall [email protected]