Conversations in the Greenhouse
On Thursday 24th February 2022 I woke up to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. I felt an immense sense of fear, sick to the stomach, a lack of faith in humanity, amongst a whirlwind of other emotions that I know many of us were and are still feeling. The ocean is normally my go to place for respite and comfort, but unfavourable conditions plus an eye infection meant this wasn’t an option. I also felt the need to write. So, I headed to my favourite and most inspiring place I know in-land, The Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden. During my time at university studying Art History, I always longed to visit this place, but St Ives seemed so far away. It took me nearly 20 years after finishing my degree to make it here, and I can honestly say it was worth the wait.
In the Greenhouse…setting the scene
I’ve found myself sat in the greenhouse tucked away in the back corner of the garden. I didn’t come here with the aim of sitting in here, and I really didn’t know what I was going to write about. I just trusted that once I arrived it would become clear, and the words would flow. So here I am, trusting, waiting, writing.
I’ve settled myself in a slightly battered round cushioned chair. It’s the kind that feels like it’s giving you a hug when you sit in it. I appreciate this sense of envelopment today. The greens of the succulents strike verdantly against the painted, white walls, which contrast with the orange brickwork underfoot. It’s sheltered here from the wind which is still lingering from the storms last week. I hear seagulls cawing in the distance and the wind rustling in the trees scattered around the garden. There’s a mindfulness meditation technique which focuses on using sound as a focal point. For a moment I allow my ears to become microphones welcoming the layers of sound around me. A woodpigeon coos directly outside and I notice the gentle chirruping of the smaller birds as they dart around the garden, interrupted by the distant cries of the seagulls once more. Through the salt stained windows I see a vibrant blue sky. It’s colder than it has been recently, windy and we’ve already been treated to rain and hail today. But find yourself a sheltered spot, and when the sun comes out, the warmth of it on your face reminds you of the brighter months to come.
I meditate for a while on the sculpture directly in front of me. It’s an off-white, geometrical type construction. The lower part is an outright, concave, rectangular type shape with splodges of what looks like rust inside. Another rectangular box shape balances on top, and then on top of that a rounded off shape with a large opening down one side. As I look at it, I realise that it’s not actually straight, and is sitting kind of tilted to one side. Between this and the fact that it’s not a brilliant white with its dirty rust marks, you might think it’s not really that perfect. Except it truly is. It’s the fact that it’s on a slant, with rough, organic textures covering its surface. The contrast of the rust on the white. These things are the piece. Meanwhile, the birds sing together outside, the wind rustles through the trees and I find solace in this felt sense of solidity and permanence in the sculpture compared to the transience of everything outside.
I start to watch the people as they come in to look. Some stand directly in front of the works, reading their guidebooks and searching for whatever meaning they expect to find there. A family enter. “Look, this is where Barbara Hepworth made her sculptures! What do you think of that?” I hear a parent say to the kids. “It’s not too fun” is the response of a rather disinterested seven-year-old boy walking out, telling the experience just the way it is for him, no holds barred. The parent catches my eye and rolls their eyes as they follow him out. I’m sure I was once that child as were you reader? And yet now I find myself here, watching, writing, observing, recording, creating myself.
Some people approach the greenhouse, see me inside and then won’t enter. It’s like they feel they are invading my privacy, but maybe it’s me who’s invading their experience today. I feel a cloud cover the sun, the brightness of the whitewash fading and dimming in response.
“Look at the trees, the view, it’s so amazing” I hear another gentleman say. I smile and we exchange that acknowledgement that although we are complete strangers, we have mutual feelings in response to this shared experience we find ourselves partaking in.
Maybe the purpose of these sculptures and this garden is that they make us see everything with a fresh perspective, new eyes. The art isn’t just in the sculptures but in the whole experience we have of them in the natural surroundings where we encounter them.
Isn’t this just the nicest?
Another lady enters and says “isn’t this just the nicest” I agree with her. It’s like the simple act of just entering the greenhouse gives this sense of cathartic relief and inspires innate joy (except for the 7-year-old!)
We talk about the big bone like structure in the middle. From where I’m sat, it looks almost Jurassic with large deep green jungle like leaves peeping around it from behind. She observes that the sculpture really wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t here. I’m reminded of how then the setting becomes a part of the artwork. It’s intrinsic to its meaning and imprint on the observer.
She exits and now the rain provides a brief interlude. If I close my eyes, I am whisked back to a savasana at the end of a yoga class in Bali many years ago.
The next lady to enter tells me she is astonished by how beautiful it is here. That this garden is like a Tardis full of sculptures. She shares that her favourite place is the Rodin Garden in Paris, but now realises she doesn’t have to travel so far to see the same beauty. I note how there is a growing theme here of how these sculptures inspire people to experience beauty. Raindrops start to land more heavily now on the corrugated roof. I look up at the blue skies and hope for a rainbow.
She tells me of a conversation she had with a lady who knew Hepworth, and that on seeing her kids playing near the sculptures she had warned them to be careful not to fall off and hurt themselves (rather than concern about damaging the sculptures themselves). I ponder the fact that there are so many things we are told not to touch these days. Touching these sculptures would unleash a whole other beautiful experience of them, I’m sure. Her companion steps in and looking back out of the open doors tells us he has found Hepworth’s inspiration. He points to a tree right ahead that is full of so many knots and holes and compares it to the shape of the sculptures. He’s right and I ponder the fact I have never noticed this before. Each conversation I have in this greenhouse is gifting new insights into these art works, and I realise that in these simple exchanges of words I feel a renewed warmth of the sense of human connection. I realise that my words which started out as being observations have become a record of these brief yet precious conversations.
The next couple enter, checking off the numbers of the sculptures against the list in the guide. As they exit, the guy pauses and comments on how Hepworth really did have the best and most stunning inspiration of the landscape that was literally all around her. He gestures towards the garden outside and says the views are so beautiful. I smile and nod in agreement and I once again feel inside that warmth of the connection of sharing the experience of beauty.
I look at my watch and realise my time here is running out as it edges towards the museum closing time. As I pack away my notebook and pen, I feel immensely grateful for the peace this place gives me. I feel privileged, not just to have had all these little conversations with the people I crossed paths with in the greenhouse today, but for the warmth of this shared human connection. A human connection evoked by nature itself, and these sculptures it inspired.
As I leave the greenhouse the gentleman who commented on the knotted tree passes me in the opposite direction on the path. He catches my eye and winks, and we smile the kind of smile you exchange when you know you both ‘get’ something that maybe not everyone does.
Reader, you might not have been in the greenhouse with me that day, but I hope this helps you feel like you were maybe in on that secret too.
Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall with her family in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. The Barbara Hepworth Museum is at Trewyn Studios, St Ives where she lived and worked from 1949 until her death in 1975. Image from a postcard available in the museum shop. I bought this as a reminder of the inspiration I gain from this special place.