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BARBARA MATTHEWS

This interview took place at an empty shop space, 28 Terrace Road, Aberystwyth during a collaborative exhibition involving Barbara Matthews, Blaengar, Ceredigion Museum, Plwm and Llywernog Mining Museum based around the theme of Lead Mining in North Ceredigiondurinf the summer of 2009.

 

Barbara Matthews, local artist, inspired by the Uplands heritage

Interview with Barbara Matthews. 
(Interviewer: Natalie Moyce)

Tell me a bit about yourself as an artist, why you decided on this lead mining theme for your work.

Mining artefacts borrowed from Llywernog Museum for Barbara Matthew's exhibition in Terrace Road Aberystwyth, summer 09

 

I moved up to Trisant, near Devil’s Bridge about 13 years ago. There are a lot of ruins in that area, I knew they were old mines and though I didn’t know much about them, I found them very evocative. I would wander round them sometimes, one day while walking near the Dressing Mill, I got a really spooky feeling and could almost hear footsteps behind me. I was looking for a ‘theme’ and this experience really fired my interest, I started to look into the history of the area a bit. I had been aware there was lead mining in the area but I hadn’t realised the extent of it. I had thought it was mainly open cast mines and wasn’t aware of the extent of the underground workings.
It was a real eye-opener and this combined with my attraction to the visual elements further increased my interest. Visually, the ruins look very romantic whereas their function could hardly be less romantic.

So most of these abstracts are of the lead mines in the uplands of Ceredigion?

Yes they are, they’re mainly based around the Wemyss dressing mill and then the Frongoch, what’s left of the Frongoch mine, so it’s mainly around those two places.

So did you find yourself researching alot on those two places?

I did a certain amount of research but I was advised by an artist friend of mine not to do too much research, because then it becomes almost like a historical record, but to try and record my reaction and feeling and the textures and the things that had kind of attracted me in the first place, because almost that really in-depth research, it’s an historians job.

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What sort of people are interested in your art, is it general interest do you think?

I think it is yes, sometimes I am surprised that people do understand them, even the ones that are really quite abstract. I had an exhibition in Tregaron and some local people came in to look around while I was putting them up and even though there was no real information on the wall, they were saying “ ooh this is Cwmystwyth isn’t it?”, even though it wasn’t actually Cwmystwyth, they’d recognised the type of buildings and the feel of the place.

It’s quite stark isn’t it?

Yes, the buildings are stark and the people who worked in them lived stark lives. I feel it’s a little known aspect of Welsh history and it’s important to bring it out.

And do you do other kinds of art or do you just focus on this?

This is my main focus at the moment, I do other things but this has been the main thrust of my work over the last couple of years.

Are you hoping to exhibit this work for a while?

I just keep on expanding on the theme really; they’re not in any chronological order in here. I’m happy to exhibit them anywhere really.

What’s your artistic background?

I went to the School of Art here in Aberystwyth. I started in 2002, it was always my dream to become an artist, for various reasons, I never really pursued it, I kept on drawing all the time and doing some painting and going to evening classes and that sort of thing, and then I found myself in the position where I could actually go to University and study. I got my degree in 2005 and since then I’ve been creating a body of work and now I’m trying to market them…things finally seem to be moving on a bit…..

Do people who come in here recognise the landscape… do they know the uplands, are they familiar with the landscapes?

A lot of people who drive past these places think they’re something other than what they are.  Yes they do. I don’t think most people driving past the ruins realise that they are old lead mines. This is a mining themed exhibition but people often don’t know what sort of mining went on in this area, people often think they must be coal mines especially as Wales is so strongly associated with coal mining.

So do you think that there is a lack of identity with the lead mining industry?

Yes, I think so. The majority of the mining around here finished so long ago that people don’t have a living link with it, no memories of parents or grandparents working in the mines. What is left of the old mines is increasingly crumbling, they could be anything really… often people are looking for beauty and stunning views, rather than being interested in what went on in the landscape. I think that anything which focuses interest on these ruins is a good thing, although you do have to be very wary about wandering around some of the mines as they can be quite dangerous.

Have you been underground?

Only a little way at the Llywernog Museum (Ponterwyd). I’m a little bit claustrophobic, I wondered whether that was part of my interest in the mines, you are always a little attracted to the things that frighten you.

What first sparked that fascination, was it the landscape, was it the way that people lived or…?

I think it’s a combination of all these things, in a country like Britain the landscape has been so shaped by the people who have lived in it.  Just a little more than a hundred years ago many of the people living around here lived very similar lives to people living in third world countries now. It was only a couple of generations ago but I don’t think people fully realise how tough it was for our ancestors.

That’s it, when I went to a guided tour given by Robert Ireland, I was quite shocked when I realised the life expectancy of an average person.

It is shocking. They used to work so hard, if they didn’t die from all the environmental toxins they often died from sheer hard work. But also the mining industry did give people a chance, at least they weren’t just on the level of the peasant, depending upon what the weather threw at them every year, dependant upon whether you could produce enough food for your family’s survival, it gave people a chance of little more regular income to act as a buffer against poverty.

I remember seeing an exhibition of Walker Evans’ American Depression era photographs at the Arts Centre it included images of rural agricultural workers and their cottages and pictures of mining families, none of them were at all wealthy or had anything more than necessities, but the children of the miners had just a little more meat on their bones, they looked like they had a little bit more of a chance in life. 

I’ve heard that as well, I’ve heard that along the Vale or Rheidol, the families there were a little better-heeled than the agricultural families.

Yes and some of the mine captains would hire carts from the farms to transport the ore which would have boosted incomes a bit.

Yes, often people were involved in agriculture and mining.

Yes, they often had a small holding especially around the Frongoch Mine where working conditions were so grim that miners could only work short shifts. People did whatever they had to do to get by.

Thankyou, its been very interesting.

Thankyou, I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

PLWM are trying to capture the stories of industrial heritage in the Uplands of Ceredigion.  If you have any stories about mining or photos please upload them to this website. 

We will check the content first before publishing, so don't worry if the story does not first appear.   Stories will be published in most cases within one working day.  Any problem, email the project officer Natalie Moyce: nataliem@ceredigion.gov.uk.

Exhibition 2009