Robert Hesketh meets Kate Lynch, an artist who immerses herself amongst her Somerset subjects

PUBLISHED: 16:26 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

The lambing shed, High Ham

The lambing shed, High Ham

Robert Hesketh meets Kate Lynch, an artist who immerses herself amongst her subjects to get to the heart of Somerset's rural life.

Robert Hesketh meets Kate Lynch, an artist who immerses herself amongst her subjects to get to the heart of Somerset's rural life.

Rural life is the central theme running through Kate Lynch's artwork. Following on from the success of her 'Willow' exhibition and book about working life on the Levels, Sheep - From Lamb to Loom, Kate's latest project, will open at the Brewhouse in Taunton this month. 'Sheep', a multi-media exhibition, offers 50 large expressive charcoal drawings and paintings with a stereo sound tapestry, the fruit of three years' field and studio work, in collaboration with sound designer Alastair Goolden.

Observing, sketching and recording, Kate and Alastair visited farms and markets, wool sheds, weaving sheds, tanneries and butchers' shops throughout Somerset, talking to farmers, vets, shearers, spinners, weavers, knitters and auctioneers. They also trod less familiar territory to see ewes being milked for cheesemaking, slaughter in the abattoir, the sheepskin tannery, feltmaking and carpet weaving. The result is a comprehensive sound and visual picture, a rich and varied slice of country life through the four seasons.

Shepherds rounding sheep with dogs, raddling rams (daubing them with paint so that they can see which ewes have been mated), helping ewes in labour; women spinning yarn, men shearing sheep, grading wool, taking animals to market - Kate's drawings and paintings cover all kinds of rural scenes and have a timeless quality. The material grew and grew, giving her ample material for her illustrated book, which includes journal entries and text. In it she draws on her own notes and on Alastair's recorded interviews.

"I like stories and I like history," said Kate, when we met at her home in High Ham, which doubles as a studio for her and her artist husband, James. "I am telling a story with my paintings and drawings. This links with my community projects, and working with children - all children love stories. In 'Sheep' there is a narrative, a behind-the-scenes story and we're involving schools in the project.

"I've met some fantastic people through 'Sheep'. Many have lived in Somerset for generations. It's been a great privilege getting to know them through their working lives, so the project's a tribute to them. Rural life is hard graft, but for artists it offers a way to relate to the land and marvellous subject matter. It's been a journey of discovery, and Alastair has brought another dimension, it's a good collaboration, the visual artwork and sound."

Kate's early life in suburban London did not suggest she would later chronicle rural life. "I took a back route to art. On leaving school I became a bilingual secretary, then went on the hippy trail for a while in Canada, came home, took my degree and became an art teacher. I met James, my husband, who was going round on his motorbike and sidecar selling his landscape paintings. Only then did I really start making images. After I had my children I began exhibiting my work, mainly primitive mother and child images.

"Much later, I took a post grad course at UWE, spending two years in the life room with a great tutor, David Ferguson. That's when I learnt to draw... and that has underpinned my work.

"Meanwhile, I worked on community parish map and mural projects, involving people of all ages. There's a large textile I coordinated in Caryford Hall in Castle Cary, made by people in the town.

"'The Tree of Life' for the new Frome Hospital was such a happy recent commission. Altogether, more than 250 adults and children contributed their self portraits. Each branch has a different theme - music, sport, carnival, and farming - each telling a story. This group painting is one of my favourites; it's on display in the hospital foyer.

"I really enjoy seeing ordinary people, young and old, who would not normally consider themselves artists, creating art together. This builds confidence - I understand the importance of that because I didn't have much confidence in painting as a child and got really bad marks in my art exams at school.

"Everyone has some innate artistic feeling; it's a matter of finding your medium and building confidence, free of inhibitions and fear of judgement. Art is fundamental to developing the brain as a whole, especially imagination and eye to hand skills.

"Many of my art projects involve schools. The Barrington Court Garden Murals are painted by Barrington and Ilton schoolchildren. They've produced narrative paintings of the vegetable garden through the four seasons. The autumn panel depicts the harvest and the children cooking and eating their vegetables, and in the winter panel they painted the traditional Wassail.

"Boys and girls work in small groups on these art projects. It's good for building their confidence and social skills because every child is equal and their work is equally valued. I like the way the projects link art to life and I love children's art. It's inspiring. Children are wonderfully unfazed about being photographically accurate.

"The Levels is one of the most magical, unique places in England. It's a place to paint people as well as landscape. Wondering about willow and how it grew, I started talking to local willow farmers and weavers, drawing them at work. This was the germ of the 'Willow' project. It was a journey, one meeting led to another. My work burgeoned, taking off in several directions.

"Charcoal's fantastic stuff; it's ideal for work with children. Willow charcoal played a large part in my project, as did bringing willow weavers into schools to share their skills. The children's attention was riveted; weaving gave them such a sense of achievement.

"Well, 'Willow' eventually came to an end. What to do next? I wanted to go fresh into a different artistic journey, without any preconceptions. One day, thinking there might be an interesting seasonal story behind the clichd images of frolicking lambs, I asked local sheep farmer John Vigar if I could come and make drawings of his farm. He said the sheep farming year started with raddling the ram in October. I didn't know what raddling was then. That was the start of the 'Sheep' journey.

"It was fascinating watching them mix the red oxide for the raddle, painting it on the ram's brisket and setting him amongst the ewes. It wasn't long before one had a red stain on her bottom!

"Finding sheepskins at another local farm led me to Bridgwater tannery. Back at the Vigar's farm, I met Dave Takle from Dulverton, who runs the shearing teams and spent days watching the shearers and making sketches.

"The Levels is not typical sheep country, so Alastair and I travelled to meet other shepherds on the Mendips, the Bridgwater salt marshes and on Exmoor, where I learnt about the Exmoor Horn breed. We also visited the livestock market auctions at Highbridge and went to South Molton where wool from six counties is graded. At North Wootton I made paintings of ewes' milk cheesemaking and milking sheep for ice cream near Carhampton. And then we followed the wool into the living rooms and workshops of knitters and weavers.

"The sheep theme had enormous potential, so much so, it often threatened to run away with us. However, getting to know half a dozen sheep farmers on various Somerset landscapes, and following them and their work through the seasons, helped fix workable parameters."

Fact File

For further information and book sales for Sheep - From Lamb to Loom and the 'Willow' project visit, 01458 250367.

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