The River Next Door

The River Next Door: Valerie Coffin Price and Philip Gross

Wednesday 18 March to Friday 15 May 2015

Contemporary artwork by artist Valerie Coffin Price comes together with poems and prose by award-winning poet Philip Gross in a deep collaboration grounded in the heart of the Taff valley. This exhibition accompanies their new book, A Fold In The River, published by Seren.

Alert to natural processes as well as human lives and histories, their work together sees the damage, the resilience and the surprising beauty in this place of change.

QUAKERS YARD is the village where Philip and his wife Zélie came to live, not long after he joined the staff of the University of Glamorgan (now South Wales). Their cottage lay up the valley, in a deep and steep twist of the river, on the edge of the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve, just below Quakers Yard station.

He writes: I was coming to Wales, or should I say I had come but I hadn’t arrived? The place I found myself was unaccountable, barely there on the map, beneath the railway on one side, on the other the lights of the A470 flickering through the trees but when you looked from the road you could not see the space where the cottage might be. It was puzzlingly pretty, for a place that wasn’t meant to be countryside, and sometimes dank and dark, and threatening too. A fallen tree could block the one track in for a day or two. The ground beneath the house was never sure whether it wanted to be earth or water. That winter, the river flooded, coming half way up their garden…

VALERIE, meanwhile, has been a long term and passionate advocate of the waterways of Britain. Working with issues to do with the environment, language and cultural identity her work has been looking at the act of journeying, where to journey is to explore and discover cultural traces embedded in the land. These traces include fragments of objects, memories, history and remnants of text and sound. It is these ‘unseen paths’ that connect us to nature, to the liminal, to the invisible world of currents, winds, ideas and language. As part of this her work involves an immersion in the landscape through walking, in this particular instance simultaneous research along the river Frome in Gloucestershire and the river Taff.

COLLABORATION is important to Valerie and Philip. Both have worked with people from across the range of artforms; both see it as equal exchange: the images here are not illustration of the poems; the words are not ekphrastic glosses on the art. The two first met when Valerie incorporated text from Philip’s TS Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table in an installation, Estuary (2011). Since then they have collaborated in a multi-disciplinary exploration of the wetland environment, with academics from Bristol, Cambridge and East Finland. For Philip the memorable moments of collaboration were when he visited Valerie at work in her studio: 'I would nose around, finding work excitingly half done, sometimes sketches or scraps. I would write lines quickly, also half-formed, and offer them straight back. Valerie would cut up fragments of my writing and incorporate them – change them in the process… set them free…’

NOTEBOOKS AND JOURNALS are where Philip’s work takes shape. The green notebook he started that year ‘was not a diary, more a conversation with the place, the river in particular.’ Some of that notebook became poems; one of them, Praise Song for the Taff, won the Scintilla competition for long poems, 2009. A lot more stayed in suspension, between prose notes and poetry, between states – ‘as I was,’ says Philip, ‘when I wrote them. It is not laziness that tells me Leave them as they are. To work them up (just listen to the words) would falsify.’

THE FOLDING SKETCHBOOK has been where Valerie’s work took shape on this project. The twists and turns of the Taff, linking and separating places, changing and enduring through time, were mirrored in the interplay of art and poetry, and both reflected in the structure of the Chinese folding book. It shows the growth of a deep and lively working relationship between Valerie and Philip, thoughtful and ambitious, yet as practical, in its folding in of ingredients, its fermenting and leaving to rise, as baking a cake.