April on Shetland

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The Booth during Storm Imogen, 8th February 2016. 105 mph winds recorded on Shetland.

After my return from Iona, eighteen months ago, I made an application to come here, the blue building in the photograph above, to continue my island odyssey and develop new work. It’s a measure of how popular The Booth is that it is only now, April 2016, that I am here. I applied for January but having been here this month, I am relieved that it was not January they offered. It is not entirely convenient to be here now as April is the month of my birthday and this year it is a significant one. So after three weeks of being alone, working, Norrie is arriving this evening with a friend from Mull and Norrie and I are off for a weekend of exploring and then, when he goes home with my car on the ferry, C and I will continue investigating the further reaches of these islands and for a generous birthday present, I am being taken to Fair Ilse.

I have enjoyed the days lengthening which seems to be speeding up. It is still cold and quite often wet with squalls hitting the building about every twenty minutes. I was asleep on the one night of good Northern Lights and so, as usual, I missed them. The first ten days were unseasonably warm and sunny and made it possible to be outside most of the time. The work was slow and I was uncertain of a way forward. Shetland is new to me and I decided to find out more, not only about the geography and geology but also by just living here. I have been to the cinema three times, something I have never done alone before, met other artists and followed up introductions given to me before arrival. It has all helped me to bed in. I have really enjoyed my conversations, especially with E, a friend of a friend and G, a painter whose work I think is exquisite.

http://www.arushagallery.com/artists/gail-harvey

This evening, the weekend and next week will be different and so I have developed a work practice that is portable, small and which will enable me to continue next week, collect more information, begin new ideas, all in order that when I get home I will be able to carry on and finish the pieces I have begun here. The summer is a busy time at Ard Daraich, one of the reasons I use the winter to get away and focus, so it will be good to have some work under way which will enable me to smoothly transfer location without too much disruption. Time will tell if I succeed.

I have described how I have enjoyed the panoramic function on my phone. It has helped me capture something of the rolling horizontality of Shetland, something that is very different from the verticality of Lochaber. As a result I have made small pieces which when placed together, form a chain or narrative of the places I have been. They are not explicit but try to capture something of the elemental nature I have seen. As usual I have been using pure pigment but this time in combination with graphite which suggests something of a lava flow.

To add a last note, I have failed to upload all the photos I had collected to add here, both of my work and where I have been. The broadband is not quite as reliable on Shetland as I had come to believe. It reminds me of home where you can’t get online at all when the children get home from school. And now I have just received a phone call to say that Norrie’s plane has been grounded at Kirkwall due to a technical problem and they are having to fly another from Aberdeen. When he asked what problem they had, their answered that a wheel was about to fall off. I am grateful that they are safely on the ground and waiting.

We are besieged by technical hazards which reminds me of quite where I am, so far north.

 

 

 

 

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Muckle Roe

Whist I have been on Shetland the weather has been good. I am told it is not always like this but nearly every day has had some sunshine and so it seems mistaken to spend all day inside, working. Working removed from my subject is something I am never comfortable with and so what better reason than dry weather, to be outside. There is something deep inside that relaxes, feels at home and instantly curious; in some sense it feels like going home when I go out. But I have come here to work and being in this creative space has given me a sense of guilt that I am not justifying my visit with important output! Going for walks, exploring the map and looking at digital images whilst planning where to go next is not the same as making work. However, Shetland is new to me and quite strangely different and I have decided to let it seep into my blood, sit with it and let it take me where it will while I search for the resonance required to make authentic work.

Yesterday I awoke with this dilemma sharply in focus and decided the best way to resolve the conflict was to trust my instinct and draw on the ways I know best and once again, go outside. During the previous day I had been to Lerwick and to their first-rate bookshop “The Shetland Times” to buy another map. In planning my time here I had bought some maps with me but it shows how large Shetland is, that it takes five maps to cover the whole archipelago. Scalloway is in the middle of Shetland Mainland and so I had only expected to explore South Mainland and West Mainland and thought the The North would be too far. But after recommendations, I decided to extend my range to North Mainland and later, next week, with friend C, to go to the North islands of Yell and Unst.

So equipped with picnic, (which I didn’t eat) my new map which is so modern it has an app you can download onto your phone and enough diesel, I went out yet again, this time following the signs to North Islands, heading for Muckle Roe, an island just off the west coast and attached by a short causeway.

As with almost everywhere I have been, to see the best of the landscape involves being prepared for a walk. Little I have seen is easily accessible without being prepared to leave the car which of course, just like on the isle of Eigg, restricts the size of work as everything has to be carried and secured from the wind.

Part of the internal conflict has been about wanting to scale up my work and I have spent a lot of the time trying to devise a work practice that can capture the essence of place with enough information on site to continue when back in the warmth and dry of the studio. This has led me along a tunnel of uncertainty and has produced a pile of rejected work.

To reconnect with my instinct and knowledge of what works best for me (something it is all to easy to lose connection with when swept up in the ways of the world and convention) I had packed a number of small pieces of paper and a minimal set of drawing tools and went exploring. The map had a large blue footprint at the end of the road which had a polite sign saying this is the end of the public road and a rather ad hoc car park. I parked and started to walk and quickly found another sign with map telling me this was a Core Path and I had a choice of a two or four kilometer walk. The shorter route led to a lighthouse along the coast and the other along a track inland passing a series of freshwater lochs. As always, I chose the coastal route and within ten minutes was so struck by the view I was drawing already.

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When working on the structure of a drawing, it is hard not to be seduced by the breadth of the landscape here. Except when looking at detail, there are few verticals. I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed the panoramic app in my phone camera and have enjoyed the images it has taken. By the end of the walk I had decided to revert to the folded books I often make or perhaps work on a scroll format. I had come to the conclusion that internal conflict was a waste of energy and that if I enjoy working small and portable, I should stop minding, relax and enjoy the things I have seen. The coast here really is breathtaking and is my usual subject but here it is harsh and severe, unrelenting and ferocious. On just a short walk I had crept along the top of a cliff where even the pathbuilders had supplied a hand rail, struggled with my vertigo which was unpleasant and been grateful for my fantastic coat. With the hood up, I was able to turn my back on a severe hailstorm and stand it out, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see how close the blue sky had blown and by keeping my hood up was able to negotiate the more frightening places on my return where I just kept looking at my feet with the hood obscuring the view.

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Before returning to the car I sat in the sun above a sandy bay watching the rabbits and noticing the bonsai heather they have created with the combination of grazing and burrowing. A lunar landscape.

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A few of things I have seen

Having driven, walked and poured over maps for a week and a half, I have been to some amazing places and seen some extraordinary things. Understanding the landscape here in a painters way would take twenty years or more but I am beginning to appreciate the forces at work which make this place what it is. However, to translate that into a visual response is another matter.

The elements are stronger and more extreme than anywhere I have been before but the evidence of that is in what I can read from the landscape rather than in the experience. My visit has been blessed with exceptional weather and apart from a cold wind, colder than any I am used to, the sun has been bright and warm and the spring flowers are appearing. Verges are smothered with Celandine and the Coltsfoot is thrusting its leafless head through verge gravel in its strangely determined way.

Plants that flower with no leaves are an oddity, like Colchicum, or autumn flowering crocus, which produce huge leaves in the spring and then nothing else. When they have died down and you have noticed with mild disappointment, the non event, a delicate mauve glass-like vessel appears in September or October which is the flower, strangely naked without its supporting coat of leaves to surround it.

As you know, my painterly interest does not lead me to represent the view in the conventional sense. I am more interested in developing a language to suggest something of the forces at work behind what you see. The pounding sea, the gale force winds and the ripping currants have produced an extraordinary land with cliffs and stacks, drowned valleys and rolling brown hills covered in heather, grazed and blown into a tightly packed carpet. I can’t reproduce the wind funnel or storm force seas that pick up rocks the size of cars and hurl them yards inland but I can explore a vocabulary of dark black forms, silhouettes, deeply rooted against a swirling environment of air and water and follow where it takes me.

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Another list, this time of sounds heard and creatures seen.

Air full of the song of skylark

Call of the lapwing

The coo of the eider duck

Strings of eider duck outside the window

Herring gull dissecting a star fish outside the window

Several otters, twice seen swimming past the window

White hares

Pairs of curlew

Shetland ponies

No potholes

Perfect tarmac

 

 

 

 

Words

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Bridge of Walls
Muckle Ward
Mouldy Hill
Johnny Sinclairs Nose
Swabwall
Fitful Head
Blackholes
Cannygates
The Rump
Noup of Noss
Headless Banks
Cauldhame
Trouda
Burra
Whale Wick
Papil
Houss
Toogs
Papa
Hoggs of Hoy
Nesting

Just a few of the names seen on signposts or found on the map as I continue to explore.

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I love this. A hollow dug out to shelter a boat from the howling winds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Impressions.

 

Norrie and I spent the weekend exploring. After three hours of using our B&B skills to clean the Studio and move in, we started by driving to Lerwick and visiting the museum. There is so much to see there that we were full after an hour and decided the collection held enough interest to demand a second visit. There is a contemporary gallery running adjacent to the culture, history, geology and archeology displays and the exhibition was a wonderful compliment. The work was by artist Lois Walpole, a textile artist who collects polypropylene waste from the fishing industry, ghost gear, found washed up on the beach and woven into modern objects. This was displayed as an installation which provokes a subtle commentary on the heritage of Shetland. Amongst other things there were beads spun from unraveled rope reminding me to fishing floats, place mats laid on a table to demonstrate how many people lived in a small croft and baskets woven into sculptural forms which made reference to the baskets used to carry peat away from the cuttings on the hill.

 

I used the geological display to research interesting places. Places that drew my curiosity and might prove to become subjects in some way.

Living in the Highlands as we do, it is interesting to compare the similarity and the divergence of how life was lived in the past. Shetland is more different that I had imagined. With ancient trading links to Northern Europe it feels like another world and the language is different too.

The following day we decided to investigate one peninsula which looked remote but not too far or inaccessible. The geology is red sandstone and so the topography has a subtle difference. More intimate in scale with a dramatic coastline, it helped me realise that there are two types of coast on Shetland. The dramatic and ferocious outer rim and the flooded valleys or Voes of the interior after the melting of the ice age. I thought I was looking for drama, steep precipitous cliffs, arches and stacks. Having found just such a place I realised that on my own I would not feel safe and Norrie became concerned that if I slipped no one would know who I was or where to find me. So I agreed to look for safer places and as I get vertigo it wasn’t a hard promise to make because I am actually too frightened to look over the edge!

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Before Norrie returned to the mainland we had time to explore Jarlshof, an archeological site run by Historic Scotland near the southern tip of the islands. Revealed by a storm at the end of the nineteenth century it proved to be not only the best ancient site on Shetland but to demonstrate human habitation for four thousand years. The structures were built one on top of the other. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the building which seemed so organic and yet so sophisticated. There was something haunting about the similarity with the workings of bees in a hive and the way the wheelhouses were designed as circular structures reminding me that humans and nature are one and the same and that it is only recently that we have lost a connection with the natural rhythms that once ruled our lives.

Already we have seen several places where there are double beaches or Tombolo, one facing west and one facing east. This was true for Jarlshof too. If the wind and sea were too rough and strong from the west, ancient man could go east to fish and find food. Shetland is also an isolated archipelago and as such has developed alone. People, plants and animals have had time to develop away from other influence and with the extension of the gulf stream it is warmer here than similar places on the same latitude like Anchorage in Alaska.

What to expect?

As Norrie sailed, I was lucky to fly and the plane was small enough that even with low cloud we were beneath it and so could see much of the land and seascape. I booked my seat well in advance and chose a window with no wing so had an excellent view all the way. The most surprising thing was how little time it took. Norrie was on the ferry for well over 12 hours and the plane arrived over thirty minutes early in less than an hour and a half, having stopped on Orkney along the way.

 

In coming to Shetland I had little idea of what to expect. I had done some reading and looked at images and had a vague idea that I was coming to a Scottish version of Scandinavia but as I haven’t been there either I was not sure what to expect. Yet again I am lucky to be married to Norrie. He met me at the airport having arranged everything; an otter outside the window, the builder finishing the bathroom, the fridge full of food, a great place to eat and made friends with all sorts of people including the B&B landlady. We were ready to settle in and spend two days exploring. It was an adventure for Norrie too because although he has been to Orkney and Norway, never to Shetland.