Welsh poet Paul Steffan Jones and artist Chris Rawson-Tetley have been collaborating on two projects recently, inspired by the Welsh legend of the Cantre'r Gwaelod. The projects comprise Chris's visual re-imagining of a lost land and Paul's poems of loss and reverence. AmeriCymru spoke to Paul and Chris about these projects and their future plans.
Paul Steffan Jones
AmeriCymru: Hi Paul and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. How did the idea for this joint exhibition came about?
Paul: Chris and I have admired each other's work for about a decade and had first discussed a collaboration inspired by a certain type of landscape and its many changing uses about four years ago. In the early summer of 2017, Chris approached me with his idea of a work of images and words responding to the Cantre'r Gwaelod legend and what this suggested to us. I was intrigued by this approach and agreed to work with Chris to produce Gwaelod. I was particularly drawn to the proposition as I was in the throes of researching my family history which I was to find a highly relevant reference point for much of my writing for the project.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the Cantre'r Gwaelod legend?
Paul: As a native of Ceredigion, I was brought up with the Cantre'r Gwaelod legend and assumed wrongly that most people in my country also shared this ancient knowledge. My first encounter with the tale was as a young boy being in a car with my parents driving to the Cardigan Bay coast at Aberaeron. My mother suggested that if I listened carefully, that is if I kept quiet, I might be able to hear bells tolling under the sea. This led to me wanting to learn more about this strange land. I soon learned about Seithenyn the gatekeeper, the 16 towns lost to flood due to his drunkenness and that the legend was already over a thousand years old. I learned that my mother's family had always lived on the coast of that bay. I began to see them and me, fancifully perhaps, as the descendants of the survivors of that catastrophe, the inheritors of that rich but inaccessible kingdom. I see the legend as a metaphor for diaspora, due to both natural and man-made causes and see it as an important tale, largely forgotten, in the story of who the Welsh are, who I am. A fascinating development in the story's later life is an attempt in the modern era to explore the area concerned for physical evidence of an inundated land.
AmeriCymru: The project has had one exhibition so far, in Cardigan. Are there any plans to exhibit elsewhere?
Paul: We are hoping to put the exhibition into other towns and cities, and other continents. We are open to suggestion.
AmeriCymru: You have been collaborating with artist Chris Rawson-Tetley on this project. How do you work together? Does Chris respond to your poems or vice versa?
Paul: Chris and I meet regularly at his studio to discuss ideas, progress and direction. We also get inspiration from taking our cameras out and visiting coastal West Wales locations together. A key factor in the co-working is the sharing of family photographs, some going back to the late 1800s. We bounce ideas off each other but our constituent efforts are formed in isolation-Chris in his studio, me in my lap in any space I can get into that position. I have performed some of these poems live and they, and the ideas behind them, have been well received.
AmeriCymru: You are currently working on a related project 'Gwaelod-Pictures of Us'. What can you tell us about this project? How does it relate to 'Gwaelod' and will it be published?
Paul: Gwaelod-Pictures of Us is a natural progression from Gwaelod as it is an attempt to populate the landscape that Chris created in his earlier pictures for this project, an imagined Cantre'r Gwaelod. We want to depict the people displaced by the Cantre'r Gwaelod cataclysm (and other disasters) and those who followed them as individuals with their own interesting stories, their individual voices, not anonymous cannon-fodder. Chris is now painting very evocative figurative works as a result. We are in the early stages of discussions about putting out a book of pictures, photographs and poems.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Paul: I would like to thank members and readers of Americymru for their continued support for my writing. I hope to bring out a new collection of poems in next 12 months including a small number of Welsh language poems and photographic images, provisionally entitled The Ministry of Loss.
He came from a lost village
he couldn’t remember which one
or how it came to be missing
as it was so long ago
perhaps it had been a frowned
drowned sort of place
or a bulldozed overdosed one
somewhere that wouldn’t be missed
he had been wet behind the ears
but soon fitted in with
the new strangers
although they spoke differently
and seemed disinterested
in anything that was other
his parents never talked about
and stayed that way until the end
those nights when he could sleep
deep in the cosy burrow of forgetting
he dreamt of a place
that knew its history
what he couldn’t know
was that everyone else
of returning to somewhere
they had never been
he got over it
there had been many villages
lost for various reasons
that’s the way it was
people becoming unwitting
pieces on a giant chess board
that used to be their country
AmeriCymru: How did you initially become interested in the 'Gwaelod' and 'Gwaelod - Pictures Of Us' projects?
Chris: I visited the area of West Wales on a regular basis for thirty years, and it both fascinated and evaded me. The landscape continued to elude in spite of all the research I carried out over the years into its cultural and geological history. Puzzling over the engagement prompted an assessment of my involvement from a practical artistic point of view.
My wife and I moved to Ceredigion permanently in early 2014 to be with good friends, and now I feel that perhaps I might just be approaching an understanding of what it was that I was missing.
There are many places in West Wales with the word gwaelod in their name. Gwaelod in straight translation is lowland, but of course there are also other connotations. It can also be a part of the nomination Cantref ‘r Gwaelod, the lowland hundred, and part of the myth that is Maes Gwyddno or Gwyddno’s land, the sunken kingdom that supposedly occupied the area that is Cardigan Bay, an area of land so fertile that, “one acre there was worth three elsewhere”.
AmeriCymru: How many media do you work in? Do you have a particular media that you consider your favorite to work in? Why?
Chris: My chosen medium at the moment is painting. But the supports I use for it may vary according to the “feel” of the image I wish to create. Paper, wood and slate have all been used. Slate as a support for work demands a different approach to presentation, the image is only a part. A slate is an object in itself and therefore the whole thing demands more care when presenting.
I wouldn’t say that I have a “favourite” media, but slate certainy presents more possibilities as part of a piece.
AmeriCymru: Do you have a particular message in your work, an effect you want it to create in your audience or does this vary from piece to piece?
Chris: My first series of works, “Gwaelod – Imagining a sunken kingdom.”, dealt with the myth and imagined the kind of imagery that might be created by such a culture as well as responding to an actual geological past in a similar manner.
The legendary watery inundation of “Gwaelod” was the cause of a diaspora, or scattering of the people. Diaspora, as a term, has come to be associated on a global scale with forced removal from homelands, genocide and political upheaval as well as natural disaster. But all mass tragedies contain many intimate ones – the past may be shared but the experience of it is individually personal, and diaspora may also be the scattering of family and friends by forces beyond individual or communal control.
The works I am creating in the “Gwaelod – Pictures of Us” continue the story in a modern setting and are not intended as a dip into nostalgia but as representaions of who we are and where we are from. Important remembrances, for without an intimate and fiercely guarded knowledge of shared history a people are at the disposal of whatever despotic whim a cynical regime may consider. The images are of social interaction not work. A fact often overlooked is that work while being of importance as a means of providing the means of survival is not the reason for it. Human beings by nature are gregarious and it is within a shared social history that our roots are located.
I began to work collaboratively with the poet, Paul Steffan Jones in 2017, having become friends some seven years previously.
What such a collaboration as mine and Paul Steffan Jones hopefully creates is something born from a mutual understanding and respect for the practice of the other. Paul’s poetry has inspired my works and my works have inspired Paul.
AmeriCymru: How many hours a day do you spend creating?
Chris: I try to work every day. Even when not actually making work I am contemplating my next move or preparing for a piece. Art isn’t a nine-to-five job, although a major part of the actual practice may be carried out during those hours. Actual creation takes place in bursts of activity, the rest of the time is spent setting up the conditions in which those “bursts” can take place. I have worked commercially and on academic collaborations over the years and so probably have a slightly more pragmatic attitude than is generally thought to be the norm for an “artist” - not a term I use, “stuffist” being preferred as I make “stuff”!
AmeriCymru: Where can our readers find your work online ?
Chris: Since retiring, I was a university lecturer in the arts, I no longer maintain a web presence. I do however have a Facebook page (most people do) which I use only for “art” information purposes, generally. All the art works I publish there are in the public domain.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Chris: Perhaps one of my favourite quotes from John Ruskin – “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts;—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.” (John Ruskin, “St Mark’s Rest”.)
Cantre'r Gwaelod - The Legend
From the Wikipedia:- Cantre'r Gwaelod, also known as Cantref Gwaelod or Cantref y Gwaelod (English: The Lowland Hundred), is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. It has been described as a "Welsh Atlantis" and has featured in folklore, literature and song.
Cantre'r Gwaelod was an area of land which, according to legend, was located in an area west of present-day Wales which is now under the waters of Cardigan Bay. Accounts variously suggest the tract of land extended from Bardsey Island to Cardigan or as far south as Ramsey Island. Legends of the land suggest that it may have extended 20 miles west of the present coast.
There are several versions of the myth. The earliest known form of the legend is usually said to appear in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which the land is referred to as Maes Gwyddno (English: the Plain of Gwyddno). In this version, the land was lost to floods when a well-maiden named Mererid neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow...... MORE HERE