8.10.17

 

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After a day of walking no further than the outside latrine (these days known as a composting loo) yesterday I decided to walk to the pier which has a cafe, shop and Wi-Fi hot spot. There was no point waiting for the weather to improve and so, although I didn’t put on my waterproof trousers, I carefully packed them, along with the Wi-Fi technology, into a small backpack. Usually it’s full of painting materials, with brushes tied to sticks emerging from the top, so on this occasion I felt rather different, like the well-equipped guests we host at home with all the latest textiles and boots made from modern materials which I presume derive from the petrochemical industries. No wool, little if any cotton, just varying degrees of breathable waterproof plastics.

I set off at a brisk pace, having gathered that it took an hour, but if I stuck my thumb out I might get a lift. I was lucky and did, just before the steep assent to get to the middle of the island. It’s funny how you can build things up and an hour each way had felt too much out of my day, despite the fact that actually I have nothing to do! It was also because when here in the past I had a sore hip which got worse as I walked. With two yoga classes a week it is much improved and not a reason to hold me back. When you drop the fear or resentment and accept a thing, it becomes easier to do. I know that but I don’t often remember! My mood lifted as I set off on a little island outing to be amongst people and contact the outside world.

My main encouragement was to try to speak to my son. As it was Saturday there was a chance of speaking to him without risk of him being at work, even if he hadn’t taken my advice and asked for compassionate leave. Although I was getting over the shock, I am still haunted by such an untimely death of one so young and I grieve for the loss for my son of his closest friend. My son knew the password to his friend’s phone and laptop and his parents said he knew more than anyone about their son’s life. The last call on his phone was to my son, they often shared a flat, went on holiday together, shared the same interests and spoke several times a day. ‘Brothers’ is how they described themselves. Every night I am troubled by the thoughts of loss and was relieved to discover the radio here has rechargeable batteries so I can follow the vagaries of the BBC broadcasting schedules although I am now catching up with their repeats. I am aware that it is distraction. The soothing sound of the voice of another, telling me a story.

As my time here moves into the second week, my thoughts are also preoccupied by other concerns. One aspect of working in tourism is that our lives are determined by seasonality. Coming here at the end of the season and after a big change in our lifestyle as we give up cooking breakfast and changing beds every day, I have been very surprised by how much work it still is to divide the house in half and have strangers just through a door. It surprises me that, having given up the daily personal involvement, it has still turned out to be intrusive. Unfortunately, with this new project, we have attracted a different sort of guest and a number have proved too demanding and critical. On two occasions I have been sent a twenty point list of criticisms and it makes one wonder why these people decide to travel? Over the whole season we have had masses of appreciation, so why do I find the few dissatisfied people so troubling?

By October, we are usually exhausted. In other years, we have closed and gone away together, leaving a house-sitter in charge. Because it is the first year of a new project, we were uncertain about its success so decided instead to have a less ambitious break in November. The reason for this long-winded preamble – too much information as Norrie says – is that the question I find myself troubled by, is where has my creativity gone? Empty, depleted, uninspired are all words that describe how I feel.

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Living here in this perfect wooden hut feels like being cradled in a wooden womb. There is everything you need but no extras. Lucy has thought out every concern and still kept it simple and minimal. This is deliberate as she has discovered what gives her visitors the time and space to engage with their creativity and the Bothy Project works with her to provide subsidised residencies. I know all this and last time was on one of them, so why now am I empty of ideas?

Instead, I have decided to engage with the task of simple living; something I yearn for in my everyday. Reading Outrun has helped, as it is a gripping tale of just the same desire. There is an outdoor shower here which frightened me in the past, preferring instead to boil the kettle and strip off. This time I have used the shower and, with the careful management of the wood-burner and rationing of hot water, I have managed to have a great wash in what must be the most spectacular of locations, outside, looking up at the cliffs, with the caw of the ravens overhead, everything swathed in mist.

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You bring your food with you when you come here and I have enjoyed the simple eating and having small meals when I choose. I am even keeping a food diary to try and lose eight pounds. I brought a bottle of white wine which remains unfinished outside, deciding instead that it doesn’t interest me. I have read a lot and listened to the radio, but there is something missing and it is my desire to make work. Perhaps that is why I am writing so much, it feels easier than drawing, I don’t know why.

On the way home from the pier yesterday, I met a man who told there was a whole whale skeleton on the north shore. I long to walk there to see it, but the weather is misty, I am unfit and don’t know the territory. I decide on a less ambitious plan and forgo my yearning to see a whale skeleton outside a museum. Instead I go to the Singing Sands, a famous beach that squeaks as you walk, but not today! Huge forests of kelp lie, ripped out at the roots, looking like extruded car parts or specialised components for a car wash. I pick one up and feel what looks like the root, ripped away from its anchor and am surprised to find how hard it is. I expected it to be soft like a sponge.

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Something changed today apart from the weather and I found some enthusiasm to go out and draw. I remembered some work I did on Harris which I found when packing to come here and thought there might be a thread to pick up.

The geology is the thing that moves me most about being here on Eigg. There are basalt cliffs as on the Sound of Mull, but more dramatic with chimneys and gorges to create a fascinating cliff just above my bed. There is a window next to me and so I am able to lie here watching the cliffs with the moon coming up behind them. Or watch them move in and out of mist reminding me of Faroe.

The beach is made of basalt sand just like at Old Ardtornish, but here it has a white overlay, perhaps of shell. The two layers remain apart, perhaps their weight is different but the result is a surface of intricate patterns like marbled paper, especially where the final length of a burn crosses the sand. I find a discarded plastic bucket amongst the flotsam and jetsam and, knocking out its weight of sand, take it upturned and sit in the middle of the flow, drawing the patterns with pen and ink. It’s very soothing to sit in the middle of such splendour simply making marks as a response. No plans, no destiny just enjoying the engagement of joining the process of intricate pattern making.

 

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6.10.17 | Thoughts from the Isle of Eigg.

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I have now been here for six days and have moved from one hut to another, this time on the west side of the island where there is no internet or phone signal without a walk. Lucy, who owns Sweeney’s Bothy has been very kind, but is now away and her husband has allowed me to use their house connection to send a couple of messages. I, in return have taken their dog, Crinan’s half-brother, for two walks. 

 I have spent my time doing almost nothing. At first, I thought I would struggle with filling the hours. My creativity has deserted me and instead I have filled the time with looking out of the window as the weather shifts and turns, practicing my meditation, reading and, most of all, listening to the shifting sands of the programming of the BBC. 

 I am haunted with waves of emotion. Sometimes frustration that there is nothing I can do to help my son; when I have walked to find a signal, the phone either remains unanswered or goes to answer phone. The same when I ring home. I have sent messages but can’t remain within reception for long enough to receive a reply.

Sadness washes in and out about the loss of a young life and then the memory of other losses still held within. The death of my father thirty-seven years ago or my brother at exactly this time of year, in 2005.

A sense of guilt that having booked this space well over a year ago to make new work that now I have no inclination to start, despite all the boxes of materials I have brought and that are stacked up around my feet! Then I remember that it is just as noble to remain here, observing these tides of feeling, washing in and out and not only to withstand them but to use them to grow. The world from which I come is focused on external achievements and worldly success. I have always swum in a different current but none the less those values have been absorbed and so part of the struggle is to remember my values and to stick by them. I often have a yearning to be less busy. To have time to focus on the here and now in order to watch the natural world that surrounds us here in the Highlands, but even that is tainted by no longer being an original idea.

 There are now so many books about nature writing and escaping what used to be termed the ‘rat race’. Norrie is absorbed in one at the moment that opens with a woman walking down Oxford Street and has an awakening to the idea that there is more to life than this and catches a train to Inverness. And so starts her life as a crofter. 

 Twice over the last few months, somebody I respect has recommended another book to me. I ordered it and it was added to the ever growing pile next to my bed, looking more like a rickety block of flats than well thumbed stories. But, when I packed to come here it was suggested I bring a huge suitcase with wheels and so in went a pile of my waiting reading and now they are coming into their own. 

 Last time I came here I discovered Jenny Diski. This time the recommended book was The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. It was recommended, not for the story of London living but for the descriptions of landscape in the Orkney Islands. I have read it with fascination and also connected with the London pages as I think of my sons steering their way through London life. In many ways I understand why they are two angry young men when I read about the difficulties of urban living, where there are so many people and you have to be tough just in order to survive. The contrast with the ever-caring and providing parents my generation became, often in reaction to our own parents post-war preoccupations, means the step into the world is much harder than it was for us. It is harder, much harder but the values have also changed and money seems to be a language that they value most. There is choice and the grasping urgency of city life is not the only way and I can’t really help them, being a committed country girl. 

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These books are not really a discouragement. They demonstrate that there is a yearning to connect with our natural world and learning to drop self-importance and to tread lightly enough to really see and feel. This is central to the work I make and my task is to respond in an authentic way. The question I struggle with is, is it authentic to do nothing or am I being lazy?

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It’s not easy bringing stuff to Eigg. You may remember that I had problems last time I came and Lucy came to my rescue. This time I had left a drawing board and twenty sheets of paper with Lucy who kindly kept them under her bed. She also dropped in to pick up a box of materials from the mainland. Lastly, I ordered a delivery to come here before me! Needless to say it didn’t work that smoothly. The box was an order of sketchbooks. Either I or the online company got the wrong address and it was delivered it to me at home. The simplest thing was to post it to myself. £16 later we despatched it through the post office via Track and Trace. Post from Ardnamurchan goes via Perth! I tracked it to there before my departure on 30th Sept. It could have been on the boat with me. Or on Monday or Tuesday. There is no boat on Wednesday so finally I got it yesterday. 

My project was to fill as many sketchbooks as I can with no pressure, doodling, playing, working at dropping my inhibitions. I want to move my work away from the representational into a less figurative response to the landscape. Surrounded locally by an artistic community committed to figurative painting or, in the wider artistic community of Scotland, a major preoccupation with conceptual work, as usual my work swims against the tide but I have spent years on following my heart and I am not sure it is wise to change now.

Poems by our friend Tom Clark
Poems by our friend Tom Clark found here in Sweeney’s Bothy. Very suitable reading.

This morning is a still day. After a night of bright moonlight silhouetting the cliffs above this hut, the air is still today and I can hear the ravens on the cliffs above and the surprisingly strong voice of wrens that live here amongst the stones and bracken. The bracken is like a jungle and must create a forest for one so small as a wren. 

The swell of the sea has calmed and the rain has stopped, so the roar of the waves on the shore, mixed with the rush of the waterfalls behind has faded away, at least when inside, and I hear the creak of metal as the wood-burning stove expands and the newly lit fire warms the room and dries my washing.

Lucy told me that on a clear day you can see the southern tip of Barra and it has appeared today – three humps on the horizon, like humps of an enormous whale floating above the bright line that marks the join between sea and air. When drawing that line it is hard to know where it is really located and it’s so easy to represent it with one line. In fact, as I look, the sea is darker at the edge and then above is a pale stripe. Is it air or mist or water-bound air, air so full of sea that it is nearly sea? 

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A View from Eigg.

The view of the mainland fades in and out. The hills merge and emerge. Sadness washes in and out like the tide; like the waves as with the mist. Showers of fat rain soaking me to the skin in minutes as I struggle to find a signal to the outside world.

 As darkness falls, a waxing moon reflects on water, seawater, water between islands, lochs and closer to home, even puddles. Like burnished silver, a trail of light leads across the land and sea. With the rumble of the gathering wind, I am here two days early to escape the anticipated storm. As with every out-of-season visit, I remember that the ferry service is not a tourist attraction for which I spend the summer months assisting guests to navigate the pitfalls of the Calmac timetable, but its real purpose is as an essential service to serve the island populations who rely on boats to bring food, fuel and parcels.

There is another light pulsing in the dark. A stronger, man made light that marks a headland of the smaller island, off this island, that makes the harbour here on Eigg. After the shock of hearing of an untimely death yesterday, I have pulled my bed to the window and am looking out over the panoramic view, back towards the mainland and find the strength and reliable intervals as the light turns round, enormously reassuring. There is a gentle creak of the metal chimney of the Hobbit wood burner and the occasional flex of the French doors as the wind gusts. I am cosy and warm in bed looking out through a crack in the curtains that I have swathed around the head of the camp bed to create a vista and lie on my stomach watching the night.

Over the last few years, I have used these outings to learn about our Hebridean and northern islands and have experienced an uplifting intensity as if the scale of a small place concentrates their essence. Each island is very different and distilled into a strong sense of place, but islands also have a reputation as suitable for people who wish to own their own small kingdom. Connected to that reputation is the fact that they also change hands frequently. The Isle of Eigg is no exception and in fact leads the way in this debate. As those of you who read The Guardian will know, there was an interesting article about Eigg last week. Amongst all the islands, Eigg is famous for its community land buyout. (In contrast, the iconic St Kilda is largely known for the evacuation in 1930). Eigg has a growing population which now stands at 105.

There is another aspect to being on an island. It can make you feel trapped. On my first morning here I received some devastating news about the untimely death of someone extremely close to my eldest son, his best friend and, in his words, more of a brother than a friend. I have spent the few days since then, preoccupied with an inner struggle, part of me longing to rush to my sons side and support the small child I gave birth to, who is now thirty-two. In fact, his mother is likely to be last person he would turn to or indeed, want, as he moves further and further into adult life and his parents become an irrelevance if not an embarrassment. That brings up more feelings of the emptiness a mother feels after the endless years of offering protection and support as one’s child learns to navigate the world and to accept that the world they choose is not the one you know or live in.

 It is now a challenge to be remote, cut off by a slice of sea, high winds and the constraints of the ferry timetable with no phone or email, intensifying the sense that there is nothing I can do which can easily flip into frustration and the sadness into depression. It is good for me to work through these internal conflicts. I haven’t gone so far as to decide to leave early but instead to observe the emotions as they pour through me. 

 

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Notes from Eigg | October 2017

Notes from Eigg. 1st October 2017

 Throughout 2016 I arranged and attended several residencies: in February I came to the Isle of Eigg for three weeks; in April I went to Shetland for a month where I returned in September for a further two weeks, having become fascinated by the outer coastline. These three intense experiences resulted in an outburst of creativity which produced lots of new work. I then went on to be selected for the RSA Open, the Society of Scottish Artists’ Open and after another visit to Eigg, to having an exhibition this spring. 

 2017 has been different and unfortunately there have been too much distraction from the day job. Throughout much of last winter, I was unwell and then busy reorganising our house. Having run a B&B as a way of making a living in the Highlands and enabling us to continue to live in the house of Norrie’s parents, we decided to add an extra kitchen in the room that had been David Maclaren’s study and use the same rooms instead for a self-catering holiday let. Now, reaching the end of the first season, it is interesting to reflect on the difference it has made and what to do next.

 I started writing this blog as a response to my month-long stay on the Isle of Iona at the end of 2014 and have then continued on each occasion that I have been away, alone, to work. However, this year in January 2017 my stay here on Eigg was at Sweeney’s Bothy which is off-grid. This time I wrote a diary. As the writing continued, it became more of a surface involving script rather than a narrative. My intention was to copy and upload it here. I haven’t done that so instead here it is.

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I also went to the Isle of Harris with a friend in March. We went for a week and it was a different experience being away to work with someone else. I loved Harris and did a little work but was not there long enough for the concentration required to make finished pieces.

 In May I went to Iona with a group of painters which resulted in an exhibition in Edinburgh. It was a bit of a muddle and I decided not to show work.

 In June we went to the Isle of Barra to choose a puppy. I gave him to Norrie for his birthday, although Rob and Kate were so generous they wouldn’t accept any money. Crinan has now become the love of our lives, much to the displeasure of our three cats who are slowly learning to live with this over excitable exuberant being who jumps about, wanting to play almost all day.

The most memorable place I have been to this year was to the Faroe Islands. I went there with our friend Will. After being taken to Fair Isle as a sixtieth birthday present, I was fascinated by going even further north and although we only went for four days, it was entirely thrilling. I knew there wouldn’t be enough time to do a lot of drawing so I slimmed down my kit, but still had to have hold luggage, as there were things I knew to be on the banned list. I took a sketchbook and filled it in forty-eight hours, even drawing as we drove!

 

 

 

Resipole Studios | Interview

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:

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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.

Preparation | The Quest for stillness.

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.

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Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg.

Something at sea.

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.

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Insomnia at 4am

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.