Laura Stevens on her CAMPO Residency

I have just returned from the CAMPO AIR residency, which I was awarded from Photolucida’s Critical Mass2018, and am full of appreciation for the opportunity I was given. It was the first time in my artistic career that I had been offered the chance to spend a month uninterrupted, with no expectations attached, purely to devote to reflection and creation.

CAMPO AIR is an inspiring initiative founded by the artist Heidi Lender to provide a place where art, writing and good ideas can flourish. Heidi is developing a creative colony in the Pueblo Garzon in the deep countryside of Uruguay, with cabins, artist studios, an exhibition space, a clubhouse, a food lab and organic gardens in this beautiful rural landscape. Being part of the first residency at CAMPO AIR, the artists were provided with houses and studio space in the village itself whilst the project progresses. My home, which I shared with another artist, had recently been donated to the foundation and was newly renovated, full of rustic charm and comfort, with a large studio attached for me to work in – a rare treat for one confined to Paris-apartment sized spaces. 
Four other artists were invited during my residency term in May; an Argentinian filmmaker, an American sound artist, a Brazilian sculptor and a Uruguayan chef. Our multi disciplinary backgrounds coupled with the fact that we were all at varying stages of our career offered a chance for rich and stimulating cultural exchanges. Every week there was a group excursion to better acquaint ourselves with the area and each other, including trips to Jose Ignacio, the Bodega Garzon for wine tasting, and watching the sunset with a herd of carpinchos. 
Heidi and her team were warm and welcoming, providing an environment in which we could be free to engage and create in whichever manner presented itself, free of obligations or the requirement of an end result, whilst allowing invaluable access to the local community and any resources we might need. A dinner was cooked for us five nights a week by the resident chef, Vika, giving us the chance to share our daily experiences and ideas together over her delicious and thoughtfully prepared meals.
Upon my arrival at CAMPO I had in mind various concepts and directions I wished to follow. However, the ideas which accompany you from home tend to shift once situated in the new environment, and I was prepared to stay open minded, responding instinctively to the surrounding stimuli. 
The work awarded by Photolucida was the series ‘him’, a study on the naked male body, the representation of masculinity and the female gaze. Considering my time in Uruguay, I felt immediately drawn to looking at its gaucho culture. The gaucho is a national folk hero, originally a nomadic horseman and cowhand of the Uruguayan Pampas similar to the North American cowboy, representing dreams of a free life, an embrace of nature and loneliness, and a machismo of noble, stoic and brave strength. 
I had hired a car with plans to make various trips into the interior of Uruguay, to discover this culture. However, once resident in Garzon, I realized that I would not need to travel far. Garzon is a small pueblo of 200 residents, deep in gaucho country, and Heidi was able to introduce me to many local gauchos. It would have taken a long time driving through the small dust roads of the Uruguayan interior, and – not speaking Spanish myself – making connections alone would have been challenging in the few weeks I had there. It became clear that I also wanted to be situated close to the residency and the other artists. 
I developed a routine of going out in the early morning in my car or on a bike to photograph in the nature surrounding Garzon. The landscape is characterized by gentle rolling hills and plains, dotted with wild woods, streams and lakes. It is a jigsaw of vast ranches and small farms, largely populated with cattle, sheep and horses and very few humans. It was easy to find beauty and silence, with only the sound of animals and birdsong accompanying you. 
On various days I would follow gauchos to their work of feeding and herding the animals, or tagging, medicating, branding and even the castration of cattle. I spent time observing, photographing and filming them in their activity and whilst at rest. Without a common language it was an exercise in the interpretation of gestures and finding ways of connecting without words. One of the men I spent the majority of time with – Chiquito – taught me to ride a horse by first giving me chorizo and grappa miel for breakfast then by just hoisting me upon the horse and made to follow him. My fears of riding a horse conquered, we rode together across the plains and I no longer needed to run after him with my camera. Eventually I started using a mobile speech translator to communicate, which with often absurd interpretations, helped me get to know them better.
Other time was spent in my studio writing, sketching, making photographic tests, shooting portraits, editing and building fires. By working in a visceral way during the first couple of weeks of the residency I made experiments in my photographic process, which pushed me through different ideas and approaches quite quickly. I learnt to better free myself from an overriding spirit of perfectionism, embrace mistakes and enjoy that ride. It is a rare gift to get this time to go outside of your normal behaviors and patterns.
Toward the end of the residency, I started paring things down and looking at my connection to nature and the Other through more quiet and poetic observation, rather than as a  more literal narration of a place/subject. I was very drawn to the moving image whilst there and finally made a short film using the horse I had ridden as the star. It is minimalist, dark, and slow, with still so much work to be done, but it was very exciting to change directions in this way and open myself up to the new.

This month of freedom and isolation from the pressures and the busyness of city life created a space for me to experiment and cultivate ideas in unexpected ways and gave me time to reflect and gain a clearer perception of my artistic practice that was invaluable to me at this moment in my life. My deepest thanks to Photolucida and the wonderful CAMPO team for offering me this incredible and memorable experience. 

                                                                                                                          – Laura Stevens