Going Off-Grid @ Stiwdio Maelor

For the past week I've been an artist-in-residence at Stiwdio Maelor - a self-directed residency space in Corris, Wales. 

Shamefully, I've lived in Wales on and off for 24 years, but have never really explored the country. The residency is situated just south of Snowdonia National Park, and since visiting Iceland my adventurous spirit has amplified, and I find myself craving wide open spaces, mountains and time in nature.

I've also reached a point in my work where I feel like a change of direction is imminent. Recently I've been painting on larger canvas, become infatuated with clay and ceramics and have been toying with the possibility of attempting sculpture in the future, so thought this residency would be an opportunity for some creative thinking time, rather than actual production. 

So after hauling my over-packed backpack onto two trains and a bus, I arrived in Corris, a small village framed by high-reaching hills and cliffs, covered in pine trees. Of course I've heard that, despite being a small country, the cultures of Wales vary greatly depending on region, but Corris felt like the instant polar opposite of my home down South. 

The village was around 6 miles away from the nearest town. The only cash point was inside the post office (which opened sporadically for a few hours on select days), and there was no shop, except the cafe-cum-corner shop, which stocked a surprisingly vibrant array of snacks and local produce (although this was lovely, most things were a little out of my price range!). However, the residency building was directly next door to the local pub. Every cloud.

Before heading to Corris, in the spirit of constantly challenging myself and simply out of the want to experience a different way of living, I set out to go completely off-grid - no internet, Netflix, make up or straighteners (okay those last two aren't really 'off-grid' but you get my point. I was going back to basics), just plenty of music, podcasts and reading.

 The Maelor building didn't have WiFi (a common trend at artist residencies, I think), so a digital detox seemed to be a given. To add some preemptive spookiness, during the journey my phone's data ran out, even though it was only half way through the month and I usually make it last. I chose to see this as a sign to disconnect, rather than pure bad luck. 

The building itself was very old, and to be honest, a bit run down. The walls were decorated with art donated by previous residents, which I loved, and my bedroom/studio was much bigger than I expected!

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Since this was a micro-residency, I decided not to start a new body of work, or attempt an ambitious new piece, instead taking a lump of air dry clay which I'd use to make pinch pots and practice getting used to handling the medium. On my first night there I made up my pots / dishes in one go, not wanting to risk the opened packet of clay going bad, then left them to dry (for 3-4 days). 

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With my pinch pots steadily drying, no way of wiling away the hours on Instagram, I officially had nothing to do, so set out walking. I've always found that walking is when I get my best ideas, so was excited to fit in some hardcore thinking time. There were loads of walking routes around the village, and I soon got used to the unforgiving hill walks. 

Now I have to admit, about 2 days into the residency, I was completely fed up. I was getting great head space and great creative ideas whilst out walking for most of the day, but for some reason I couldn't sleep. It didn't feel like I was exercising particularly strenuously, but every night I was kept up by insane leg cramps, and the house was just so quiet

Without TV or internet to distract myself, or even any work to be getting on with, I felt like I wanted to keep moving and leave the residency all together. I've realised now this was just due to lack of sleep and frustration with my life in general. I was feeling stuck in my creative work, and this translated to feeling literally feeling stuck when I couldn't sleep and had no way of leaving the village. 

Luckily, the next day was really sunny, which greatly helped my mood, and I decided to take advantage of the good weather and head to Cadair Idris - a popular hiking peak in the Southern portion of Snowdonia National Park. This is where blissful naïveté served me greatly. I'd never hiked a mountain before, or even researched much about the trek, but threw myself in and tackled the climb anyway. I'm so glad I did, as this was the real turning point of the week for me. 

I hiked up via the Minniford Path, apparently the quickest way to the summit, but also the one with the greatest ascent. Since I had never attempted something of this nature before, and since I admittedly cannot read maps, I decided from the outset that I would follow the trail as far as Llyn Cau, a mountain-side lake at the halfway point of the path. 

The first portion of the walk was adjacent to a waterfall and nature reserve that frames the very steep path up through trees and forest. Never before have I felt so sick from exercising as I did after 20 minutes of climbing huge steps. I was wearing proper hiking boots so at least had that practicality on my side, but it became clear that the hike was way more exercise than what I was used to.

I took 1,000 breaks. 10 year old kids passed me. It was tragic.

At that point, still trekking through the forest path (without any mountains yet in sight!) I seriously wanted to turn back. I felt stupid for believing I could hike a mountain having never done it before. I had visions of having to call Mountain Rescue to come get me 200 meters into the trail. But somehow, I kept going, and told myself to just go at my own pace, one step at a time. 

Finally the ground evened out a bit, at a clearing overlooking the waterfall and stream below. There was no one else there, it was amazingly sunny, so I sat there and let my legs recover. Thankfully, after a break, and seeing how small the road was below, and how far I had actually climbed up already, the sense of achivement hit me and I wanted to keep going. 

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After that I got a brand new surge of energy, and it was a further steep climb to curve around the base of the mountain. I was out of the dense forest path and could finally see the ground opening out to create the open space I had originally set out to see, so I decided to embrace my newly hench legs and storm ahead. I even put on a fucking bandanna. There was no stopping me. 

After another 45 minutes or so of hiking, I reached a dip in the ground which lead to the lake. It was so quiet, deliciously breezy, and I managed to navigate the path which was getting steadily more precarious, which of course added to my sense of achievement. 

I soon made it to the small lake. It was so worth it. It looked like a space where water didn't belong. It was so blue and clear, despite sitting at the bottom of a cliff face, and the whole area was serene. I sat there for about an hour - listening to Sigur Rós and eating my makeshift expedition lunch of an avocado smushed into pitta bread. 

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At this point, I realised that most people didn't stop to sit by the lake. Instead they pushed on, curving to the left towards the summit. I know I didn't reach the summit, and maybe they were on a time schedule or something, but all I could think was - what's the point? Why climb a mountain if you're not going to stop to look around? This scenario is blisteringly applicable to everyday life - so many people charge ahead, take their whole environment for granted, to reach the goal at the end, rather than to embrace the journey. At the start of the trek I'd felt down about people charging past me with ease - storming up to the summit, probably just to run back down again (yes, people actually run down for reasons I will never understand), but at that point I no longer cared. I realised that since I struggled so much, I more than likely got much more out of the whole experience. I finished eating my pitta, smugly.

I did toy with the idea of going all the way to the top or Cadair, but my thighs were getting wobbly, and I soon realised that getting down required way more concentration that going up (easier to slip and fall), so decided to cherish my achievement of achieving my goal of reaching Llyn Cau, resist the urge to 'move the goalposts' and push myself further, and headed back down the trail. 

Whilst recapping my expedition over a recovery KitKat and cup of tea at a local cafe, I realised that by the end of the day, my mindset had completely shifted. I'd gone from doubting myself and feeling completely useless, to feeling an immense sense of achievement and feeling like I could do anything.

The next day I walked home from the nearest town, Machynlleth, after going on a hunt for coffee and books. It was about 6 miles - in the rain. I'm an outdoorsy person now.

To be honest the rest of the residency was fairly uneventful, but after my hike up Cadair my mindset was polar opposite to the beginning of the week. I realised that this residency was intended to teach me to stop doubting myself, and to never give up. If I had turned back at the start of the hike, when I was convinced I was not fit enough to reach the lake, I never would've got the confidence and sense of achievement that I realise now I so desperately needed.

Full disclosure, I did cave slightly on the digital detox - after discovering that the cafe down the road from the studio had a pretty strong WiFi connection, I downloaded some things off Amazon Prime to watch when I couldn't sleep ... but I didn't check my messages, emails or Instagram for the entire week. Nor, for better or worse, did I read the news, or read any blog posts / articles, as I usually would so often.

Being able to disconnect like this also allowed me to become profoundly aware of the amount of self-comparison I do via Instagram. For the whole week I didn't feel pressured to get work done, didn't feel less accomplished than anyone else, and frankly, didn't care what anyone else was doing. I'm grateful for deciding to go back to basics, and actually came to appreciate my diet of oats, lentils and crackers & cheese. There's something about just making do and being able to adapt to a completely different situation than what you're used to, that makes you so much more confident about challenges in the future.

I left Maelor, to be honest still not 100% sure about the future direction of my art, but more confident, with a much more positive mindset, and a budding resilience against the pressure of keeping up with everyone else. 

Turns out, hiking, fresh air and no internet can really transform your thinking. Who knew.

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