On Saturday, I will be headed back to the Obras Foundation residency in the Alentejo region of Portugal, which borders Spain. (http://www.obras-art.org) I expect to be among eight other artists and writers for the month. Set between the ancient towns of Estremoz and Evora, the re-claimed farmhouse was turned into an artist residency by the charming Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden. Here is what they say about their place:
“Our house: Monte da Marmeleria was built 200 years ago, probably with the stones that came from a quarry [on the property]. The estate of Marmeleira originally encompassed many thousands of hectares producing wheat, cattle, pork and charcoal.
Bit by bit we have started to understand how people worked, lived and feasted. But a lot is still a mystery.
Up to around 60 years ago Marmeleira had a permanent staff of 30, a lot of local contractors and during the grain harvest an extra 80 workers, mainly from Trassos Montes. The current activities hall was probably used for cooking and sleeping. Because a significant part of the salary was paid in bread and wine (5 liters per day), there must have been a lot of singing and dancing after the working hours. Local senior citizens remember those times with nostalgia.
Although Marmeleira played a key role in the region, with its own grain mills, a house chapel and cattle trade contacts with Spain, life was very sober: there was never electricity, running water or sanitation. Marmeleria had its own flour mills. Their ruins are walking distance from the house. They are both spooky as well as intriguing. The mills used water power of the River Tera.
Transport and work was mainly done with oxen. An oxen manager had two couples, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Unlike horses or dogs, oxen are stupid. You can’t teach them anything by punishment and reward. But the oxen managers found a solution: they sang for them! Each oxen, according to his guardian, had its own musical preference. Sometimes the song was invented by the oxen driver himself.
About 50 years ago the Herdade [farm] lost it competitive force. Farming on more productive and less laborious land in Portugal and abroad was more profitable. The Monte was abandoned, doors and hatches were used as firewood and the roof collapsed. Cows and sheep of the local shepherd were the new guests of the house.
In 2003 we arrived to live and work here. We brought electricity, water and sanitation facilities, we gave the house a new roof and changed windows into doors. But the basic architectural structure and most of the building material is still just as it was 200 years ago.”