Residency in Aizpute, 3rd – 7th May 2016
My main aim to visit SERDE residency centre in Latvia was to explore how they incorporate ecology, rural issues and traditional crafts into their residency program and how they function as a platform for international and trans-disciplinary collaboration. Andrew Gryf Paterson, a fellow artist regularly visiting resident in Aizpute, had also told me about the fermentation traditions in the town that I was eager to explore. I would not be disappointed.
I was housed in a beautiful room in the atmospheric and carefully restored 18th century traditional timber house of SERDE hosted by Signe Pucena and Ugis Pucens. It was the first week of May so the residency had only just opened for the summer season. I shared the house with an inspiring, young dance duo from Latvia and Sweden and an English/Estonian photographer. They were both returning visitors. There is space to do almost anything at SERDE with great studio facilities for photography and ceramics, beer making and open studio spaces as well as a well equipped kitchen and inviting common spaces both inside and out.
I was really inspired by the setting. Aizpute is a small and friendly town, beautifully set along the river Tebra. The grounds in the surrounding woodlands were covered with a carpet of white anemones and lots of edible and inedible herbs and formidable bird-life. I was thrilled to encounter my first-ever nesting stork adorning a chimneypot of an old house. What a mighty sight! No wonder it is a blessing having these elegant but peculiar creatures brooding and adorning your house. Apparently their presence is becoming scarcer as their numbers are dwindling due to intensive agriculture and the draining of wetlands. In Scandinavia the stork has completely died out and only exists in the form of birds raised in captivity.
Andrew was my guide to people and the area and was so accommodating and helpful, connecting me with interesting people relevant to my interests. I got to meet the young and energetic Arthurs Lapka who was in the process
of restoring an old industrial building with an incredible cellar where, until quite recently during the Soviet era, the bulding was used to ferment large quantities of cabbage to make sauerkraut. The space was amazing and I would love to return to make some work there with a community based fermentation project!
It was also inspiring to meet the father and son, Varis and Martin Sants, who had established Ekovins in 2010, their own winemaking cellar producing wine and brandy from local products like aronia, birch sap and rhubarb. Andrew created a great pop-up cinema event in their wine cellar while I was there, screening the apt film “The Angel’s share” by the Scottish filmmaker Ken Loach, a hilarious comedy about whiskey fermentation and distilling in the Scottish highlands.
Fermentation became a bit of a theme throughout my stay. I was introduced to the art of making fermented porridge, skabputra, a particular speciality of the area. We fetched milk from an organic farm and fermented barley grouts and curdled milk for a couple of days.
Certainly and acquired taste but quite delicious! One of the owners of SERDE, Ugis Pucens, also brews his own amazing beer in the small home-brewery, and also runs courses on beer making as part of the residency program. We didnt get the chance to visit the local bee apiary ‘Strops’ or take a guided tour of the Elpa milk factory that produces also kefir, yoghurt and sour cream.
I made a wormery (vermicomposting bin) during my stay to ferment and process the organic waste at the residency centre. I later heard that the worms has gone on strike due to too much work pressure, so my kitchen waste soil-factory sadly came to an end, although I heard it later was adopted by Arturs Lapka for use at their space later in the summer.
I was really inspired to see all the local produce being grown outside most houses and the large areas allocated to thriving allotments filled with organically produced vegetables. The garden seemed to be the local Sunday hangout.
Growing your own vegetables is a must in an area where the economy is difficult for many, and there is so much knowledge here that should be spread and shared widely. The knowledge of foraging wild herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes is also still present in the community. We did our own foraging and made pesto of, what turned out to be, wild tulips! I mistook them for wild onions. Luckily we survived. I will bring a better floral guide next time or perhaps invite one of the wonderful elderly ladies with me. If only I spoke some Latvian…
The exchange that happens between the artist in residence at SERDE and the local community is inspiring, and I will certainly bring this example with me as we are opening our own Artist in Recidency program on Engeløya in Northern Norway this summer. I was so well looked after and felt instantly integrated within the local community as well as sharing work and ideas with the other artists there. I really appreciate having had the opportunity to stay at SERDE and recommend this place for any artist interested in interdisciplinary approaches to art, crafts and traditional knowledge or just peace to live and work in this beautiful and undiscovered part of the Baltic region.