TODAY, the biggest and oldest open-studio event in the UK springs into action, with the launch of Oxfordshire Artweeks, writes Esther Lafferty.

The festival will see the doors thrown open at nearly 500 venues across the county and involve work by 2,000 artists.

Running until May 27, it involves almost 2,000 artists and features everything from paintings and sculpture to fine art photography, jewellery and furniture – all created locally. Not only are visitors invited to feast their eyes on the county’s extraordinary talent, but they can meet the artists, explore the inspiration behind the work and the processes and materials used in its creation.

The focus of the first week of the festival is Oxford city, with subsequent weeks taking in the south of the county and finally the north and west.

It can be hard to know where to start. Just within the ring road, visitors can see the local landscape through fresh eyes or explore far-flung places.

Opening her studio for the 25th consecutive Artweeks, is Headington’s Jane Strother, who paints airy semi-abstract landscapes with a wholesome nature and the breezy delicacy of pressed flowers.

In evocative hues – often balmy blues and glowing greens, orange-golds, and a strong dark pink – these gently capture the mood of a place with a quiet passion inspired by a lifetime’s enthusiasm for topography, natural habitat and botany.

“I always enjoyed exploring outdoors, absorbing the atmosphere of a place,” says Jane. “Family holidays, as a child, were always spent in the country. In those days picking and pressing flowers was considered acceptable and I loved identifying and naming them.

“Now I observe, sketch, photograph, reflect and find a meditative calm. And the more ‘weather’ the better! Sometimes it’s the hot sun and big skies, other times rain swept hills. This year I am showing lots of wet and windy cloud and mountain views from a walking trip to the Cairngorms. I’ve also been painting the mudflats and shingle beaches of the less well-known Essex and Suffolk coast and some of the hardy plants that grow there like the Sea Pea and Sea Lettuce. I love the mudflats there because their shape changes with every tide and there’s wonderful vegetation.

“I’m now painting the Oxford Green Belt to record our local landscape, and its very ordinariness, while we still have it! It’s all too easy to stop seeing the beauty of the landscapes we see everyday.”

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New for Artweeks 2019, East Oxford’s ethnobotanist Sylvia Bahri takes us further afield. After a childhood in North Africa and many years in Brazil, she finds her inspiration in the nature that surrounds her, and in primitive arts.

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Her paintings on canvas, prints on paper and textiles are rich in gentle organic geometry and patterns of plants, her naïve landscapes populated with people and playful animals.

“I enjoy playing with shapes, creating an organic and imaginary world. The harmonious and vivid colours trace back my roots, from Marrakech to the Amazonian forest,” she explains.

Artweeks visitors have the opportunity too to follow The Silk Route across Uzbekistan, and see a culture rich in distinctive imagery, its people and panoramas presented by Jericho photographer Frank Newhofer, who has a particular interest in Polaroids for both their aesthetic power and as a vehicle for engaging people in the far-flung places to which he has travelled.

‘I’d always wanted to follow at least some of The Silk Road: all five thousand miles of it, is immersed in 300 years of history with Uzbekistan at its very heart,’ he explains. ‘We travelled from Tashkent to Samarkand - down ‘Golden’ Roads and through mummified cities. Tamerlaine (Timur) the conqueror’s influence is everywhere in Uzbekistan and beautiful, detailed ceramic tiles dominate your every viewpoint in all the great cities. Street span 1000years from pre-Mongol times with madrassas and mosques with facades of intricate complex brickwork basketry with patterns that never seem to repeat themselves.’

‘Timur brought in the finest craftsmen to create wonderful Islamic architecture, with mosaics in dazzling glazes of predominantly turquoise, royal blue and white, and The Gur-e-Amir mausoleum there is a prototype of the Taj Mahal. Following the earthquakes of the 1960s the Soviet regime conducted extensive renovation of many of the buildings. It was an oppressive regime with people stripped of their ethnic clothing and ornaments and forced to wear western dress yet the city of Taskent’s metro station is one of the most ornate in the world with chandelier-lit spaces containing baroque mashups of Islamic and post-Soviet design.’

‘We encountered few other tourists as we pitched ourselves into a time of thronging bazaars buzzing with miraculous textiles, fabrics, spices, grilled meats, salsa and fresh bread (oh…and don’t forget the vodka - drink it straight up with a straight face!)’

‘As a photographer I am always most interested in the people, and everywhere we went there seemed to be couples being married! It’s a tradition that the ceremony involves a procession through the main streets of the city; glorious with people in their finest yet apparently glum as the tradition is that the betrothed should not smile, this expressionless happiness perhaps sums up Uzbekistam. It’s a wonder and rich in architectural splendour, but it is still emerging from a history of brutal warfare and conservatism.’

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And, you can also see in the same venue, a collection of extraordinary papercuts inspired by patterns within the landscape and nature from river-valleys to volcanos, salt pans and watering-holes. forces, such as flowing water, and human exploits like mining and farming; the shaping of our landscape over time and the conflict of seeking beauty in the scars of human activity on the earth,’ she explains. Using many carefully planned layers to give the impression of movement and depth, Kate’s art include bird’s eye views inspired by satellite photography and some planetary shots too. Let Artweeks take you to the moon!

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For art representing the human body, head to Wolvercote where artist Tom Croft’s exhibition includes a striking painting of Tia – a woman with impressive tattoos.

In contrast contemporary artist Rachel Ducker creates incredible wire sculptures inspired by the shape and dynamics of the human form, some with bronze or other materials. Her vibrant and emotive wire sculptures capture movement, human nature and something ephemeral.

She says: “I am inspired by dancing figures because of the energy and expression in the movement which I try and capture in my sculpture so the viewer can feel that energy and joy too when they look at it.”

Visit artweeks.org

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