Bothy envy

Some of you will know that I have a passion for sheds and this leads me to suffer from shed envy of anyone who is lucky enough to have one! I have spent years wandering round the garden at Ard Daraich dreaming of building a shed! I want to sleep in it on light summer nights, watch the dusk at eleven pm and the dawn at two. I want to be away from phone or internet and just be in the present, uninterrupted, to think and work.

Henry has restored a derelict stone shed, Littlure Bothy, a fisherman’s bothy, overlooking the most beautiful inlet, a Geo as they are called in Shetland. Having found me painting on the hill, he offered to lend it to me as a studio for the rest of my visit. I was thrilled as I had heard about it when here in April and had spotted it in the far distance when on another walk. I knew, therefore, that it was not a very long walk but it was not next door. I was assured that it took twenty minutes and on the first day I was taken by surprise as, striding across the prostrate heather, I was interrupted by a phone call (mostly there is no signal) I sat in a dip, a rabbit warren, out of the wind and talked to a friend a world away and so when I resumed my walk and reached the hut it had taken me forty minutes. I guess I stop a lot and look at things, views and details. The most memorable pause was finding an inlet, protected from a boiling sea by a row of ferocious teeth or rocks, protecting a calm circular cove. As I appeared, a row of heads appeared as well. I don’t know the collective noun for seals but I now term them “a parliament of seals”. They were so friendly, so curious and seemed blissfully at home in their natural element with surf crashing round them but basking in the still water and sunshine. Seals appear to sunbathe, lying on their back, star gazing and apparently just enjoying the elements, the sun, water and movement. A mammal clearly enjoying itself. I am told there is a more scientific reason, the sun helps manage the parasites they host on their skin.

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Each time I walk to the Bothy I notice something different. It’s as if the walk here has become part of the daily practice and is like a meditation before beginning to work. Working from home as I do, I haven’t experienced the separation from work and life since I left day-school at the age of sixteen so unlike the majority, this is a new opportunity for me. I am quite sure a commute on the tube would not feel the same but it is a time to gather your thoughts and leave the concerns of domesticity behind and empty yourself for the new things ahead. I remember someone telling me they saw a man remove his wedding ring on his way to work in London. All sorts of new opportunities lie ahead, obviously!
The wind has dropped and whilst yesterday was swathed in fog, today is bright, calm and soft. A glorious day. I decided to alter my route this morning and walk on the other side of the inland loch. Two days ago when passing this place, I was fascinated by a group of large birds having a bath. They were a small group of large brown birds on the shore preening themselves in the sun with one afloat on the water, involved in a lot of dunking and diving. On being disturbed they inevitably changed their behaviour and a pair took off wheeling round in an elaborate dance. The silhouette was reminiscent of a bird of prey, dark chocolate brown with a white tip to each wing, not a seabird I thought but maybe some sort of goose? Later it was suggested they were Bonxie or Great Skua, an aggressive sea bird that I hadn’t come across until on Fair isle for my birthday.
Today had a different surprise, three large white swans, Whooper Swans, again on the shore preening until disturbed when they took to the water. A sign of the beginning of the winter migration? We get lots of these swans on a freshwater loch in Ardgour but usually as a mark to the end of winter. These are marking the other end of the breeding season and the summer.
Continuing to skirt the edge where beautifully constructed dry stone dykes disappear under the water, I was delighted to see another three swans appear and quickly come into land on the water too. Two groups of three, sizing each other up just like young men out for an evening or Italian families strutting their stuff after work. They swam towards each other and like men preparing to joist, rose up, almost vertical as if the water was solid and could take their weight, flapping their wings at one another. It made a great noise; slapping feathers on water. Posturing. Was it the behaviour of the males? Some swans didn’t react, leaving their friend to defend them. Were they the females? Having grouped together, too friendly, too soon, they burst apart like billiard balls, scattered across the surface.

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I left the loch and continued down to the shore and the fishermans bothy. There was a seal outside in the bay sunbathing as usual with his nose in the air looking like a stout Italian wine bottle, afloat.

Someone found a message in a bottle. It had been put into a bottle somewhere north of here by a boy on holiday. I hope he was excited to get a message back with a map showing where his bottle was found. Maybe he had hoped for the Caribbean or Canada but in a week it had traveled the length of Shetland.
A  pair of Otters
Boat arrived
Silence
All wildlife went to ground
Resented sharing bay with others then realised they were fishermen having their breakfast, hooted and waved on departure. Felt selfish that I had distrusted them.
If writing a wildlife blog I would be scoring high with my sightings so far.
Divers appeared.
My living bottle resurfaced, sunbathing! Amazing how long he just lies there floating. I can hear his snuffles when he drops to0 low and water goes up his nose!
Hovering, like a semi-detached sibling, on the horizon, is the island of Foula. From the bothy it comes in and out of view depending on the weather. When first here I didn’t see her at all but then one day I arrived and there she was, sitting on her line between the sea and the sky often with a cloud on her head by way of hair.
Interesting how, when the weather is calm and the sea swills about following its own internal force pulled by the moon but no longer whipped by the wind, the connection that I come to rely on in order to work is weakened and requires much more teasing to find a thread. At the moment my work feels best when responding to the forces of nature in their extremes. No doubt a psychoanalyst would say that was because the external forces more closely mirror my internal ones. That may be true and it shows my passionate nature, something British society doesn’t know how to respond to, especially in women. But it explains why I am so excited by the forces of nature, my subject. There is a challenge in how to respond in quieter times. More careful observation is an opportunity but I am then drawn back into the same debate about the reason to make work and for me that is not about recording, it is about responding. A circle emerges in my internal debate and I have a bad habit of getting on the hamster wheel.
Of course another reason for responding to the drama of wild places in bad weather is that it mirrors the world I was brought up in. When raised in an atmosphere of continual conflict in which there is no hiding place, your emotional hard wiring become trained to expect drama and conflict as normality. As my life has moved into more tranquil times with the life I have constructed for myself as an adult, my dna still feels at home when the drama continues. Perhaps that is why so many people who move to the highlands feel at home here. This is not my culture but it is my home. It is a pity, in these difficult political times, that I don’t feel more welcome.
Something to learn is how to observe the cycles of your own creativity. It too seems to mirror the weather in its cyclical nature. Flurries of ideas like a blizzard of snow engage you in the process of making. And afterwards the calm of a quieter day. And then there are the days when nothing goes right, when you cling to the life raft knowing this is part of the process, painful though it may be. My belief is that it is a connection with these emotions that allow one to be creative. As if your own internal rhythms are pulled to and fro like the sea by the moon. There are those who believe the moon acts on us too. How strange it is that humans spend so long disguising these forces with a man-made world, one disconnected from the nature of life. But now there are too many of us and so I should be satisfied that I have this cove to myself while so many are busy elsewhere.

All photos taken with my i phone.

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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for a visual language

 

Four days of wet weather produced a different challenge. Instead of overcoming the frustration of the time it took to walk to each location and therefore the size of the work I was able to make, I was faced with the new problem of how to keep the work dry. More importantly, how to get it dry in the first place. My preference has always been to work wet on wet, whether with watercolour, ink or pigment and so I begin by soaking a piece of paper. By the time I have applied coats of water-soluble medium to the surface it is saturated and usually takes ages to dry. As an aside, this means that I need a robust surface to work on and am therefore using 320gm Arches NOT watercolour paper at the moment. The decision is a balance between affordability and strength and I am constantly amazed at the punishment you can give a sheet of Arches and it still doesn’t tear or rub into holes. Spend too much on a sheet of paper and it puts an unseen break on the flow of my creativity.

So here I am with a saturated surface in the unpredictability of heavy snow, hail or rain showers and the challenge becomes how to get the work home. You can imagine, with my impatient nature and a wonky thermostat (which means I am always cold) I soon run out of patience in a climate approaching 98% humidity and so decide to stuff the work into a bag and stomp home. But out of circumstance, happy accidents can happen and on reaching shelter, the image was completely lost but something else appeared.

As I have described elsewhere, Eigg has encouraged me to engage with Geology, at least superficially and given the way that stone was once molten, erosion demolished mountains and lava flows became ridges, I have looked for a visual equivalent with which to describe the process. Molten graphite offers a possibility and so my deconstructed drawings became an opportunity.