I returned to Iona last week, this time as part of a large group. It was exciting to go back and visit my old haunts and to see the island at a different time of year. I only took a sketch book and camera and here are a few impressions.
Last week Jane Rushton came to interview me about my new show at Resipole Studios. She is a fellow painter and friend as well as now working for Andrew at the gallery. I was their first artist interview which is now on their U Tube channel. Have a look, you can find it here:
Here is the online version of the banner for my next exhibition. If you can make it, I hope you will enjoy it. As before, I have also collaborated with Nick Turner of Watercolour Music who has made a short film with music from his and Mary Anne Kennedy’s repertoire.
Hope to see you there, 6pm on Good Friday, 14th April. Resipole Studios Ardnamurchan.
I have been offered an exhibition, again at Resipole Studios, to follow on from the show I had there based on the Iona work made at the same time as I began this blog. That exhibition was two years ago and since then I have done quite a lot of island hopping! Tiree in September ’15, Eigg in February ’16 followed by The Shetland Islands with a quick visit to Fair Isle in April ’16 and a return to Shetland in September ’16.
Having laid out all the amassed work on the floor of the gallery, we selected the Shetland work to be the subject of the new show with a few of the more recent pieces made on Eigg. Those of you who saw the last one, will remember that we chose the theme of the Beaufort Scale as the curatorial approach. On all these islands the weather is a predominant theme, be it storm or mist, rain or sun.
Over the last two years, my life has developed a rhythm, something of my own internal weather. My time is now spent divided between two speeds, the pace of living in our world, married, a mother, working from home and in a Highland economy where almost everyone multitasks in order to survive and the other, yearned for, silence and solitude where I have time to stop, go inwards and fulfill the dream of keeping still.
As I have got older, I sometimes dream of becoming a nun! Those of you who know me will also know how unlikely that is. Having failed the eleven plus, I went to a catholic grammar school as a fee paying protestant and it was quite possibly the unhappiest years of my life. But looking back, it was not entirely the fault of Sister Christopher and Sister Scolastica who banned me from RE for asking to be taught comparative religion before learning the catholic dogmas. Things were very unhappy at home and so I felt quite lost at a time in life, adolescence, when children struggle anyway and without a place of safety, either at home or at school, my life was miserable. If I became a nun now, it would not be to give my life to the duties of a faith. It would be to pass on the responsibility of daily life in order to focus on more etherial things; watching nature and becoming an advocate for our precious natural environment through increasing my understanding and painting the journey. That too is a sort of faith, a faith in nature. My father told me I was a Panist but having no classical education myself, this may be a simplification. There now seem to be lots of forms of nature worship but my connection is not really a formal thing; I just follow an instinct, largely taught by him.
This is what I try to do on my island visits. It comes at a time in our hectic world when there is an increasing understanding of needing to step out, to embrace solitude and creativity. As the number of retreats and residencies proliferate, we are lucky that there is a general acknowledgement of the need to slow down, go inwards and rebalance. The day before I left Eigg in January, I found a book in Sweeny’s Bothy by Jenny Diski, ‘On Trying to Keep Still’. As I read it, I felt as if the book had been written for me, about me and by me, it resonated so deeply. Another woman who doesn’t like to go out, who likes to live in the quiet of their own home but actually has a reputation as a travel writer and the ruses she dreams up of posting herself letters to remote parts of the world as her imagined self travels from poste restante to poste restante collecting the envelopes. In part then, this exhibition is a tribute to her who sadly died last year.
The suggestion by John Maclean that I could stay in his shepherd’s hut on Iona during the months of November and December has now developed into my form of pilgrimage. My year is punctured by periods of solitude, exploring islands where the western seaboard meets the North Atlantic and learning to look, listen and feel the path to a creative response. This exhibition is about that journey.
The last time I wrote this blog was in September when I was on Shetland and my visit had begun with a disconcerting incident which I decided not to talk about until I got home. Here is what I wrote:
My first day of solitary life in Shetland began in a quiet albeit not very Sunday morning way. The sun was so strong and inviting that I was up uncharacteristically early at six am. Beginning a creative retreat almost invariably involves a ritualistic amount of preparation and in this case tidying up and letting go of some ongoing projects at home. By lunchtime I felt truly in the present and as the weather was so alluring, I packed a bag of drawing materials and started along the coast, drawn to the western edge where you really are at the edge of the European landmass and the beginning of the North Atlantic.
The power of the sea here is like none I have witnessed before. It makes Loch Linnhe feel like an inland waterway. Even as you look out westwards to the ocean on an apparently calm day, you can feel and hear the strength of the swell and the power of the surf as it thrashes the rocks. It reminds me of the tragic prints you see occasionally in the Highlands of the drama of a shipwreck, all men lost in the savage wind and tides of a storm so eloquently illustrated in woodcuts and etchings.
As I noticed in April, the strength of the light is still so strong that the shadows become an inky black and as much of the rock is black anyway, the landscape is largely monochrome with even the water an inky blue and as clear as a glass of water when you find it shallow enough to see the bottom.
We came here in April for my birthday and I had a rushed hour of drawing that day. It is these I took with me and revisited the view. My attention was quickly distracted and I became fascinated by something floating in the water. Try as I may to concentrate, my eyes kept wandering back to this floating object gently pushed by the waves into a corner of rocks. Brown and black in colour with a pronounced bloating, it was above the surface and for as long as I told myself it was ghost gear or something thrown overboard, I was too disconcerted to let go and stop watching. There were limb-like appendages but not exactly how arms and legs would be. It appeared to be dead rather than inanimate and I became convinced that it was a body, human or not I was not sure.
I could not focus on my work at all and so when I saw a small red kyack emerge from the bright reflected light, rounding a headland and making for home, I knew it was my host returning from a fishing expedition. I wandered back and found him with a bag full of large fresh mackerel. Tentatively I asked if it was common for corpses to appear, washed overboard by some ghastly accident. He suggested it was very unusual but curious now, offered to go and investigate. I was too restless to go inside so exploring the small creaks and inlets, I waited. He returned eventually and agreed that I had found a body but not the body of a human. I had found a dead seal. The same size as a human and whilst not exactly the same shape, it was easy from a distance to assume the uncharacteristic features were as a result of too long in the water or clothing and damaged safety gear. It was a haunting experience watching the sack like mass washing back and forth with no will of its own as the life had gone. I was grateful to know what it was as I knew the image would haunt me, wondering who it was and where they had come from.
My reasoning for not publishing this blog post was because I found the incident disconcerting. A few days later I was visited by a plain clothed policewoman who was secretly investigating the illegal shooting of seals and had heard of my discovery. She asked me to not breathe a word about her presence. Seals cause a problem to fish farming on Shetland. Meeting her made me think a lot about how the balance of nature and farming needs to coexist and when I got home I asked several fish farmers about the issues. Where we live there are seal alarms on every fish farm and I gather from a sound recording friend who has tried to record underwater, that the alarms are audible under water for miles around. Apparently they are so disruptive that the Whales who swim up the West Coast can’t hear each other because of all the human sounds. It is naive to think that our world is a natural one; man has his finger print on it all.
Some of you will know that I have a passion for sheds and this leads me to suffer from shed envy of anyone who is lucky enough to have one! I have spent years wandering round the garden at Ard Daraich dreaming of building a shed! I want to sleep in it on light summer nights, watch the dusk at eleven pm and the dawn at two. I want to be away from phone or internet and just be in the present, uninterrupted, to think and work.
Henry has restored a derelict stone shed, Littlure Bothy, a fisherman’s bothy, overlooking the most beautiful inlet, a Geo as they are called in Shetland. Having found me painting on the hill, he offered to lend it to me as a studio for the rest of my visit. I was thrilled as I had heard about it when here in April and had spotted it in the far distance when on another walk. I knew, therefore, that it was not a very long walk but it was not next door. I was assured that it took twenty minutes and on the first day I was taken by surprise as, striding across the prostrate heather, I was interrupted by a phone call (mostly there is no signal) I sat in a dip, a rabbit warren, out of the wind and talked to a friend a world away and so when I resumed my walk and reached the hut it had taken me forty minutes. I guess I stop a lot and look at things, views and details. The most memorable pause was finding an inlet, protected from a boiling sea by a row of ferocious teeth or rocks, protecting a calm circular cove. As I appeared, a row of heads appeared as well. I don’t know the collective noun for seals but I now term them “a parliament of seals”. They were so friendly, so curious and seemed blissfully at home in their natural element with surf crashing round them but basking in the still water and sunshine. Seals appear to sunbathe, lying on their back, star gazing and apparently just enjoying the elements, the sun, water and movement. A mammal clearly enjoying itself. I am told there is a more scientific reason, the sun helps manage the parasites they host on their skin.
Each time I walk to the Bothy I notice something different. It’s as if the walk here has become part of the daily practice and is like a meditation before beginning to work. Working from home as I do, I haven’t experienced the separation from work and life since I left day-school at the age of sixteen so unlike the majority, this is a new opportunity for me. I am quite sure a commute on the tube would not feel the same but it is a time to gather your thoughts and leave the concerns of domesticity behind and empty yourself for the new things ahead. I remember someone telling me they saw a man remove his wedding ring on his way to work in London. All sorts of new opportunities lie ahead, obviously!
The wind has dropped and whilst yesterday was swathed in fog, today is bright, calm and soft. A glorious day. I decided to alter my route this morning and walk on the other side of the inland loch. Two days ago when passing this place, I was fascinated by a group of large birds having a bath. They were a small group of large brown birds on the shore preening themselves in the sun with one afloat on the water, involved in a lot of dunking and diving. On being disturbed they inevitably changed their behaviour and a pair took off wheeling round in an elaborate dance. The silhouette was reminiscent of a bird of prey, dark chocolate brown with a white tip to each wing, not a seabird I thought but maybe some sort of goose? Later it was suggested they were Bonxie or Great Skua, an aggressive sea bird that I hadn’t come across until on Fair isle for my birthday.
Today had a different surprise, three large white swans, Whooper Swans, again on the shore preening until disturbed when they took to the water. A sign of the beginning of the winter migration? We get lots of these swans on a freshwater loch in Ardgour but usually as a mark to the end of winter. These are marking the other end of the breeding season and the summer.
Continuing to skirt the edge where beautifully constructed dry stone dykes disappear under the water, I was delighted to see another three swans appear and quickly come into land on the water too. Two groups of three, sizing each other up just like young men out for an evening or Italian families strutting their stuff after work. They swam towards each other and like men preparing to joist, rose up, almost vertical as if the water was solid and could take their weight, flapping their wings at one another. It made a great noise; slapping feathers on water. Posturing. Was it the behaviour of the males? Some swans didn’t react, leaving their friend to defend them. Were they the females? Having grouped together, too friendly, too soon, they burst apart like billiard balls, scattered across the surface.
I left the loch and continued down to the shore and the fishermans bothy. There was a seal outside in the bay sunbathing as usual with his nose in the air looking like a stout Italian wine bottle, afloat.
Someone found a message in a bottle. It had been put into a bottle somewhere north of here by a boy on holiday. I hope he was excited to get a message back with a map showing where his bottle was found. Maybe he had hoped for the Caribbean or Canada but in a week it had traveled the length of Shetland.
A pair of Otters
All wildlife went to ground
Resented sharing bay with others then realised they were fishermen having their breakfast, hooted and waved on departure. Felt selfish that I had distrusted them.
If writing a wildlife blog I would be scoring high with my sightings so far.
My living bottle resurfaced, sunbathing! Amazing how long he just lies there floating. I can hear his snuffles when he drops to0 low and water goes up his nose!
Hovering, like a semi-detached sibling, on the horizon, is the island of Foula. From the bothy it comes in and out of view depending on the weather. When first here I didn’t see her at all but then one day I arrived and there she was, sitting on her line between the sea and the sky often with a cloud on her head by way of hair.
Interesting how, when the weather is calm and the sea swills about following its own internal force pulled by the moon but no longer whipped by the wind, the connection that I come to rely on in order to work is weakened and requires much more teasing to find a thread. At the moment my work feels best when responding to the forces of nature in their extremes. No doubt a psychoanalyst would say that was because the external forces more closely mirror my internal ones. That may be true and it shows my passionate nature, something British society doesn’t know how to respond to, especially in women. But it explains why I am so excited by the forces of nature, my subject. There is a challenge in how to respond in quieter times. More careful observation is an opportunity but I am then drawn back into the same debate about the reason to make work and for me that is not about recording, it is about responding. A circle emerges in my internal debate and I have a bad habit of getting on the hamster wheel.
Of course another reason for responding to the drama of wild places in bad weather is that it mirrors the world I was brought up in. When raised in an atmosphere of continual conflict in which there is no hiding place, your emotional hard wiring become trained to expect drama and conflict as normality. As my life has moved into more tranquil times with the life I have constructed for myself as an adult, my dna still feels at home when the drama continues. Perhaps that is why so many people who move to the highlands feel at home here. This is not my culture but it is my home. It is a pity, in these difficult political times, that I don’t feel more welcome.
Something to learn is how to observe the cycles of your own creativity. It too seems to mirror the weather in its cyclical nature. Flurries of ideas like a blizzard of snow engage you in the process of making. And afterwards the calm of a quieter day. And then there are the days when nothing goes right, when you cling to the life raft knowing this is part of the process, painful though it may be. My belief is that it is a connection with these emotions that allow one to be creative. As if your own internal rhythms are pulled to and fro like the sea by the moon. There are those who believe the moon acts on us too. How strange it is that humans spend so long disguising these forces with a man-made world, one disconnected from the nature of life. But now there are too many of us and so I should be satisfied that I have this cove to myself while so many are busy elsewhere.
All photos taken with my i phone.
Today (Thursday 8th September)I took a day off and decided to go out in the car.
I was lucky enough to have been asked out to lunch by someone I really respect as a painter and felt excited at the thought of getting to know someone more who is a much better a painter than I am. Usually, if I meet successful people I am inhibited to the point of being rendered speechless, something those of you who know me must realise is quite a feat! But not with this painter. I am sure we could talk for a year…I had to leave after four hours just to make sure I didn’t completely take over her day.
In conversation about painting, painters and all things painterly, I found myself describing how I make my work. I started by asking a question and picking up a piece of A4 printer paper I asked about the proportion of a piece of paper to its own half and halved again, its quarter. Those of you who are mathematical will already be exasperated but I really struggle with why a sheet of paper halved looks to be a different proportion than its parent, whole. As I have come away without a tape, something I usually have in my drawing bag and finding no string in the house, I have been reduced to using the apron string, (which just fell off while cooking supper, I must see if I brought a needle and thread) and by marking it with a pencil, trying to work out ratios. I quickly gave up; the task is too complicated and I found instead a ruler that I slipped into my box in a last minute panic. I worked out a square, and knowing that I didn’t want to paint on that (I always think you need to be Tiepolo painting a Venetian dome to pull off a square, everything swirls into a vortex and unless you are painting heaven, it is difficult to make everything sit still.) I wanted a rectangle but not such a thin one as a half sheet. After trying one or two variations, I settled for cutting off three inches. I am not very happy at not being able to get the proportion from the piece of paper exactly but I am persuaded that is irrelevant and verging on obsessive although it is neat!
Having established a pile of paper and up until this evening they have always been an exact subdivision of a whole sheet, now all the same, I work in sequence. Yesterday I was working across 8 pieces, sometimes one after the other and on occasion all at once, something akin to printmaking. My reasoning is to find ways and means by which to circumvent the self-conscious. I often meditate before I work and most effectively when in the landscape with which I want to engage. I am bored with the representational, it is often easy on the eye but leads the viewer into a narrative of their own making. I would like to draw the viewer in but to challenge them to take a little longer, not dismiss the work by thinking that does or does not look like a tree hill sea. It is more an invitation to engage with the work to see if they can catch a whisper, a suggestion, a hint of an experience they may remember and set off a reverberation, a connection, not from the head but more positively, from the heart. Because of trying to distill the essence, it is essential to travel to the place, set myself within it and allow it to affect me, working at the subject from the outside in, so that as I become more familiar, the contours of recognition fall away and hopefully, something of the essential quality is captured. Not only do I want to make the work IN the place and OF the place but also, so as to be able to create a greater sense of connection, by making tools from found objects AT the place.
One of the features of this part of the Shetland archipelago is that along with strong winds and many varieties of seabird, there is also the strange characteristic of finding sea creatures on top of hills and feathers growing like flowers. Presumably the bird looses the feather in the ferocity of the wind and the quill lands, point down, embedding itself within a prostrate heather plant. And so as I walk about this headland I pick feathers reminiscent of some unearthly plant dropped there by angels! These are my brushes. And I have found them in all sizes and am developing a use for all but the very smallest which I just horde, amazed at their delicacy.
Whilst out drawing the other morning I met a man. He turns out to be the owner of this piece of West Mainland and was curious as to what I was doing, spotted from afar, he saw white squares and wondered what they were. My drawings flapping in the wind.
I have developed a canny way with bulldog clips and clip the drawings windward, to my clothing and my bag. Sometimes I put a leg through the strap and through the armhole of my waistcoat. I expect I look rather peculiar but luckily there are not many around to see.
Anyway on this occasion I was spotted. And this kind man came and introduced himself and we discussed the weather and the sheep. I remembered that we had met at a private view when I was here in April, and on being reminded of that he immediately asked me to supper. I was shy as I had only spoken to his wife at the exhibition and I thought she might be rather put out to suddenly have a stranger to feed. But I should not have worried. They are kind people and doing bed and breakfast themselves, are used to entertaining strangers. We soon discovered lots in common and I was fascinated to discover she had been trained by Cordon Blu and was examined by Constance Spry herself after a night out in London til 4am but she still got 98 percent for her caramel pudding with a caramel sauce!
Since our first conversation I have also discovered that she is in the midst of boiling up greengage damsons and Bramley apples to the same recipes we use from the big fat pink bible that is Constance Spry’s cookery book! Lots of talk about the cost of jam jars, how to label and how to charge and I felt momentarily disappointed that Norrie and I have now decided to stop our concoctions except for personal use.
I had another piece prepared for the next entry but due to circumstances that will become clear later, I have had to replace it with something else.
When I arrived in Scalloway in April it took a long time to find my way into a subject. Those of you who follow these musings will know that inevitably I was drawn to the edge and through planning some walks, eventually found my way into an interpretation of the place where the land meets the sea. This work was conceived as sequences reflecting the continuous line that coastline represents.
Over the summer, my other life took over. As I already do the many administrative tasks associated with running a business, it is not hard to change topic by a few degrees and also fill in applications. One of these was for The Royal Scottish Academy Open held every year during the Edinburgh Festival in the National Gallery for Scotland on the mound in Edinburgh.
I was delighted when both pieces submitted were accepted. One piece was made during my residency in Scalloway, the other from some time I spent on the isle of Eigg.
Here are some other Shetland sequences and I am now waiting to see if they have been selected for another exhibition.
The last entry was about leaving Shetland. Now I have returned and I have written nothing in between. Contrary to hopes and expectations, my life has not been my own and I have been overwhelmed by the domestic duties of running a Bed and Breakfast in a busy tourist season.
I have always believed that there is dignity in manual work and never understood why it is reasonable to have someone else to clean your loo, make your bed or look after your children. Consequently, I have taken great pride in choosing a life in which there has been a lot of physical work and for the most part enjoyed the practical side of helping to make things beautiful. Mixing plaster like a fine white sauce, just as critical to avoid lumps as when making cauliflower cheese, cooking a three course dinner with only a cold tap and a warped table or steam cleaning eighteenth century cornice full of generations of lime wash, scrubbing floors, cleaning lavatories, digging and hedge trimming. All these things have been part of my life and as far as a non political statement about how to remain self-sufficient and independent of any view the state might have about how I should spend my time, I have tried to demonstrate that there is another way. Now I am ready to take this one step further. Something has changed now I am sixty. My body needs continuous management as I develop aches and pains and I feel at last that it is time for a change.
This summer at Ard Daraich has been largely wet and I have found myself gazing out of the window, admiring the thrumming, vibrating lushness of so many greens and instead of a paintbrush with which to engage I have had an iron or a lavatory brush in my hand and the gaze becomes interrupted by the financial imperative of preparing for the next visitor. We are planning for this to change and I have arrived on Shetland with a sheaf of unfinished drawings from my visit in April, and to a place we found together when last here. This time I will not scour the islands looking for a context and a connection. I have chosen a place and I will work from here, just here, absorbing the atmosphere and the specific aesthetic. I arrived last evening and was met by a friend who kindly offered to come to the airport to meet me. On the plane I met a regular frequenter of the Shetland flight and on landing she introduced me to the airport cat. A large and ancient ginger tom asleep in the arrivals/departure lounge. My friend, a painter, had agreed to lend me drawing boards because although I had paper and materials sent by post, it seemed very extravagant to post sheets of wood! I was escorted back to my new friends house and welcomed with a delicious hot supper. Just what I needed and so kind.
I set off in my hire car, full of the smell of stale cigarettes and the white sand of Shetland beaches. I am now in the perfect cottage in the perfect location. I couldn’t describe anywhere with more atmosphere and fascination. I hope that the next two weeks will help lay some of the demons to rest as I struggle with a real paint brush rather than the one in my imagination.
Life as a painter in the Highlands of Scotland.
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Visual Artist and Islander
Life as a painter in the Highlands of Scotland.
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Artist specializing in painting/drawing, printmaking and photography. Also an avid explorer and traveller. This blog documents my art, photography and travels to wild, remote and beautiful places.
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Life as a painter in the Highlands of Scotland.
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