Stephen Felmingham

The New Ashburton Art Festival 2014

On a late summer evening over a hundred people assembled in and outside artspace@57 at the top of East St in Ashburton, with a palpable sense of expectancy in the crowd that something new was about to happen at the opening of the New Ashburton Art Festival’s Contemporary Arts Weekend. Mark Jessett’s work ‘New Kinds of Treasure’ had been installed in the gallery, delicate narrow paper strips carrying bands of intense colour and gold, appearing like some immense effort to combine and sort colour combinations to communicate a mysterious code. As if in response to these enigmatic messages a saxophone began a lively New Orleans style jazz standard and led the crowd down the street, stopping the traffic, to the next venue.

This was the beginning of the Art Safari, a tour led at relaxed intervals by the sax and combining lively conversation, chance meetings, walking and drinking that allowed eight venues to open on the same evening, from a British Legion hut in the churchyard containing Andrew Southall’s uncanny installation of lenses and candles, to Karen Pearson’s well-observed photographs in the Green Ginger Café of her psychogeographical walks around Ashburton. The expectations raised at the beginning of the Safari were thoroughly met as the event went on into the dusk, with a series of critically-positioned, immaculately installed shows that raised the bar in terms of contemporary art practice in the South West to rival that of the other regional centres in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth.

Highpoints of the evening were Robert Manners and Tim Didymus with their collaborative exhibition at Diligence, where Manner’s unerring formal sense and ability to marshal a range of influences in his paintings, prints and assemblages, from late modernism to naval dockyards, combined with Tim Didymus’s extraordinary sonic intervention with wine glasses that connected on a deep level with the works on the walls. As well, Juliet Middleton-Batts’ sign-written plaques (‘Badge of Honour’) at the St. Lawrence Chapel succeeded in conjuring forth aphorisms and declamations that resonated with the Dartmoor high chapel context she had chosen as her site. In conclusion, the opening and the weekend that followed showed what is possible: a highly successful, thought-provoking and energetic Art Festival that has set a very high standard for next year.

Dr. Stephen Felmingham
Plymouth College of Art