Very soon after completing an MA in Visual Arts at West Dean College I visited Lystbaekgaard in Denmark, to watch female shepherds working with sheep and see how crafts play a part in an agricultural environment. The farm establishment is run by Berit Kiilerich, together with family, friends and volunteers who all play an active role in looking after livestock, maintaining the farm buildings, and promoting craft activities.
Straight off the plane, Lise Hovesen, who is hosting the residency programme, delivered me to one of the grazing patches. Praestbjerg (pictured above) is part of a natural conservation site which uses sheep to reintroduce and stabilise the growth of vegetation. The landscape features clumps of heather bordered by natural forest. We were blessed with the sun that first afternoon and, whilst being utterly exposed to the wind, it felt like we were stood on a green and purple stage in the sky. So far the Shepherd’s life didn’t look so hard: on approaching the 450-large flock of three hardy, ancient Nordic breeds, they quickly gathered themselves. I was handed the crook and told that the shepherdesses sing mek-mek to lead the sheep to another pasture. They quickly left their grassy pen behind to chomp on the coarser heath, very similar to the Scottish landscape. Only later did I notice that West Jutland is parallel to Edinburgh on the map.
Heather cropped up a lot – in fact, some of the first naturally-dyed yarn samples on display had been produced with the purple flowers to give a soft vibrant green. I have a great memento of Berit’s craft skills in three skeins of lambs wool that range in various purples and greens, similar to the local landscape. This particular lambs wool had been driven all the way to the Orkney Islands to be hand spun; knowledge had been gathered from many places, including England and Wales, where Berit first trained in shepherding.
Every week local women gather at the farm’s cafe to knit, chat and share hot drinks; there was never a moment that useful information wasn’t flying around. My own knitting style was noted as being different to everyone else’s. I have since been able to put some skills to use from a Scandinavian knitting workshop led by Lucinda Guy at West Dean, making a snood on five needles which the technicians kindly made for me during my studies.
Animals were everywhere, not only sheep but dogs, chickens and a cat, all of them ‘working’ in their own way. A new kitten had recently become part of the farm family and which was in the process of training alongside an old sheepdog. So projects were not in short supply. The routine of living in a farm environment became an art form in its own right: ensuring all animals were fed, checking for eggs and collecting vegetables from the garden. All very ordinary things which now feature so rarely in our lives. It seemed an uncomfortable luxury to spend time doing artistic work when there was always something essential to do. As far as answering the question of how an artist might contribute to such an agricultural environment, I am even more convinced that creating and maintaining an environment can become the artwork.
The walk to the shower was long but lovely. It’s funny how we take these small things for granted: jumping under warm running water and being fresh clean within a minute. Even stranger, I found this time of walking over two fields and cutting through a forest (to get to this luxury) a very peaceful and rewarding part of the day. Walking in wellies through wet grass, with Danish wind in your face, is a great excursion to make before breakfast. Meal times were accompanied by talk and there was a limit to technology interfering between people. Even the silences were rich, filled with feelings of a hard day’s work, paid off with mutton supper.
Eating at Lystbaekgaard was delicious, and though I may have spent more time making food than art, this might have just been what as needed after a year of being catered for in a college. Food is so important and the activity of preparing a meal, in the many aspects from growing to cooking, has an impact on how we relate to and value what we eat. Watching sourdough starters ooze from containers, finding carrots that hadn’t been attacked by slugs, even hearing discussions of the abattoir, made every meal taste better. Perhaps one of the benefits of farm life is how it exposes the inner workings of life, which offer understanding and in turn appreciation.
Part of the contributions to the farm life at Lystbaekgaard was making food for other people, in particular the harvest market. Helping Lise make apple and pear tarts was a lovely activity and a chance to be creative!
There is great potential for artists to work at Lystbaekgaard. Even amidst the essential daily activities and constantly evolving environment I was able to set up a small space where I could work. Although I chose to spend most time outdoors, partly because the surroundings were too beautiful to avoid, there is such a sense of peace in the environment that others should definitely tap into it.
Artists from multiple disciplines would find something in this residency. There is talk of setting up a loom in the guest accommodation, and any weaver would gain inspiration and enthusiasm from the natural landscape, or the mini museum in the main farm. Likewise, painters, sculptors and writers would surely enjoy the environment. Judging from the hundreds of visitors that arrived at the farm for the harvest market, others agree that Lystbaekgaard is very special.
Lise is setting up an Artist Residency programme that will run alongside a two-year course in shepherdess training. There are lots of plans and ideas evolving at Lystbaekgaard and even in the short time I stayed, the small place we called home continued to develop each day. Being a test case for the way an artist’s residency could work, I also did some drawing, making and wool-working, but really the focus became that of living.