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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Leaving Shetland

When I got home, I began to write about the last week of my residency at The Booth. Different, as I was no longer alone but immensely rewarding as we explored some of the more distant places; places I had saved to go to with a photographer friend who came to join me for the last week to work on images for an exhibition in September. Not only did we visit Yell, Unst and Eshaness but most exciting of all, Fair Isle, where I was taken as a birthday present; the best birthday present ever. A flight in a four seater plane the twelve miles south, to stay for the night at the Bird Observatory. It was completely fantastic!

Looking back at what I began, I have decided instead to leave the photographs to tell the story. I made scores of quick drawings to complete at home, but it is only now, three weeks later that I have found time and energy to begin. As when I returned from Eigg, I was immediately struck down by a fearsome cold and have not been well enough to continue my work. The enthralling light, space and clarity of Shetland faded in my memory as I lay in bed, ill, and so to write a diary of where we went and what we saw would seem rather tepid now. I will leave the images to speak for themselves.

Culswick

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Culswick

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Annifirth

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The Ferry to Yell

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A Day on Unst

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Stenness

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Dore Holm, Esha Ness

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Eshaness Lighthouse

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home again.

Six entries are quite enough for three weeks! You have witnessed my creative struggle, which precipitated some difficult moments about family and friends. Whilst here, I have heard that my oldest, dearest friend has a life threatening condition and those of you who know me, know too that my nights are frequently punctured by nightmares about those closer to home. The one thing I have learnt over a life of challenges, is that if you hold tight, the storm will subside.

After twenty four hours of wet weather, I wanted to do a last day of painting and so between bouts of cleaning and packing (I managed to lock myself out of the large boot, which was a big reason for taking the pickup in the first place) and so packing became the art of the possible and drawing boards, large flat boxes of paper, food and far too many woolly jerseys became like shuffling a pack of cards. In between shuffling cards, I mean boxes, I managed to pull together all the thinking I had done and go down to the shore and produce some new work.

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On getting home to Ard Daraich, I put everything away with the intention of gaining some distance from it all. Not before I showed it to Norrie and asking him to record it. In a few weeks I will get it out again and look with fresh eyes. It may become clearer if there is progress and if I am any nearer the Pressburger adage “I know where I’m Going.”

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Throughout my time away there was one person to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Day in, day out, sometimes more than once a day, Norrie has always been there on the end of the phone, remaining supportive. He is a great believer in the ups and downs of the creative process and the places it takes you.

The connectivity at Machair Cottage is very variable and often my conversations took place whilst sitting in a sandpit, on a little ridge just past an upturned bath and next to a large patch of flowering camomile. In walking across to my rural wifi hotspot I might disturb a hare or two who did one of two things and I was never sure which it would be. I didn’t know that hares liked pretending to be stones. If caught unawares, they hunker down, drawing in their legs and ears until they look round and brown just like a stone and sit and sit, hoping that if they remain still enough, they might become invisible. The other, more predictable reaction was to run away at great speed and then you would notice they had unsettled hares all over the place and there was a mad dash from every direction. If the lapwing were on the ground they would flap away with a variety of calls or a flock of starling would take off in unison. In the mornings, skeins of geese would fly overhead and with the sand dunes rolling down to the shore, I could see and feel that I was on the edge of the world, our world of Western Europe where it meets the great ocean of the North Atlantic.

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You could see that too by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up on almost every beach. On my last day I took this photo; three shoes that someone had arranged on a rock, next to an otherwise perfect white beach, washed across the Atlantic. I like to think as sandals, they came from the Caribbean, but look at the plastic breaking down and along with all the nets, fishing gear and other rubbish, it was shocking to think of it floating across an ocean and slowly working its way into the food chain.

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