BLOG Claire Pickard

NWR Issue 106

Mary Lloyd Jones in Aberystwyth

The publication of No Mod Cons coincides with the opening of two exhibitions of Mary Lloyd Jones’ work in Aberystwyth – one at the Arts Centre and one at the Old College. All three events are timed to mark the artist’s eightieth birthday. Whilst the exhibitions and the book each stand alone, each also gains from being placed in conversation with the others. Such a conversation enables the complex relationships between private and public, past and present found within the artist’s individual works to be viewed from the wider perspective of her career as a whole.

No Mod Cons provides a perfect introduction to that career. Although just 120 pages in length, it manages to trace the author’s life from her childhood in Pontarfynach (Devil’s Bridge) in Ceredigion during the 1930s and 40s, through her attempts to establish herself as an artist, up to her current position as a key figure in the cultural landscape of her country. Despite providing such a comprehensive overview of her life, the book is not simply an autobiography – it is, in addition, a consideration of what it means to be an artist, and is also a discussion of the centrality of place, and of national and gender identity in Lloyd Jones’ work. Yet as the author makes clear in her own introduction, the elements of memoir in No Mod Cons cannot be separated from these other concerns. For Lloyd Jones, her entire artistic identity has emerged from the process of ‘forging a visual expression on the foundation of a rural childhood’. Besides providing a foundational ‘store of images’, such a childhood rooted Lloyd Jones in the specific national, linguistic and cultural traditions that are the central preoccupations of her work. As Lloyd Jones starkly remarks, ‘I do not believe that I would be a painter if I had to live in a city.’

One of the most important sections of the volume concerns Lloyd Jones’ search for the ‘visual language’ that would enable her to explore these traditions. This language first began to emerge in the 1970s when she developed ‘a fluid and flexible technique that opened up possibilities for the layering of references and moving away from received ‘irregularly shaped compositions’ that drew thematically on both the landscape and the traditional quilt-making culture of west Wales.

Such quilts have taken on great importance in Lloyd Jones’ subsequent work. They have enabled her to reclaim a creative heritage that has been doubly sidelined – as both Welsh and female. The author’s examination of their significance to her demonstrates one of the greatest strengths of No Mod Cons. Through its particular blend of memoir and analysis, the volume is able to ground its exploration of individual and cultural identity in specific, concrete examples. Thus, the ‘log cabin’ quilt, made by Lloyd Jones’ great grandmother and passed down to her through the female line is described as an object of more than merely private significance. The quilt demonstrates an ‘intelligent understanding of colour relationships and tonal values’ that connects the artist to her own ancestors whilst also countering destructive, often colonial, stereotypes that Wales lacked a strong ‘visual culture’. By referencing such quilts in her own painting and using domestic textiles in her work as a teacher, Lloyd Jones has continued to refine the ‘visual language’ that reflects her cultural inheritance, whilst simultaneously reinterpreting that inheritance for contemporary audiences and students. No Mod Cons is at its strongest when it explores this interplay between the personal and national aspects of such an inheritance.

The exhibition Mary Lloyd Jones, A Journey from Devil’s Bridge at Aberystwyth Arts Centre compliments the book in that it provides a similar overview of the artist’s development from childhood (it includes work from the age of seven) to the present day. The interest in colour, quilting and landscape that are explored in the mature work are all prefigured in the early pieces. Representations of family members, and of Aberarth and Aberaeron, reflect the primal importance of the personal and physical roots that are so vividly portrayed in the memoir.

The exhibition also explores in some depth Lloyd Jones’ interest in archaeology and early language. Just as an interest in quilting has enabled Lloyd Jones to explore a female Welsh artistic tradition, so an interest in ancient language systems has enabled her to explore a Welsh visual tradition that reaches back into deep history As she writes in No Mod Cons:

As a painter my vocabulary is a collection of marks. These can be memories of hillsides, cloud shadows, leaves in the wind, or rock faces. To these I have added the spirals, zigzags and linear inventions of prehistoric carvings, which represent values that are in stark contrast to those of our global technological age. For me, the earliest art of Wales comes to us from prehistoric times.

One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is ‘Returns’. This exhibit brings together many of Lloyd Jones’ major themes in a work that viscerally illustrates the consequences of the colonisation of Wales. The piece was inspired by the artist’s viewing of a map which detailed the returns for the 81 lead mines in Ceredigion in 1878. One mine alone, Cwymystwyth, returned £1,500,000. In the text accompanying this work, Lloyd Jones writes:

Ceredigion silver is said to have clothed the army of Charles I and also brought a new water supply to the city of London…. No roads or houses in Ceredigion were built with this wealth. Life expectancy for miners was 30-40 years.

By stating the historical facts so baldly, Lloyd Jones emphasises the injustice of the colonisation. By creating a piece that explores these ideas in the form of a patchwork quilt, she offers an assertion of cultural independence that is a protest against such injustice.

The exhibition before Christmas at the Old College, Mary Lloyd Jones: A Selection of Work, is comprised primarily of the free hanging banners created for an exhibition in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 2001. These ‘Banners Celebrating the Welsh Bardic Tradition’ feature the marks and symbols that provide some of the earliest examples of Welsh language. Three later banners featuring Breton and Gaelic are placed in conjuncture with these works. In a similar inter-cultural dialogue, the paintings ‘Jaipur’ (1999) and ‘India’ (1997) employ the bright colours of the Indian fabrics Lloyd Jones observed on her visits to this country, whilst retaining her own recognisable ‘visual language’. The connection to textiles ties these works to the artist’s personal and cultural past, whilst also allowing her to look outwards to a vastly different tradition. It seems fitting that such works should hang in the Old College – a building Lloyd Jones has known and admired since childhood [and where her studio is currently based as the University works on plans to develop the building as a new postgraduate centre]. In No Mod Cons, she expresses her hope that the building will come to ‘serve as a permanent home for Welsh visual culture’. Her own current exhibitions, in this building and in the Arts Centre, celebrate both the deep roots of such a culture and its continuing vibrancy.

Claire Pickard writes for New Welsh Review online and in print

Mary Lloyd Jones, A Journey from Devil’s Bridge shows at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 16 January. The plans to develop Aberystwyth University's Old College are available to view on site in the building's Quad.


previous blog: A Poet’s Year
next blog: This Last Tempest, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 17 February


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