The Struggle.

The trouble with electing to come away from home to focus exclusively on making work is that you are putting yourself under pressure to produce. It is wonderfully uplifting when all goes well but there is light and dark in every part of life and when an authentic voice is hard to find, you are left in a wilderness. I know this is true of a second novel and have come across a prize especially designed to assist those engaged in that struggle. The experience of going on a creative retreat is that it puts everything on the plate. At home there is so much distraction, the weeding, the leaf sweeping, the henhouse that needs cleaning and oh so much more, that the pendulum swings the other way. Away from it all, you are faced with every creative uncertainty and insecurity you are able to dream up. But I am experienced enough to know that this too is part of the process. Somehow, however, you invent the notion of an audience for whom you are performing and thus you create your own pressure, especially by electing to record the experience as it unfolds, which I am doing here.

Those of you who know me, know too that one of my closest held principles is a determination to uphold the truth, even at the price of discomfort. Of course it then begs the question, whose truth do you seek? The answer has to be that you can only pursue your own truth and it is only you who really knows if you digress. I can almost count on one hand the number of times I have knowingly told a lie and I have instilled this quality into one of my sons who has tried other more socially acceptable forms of being, only to know of himself that he is transparent in his mistruths! Of course if you get good enough at lying, you also lie to yourself but that is the route to self-delusion and eventual mental illness and not one I wish to examine. The world of managing your own PR, to release only the glossy and upbeat is not truthful. Life is not real if only equipped to acknowledge the light. Where have the shadows gone? Oh, but now that is described as Negative. Not negative, just balanced. I include this personal paragraph here in order to create a context to describe my experience of the creative struggle. As a postscript I would also add that a disadvantage of this trait is that you get the reputation of directness which some people find discomforting. But it is not possible to create authentic self-expression if you do not pursue the truth; that is why so much art invites the observer to move into more uncomfortable territory and probably why so much landscape painting results merely in the picturesque.

This island of Tiree has confused me and perhaps I need to stay longer to find a language that speaks of it. I was brought up in East Anglia and disliked the landscape there throughout my childhood. In those days, the sixties, there were still elm trees of cathedral like proportions and the fashion for sweeping away all rural character that was not in production, had not quite wreaked the havoc it has now. In preparing to come here to the isle of Tiree, I read somewhere that it is described as the East Anglia of the Highlands. I must say that sentiment filled me with anxiety. It is true that it is pretty flat and that the skies seem very large. The impression of the landscape is horizontal. However, the similarity to the landlocked part of south Cambridgeshire that I grew up in, ends there.
Much of the interior of this island has given way to deserted fields of rush. There are the remains of abandoned peat cuttings and except for the outcrops of low knobbly rock breaking through the surface, everything at the western end as I am, except for three low hills and the buildings, are in the horizontal plane. In drawing, that is where I started and began by thinking of the stripped landscape of light and dark, water and land. On the coast this translates into sea and sky. So, I have been playing with where to place the horizon. The horizon is the meeting of one form with another, where one element meets another. That has led to the next concern. How to find a path to a form expression that lies between the representational and the expressive. It is too easy and seems irrelevant to set out to draw this landscape in a figurative manner. Perhaps the horizon is best described merely as a line? The meeting, or is it the dividing, of two elements?

In order to find a route into this language I have been playing!

I have supported strips of paper and trickled paint down their length. Laid flat and by turning them ninety degrees they suggest the horizontal elements of sky, land and water.
I have tricked glue and drawn with sand.
I have taken paper and paint out onto a beach in a storm and thrown everything at it only for it to get sand encrusted and then washed off in a shower. Weather Painting, the suggested title!
I have gone out at dusk and traced the horizon so only the outlines are clear.
I have sat on a beach with watercolour and bottles of water, wetting sheet after sheet of paper to create the richness of tone and hue.
I have eaten porridge every morning, gone for long walks and drunk a lot of coffee
And still I don’t know where I am going…
The antidote to the film we often watch, Carl Pressburgers “I Know Where I am Going” set on an island off the west coast of Mull!

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I have now been on the isle of Tiree for a week.

It has taken this long to find a place, outside, where I feel comfortable and able to paint. With the rhythm of the surf as a pulse to work to, somewhere to leave the car within easy reach if I need to replenish my materials and most importantly, few people about, I set out my equipment and worked for several hours undisturbed.
Unlike my first excursion into the immediate locality, this place appears to be managed by a farmer more in sympathy with the environmental concerns of the western seaboard. There is a map with natural history notes and an endorsement from several national environmental initiatives including SNH and RSPB, no doubt contributing financially to this low impact husbandry. There are few or no fences, cattle roaming in a herd through the dunes and information explaining the land management to enlist your sympathy.
As the light fell, I packed up and went for a walk. Rounding a rocky promontory I discovered an enormous white beach echoing with the eerie call of the Curlew punctuated by the occasional Oystercatcher. I paid little attention until I got too close to a flock of birds on the beach; I assumed they were starlings (if you had asked me) until they flew off. I was amazed to realise that I was watching a flock of curlews, seventy or a hundred, which wheeled away over my head and into the dunes.
At home, as I go to bed, I open the bedroom window next to my side of the bed. I do this to let in the sounds of the shore close to our house and more noticeable after the last ferry crossing. It is always with a thrill that I recognise the voice of the occasional solitary curlew. I assumed they were solitary birds but it appears that I was wrong. On our more inland waterway they must be rare, no doubt in decline and probably on the red list (I must look them up) Tiree may be one of the protected places where they can still thrive without the inevitable intervention that our modern world likes to describe as Progress. Progress to where? is my usual thought; Oblivion seems likely! Extinction of many, many species, a certainty.
Since I arrived on Tiree it has been hard to find a subject and find my groove. Lucky I started a daily practice at home during July and August and so this is the obvious place to start. Although I had been packing for weeks, grabbing the odd moment, I find myself here with very few brushes and those I brought are rather short of bristles! Recently, someone looked at my brushes and said they were well used. I was rather taken aback thinking she meant worn out and when I thought about it, I guess I haven’t bought many for at least twenty years, so yes, I suppose those I have are rather bristle free! Never mind, a feather, a piece of kelp stalk or some plastic detritus from the beach will suffice. However, it is rather irritating to think of two pots full of lovely brushes in my studio at home.

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But the SUBJECT is a different matter. It would be churlish to say that when I planned this visit I hadn’t given serious consideration to fine weather. We have had the wettest summer, almost in living memory, in Lochaber. Now, just as people had given up in dismal despair, we have had the most wonderful September. And so here I am with a suitcase of jerseys and waterproofs expecting torrential rain and wind only to be challenged with positively Greek colours, Blue blue sea and a sky to match. Jolomo is not my favourite artist despite his popularity in Scotland and his consequent commercial success (apparently a sign of good painting to some) and I am not going to succumb to painting glistening white croft cottages with indian red tin roofs and turquoise sea. But it is not the pallet I was expecting and how many blue pictures of the seaside does the world need?

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None the less, a daily practice has emerged. Equipped with some strips of heavy watercolour paper and having met Jonathan Shearer, a vastly reduced pallet in my first watercolour tin which I have had since my teens, I go out every day and make several wet on wet drawings. Colours of Tiree they are becoming. And eventually I will have over 100 and so 100 Colours of Tiree might be their name.

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As I have described before, I was pulled by the sea when on Iona and worked on the beach looking out at the surf. So back to the beach I have gone here too but on Tiree there are about 25 beaches to choose from and with a car they are all within easy reach. I started by exploring those closest to me here and have gradually expanded my reach until today I revisited somewhere we were shown when we came here in February. It couldn’t have looked more different, with almost iridescent green waves with just the right amount of spray being blown back as they broke, reminding me of the depiction of waves as white horses that may be the territory of children’s book illustration. There were two or three surfers there but the beach is huge and anyway I was on a mission to go and explore a ruined chapel further round the rocky coast. In February Norrie and I didn’t make it that far as we were so hypnotised by the rocks and every detail, we got distracted by taking photos and even a little film. Our friends went on and mentioned the chapel on their return so I decided I would go and explore. As I approached, a lone Raven, standing on a rock made his presence known and standing his ground continued to caw until he got a reply. Whenever I see a Raven I think it is my father keeping an eye on me. You can tell with my name that I am rather keen on birds although I know little about them. Ravens pair for life (I am an exception to this habit) and when they established where each other were, they slowly flew off, in no hurry but not wanting my intrusion to come too close.

 

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Today I woke to a dull, drizzly day and so decided to catch up on some admin, photograph the work made so far and spend some time painting as the sun came out. I am scaling up my strips and moving from watercolour to pigment.

There is no internet at Machair Cottage and although I have a smart phone the connection is not reliable enough to send anything more than a short message. Instead, I have been using a wifi hotspot at the rural centre. Today, when I arrived, I was rather surprised to discover the car park full and half a field outside, covered in heavy-duty agricultural vehicles, many with trailers. There were small fields full of sheep and so I soon realised there must be a serious local event, the Mart. Buyers come from the mainland five times a year to bid for cattle and sheep and the final section is reserved for breeding ewes that don’t leave the island so the ferry can work to its timetable without leaving any new acquisitions behind. As I set up my workstation, there was a strong smell of cow dung and lots of rugged men and some women in waterproofs. Every chair had mud on it and so I gave up looking for a clean place to sit and settled down to the background of rapid fire bidding and bacon rolls. The bidding for cattle was so rapid that it got to over a thousand pounds in a few seconds. I didn’t stay long enough to hear the sheep prices which I believe are down on last year. With a new vegan shadow minister of agriculture at Westminster, I wondered what she would make of this economy? There is no doubt that the livestock look well fed and totally free range, so if we are to eat less meat, what would replace livestock for the people of Tiree? It seems extremely unlikely that they will go back to grain. Silage is all I have seen by way of a crop. But I think the new responsibility about land use and animal welfare will not choose Tiree as a place to start. Perhaps that could be factory farming, with chickens as a beginning?

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Tiree | The first Week.

Tiree | The First Week.

Having arrived on the isle Tiree two days ago I am now beginning to feel more orientated and familiar with my new immediate surroundings. The house snuggles into a dip in the ground, so different from modern homes that sit up, looking surprised, on high foundations as if they have just been thrown down, like a dice and having landed, are looking at their new environment for the first time. Not this house. It feels as if it has grown from the ground which I suppose, in a way, it must have done. Someone collected the stone to build the walls three feet thick. The roof is like a resting boat, turned upside down to have its bottom calked and sealed with pitch to keep the seawater out. So too, this roof is sealed from the rain with pitch over hessian and sarking boards. I can’t help but feel that these island people had skills which were applied to any task they had, boats or houses. Materials too must have been scarce with lots of things, especially timber, imported from the mainland.
The disadvantage of living in a hollow is not being able to see very far into the landscape from the windows. An invitation, of course, to step outside. The cottage is surrounded by machair, or open pasture spangled with a tapestry of wild flowers. Only the last stragglers are left in September but you can see how rich the flora must be, by the variety of seed heads everywhere. The machair leads to sand dunes, which in turn run down to the sea and a large expanse of white sand and then the Minch beyond. So far, during the day, the location is obscured, making the island feel as if it is floating at sea, disconnected from the rest of the world. As the sun went down on the second evening the mist cleared and suddenly the craggy outline of other places emerged on the horizon. I could see Barra to the north, Skye and Rhum to the east and Mull to the south, all with high hills floating in and out of focus.

When I was on Iona last year I had no car and so I quickly learned that the logistics of carrying my materials compelled me to find a subject near at hand. This time I have brought a car but rather than scour the island for the perfect location, I have decided to learn a little of the landscape here before I strike out and go further afield.

Today is my third day and I may use the car, if only to buy some milk, but so far I have walked about and having studied the map, explored the two beaches that are nearby. Immediately I have hit a dilemma! Tiree is a very popular island and therefore has many visitors. As the windiest place in Britain it attracts all sorts of surfers, wind surfers, kite surfers and more and so I can see that if you live and work here you need to protect your life from a tsunami of visitors. As a fertile island it appears that farming is the main occupation. Where once may have grown corn, there are now big fat cows and a few sheep. Not Highland Blackface as we are used to, but fluffy sheep with pig like faces. The machair here is crisscrossed with fencing. Good robust stock fencing laced with two strands of electric wire and topped with the barbed variety. Judging by how few gates have been installed, it is clear that this farmer does not welcome walkers despite the right to roam in Scotland. It is difficult to feel sympathetic when all you want to do is walk about exploring but I understand how frustrating it is when people who may not know or respect the country code overwhelm you. Having watched the news last night and seen a British couple welcoming upwards of 60 boats of refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in Greece it is hard to empathise with this sort of xenophobia.

Having misunderstood the oven and forgetting to put on my glasses, I managed to make a pan full of burnt porridge. Having noticed the enormous number of birds here, I have started a burnt porridge bird table. The fields are full of lapwing, flap wing and there are scores of starlings. As you walk, blackbirds dart across your path and there are lots of hares, sunbathing in pairs or having an evening conference with all Hares friends and relations. They dash off in every direction when they become aware of another presence but I have been able to get quiet close before disturbing them. It is hard to forget my passion for jugged hare but seeing them here, living in what may be family groups, I am loosing my enthusiasm for jugged hare. However it is delicious and I am reminded of living in Camden Town when I had an arrangement with a Greek butcher to buy me hare and if I left a jamjar with him when placing the order, he would keep the blood. Not surprising then, that I became known as Dracula!

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The next project.

Hello MA,

Here, after various musings are my thoughts after our last conversation.

Perhaps we need another to see where we go with this?

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After a successful month on the Isle of Iona at the end of 2014 and then having had an interesting exhibition of the work made, I am now preparing to go away again but this time to the Ilse of Tiree.

For the last few years my work has focused on the western seaboard where the land meets the sea and in particular, the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.

With the title Close to the Edge I have embarked on a series of residencies and intensive painting journeys to explore and examine the area of Britain and Europe in which I live but of which I still know so little.

This is a process of submersion and submission. Submersion in the subject and submission into the landscape and all it can tell me with my limited understanding of reading history, geography and geology of this magnificent and varied part of the world.

Like with an onion, as you peel one layer away, another is revealed and new discoveries are made along with an acute awareness of how much more there is to know.

It is the exploration and subsequent discovery that is the subject of the residencies as much as the expression of subject matter and the investigation into the revelation of new things and places.

So far, in no systematic way, my exploration has taken me to various places on the West Coast from the Summer Isles in the north to Treshnish on the Isle of Mull and Lochmaddy on North Uist. Taking opportunity as it has arisen I have followed my nose and tried to open my mind and my heart to what I have seen and experienced.

Gradually some themes have emerged which inform the next decision.

Last year, 2014, I had an opportunity to go to Iona for a month, live in a caravan in all the weather could throw at me during November and December, to make new work.

I arrived in sunshine and could happily work outside with no real challenge from the elements. With several layers of clothing and my drawing bag I was able to head out and look for subjects.

Quickly I realised that the logistics of working outside with no car to retreat into or take me far, I was bound to a small area within which it was realistic to remain.

The north end of Iona is blessed with several stunning beaches and one in particular was a short walk away.

During the first few days I wandered about allowing the place and its atmosphere to soak in.

Each time I was drawn to the beach.

I live by the sea, with a beach within five hundred yards of our front door.

But it isn’t the same sort of sea.

Our sea, or Loch Linnhe to be precise, is more of a loch or inland waterway.

Surrounded by hills, the largest hills in Britain, our home territory has quiet a different feel.

The beach at Lagandorain is altogether different.

And so I began to make a series of pieces, created in sequences and allowing the rhythm, colour and taste of the surf that arrives on the first landmass for three thousand miles to inform the work. To record the experience I began this blog and so most of you will have read about it here.  It was transformative and on my return I was offered an exhibition and as part of the installation, I started a collaboration with Watercolour Music entitled Ardgour Artists.

It is this association that has led to my next residency and it is with them that I hope to forge a new collaboration.

Dear Anna,

Following our various meetings and discussions, I am writing to extend an official invitation from Watercolour Music, to use our property on the Isle of Tiree as the locus for the latest of your self-directed residencies. Having read of your residency on Iona, and having seen your resulting work, I am confident that Tiree will offer you the inspiration and seclusion you require to build on this island experience.

Watercolour Music regards this as a first step in exploring the potential for a network of mutual support (WT Ardgour Artists), and to that end, we look forward very much to seeing and hearing more about your time in Tiree.

Is mise le meas

Mary Ann

Mary Ann Kennedy

Watercolour Music Limited

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A Daily Practice (continued)

As I live in the Highlands I would feel pathetic if I allowed the midge to seriously put me off a great new idea! Of course they are an infernal irritation but just like the rain, have to be negotiated round; round rather than with, (I don’t think there is any talking to a midge!) I found Norrie’s bee hood and a jacket with a tight-fitting hood, a large plastic bag in which to put my hand, a drawing board and charcoal for those rainy moments and persuaded myself that if my vision was slightly obscured either by a net or by wet plastic or both, I would have a more general view of mass and form and needn’t become distracted with the detail. The kit was reconfigured to include an aerosol of Smidge, a great new repellant made from Bog Myrtle that does not smell like cheap hairspray as does the popular alternative. I was ready to begin.

Before heading up the glen I needed to put structure into the daily practice. Was it to be the same square yard of ground and the detail of flowers and moss that came and went over a period of time? Was it to be the same view from the same place? And perhaps most importantly of all, how was the work to be presented?  Were separate sheets of paper the correct approach or a sketch book with the right number of pages to draw for a month or a week or a year?  I settled on an approach using something I learned some time before. There are a number of ways to make a simple book from folding one sheet of paper and there are different forms depending where you make one cut. I re-examined some samples I made on a course and settled on a simple form, the making of which I was able to remind myself by watching a small boy demonstrate How to Make a Book on You Tube! The version I chose had a page for each day of a week and so I settled on the idea of making one book of drawings in a week and to make these simple books from sheets of cartridge paper all the same size.

I now had a form and my daily practice began on July 21st, a date that felt comfortable with divisions of seven. That was six weeks ago and I now have six books containing forty two drawings. I will bind them together and they will become Six Weeks of Drawing in Glen Gour.

On August 1st I decided to add a second drawing to my daily practice. This time not bound together but singular, on heavy watercolour paper of the same size and I continued to draw every day, for the month of August.

These two projects have just finished and have added immeasurably to my wellbeing and sense of continuity. It is now hard to contemplate a day without half an hour of drawing. I allowed my instinct and intuition to lead me to a place and to a subject and slowly, by degrees I found myself finding a time of day and a place to go that became a natural part of my day. There is now a path worn through the grass to a rock I sit on every evening and I go there as naturally as I do to the washing line or poly tunnel to pick our supper.

 

for the month of August.
A Drawing a day for the month of August.

 

Creative Practice.

Something happened today, more of which later, that reminded me that I need to resume writing my blog. Here is a small piece I wrote earlier this summer and which I will post now by way of introduction to later contributions.

When you live in an area that is generally considered inaccessible and remote, choices can be restricted. Without a sizeable private income, finding a way to make ends meet can be a challenge. I have noticed people arrive here because they fall in love with the landscape and then, several years later, look exhausted and have forgotten why they moved.

Norrie and I are both self-employed and making a living takes a great deal of time. Years ago we took stock of what we could do and decided to make our house and garden the centre of our lives both emotionally and financially. Tourism is an inevitable part of living in one of the most beautiful parts of Britain and so we open our lives throughout the summer to many guests. Living at Ard Daraich is like participating in an endless house party of wonderful people and we have extended our knowledge of the world and gained many friends by throwing the doors open. Tourism in the West Highlands is a very seasonal business. We have to make a living from the work we can do for only five or six months of the year. For the remaining months, our world shrinks to a small group of close friends and neighbours as we firstly regain our energy and then prepare for the following season. It also means that the creative process is endlessly disrupted.

Last week we were delighted to welcome friends Tom and Laurie Clark to come on what has become their annual visit. You could not imagine more appreciative visitors and with their simple life, which does not include a car, I feel it a great privilege to show them places they have not seen before. With a deep love of landscape and wild flowers we had yet another wonderful few days. They are also very generous with the interest they show in my creative practice. After sitting in my studio for an hour before supper, they suggested I try a more integrated approach to making and try not to see my life as either making work or making beds but to try doing both!

Tom and Laurie had recently returned from a visit to a monastery in Assisi, somewhere we are going later in the year. Those who have been to see them in Pittenweem will already know, their life has the dignified simplicity of the monastic, freeing them from the endless multitasking of our busy twenty first century lifestyle and so it was with great delight that they reminded me of something I find all to easy to forget. I yearn for simplicity and I achieve complexity.
To start a daily practice, suggested time, first thing in the morning. Get up half an hour earlier and go to the same place with the same equipment and draw for half an hour. Not a difficult task and as essential as the daily practice of a pianist or opera singer or monk.

So, today, 20th July is the first day and my subject, Glen Gour, fifty yards from Ard Daraich. Last night I sorted out a minimum of equipment and packed and repacked it into a small bag, too small and had to find a larger one. My thoughts were that I needed to distil the choices to be very simple and to repeat the same thing time after time. I woke, bathed and was in my studio before the household and set off with excitement. There was a light drizzle but I decided not to return for a more substantial coat as the clouds were high and there were wonderful mists hanging against the vibrant green of the hill in July. The walk takes me along an old drove road, a walk I am extremely familiar with as a dog walk a flower walk and evening walk a morning walk and a moonlit walk. An early morning walk is slightly outside my normal body rhythm! The colours were intense and yet again I remarked to myself how lucky I am to live next to such beauty and apparent wilderness, although the ecologist in me knows this not to be true of the west highlands despite the uneducated appearance that is what I am looking at.
I go as far as some large boulders, also familiar as a picnic spot, a suspected adder home and other repetition. And begin to look and then to set out my little kit. Within less than three minutes, despite the plop of trout and the screech of a buzzard family, I am driven to pack up. I was eaten alive and of course in all my enthusiasm for Toms idea I had forgotten the real reason I have not made much work in the glen this summer…it is midge heaven!