Celebrating the joys of Suffolk’s artistic heritage

In a county where we are not short of a good quality festival or two, it’s wonderfully refreshing, if not to say a little surprising, to come across an event which is totally unique.

The Alde Valley Festival is celebrating its eighth anniversary this year and seamlessly combines contemporary art, with traditional Suffolk crafts, set in an atmospheric series of galleries created in barns, workshops and milking sheds on a working farm.

It sets the art and the craft into a working landscape which is echoed by the setting outdoors. This is a festival which doesn’t stay indoors it includes walks, green issues, taking care of the environment, being part of the environment and celebrating the excellence of locally-grown food.

It’s a festival which is all about celebrating Suffolk.

The festival’s founder and guiding force is Jason Gathorne-Hardy, an artist and tireless champion of the good food, green farming and tapping into Suffolk’s traditions to create unique artworks for 21st century audiences.

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But, for Jason talking about the festival is not about blowing his own trumpet. His own artwork only forms a small part of the wide variety of work on display. He shares the half dozen gallery spaces with a wide collection of innovative artists which all work away in the county – many in north Suffolk and along the Alde Valley coastal strip.

“The festival is not about an exhibition of my work as such but more of a starting point for people to go out and explore the area, get to know Suffolk, its people and the amazing creative work which is being carried out here.

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“Suffolk has a rich well of imaginative and creative people but we all have to go out and find them.

“I would like people to become more aware of the rich vein of talent we have here. We are very aware of the Dedham Vale but in a very quiet way the Alde Valley is also very remarkable. From Badingham out to Saxmundham, Framlingham through Orford, Snape down to Shingle Street, there is a wealth of wonders to be discovered.

“Part of this exhibition is to really say: ‘We we are really lucky to be living here and to have all this on our doorstep.”

Jason has pulled together an exhibition of diverse talents which mixes the well known with the obscure – the experienced with the fresh-faced newcomer.

He makes no distinction between paintings and sculpture or hand-carved walking sticks, Suffolk chairs or various items exquisite furniture. It’s all part of the Suffolk way of life – past and present – and deserves to be celebrated.

Among the artists on display are: Stuart Anderson, Marchela Dimitrova, Meriel Ensom, Kate Giles, Maggi Hambling, Mercury Hare, Raymond Hopkins, Robina Jack, Tory Lawrence, Ffiona Lewis, Tessa Newcomb, Jim Parsons, Dylan Pym and Sam Taplin.

“It’s all about Suffolk and the Suffolk landscape and the way it stimulates the arts, the traditional crafts and people’s sensitivity to the world around them. I think it also provides a sense of home.”

He said that he views the festival as a large and colourful tapestry with an abundant host of threads which, when followed or examined more closely can lead visitors to some unexpected and richly-rewarding destinations.

“It’s all tied in with spring and rebirth. The days are getting warmer, the sun is out, it’s a perfect time to just to go out and explore the Suffolk countryside, to enjoy it but to visit the various towns and villages, explore, meet the various artists and crafts people, visit the festivals, just enjoy what this amazingly rich and diverse county has to offer.”

If Suffolk is the key which binds this disparate exhibition together then it is its very diversity which gives it its zing.

There is also a lot of humour to be had. Jason is not a po-faced green campaigner. Dotted around the farm, painted on artfully sliced pieces of wood are tongue-in-cheek messages designed to inform but also amuse.

Inside one gallery are two odd-sized stones. Written upon them in green ink is the message: “one good stone deserves another.”

Outside a barn showing Peter Hall’s Akenfield is a piece of wood instructing visitors to restart the video if they want to watch from the beginning. “Press stop and then play… this uniplex cinema uses the latest in interactive technology.” It’s impossible not to come away without a smile on your face.

The setting in the farm buildings gives the show perspective and atmosphere. This is art created by the Suffolk countryside and it benefits from the rural nature of its setting. The work would be somewhat diminished if it were neatly laid out in a white-painted, rather sterile gallery with inoffensive lift-music wafting away in the background.

When I visited there was some fast-paced jazz being hammered out on a piano which sent me whizzing round the exhibits with a smile on my face and a hand that wouldn’t keep still as I kept time by tapping my fingers on the side of my leg.

This gallery is a rough and ready former lambing shed with a corrugated iron roof. The doors are open so you can see the yard outside and Stuart Anderson’s life-sized sculpture of a horse standing patiently in the far paddock.

Dotted around the exhibition spaces are a series of exquisite bird paintings by Meriel Ensom. The pictures are painted directly on to long scraps or pieces of wood. These contrast with the urgency of Jason’s farm animal drawings or his new landscapes.

Meanwhile Maggi Hambling has added some large phoenix-like cormorants which complement her sea paintings while Tory Lawrence explores the grandeur of Suffolk’s big skies.

Exploration is a key theme which Jason returns to time and again in our conversation. He refers to the festival as a starting point for visitors to go off on their own voyages of discovery – hopefully inspired by what they have seen.

“Suffolk has an amazing ability to absorb people. They are not as visible as they are in other parts of the country where they work in artistic communities. Here people toil away, quietly in cottages, behind hedgerows, no one really knows they are there until you discover them in an exhibition or at a craft fair or at an event like this.

“You have to follow the threads and you never know where you will end up. Take literature. You start off with Ronnie Blythe, follow that thread and you come across George Ewart Evans and then HW Freeman.

“Then with the painting you explore that, you pick up on Tessa Newcomb, that leads you to Mary Potter, then there’s Maggi (Hambling) and her explosion of creativity. They are all connected by the influence of Suffolk.”

Just to add a little exotic spice to this highly home-grown event Jason has introduced two international aspects to the exhibition. Marchela Dimitrova is artist in residence and has some remarkable icon paintings on display and Jason has explored his own links with Malaysia and his love of fine food to develop links with Pesta Nukenen Bario – The Bario & Kelabit Highlands Food & Cultural Festival which celebrates the cooking and traditions to be found in one of East Malaysia’s and Borneo’s most remarkable intact traditionally farmed and forested landscapes.

n The Alde Valley Festival is a joyous celebration of the Suffolk landscape, Suffolk people and Suffolk creativity. Flags and bunting provide a wonderful sense of welcome. The festival, which runs until May 3, is centred around White House Farm, Great Glemham, near Saxmundham and is signposted through the village.

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