Cardigan has often been a place where the past counts for more than the present. Built on rolling hills that funnel the tidal waters of the Teifi River, it has a 12th century castle, an 18th century bridge and the remnants of a seaport that disappeared when the nearby estuary silted up with slate dust. Even before the 2008 financial crash, shops and businesses were closing in alarming numbers, people had begun using the retail park rather than buying food in the town, and the public library, that lifeline of peace and sanity for the rich and penniless alike, has left its prime position and shrunk to a fraction of its former size. A foodbank was opened in a Pentecostal church. People pointed to the numbers of charity shops, as though they alone were a sign of doom. Cardis were labelled as skinflints as if that were the problem. They needed to be thrifty, but it was easy to be downhearted.
You might have said the little town was sinking without trace. Look again, then, and blink. For it’s as though in the blink of an eye, this modest Ceredigion settlement of around 4000 residents has become, not to weigh down the metaphor, where it’s at. Of course, it always has been a groovy town, as die-hards will tell you, but now if you turn up on a wet February afternoon, the vibe is as feelable as it is now in mid-August when the flowers are out.
One of the latest winds to blow into Cardigan’s flying sails is Oriel Canfas. It’s not the only art space here, but the gallery which opened in July is offering something different enough to make it stand out. Why? It’s partly about its location. Housed in a handsome, two-storey town house redolent (for some) of a more opulent, leisurely time, it stands close to the river front and right opposite the newly refurbished castle. And as if reflecting that glory, it commands a prominent corner where the pavements are wide and welcoming. Even if they don’t go into the gallery, this is a nice place to be: a space where people can sit and look around. And if it’s raining, they can dive into the gallery, the castle, or the Cellar Cafe.
There’s more to Oriel Canfas than that. On a sunny Saturday, its manager, artist, publisher and designer, Anne Cakebread, is engaging cheerfully with everyone who enters, whoever they were and whether they want to buy something or not. She’s revelling in the fact that her visitors include farmers as well as art buffs. ‘We have something for everyone’, she asserts, mentioning prices that zipwire from £80 to £25k. Yes, £25,000.
‘We have three main areas: downstairs, the front section’ – three huge windows that face front and diagonally giving a big sweeping view, wide floors, enticing smell – ‘is reserved for local artists or artists with a connection to the area. At the back is a small room for individual, local artists whose shows will change every six weeks. Upstairs, we’re showing work by people who have won prizes in the National Eisteddfod. They will change every two months.’
That’s why you can see paintings by Ulster-born Andre Stitt, an internationally-known performance artist and a professor at Cardiff School of Art. With price tags in the tens of thousands. But that’s not why they hit you in the eye. They are like designs for sci-fi filmsets, electric circuits gone kinky and dramatic, or a fascinating face of AI. Mind-blowing. Ghastly. Fun. We loved them but nobody’s forcing them on you.
Taking a look around, walking up the wide wooden staircase that bisects the gallery’s main showrooms, we notice another small room at the back. It’s been given over to displays of Taxonomy, a mesmerising animated film and related prints by Sean Vicary, one of the founders of Cardigan’s cosmopolitan Small World Theatre. Upstairs at the front, there’s a partitioned area containing paintings by two young upcoming sisters from Aberaeron, Lola Rose and Natalie Chapman. Their work is very different in style and content: one about people, wildly garish, attention-grabbing, urgently of now, the other about places or mind-scapes, restrained to the point of introspection and total stillness.
The first artist to inhabit the solo room downstairs is Elizabeth Haines. Painter, illustrator and philosopher based near Maenclochog, Elizabeth has been developing and sharing her joy in the senses of landscape over decades. Her pictures are often made by uncovering layers of paint, revealing glimpses of other worlds beneath one another, creating veils that establish the ground beneath your feet in a way that merely depicting a solid expanse of earth could never do. She is inspired by literature and music as well as visual art. One of her great loves is the work of David Jones, an artist and poet who lived in the first half of the 20th century. Having survived service as a soldier in the First World War, he wove his soul into intensely delicate line-drawn fantasies that are as painful to see as they are beautiful.
And the rest? Something for all? For us, there was: we picked out Ian Phillips’s Japanese style graphics showing Welsh landscapes, the quietly whimsical abstract shapes in Carwyn Evans’s screenprints, Neil Howells and his slashy, energy- and anarchy-driven oils, Sam Vicary’s oh-so-dreamy landscapes, Malcolm Gwyon’s psychedelic portraits. And Peter Bodenham’s ceramics that are something between useful objects, sculptures and sacred treasures.
Anne Cakebread has been given a free hand by the gallery’s owners and these are her choices. As for us, we have a certain background in looking at art, studying it, writing and lecturing about it. We love this gallery and hope it flourishes. But we may be prejudiced. So does Oriel Canfas really have something for everyone? You can never say that. But if it’s variety and stimulation and a chance to wander and wonder without being hassled to buy or be part of an in-crowd, then Oriel Canfas is a place to do it. In the range and scope of its art, it’s giving Cardigan something it hasn’t seen before. And its wide, clear windows let the present and the past come together.
Caroline Juler, who wrote this piece for us is a writer , skilled arts correspondent and film maker. We have an article about her film making appearing soon and we hope she will be contributing much more to pembrokesire.online.