El Relato #1 / Simon Beckmann


Joya: arte + ecología has invited contributions to the Joya: website in the form of esoteric essays. We all agreed to keep alive and hearten a conversation with past and potential resident artists. We looked for an iconoclastic chinwag, a discursive nosedive into art and ecological thinking and to perk up the tête-à-tête amongst convergent thinkers in an era of profound change.

We asked that contributions should be around the themes of aesthetics, ecology, pedagogy, water rising, activism, language, the Anthropocene, the 6th mass extinction, the built environment, painting, food, a change in the weather, autonomy, travel and doing the right thing. Or anything you like.

We would love it if you would like to contribute, full credits (obviously) plus links to wherever you like. No word limit beyond a minimum of 500.


 On Joya: arte + ecología / AiR - Simon Beckmann

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”  Gandhi

 Something of the two years we spent in India rubbed off. As artists Donna and I backpacked with a giant portfolio of paper across the continent and way up into the Himalayas. When we came to a standstill we painted, not predictable exotic landscapes but a continuation of our studio practice back in London.

In an everlasting experience, five thousand six hundred and thirty eight meters up on a rocky ridge in Zanskar, we ate lunch watching a raven. Airborne, but static. Just enough given wingspan, just enough updraft, he flipped, remaining in the same position but upside down. Flipping back again he spread his wings and soared into the sunlight above. Closing his wings, he dropped back to the same position as before, flipping upside down again. Over and over again he repeated the same action. At that moment, like the raven we connected, briefly, with what defines us, trying to be in possession of all the requisite feelings that make you happy. Not wrapped up in ourselves happy, but a quality of unlatched happiness, untroubled and integral.

 Seven years later, married, in London and with two-year-old twins we only had a notional link to the concept of changing ourselves, to living sustainably, to approaching that complete sense of happiness you can achieve by living in the same air, the same clean air, as that raven in Zanskar.

 Something had to change, we needed to relocate and create and live with nature.

Donna chose Spain. Her Grandfather was Consul General during the civil war in Barcelona. He looked after the interests of British citizens in Spain especially one particular French speaker from Haiti whom he subsequently married. Their children grew up speaking Castellano as their first language, English their second. Donna’s great auntie was three times Spanish ladies tennis champion and the first female tennis player to wear a backless dress at Wimbledon. Another great aunt married the famous Spanish racing driver Pierre De Vizcaya in the 20s but sadly he was killed in 1933 in a bizarre accident. Spanish family fable for Donna was part of growing up. She is English, but not entirely, so Spain was an obvious choice for her. For me, being an environmental activist and artist, the Andalucían province of Almería was the obvious choice. Where were the first signs of climate change going to manifest themselves in Europe other than in the alpine desert, we now call home?

We bought an abandoned property, Cortijada Los Gázquez in 2006. This is the full name of the property. Cortijo is the word for farm in Castellano and a Cortijada is a collection of small farm houses. Gázquez is the family name of those who once lived here. Cortijada Los Gázquez at 3281 ft. up, is a 50-acre ‘off-grid’ rural farm and arts residency in the heart of the Sierra María-Los Vélez Natural Park, Almería, Spain.

Spain, within Europe, is ground zero for de-population of rural areas. Even up to 1970s life for the Gázquez family was hard. No electricity, no running water, no schooling. Living as subsistence farmers, scraping a living from pre-industrial farming methods, using livestock for ploughing and carrying loads. The abundant resources of colonial Spain had passed them by. In the 1930's the civil war had brought them to their knees. After time the autocratic rule of Franco prevented the development of rural areas. Once the slowly emerging awareness of other people’s better fortunes elsewhere came upon them their collective desires drove them to leave. They left for the factories in Valencia, Tarragona and Barcelona. They left for the vineyards of France. Many searched out their former Republican supporting family, the exiles once caught up in the vortex of civil war. The Gázquez family, along with many families in this region, relinquished their homes in search of better fortunes in the cities of Spain or abroad in the mid 70s.

In 2006 Donna and I started a long road in the pursuit of restoring Los Gázquez and the land that surrounds the farm. We created a challenge for ourselves, a task that exhausted the skills we already possessed and left us in need of acquiring new knowledge. Conventional aspirations were thrown aside and once Joya: AiR, the residency, became a reality so did the reality that our continued existence here was more inexorably intertwined with the land, how we live and how we take responsibility

Donna and I, with our four-year olds became parishioners of the village of Vélez Blanco. Population, two thousand, though we have never seen them all at the same time. Seventy-five percent of the village is over the age of seventy-five. Villages like this are called pueblos blancos, white villages, very redolent of the traditions of communal living in Andalucía. The white reflects the summer heat and the close proximity of house to adjacent house provides shade and a cool cross breeze. As a crown the 16th century castle of the Marques de Don Fajardo y Chacon sits above the village, warden to its vassals living beneath. It in turn, like the unseating cuckoo chick, is built upon the former 7th century citadel built by the Moors. Ironically, if you know New York and are familiar with the Metropolitan Museum you may have entered the heart of this castle, the Patio de Honor, the renaissance courtyard, sold in 1905 by the wardens of the long-gone lineage of the Marquesado. Via a circuitous route the marble pieces were transported to Paris before a US industrialist’s aspirational installation in his New York mansion. The museum was gifted the courtyard in 1963.

Half an hour from the village, through the natural park, via dirt tracks winding through the pine forests, the almond groves, the dry fluvial systems called barrancos, you reach our project. Back then the roof was partially collapsed and needed replacing entirely. The walls were field stone bonded with clay and lime washed. The rooves were pine beams, crossed with cane and clay and clad with terracotta tiles. Ceilings were distinctively coated in undulating gesso, the floors brushed dirt, no glass in the windows just shutters, no light but candles, no stove but an open fire. What remained of the Gázquez family, those who yielded to the harshness of life here, were the unmade beds, the wash bowls, individual potties and empty coat hangers.

We took on an Ecuadorian builder, Segundo San Martin San Martin and he and I started the task of reforming this fragile ruin. First, we cleared the collapsed elements of the building, salvaging what we could, burning what we could not. Then came the reconstruction. Twice a week I would take my old 4x4, trailer, water tank, pump and generator an hour away to gather water from the nearest river. We could only make concrete with water and this was the nearest source. Once the roof was on, the building sealed the next problem was services. Too remote to access public needs in the village we had to be autonomous, non-polluting and we wanted to be carbon free. We installed photo voltaic panels and a wind turbine to create electricity. We fixed solar panels on the roof to create hot water. We plumbed two giant bio-mass burners for underfloor heating and a rainwater catchment system to harvest water from the roof. And we claimed back our waste water with an elaborate system of reed beds. But most importantly we preserved the vernacular character of the building. We took the unconscious design principle of the Gázquez family, who built this place, and refined their irregular white-washed surfaces into a new vernacular, sculptural form, clean and minimal and organic. Three years later we were ready, notwithstanding global financial crises, high winds destroying wind turbines, partial building collapse as a consequence of intense rain, and raising a family. What we had made was a beautiful space that is virtually 100 percent carbon neutral.

The Joya: residency came slowly as we eased ourselves gently into what was to be our ultimate goal, a cultural and sustainable destination for international artists and writers. Ten years later we accept approximately 170 artists and writers from the 400 who apply annually.

Now, the poor yielding clay soil, the pine forested limestone mountains, the gullies and the high plains are home to an international assortment of transdisciplinary, poets and writers, dancers, painters, sculptors, performance, video and installation artists. Our wild spaces are populated with chroma keyed Lycra onesie wearing Irish video artists or Chinese installationists sleeping in bucolic desert landscapes whilst being filmed. The main studio has been turned into a giant camera obscura to film the summer equinox. We have had Nigerian and Welsh performance artists transforming the appearance of our location merely by their presence in the landscape. Japanese calligraphers building paper kites to mimic the wild birds, the eagles and vultures. Abstract painters from New York and graphic graffiti artists from Sydney. Poets from Washington State and painters from DC. We have had sculptors from Argentina, conceptual artists from Uruguay, painters from Brazil, activist artists from Chile and Colombia. Many artists arrive here via the work we do with graduate Fine Art courses at the University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths and Granada. Without fail all the artists and writers we have hosted over the years have responded to this place in ways only the most perceptive can. With intelligence, wit and an unbridled creativity. On one memorable occasion we hosted a young graphic illustrator born and bred in Barcelona. She was super excited to be here as she was a descendent of the family Gázquez

For many artists and writers, the experience they have here is transformative. Artists are not here to finish projects but to research their practice, to evolve, to integrate with a like-minded community and cultivate new thoughts and ideas. And as a group, we give back. As a cultural and sustainable destination in an area fraught with climate and cultural issues such as land abandonment, desertification and an un-replenishable aging population our activities breathe new life, inspiration, initiative and hope.

 Thirteen years later our children are about to start university in Spain as artists and film makers. Donna’s family has returned to Spain and like the raven in Zanskar we have connected with what defines us, we have recast ourselves in a world full of extreme challenges and we have changed into what we wished for.


 The world has become different in a lifetime. Fifty years on from the days the original family lived here successive Gázquez offspring come to visit during the fiestas in summer. Wherever they found themselves after their exodus they gravitate back to the land of their ancestors, even if only in mind. They share their stories of life here with us. They never talk of hardship, of lost children or of hunger. They talk of toil, yes, but they also talk of happiness. They were self-reliant, they produced food from such scant resources. They swam in water. Their life was one co-evolved with all the flora and fauna that mutually benefitted from their culture, their invention.

Over the last eighteen months here at Joya we have begun an ambitious sustainably designed forest garden. Phase one has seen us plant over 50 trees on a terraformed water catchment system. Stage two will see us plant over two hundred trees in 2020. Unlike the Gázquez family we don’t just need to produce food. Unknown to the subsistence farmers here fifty years ago the hyperobject known as climate change means we plant trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. We no longer live in isolation as our futures are inextricably linked in a fight to maintain a global environment that can sustain all of us.

Simon Beckmann co-founder and curator of Joya: arte + ecología / AiR



Simon Beckmann