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Kel's living in the moment

By Stroud Life  |  Posted: January 23, 2013

  • 3 Sardines for Frank O'Hara & Mike Goldberg, from Kel's exhibition Fish at The Old Passage in Arlingham.

  • River Frome Walk, made on a recent Walking the Land First Friday Walk from Miserden.

  • From left, Tom Keating, Richard Keating and Kel Portman on one of their walks.

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ARMED with cameras, sketch pads, pencils, energy snacks and wet weather gear, Kel Portman leads fellow ramblers over hill and dale on various art walks.

His aim is to help them get the most out of their outdoor adventure by combining their love for art and walking.

Forty years ago Kel, an artist, teacher and facilitator, moved to the Stroud countryside to get away from the fast pace of city life. He has never looked back and can't imagine living anywhere else.

He has learnt to do what a lot of us fail to – live in the moment.

At the heart of every art project he instigates is a passion for the Gloucestershire landscape and preserving it for the future.

A few years ago Kel was instrumental in setting up Walking the Land, along with father and son Richard and Tom Keating – Richard, an artist and former landscape architect, is now researching his PhD and Tom is a lecturer in photography at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College.

"We all share a mutual interest in land-based art, getting out to walk in the countryside and encouraging others to appreciate it. We feel that unless communities value their landscape it won't survive," Kel suggests.

They have organised many art walks during that time, encouraging their companions to enjoy the landscape by drawing and painting what they see as they go. Kel and Richard's first walk of the year involved striding purposefully in waterproofs and boots into the unknown to recce the headquarters of the mighty River Frome in Miserden.

Their major project for 2013 is called River. The trio and associated artists will be working in conjunction with the Cotswold Conservation Board and Stroud Festival of Nature to make work about the Frome, the Nailsworth Stream, the Severn and it's tributaries, landscape, culture and stories.

Walking the Land's monthly walks – on the first Friday of every month – will focus on following the river as it meanders through the countryside. As well as using their knowledge of the area, they use their artistic expertise to challenge and inspire fellow walkers to experiment with different techniques or views.

But, ultimately, it is not about what the artist produces which matters, rather it's what he or she has gained from the act of doing it.

This certainly takes the pressure off for those who profess a lack of artistic skills.

BBC TV's Clare Balding joined them on one of their walks to Amberley on a rather snowy day for BBC Radio 4's Ramblings and the group appeared on BBC's Countyfile, hosted by Ellie Harrison, who was brought up in the Stroud valleys.

"Our exercises and processes are often designed to slow down or to re-programme the act of viewing and to confront some of the common expectations about the creative activity," explains Kel.

As well as drawing without looking at what their pen or pencil is doing – and drawing with a 6ft length of bamboo with a piece of charcoal taped to its end – one of their activities is called Slow Walking, a mindful way of bringing the artist into the present by helping them tune into the landscape's sights, sounds and smells.

"By slowing down our most basic form of motion, we confront ourselves in a new way, experiencing our footsteps on uneven soil, listening to the grass, sensing the wind, feeling our breath.

"On our walks we aim to gradually build up a record of drawings and photographs of the local landscape and use the work to promote community debate about landscape change," explains Kel, who, along with many other conservationists and heritage groups, are concerned about controversial plans to build a barrage across the estuary of the River Severn.

"Building a barrage may initially provide a large amount of electricity but other barrages across the world have experienced considerable technical difficulties with this old technology. It will change the delicate ecosystem of the river, the Severn Bore will no longer happen and it will have a huge negative impact on wildlife and wetland locations such as the WWT in Slimbridge."

Artists often use their chosen disciplines to convey what they strongly feel about something or to highlight important issues. Their visual communication can, at times, be more powerful than words.

In a sense, Kel is an art activist and uses his facilitating and teaching skills to encourage others to find their voice using paint, pencil, video, sculpture or whatever media suits them best.

As part of the river project, artists including poets, writers and videographers, will be organising a series of workshops in April and May for the SITE 2013 festival, promoted by Stroud Valley Artspace – an organisation Kel has been involved with for the past 15 years.

One of his attributes is the ability to inspire and encourage others. For the past four years Kel has curated exhibitions at The Old Passage Inn in Arlingham, which have brought together an eclectic mix of paintings, drawings and mixed media work. The latest show, which continues for a few more weeks, is entitled Fish and features the work of 17 different artists. For SITE 2013, the Old Passage will host a further exhibition called Between the Woods and the Water,'which carries on the theme of waterscapes, their surrounding and communities.

Brought up in London, Kel trained at Camberwell College of Arts and afterwards enjoyed a long career as a senior lecturer in photography, printmaking and digital arts at the London College of Printing. Married to Vicki, a jeweller, Kel continues to lecture in colleges but now also facilitates courses in the holiday industry.

Although he travels widely and teaches abroad in Thailand, Belgium, Greece, Tuscany and is shortly journeying to Cambodia to teach and lead walks, Kel enjoys returning to a place rich in landscape and inspiration.

"It would be very hard to live anywhere else having lived here in the Cotswolds," he admits.

"There is vitality here and a huge amount of vibrant creative activity in our beautiful area."

For information about Walking the Land, visit www.walkingtheland.org.uk. For details of Fish, log on to www.oldpassageinn.com.

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