I love local stories. Everywhere has them. Things happen that for one reason or another people remember them, and tell other people, who tell other people, and so it goes on over time. Sometimes the telling peters out and for whatever reason the story stops getting told and eventually the story dies. Sometimes if the story is lucky it gets written down and lasts a bit longer.
Most of my work is temporary. Some more temporary than others. Obviously I like to document the pieces so there is at least some kind of record, and inevitably other people come and take their own photos too. Some have even painted them. However, I like to think they’ll last longest as memories for the people who experienced them – living on as stories.
My latest piece is a meadow of 1,200 windmills next to Wreay primary school near Carlisle in Cumbria, UK. It was the result of a period of working with the primary school and seeing what topics they were studying and how they could all come together as a single piece. It all started with a story – Don Quixote and his tilting at windmills and cascaded down the school from there. It was a lovely piece to do, working with a great little school (only 60 or so kids and fantastic teachers) in such an inspiring village.
St. Mary’s Wreay (opposite the school) is one of those incredible little gems hidden away in the countryside. It was designed and built by Sarah Losh – a local girl who did the grand tour at the start of the 18th century and came back bursting with ideas and a passion for architecture. The village church was falling down, so she designed a new one drawn from all the architectural masterpieces she’d visited. And what she created is something so special. The decoration is incredible – flowers, birds and animals everywhere. The handcrafted nature of the place feels very arts and crafts and yet pre-dates it by over 50 years.
You can find more about Sarah Losh and her church here or here. For me though, the strongest, and most touching aspect was the sense of happiness. Sarah didn’t like death, and here is a church with no symbols or mention of death anywhere. The only crucifix is a plain wooden cross. There is no graveyard outside (it’s a few hundred yards away on the other side of the village) and her own mausoleum is a simple barn-like structure a couple of fields away. And here, it’s that lack of death which makes the story all the more touching. As a memorial to her sister it speaks volumes.
A couple of weeks ago I was shown another, very different but equally touching story on the island of Öland in Sweden. I was over doing a talk and some work for Yellowbox in Sättra, about the Middle Wood (Mittlandsskogen). One morning we had a drive around this woodland to get a sense of the place. I’d already been taken to an incredible Viking fortified settlement and done a walk with the local ecology officer. It’s a fascinating research project. On the road tour we passed this beautiful house:
Sweden has its own ingrained idea of socialism where it is just not socially acceptable to shout about your wealth, so houses tend to be very modest affairs from the outside. This however wasn’t. Going through a little cast iron gate on the other side of the road we found a non-garden with this:
It’s a concrete model of the house opposite. Beautiful in its own way. And yet, if you peered through one of the glazed upstairs windows there’s this photo in a frame on the wall:
There’s a beautiful story here. It’s not about wealth – there’s obviously something deeper and more touching at hand. The story is sketchy – it may be local, but it isn’t written down really.
Later in the day I was taken to a small, tidy churchyard to see the final piece in the story. A granite headstone of the same house. On the back, the simple quote from the ten commandments: “Do not covet your neighbour’s house”
Inside those three houses is a story of great beauty and love. I don’t think you need to know the details – the story is still there and will doubtless live on, long after the names are forgotten.