We are beyond delighted to be joined for A Simple Path this month by writer and outdoor artist (more on that in a mo) Tanya Shadrick.
Tanya is someone whose life and work embody the values of simplicity and slow living. She is both a writer and an artist, finding ways to connect with people in new and meaningful ways through words and her physical presence. We think you’re going to love this interview: read on to hear about how a vandalised tree changed Tanya’s life and career, the lessons she learnt from her frugal, resourceful grandmother, and for her incredibly inspiring outlook on how we can live more connectedly and happily.
Put the kettle on, pull up a blanket – or better still, in the spirit of Tanya, take this outdoors to read under a big sky – and dive into Tanya’s thoughts on slow living, art and family.
Can you tell us what you do and how you came to be doing it?
In the last three years I’ve become known as a writer of the outside – it’s a practice of working in public that invites passersby to slow down and consider questions like the ones I’m answering here. My first major work was a mile of writing on scrolls of paper as long as the country’s oldest lido, which I knelt beside for two seasons. Called Wild Patience, it asked those who encountered me when they felt most wild and free.
I always wanted to be a writer, but I describe myself as an accidental artist because it was an act of vandalism in the community field opposite my home that finally moved me to publish and then perform in my forties. A protected tree had its bark stripped and it was the first time in my life I couldn’t metabolise my shock through reading. The tree couldn’t be repaired of course, but I knelt down and spent every spare moment of the next year painting the railings that bordered the space. Interesting conversations with strangers happened as I worked and I felt I was on to something: that by being alone in public working on a strange task I could surprise feeling in people.
If you had one piece of advice or wisdom to pass on to your younger self, what would it be?
To trust in my fascination for subjects and sensations, even when no one around you seems to share them. I was always interested in the marginal: the people in my small hometown whose routines or clothes were considered eccentric; public spaces that went unused. Just light moving across a room or garden through the day – this absorbed me so much as a small child that I would track the light by tying wool to trees or furniture to map its movement. Now, in mid-life, these early compulsions are all there in my art: at Pells Pool where I created Wild Patience, I dressed always in a paint-stained apron and green headscarf to mark myself out, and worked on the edge of space. And by kneeling hour after hour at my low table, I was a human sundial.
What is it about slow living and the simple life that you find appealing?
It’s the only way of being I know! I was brought up by my grandmother, a retired farmer who had only travelled five or so square miles her whole life. She made, mended and adapted everything, and I found her rhythms and routines deeply comforting. She would spend the day at her Singer sewing machine improving clothes she’d bought for five pence at a jumble sale and I would be happy playing – very carefully – with objects from her china cabinet or exploring her shed. It’s why The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is precious for me: the grandmother and granddaughter who make a whole world out of their tiny island.
My husband and I met at nineteen, and with him too there is this shared pace and pleasure in the everyday. Mending, maintaining. I wrote about this for The Simple Things magazine last year in a piece called The Romance of Maintenance.
How can we counter the pulls of content-sharing and curating images of our lives with the need for being in the moment?
For the last three years I have been living a public life, through choice. I decided that to be a woman who takes up space with her body, voice and education, at an age when we are told invisibility approaches, is important. So my online life is authentic: I show how I live now so that I can connect with the kind of people I want to learn from and with whom I can share ideas. Of course there is a huge hinterland of private life – joys, sorrows – that is kept hidden, and I don’t find my online life a threat, thief or confidence trickster. Sharing stories and images from my unusual workspaces – I’ve just recently been resident in a Grade II-listed National Trust former Artists’ Cabin by the sea in Devon for instance – is part of being in the moment for me.
Who inspires you?
I go back to the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin, and the autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing constantly. I measure myself against them: their huge capacity for life, learning, love. Early on in my public life, some friends and former colleagues seemed shocked at my self-promotion: I was unflinching at this – a woman who wishes to make her mark must work hard and be frank about it. Tracey Emin is another guiding light: her first-class mind, combined with the skill at sewing and applique with which she made her early work. These are all women who spent hundreds of invisible hours working at their craft, long before and after they entered popular culture.
In the last two years, I have let the course of my life be altered by a single meeting with a visionary wild swimmer and fellow West Country woman called Lynne Roper who contacted me in the last few months of her life. She’d read about my Wild Patience work and years as a hospice scribe, and asked if I would find readers for her swim diaries after her death. I have just published them under my own imprint The Selkie Press as Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters. It has been a privilege to work with her words, and a pleasure to find the first print run almost sold out a month before the launch.
What are your essential homeware items/things you couldn’t do without?
I light a candle every night in the blue enamel holder my mother used in childhood to go up the stairs for bed, and an orange blanket I crocheted when struggling to conceive is ever-present. Now I travel alone more often to residencies and festivals, I take along a small piece of the Sussex Downs that a dear friend modelled for me: it’s a little chalk path that has become talismanic; a pocket-sized piece of home.
What would you like to be doing in 10 years’ time?
I want to be connected to people of many ages and places through my writing and speaking work. I’ve lived a very local first-half of life: in rural North Devon and Cornwall where I was born and raised, then since university in my adopted hometown of Lewes. If my public life takes me to places and situations where I can be witness to and scribe of important stories, to render service – that’s how I want to live always.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
To kneel down in my hometown in mid-life and declare I’d write a mile, in all weathers, however long it took, was a surprise to those who’d only known me as an office-worker and mother of young children. Although the work was slow, I had throughout the whole two years of its making, not only a wild patience but a wild joy. I was open to the elements and chance encounters, both. It took a long time for me to break free of job security, social conventions and shyness – but it was more than worth the wait.
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us, Tanya. We wish you lots of luck with Wild Woman Swimming and look forward to hearing about your next project.
- Dean K Holden
- Steve Creffield
- Tanya Shadrick
- Tanya Shadrick
- ©Jan Michalski