Separated by fields and sea | Clara Leitão

Clara Leitão is a visual artist and textile designer. She studied Costume & Set Design in her hometown, Lisbon, then Design for Textiles at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, and the National Institute of Design, in India, as part of an exchange programme. Clara is interested in the many ways fantasy is part of life, whether that can be perceived through folklore, conversations and objects. During a residency in Unnerud, Denmark she considered the interconnectedness of her own personal experiences with the shared lore in her work. Here she shares her results from the residency in her own words.

Unnerud sketchbook , 2019 Pencil on paper
Various dimensons

October last year, I traveled to Denmark for a residency at the art collective 8B in Unnerud, a small village by the sea, in Egebjerg’s peninsula. I had graduated a few months before and was feeling confused, as most people do after leaving University. I was also heartbroken and desperately wanting to leave behind Portugal, my home country.

That summer, I had spent some time in Estremoz, a small Portuguese town where my mother was born. There, I met an old man named Chiquinho who told me his story. When he was young, some 40 years ago, he had long blonde hair and blue eyes. He was gay and the only male housekeeper in that very conservative town. Chiquinho stood out as exuberant but people cared for him and protected him, and this way prejudice didn’t turn him into an outcast. While speaking to Chiquinho, he told me stories about working for my great-grandfather and for the richest households, he told me how he went to the colonial war and managed to keep his long blond hair away from the razor, by forging a permit. While talking to me, he stood under the hot July sun and claimed he never, ever drank water. He also observed the palms of my hands, claimed that I liked beautiful objects and that I was a terrible housekeeper.

Unnerud sketchbook , 2019 Pencil on paper
Various dimensons

When I left for Denmark, I had Chiquinho on my mind. I wanted to turn his words into images. I packed my suitcase with old fabrics, found at both my grandmothers’ homes: linens, bits of dresses and shirts that their children wore decades ago. I also took with me a book of Portuguese folktales. I was leaving for the residency but bringing my home with me.

I arrived to Unnerud and soon, the stories and characters, merged with that new place.

I visited the Ulkerup forest, where there used to be a village. People were forced to leave in the 18th century, after disease killed their cattle.

I went to a circular stone age grave and saw Højby’s church beautiful wall frescoes. I went to a windmill, whose miller painted the inside with naïve wildlife motifs.

House, 2019
Painting and collage on wood
89 x 26 x 24 cm
House, 2019
Painting and collage on wood
89 x 26 x 24 cm

I spent time by the sea, watched deer appear in the misty morning and saw geese in the sky, migrating.

Unnerud sketchbook , 2019 Pencil on paper
Various dimensons

The residency was very much connected to the community of neighbors, most of them elders. They came over often and we shared bits of our daily lives. We went over for tea and heard stories, some about Denmark, some about themselves. I was told the tale of a golden chain, buried underground, near Unnerud: the more one tried to dig it up, the further it got swallowed by the soil. Another tale mentioned a giant who threw a stone at a church nearby. He missed the church, and the stone landed in the sea, where it could still be seen.

(Detail) Unnerud Tales, 2020
Water-soluble coloured pencil and pastel on cut-out paper
170 x 140 cm
Tree, 2019
Screen-print on dyed cotton
140 x 121 cm

I made friends. One took me to harvest seaweed, with which I died some of the fabrics I had brought with me. Another friend, a photographer, showed me a picture he took of a tree and excitedly pointed out one of the leaves, saying it looked like a human face.

(Detail) Tree, 2019
Screen-print on dyed cotton
140 x 121 cm

The pieces I produced, during my four months in Denmark, are visual interpretations of the stories surrounding me around that period. Much like writing a tale, I took my characters and arranged them together in a sort of narrative, which is not linear.

The result is an installation, called Rhizom 8. Rhizom is a wider platform created at the art collective 8B. It is “a reference to the horizontal world view of Gilles Deleuze in which time and place emerges through relations and as part of a network. Rhizom points to art as a network of roots that grow from below and outwards in all directions. The narrative is created in action, in the encounter between artists and between materials, while interpretation is an active, sensory selection.” *

Unnerud Tales, 2020
Water-soluble coloured pencil and pastel on cut-out paper
170 x 140 cm

Rhizom 8, which was presented at a local library, together with the Unnerud-based artist Johannes Balsgaard, is composed of three-dimensional textile illustrations and some paper drawings.

Each illustration works individually but also connects to the whole.

Ulkerupfolket, 2019
Embroidery and collage on paper and fabric
120x350cm

In Ulkerupfolket, people ride deer and wear jumpers made out of my auntie’s childhood dresses.

(Detail) Ulkerupfolket, 2019
Embroidery and collage on paper and fabric
120x350cm
Chiquinho, 2019
Screen-print and embroidery on dyed cotton
450 x 140 cm

A tall figure made out of fabrics that I dyed and printed, is both Chiquinho and the giant that threw a stone at the church.

Sukkertang, 2019
Screen-print on dyed linen
30 x 193 cm

Sukkertang (the name for a type of seaweed), shows two heads separated (yet connected) by green fields and blue sea: a metaphor for my broken heart and other feelings of separation.

Unnerud sketchbook , 2019
Pencil on paper
Various dimensons

The illustrations follow the organic, often absurd way in which thoughts form and connect in my mind. That way, the moments lived during my time in Denmark mix with local folklore, with stories from Portugal and with my own emotions.

Troldstuerne, 2019
Acrylic on wood and papier-mâché Embroidery on dyed cotton
124 cm (diameter)

The use of materials followed that same organic principle, so I experimented with paper, wood and fabric. By using textiles from home, I could build upon a material that had lived and aged and held stories of its own.

Rhizom 8 opened up to me a series of new questions. What is the visual imagery that arises in my mind when I hear a story? How does my own personal experience interfere with that imagery? When I transform that imagery into a drawing, or an object, how does it change? And what comes across to the viewer?

I am interested in investigating these complex layers of storytelling and story-making. I want to keep finding ways of approaching narrative which reflect the collage-like way in which the mind puts together imagination, feelings and memory.

Adeus, Meu Amor, 2019
Collage with dyed silk on papier-mâché
117 x 140 x 16 cm

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