A Hard RainAn English Ballad

by Willa Briggs

Willa Briggs, Black Calf, monoprint, 20" x 16", 1997.

I am going to tell you about my experience living in England because I think it is important to remember how a big change can help one shape a difficult aesthetic transition. England taught me that I should consider how things might appear at the end of the day. This maxim implied that thinking in terms of hind-sight would make me choose differently in the moment. This is not the same as looking at the consequences of ones actions. The end of the day has a finality to itlike the end of ones life. That definitive moment suddenly clarifies whether we have been true to our ideals.

When I was in my thirties, I hoped that experiencing another culture could be a turning point for me as an artist. One thing that started me thinking this way was a conversation with a customer, an Asian woman who bought one of my pictures. The image had meaning to her, she told me, because her parents had recently been killed in an auto accident and the work represented a comforting reminder of her parents concept of the after-life. I was too stunned by that reason for owning an artwork, to even be curious about the nature of their religion. All I could think about was how important art could be to peoples lives. The more I thought about it the greater sense of responsibility I felt as an artist to the viewer.

That picture was made by working from my imagination, in stream of consciousness. At that time, I never felt like I knew where my ideas came from and I felt uneasy that despite everything my work was not maturing. So when I saw a chance to make a big change, I sold everything, withdrew all my work from galleries, married a foreigner whom I knew only slightly and went to live in England. In characterizing this experience, I must tell you that everything had incredible intensity. The first shock for me, coming from California, was my austere living situation. I was used to being self-sufficient as an artist, but having joined fortunes with a man whose business (selling postage stamps to collectors) was going bankrupt changed my lifestyle drastically. His "furnished flat had heat only in the room used as a home office where he worked under one bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling . We heated water only for bathing and we both used the same bath water. It was not what I pictured living in London would be like.

Needing to live cheaper still, we decided to take my savings and put a down payment on a small place in rural Dorset near his parents home. So while he struggled with the business I looked for a house. Dorset is a charming area where there are still quaint thatched cottages and people come to visit the historic sights.

We bought one of many small cottages originally built to house farm labourers that worked for the landowners who lived in stately homes. Houses in England were at one time built of brick or stone locally quarried, which gave each area its local color. The earth in Dorset is green-sanda grey, moss-green color unique to that area. The stone houses are integral to the palette of the landscape with colors which always impressed me as a little somber and melancholy.

His father was very fond of that land; he knew all the trees and plants of the area and every year grew his own garden. He loved to walk in the countryside and poke the ground with his walking stick to see the color of the damp earth. Whenever we visited another area he would breathe a sign at returning and he used to say that he could never imagine living anywhere where the ground was a different color. I saw that similarity in my husband: he belonged in that spot and, even though transplanted to London, he was thoroughly a country person.

To someone like me, a diplomats child, having moved around without ever putting down roots in any one place, the idea of people being connected to the land was very moving. I have always wanted that sense of belonging, to be connected to a place which I felt was my home. Moreover, I wanted my artwork to feel like it came from as deeply rooted a place.

Living in that little house surrounded by open fields, I started feeling like I had found a home. Without a car, we walked everywhere. I did all the shopping, carting groceries over the footpaths that led through the local farmers land. There I came face to face with my first cows, big as tanks, wandering the same paths.

And I was free. Free as a woman, to move around in nature without fear of violence or harassment. That fearlessness was one of the most expansive experiences I know. It filled me with a new sense of who I was. It is like being in a canyon and hearing ones own voice come reflected back. I regularly walked the six miles to visit his parents which took me over the Neolithic hill fort behind our house.

One time coming home in bad weather, a storm caught me. It was already twilight. The rain and wind made the mud slick underfoot and forced me to reach the summit by crawling on all fours, the wind was so strong. For a moment it crossed my mind that if I slipped no one was going to find me for a long time. That sobering thought meant mortality and a look at being at the mercy of the elements.

I felt small. Suddenly mine was one of many anonymous lives that had passed before in that place. This powerful sensation made me aware how similar our many lives arethat we share basic life experiences. Being alone in nature also helped me understand being rooted in the land.

Being rooted was a double-edged sword. English houses made me aware of the impact that our environment and surroundings have on our lives. One thing that disturbed me about many old cottages was the placement and size of their windows. In the upper story they came up to the level of your knees and are only as big as a regular corrugated grocery carton. At one time property was taxed by the size and number of ones windows. The taxman simply looked at the outside of the house, counted the windows and taxed accordingly. So the smaller home owner less able to pay could reduce the tax by reducing the sizeor even walling upsome of their windows. In that damp and rainy climate where Londoners celebrate a sunny day as an unofficial holiday, closing up ones windows seemed a cruel punishment against the poor. It distressed me when I saw windows, walled up long ago, still sealed. I remember I burst out crying at the sight of certain houses whose appearance suggested to me how they confined their occupants lives to a kind of soul-less existence.

Another sense of connection to other people I derived then came from my new brother-in-law. The idea to buy a place had started as a joint venture with him and his wife, both folk musicians who had a band that played local dances. As a folk singer/song writer, he wrote about the local area. Their music resonated strongly with me because they dealt with the plight of the common working person.

Living in a farm labourers cottage recreated the impression of existing in another time. I felt I had stepped into one of those folk songs. Again I saw mine as one of many anonymous lives that had been lived there. My hopes and feelings were the same as theirs. I felt kinship with people who had passed this way a hundred years before as though our lives had over-lapped in that place. This powerful sensation made me want to make art that felt timeless, rather than timely.

I remembered the maxim of how will it look at the end of the day. This frame of reference changed how I look at the creative process. The art work that poured out after I came back was very different from what had come before; its themes now centered on peoples endurance and internal processes of regeneration. It represented a step on a new road. Asking myself, at the end of the day, is this the artist I WANT TO BE? is this the message I want in my work? has refocused my content in a more purposeful way. The way I work now is more fulfilling. I like drawing from life and use art making as a way to understand more about things around me.

England helped me understand people rooted in the land. It enabled me to comprehend that our heritage is to be part of the parade of humanity and that, though separated by time and lifestyle, we all share basic life experiences. It reminded me to assess the present in terms of what is ultimately important and use that vantage point to determine who I am. And most important of all, being in England showed me how on many levels we are all connected. "

Willa Briggs draws, paints and lives in San Jose, California. She teaches at West Valley College.

Self-Inventory and The Other