Ruth McCabe

Looking at the fascinating objects provided by CotC at their workshop, and from Papua New Guinea, I thought about "difference" and "other", and wondered how possible it is to understand a culture into which I was not born. What is the common ground? This linked into my experience locally, where problems arise between "incomers" and people whose families have lived here for centuries.



In the January workshop at Wingfield, handling objects from Papua New Guinea for me highlighted a sense of “other”. I have a number of treasured objects from my grandparents’ house, each of which offers insight into their lives in rural Yorkshire in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century. Since I can also recall their house and land, I have a rich sense of connection to their lives. But the objects from another culture had no such associated memories. What was their meaning? Were they useful or ceremonial? What might they tell us about the people who owned and made them? Although we were creative in our imaginings the fact of the “otherness” of these objects returned to my mind later, when reflecting on how I relate to the notion of “Culture of the Countryside”.


100 years ago my grandfather was farming and breeding horses in Yorkshire. He had a beautiful meadow next to the house. I remember soft, fragrant grasses taller than me. Grandma made butter in the cool cellar, a lovely space softly lit with natural light reflected off the terracotta brick walls. The huge ceramic “tile” she used sits now in my kitchen.  Other images rest clear in my mind: the tea table in the kitchen, fluted porcelain china, caraway seed cake, grandad drinking tea out of his saucer, Fussell’s condensed sweetened milk on home made bread and butter. Quite probably a series of idealised memories, but their importance remains for me. They represent simplicity, and a quiet attendance to the daily routines of life: The grace of the ordinary.


12 years ago I moved from London to Suffolk’s rural landscape. Agricultural rhythms and forms have once again impressed their grace upon me. There is something steady and deeply rooted about the process of working with and on the land. Every day a shape or colour changes. New lines appear. The land is worked. The land re-forms itself. It is these changes that form the bulk of my on-going work at present, exemplified perhaps by “Big Machinery has been through.” 


“Common Ground”.


The day after visiting Wingfield I walked on the heath next to our house. I thought about “The Culture of the Countryside”, and what came to mind was a thought that saddens me. From time to time situations arise in the village that draw attention to a long-standing and deeply felt conflict. As someone who has moved into the area I am told that I cannot understand the roots of this. And here, the “otherness” of the Papuan objects returns to mind. 


I can try to imagine what this Suffolk culture was like. I can read people’s accounts of the history of this area, but I will never be one of the people who grew up here, whose family has lived here for centuries perhaps. Most certainly, some local people feel very strongly that people like me cannot understand: we are too “other”. 


I have never been good at accepting this sort of disconnectedness. Perhaps I am too naïve in wanting to find “common ground”. But that is where my mind went that day as I walked the heath. What is the “common ground”? Can we find it? 


On my walk on “Bickers Common” I observed shapes and colours. I went up close and stood back at a distance. Immediately I saw how the meaning of forms changed depending on how closely I looked and from what angle. In minute detail the surface of a loose piece of bark revealed squiggly lines and patterns. What were these? Were they signs of attack by insects, or just the natural lines of plant structures? At home, printing out thumbnails of photos, I saw that by turning the bark detail around, it could look like one of the landscapes I paint, riddled with the ruts left by tractors. And the photograph of the angle between two branches of a tree could appear to be a massive rock gorge.


So the follow up idea emerged, that, in situations of conflict, the angle or perspective we bring has the power to either emphasise difference and fuel discontent, or move us nearer to a better mutual understanding. To identify our common ground we need to view the situation from the angle or perspective that others take. 


My work in the “Common Ground” series of paintings will try to express these ideas. Working with two friends, one of whom did grow up here, we hope locally to share our work on this theme, and see what happens next!