15 November 2013

Tapestry of Britain’s smallest city shows inclusive Welsh identity

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One artist’s plan to paint every inhabitant of St Davids, Britain’s smallest city, will act as a valuable social history of an integrated Welsh community. Grahame Hurd-Wood, 55, has already spent 14 years producing pictures of people in the city, ranging from councillors and bishops to children and students, and plans to spend the next few years painting the remainder, writes Jemimah Steinfeld.

“I feel really embraced by the community and this is personally what this project is all about,” said Hurd-Wood of his project named “City of Portraits.”

Indeed, what started off as an idea to paint a handful of people and put their portraits onto one large canvas soon turned into a more ambitious project as people welcomed the idea with open arms.

“I just started painting more and more people. Everyone was very intrigued and it evolved,” he explained, adding, “To paint a city would be a very powerful thing to do.”

It was no surprise that people in St Davids were so embracing. It might not have the ethnic composition of bigger cities in the UK – it is barely 2,000 people in the end – but is nevertheless one Hurd-Wood describes as diverse and tolerant.

Integration is noted in many ways. “Everyone mixes socially. There is no agism and no class structure. People don’t make a lot of money so they aren’t obsessed with money.” And while some people might feel a sense of Welsh pride, it is an inclusive pride, not an exclusive one. This can be seen not only through Hurd-Wood’s City of Portraits, but also through another artist’s work, that of a Cuban man called Raoul. He operates a gallery out of a converted church, and creates pictures that have both Welsh and Cuban influences in them.

It was this attitude that attracted Hurd-Wood to the city in the first place. He was born on England’s south coast, lived in Northern Ireland as a teenager and went to London’s Camberwell School of Art, followed by the Royal Academy. After graduating, he settled in St Davids, also taken in by the area’s pace of life and colourful scenery. Nestled on an idyllic strip of the West coast, its ethereal charm sees a steady flow of tourists and surfers each year.

One particularly interesting person Hurd-Wood painted is Klaus. A German man in his late 80s, Klaus came to the UK during the second world war. Hurd-Wood was friends with – and painted – his son and Klaus expressed similar enthusiasm to have a portrait. Over the course of five hours, Hurd-Wood painted Klaus as he looked out of a window and reflected calmly on his life in the UK and his departure from his country of birth.

Another story that sticks out is that of a man from Cuba, who is a musician and artist who similarly adores life in St Davids, which Hurd-Wood says might have changed superficially over the years he has lived there, but still retains its quintessential identity. Raoul is also an artist

It is getting anecdotes like these that make his project so special. It is a story about the kindness of people, Hurd-Wood explains. And since embarking on the project, the feeling of integration and kindness has only grown. With each portrait he does, the artist describes how running simple errands takes longer as he becomes more immersed in the community.

“Projects like this bring people together more,” he notes, before ending the conversation saying he needs to head off to paint Una, a 100-year-old lady who lives on the outskirts of St Davids. He doesn’t know where she is from yet or how long she has lived in St Davids and that, really, is what makes his project exciting.

Jemimah Steinfeld is a freelance journalist living in London. 

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