While Latvian culture is deeply connected with the countryside, for decades rural dwellers have been heading to the big smoke for educations and careers. But one woman has gone in the other direction, creating an oasis of creativity amidst the forests of Kurzeme.

Where art meets nature

In response to decades of Soviet neglect, the late poet Imants Ziedonis once urged every Latvian to take responsibility for nurturing a small corner of the land back to health. And Laila Kelle has fully taken this advice to heart.

More than 20 years ago, this successful Riga-born painter bought rundown Ružciems manor near Pūre, 90 kilometres west of the capital, and set about turning it into a guesthouse, an artistic retreat and a haven for wildlife. It’s a decision that has brought joy to herself and the many visitors who have experienced this magical backwater.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved everything to do with the country,” she says. “There’s just something about landscapes which human hands haven’t touched.”

Creative conservation

Ružciems was first mentioned in historical records in 1475, in connection with the division of the estate of nobleman Hermann Butlar. When Laila set eyes on it in 1997, the house was not fit for a baron by a long way, with a collapsed roof, an owl in the attic, water up to her ankles and a tribe of feral cats in residence. A passionate animal lover, she let the felines stay, even as she transformed the place into a gem.

Every room upstairs in the two-storey building has been individually decorated by Laila, while downstairs is an open-plan gallery of her paintings, with a voluminous fireplace where many a sparkling conversation has crackled. Much of the timber furniture is the handiwork of her ex-husband Arnis, a talented woodworker.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

In full bloom, the garden is a rainbow of colours, with many heirloom flowers and rare specimens. But she has let most of the 40-hectare property return to its wild state, with a narrow trail from which humans can admire beaver dams, hear the calls of cranes, and hopefully catch a glimpse of deer or elk. Hunting is strictly prohibited.

Over the years, Laila has earned an income from renting out rooms to travelling families and catering for functions. But she prefers guests who truly appreciate the birdsong, quiet and fresh air of Ružciems, not all-night revellers. Budding artists from across Latvia have attended weekend workshops, and their works have been exhibited in regional galleries.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

Whether its pancakes for breakfast, soup cooked over an open fire or even homemade moonshine (distilling small quantities of liquor is legal in Latvia), Laila is also renowned for her cooking. Using mostly produce sourced from neighbouring farms or her own vegetable patch or foraged in the woods, her meals linger fondly in the memory.

“I take simple, natural ingredients, and I mix them together like I do with paint,” she says. “I improvise.”

Rejuvenation

Laila’s friend Saša helps with odd jobs around the place, and she employs local people to clean the rooms at the height of tourist season. Pals pop over in spring for traditional Latvian talkas, or working bees, clearing brush and stacking firewood.  Pets she has adopted from a shelter – dogs Ripa, Roberts and Berta and cat Lotte – also pitch in as best they can.

 But she is remarkably energetic for someone well into their seventh decade, and can turn her hand to any farm chore you can mention. The site of this elegant woman manoeuvring a ride-on mower around the meadows near the house proves she is anything but an artist in an ivory tower.

However, even strong people have a breaking point. Following the spring lockdown of last year, Laila suffered clinical depression. Aware that social isolation and anxiety are afflicting many other people too, Laila believes that Ružciems can be a place of healing.

“I was so scared from listening to all the mass media reports about how many had died that I was afraid to even leave the house, and barely did so” she says.  “And although in my moments of weakness I had thought to myself, “I want to leave this place, there’s too much work,” now I realise I never want to leave. I love it here.”

Photo courtesy of Laila Kelle

Regarding her current views about Covid and the government’s restrictions, Laila says she is “cautious, but not at all afraid.” People from a single household are allowed to stay in guesthouses, and she will be accepting bookings again from April 1. You can find the details by googling “Ružciems.” 

And as part of her recovery, Laila has started painting again after a year’s break. The creative spring is still bubbling merrily away.

Philip Birzulis, 30.03.2021