Getting on for a year ago I became the artist-in-residence at Mrs Smith’s Cottage in Navenby. This small worker’s redbrick house was home to Hilda Smith (on and off) for almost a century and although she was very much a social being and ‘of this world’ Mrs Smith determinedly kept to the old ways of household management. The Cottage doesn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom as you or I would imagine it, no fitted units for her. Instead, having finally capitulated to the requirements of the local council, Hilda admitted a cold tap into the house (in her 80s), under which she parked a plastic bowl. Mrs Smith’s bathing always took place in a tin bath in front of the range and she climbed a ladder to her bedroom, even in her 102nd year.
Mrs Smith kept a daily dairy, just short descriptive entries that provide a window into her world. This, and the fact that the building was an almost-untouched example of the way people lived in rural Lincolnshire, inspired North Kesteven District Council and the local community to retain this dwelling as a museum. It has recently been closed for a few years due to building safety concerns but is currently being renovated with major investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and due to open later this year.
Since my appointment I have been getting to know the local community, visiting art groups, coffee mornings, local historians, the primary school and a care home. I am working alongside the Interpretation Team to create site-specific artworks that will nestle into the restored domestic spaces of the Cottage. Our workshop plans have fallen over due to the need for Covid-19 social distancing, but we’re finding ways to deliver activities online. We know that members of the community are working on sections of a community hooked rug and even on paintings of the Cottage for eventual exhibition, so even this empty space is inspiring creativity.
I have only ever known the Cottage as a building site, so I’m excited to see it once the builders have left and the collections have been restored to the space. I’m already starting to work on ideas for a second series of site-specific works to develop during my second year at the Cottage but, meanwhile, I just wonder what Mrs Smith would think about all this fuss!