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Sarah Spencer – An Artist’s Response to St Nicholas Priory

Part I, November 2020 – May 2021

Nestled between some of Exeter’s busiest streets, the building is a tranquil haven. Its very fabric exudes character, weathered and worn by the elements and the many centuries to which it has borne witness. Countless species of moss and lichen have colonised the stonework, staking nature’s claim and creating an irresistible myriad of colour, pattern, and texture. The stones speak; each mark tells a story, and the incisions of the masons’ tools and the mysterious ‘witches’ runes’ spark the imagination, as one wonders who made the marks, and what lives they might have lived.

The priory boasts a fascinating history, and it is the passing of time, and the tales told by its very stones, that is the central to my artistic response. I began by taking crayon and pencil rubbings of the markings and macro photographs of the plants and processes that continue to shape the building. Using these, I am now experimenting with translating the colours and textures into paint, using sponges and palette knives to reflect the moss and masons’ marks respectively. I hope to produce a series that captures something of the uniqueness of the priory and the stories it tells. By focusing on the visual manifestations of the passing of time, I hope to pay tribute to the enduring nature of the building, whilst inviting viewers and visitors to look more closely at the often-overlooked fabric of this historic, serene space.

Part II June-July 2021

A sunny Saturday in the garden saw me happily sponging and splattering paint onto paper and slates, experimenting with using real moss as a sponge as I attempted to capture the glorious colours and textures of the stones of St Nicholas Priory. It was a messy affair- a wonderful reminder of the joy and freedom creativity can bring, and the thrill that comes as new ideas quickly take physical shape.
I found that a combination of materials and techniques best captures the weathered textures of the stones. A base layer of paint, applied with brushes, is followed by layer after layer of sponged colour. With each layer, it feels as if I am marking the passage of time. The use of natural materials- the slate, the moss- is intended to evoke the materiality of the priory, and to emphasise that, in several ways, man and nature combine in this fascinating building.

Now that I have settled on technique and materials, the next developmental stage is to identify the narrative and visual link which will cohesively tie the images together. I have sourced several large slates on which to paint the project outcome, and, rather serendipitously, these are fragmented to varying degrees. The final installation will comprise four close-up sections from different aspects of the building’s exterior: the walls, the tower and the roof. As the slates gradually fragment, the paintings will become increasingly abstracted to reflect the natural processes and deterioration that occur with the passing of time. I am yet to devise how the works will be hung (an inevitable challenge!) but it is exciting that the project is shaping up.

Part III August-October 2021

Tudor Reenactment Days at the priory and I am the artist in residence #houseofholbein

What a great privilege it was to be ‘artist in residence’ during the Tudor Re-enactment days at the priory in the first week of August! Dressed as a Dutch painter, I was tucked in the garden with my easel, happily working away on the first instalment of the ‘Tales and Temporality’ series in-situ. It was truly inspiring to be able to observe the colours and textures of the stonework whilst I was painting, and to enjoy the building ‘brought to life’ by the fantastic reenactors and enthusiastic visitors. The real highlight for me personally, however, was the number of people that were genuinely engaged by my work and offered positive feedback- I found this hugely rewarding.

A few weeks ago, I returned from over a month in Venice on PhD research, and now it is full steam ahead preparing for the final exhibition. I spent the weekend putting finishing touches on the slates (see the clip below!) and working out how the pieces will be displayed and lit on a hanging system in the undercroft of the priory, and how best to optimise and decorate the space. As the central theme of ‘Tales and Temporarily’ is obviously the passing of time, and as I dressed as a Dutch painter, I’ve decided to combine these aspects by creating a memento mori still-life as part of the decoration to compliment my work. These still-lifes, which were popular in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, served as reminders of mortality through the inclusion of objects such as skulls and candles. In this case, it is designed to contrast the enduring nature of the priory with the ephemerality of human life; though aged and weathered, the building has withstood the test of time. The whole project has been very exciting, and I am greatly looking forward to sharing its culmination with you at the opening of the exhibition on October 24th, 1pm-4pm.

I’m Sarah Spencer, local artist and art historian, and I’m privileged to be responding to the unique building of St Nicholas Priory- a historic, hidden gem at the heart of Exeter. Follow me on Instagram @sarah_spencers_artwork and Twitter @saspencerexeter

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