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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The strength to continue.

On deciding to use my time to relax as well as work, I have been faced with other interesting concerns. One observation is how much of my time I fill with activity and conversely, how ill prepared I am if not fully occupied. I have known for years that activity can help with suspending cerebral activity and at times of stress I can make important decisions by spending a day in the garden, realising at the end the days work that I now know what I need to do without consciously making the decision at all. This must be why horticultural therapy is so effective with rehabilitation but it also teaches me something about the role of activity in both physical as well as mental wellbeing. I have always preferred a country life where exercise is part of life rather than a gym membership but when you strip all that away, the sound and feel of having nothing to do is a challenge. There is also the problem of lethargy, which must be the converse of anxiety driven activity. But being as old as I am, (60 next birthday!) at least I have acquired skills and understanding of where this comes from and how to manage the emotions. Perhaps the reason I found painting in a storm last year on Iona so enlivening was the easy connection into the world of emotion. The Deep Blue Blue of the sea sky and sand that this week has so unexpectedly brought us after the wettest summer memory can recall, has been much harder to access with a visual vocabulary.

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I have a complaint to make. I have told you of the wonderful bird life here. Made even richer by the landscape and the big skies. Last night I watched a murmuration of starlings (I think that is the collective noun? Better than the collective noun for ravens; an Unkindness of Ravens so my aunt always emphasised; very apt in my family’s’ case.) Anyway, throughout my stay, I have been mildly disconcerted by the occasional sighting of a group of men dressed in camouflaged fatigues of the modern sort, the photographic printing of a whole forest on their back, legs, arms and head! What happened to tweed? I have noticed this group of men sneaking about in the undergrowth of the wilder places and they make a marked contrast to those equipped with lurid florescent fitness clothing who has every sort of outdoor kit. In fact it all seems very tribal.
Outside Machair Cottage, across a field and the road, is a large rushy bog and a freshwater loch. There have been summer grazing cattle on the marsh and many many water birds as well as incessant windsurfers sailing up and down with remarkable persistence. This morning however the camouflaged tribe are there in strength and I thought perhaps Tiree was practicing for Syria with the tribes having declared war. But no, I was wrong. There is no wind and so the sailing tribe are grounded today. The poor unsuspecting enemy is the bird life. When so much of the world is open warfare for wildlife in our modern age, why do these men have to come here to what must be one of the last refuges for these wonderful creatures who have the sky as their universe? I have had this argument before and unfortunately much closer to home, and the tired old argument is that bird life can thrive and prosper if someone is paid to manage biodiversity to enrich the countryside to create the killing fields for those who think it smart to kill. The change I yearn for is when managers realise that there is a much more enlightened approach, which would use the wildlife as the attraction and teach those who understand land management that wildlife and its care is the way to go. Have you heard the statistic that British birdlife is changing and that the Blackcap, once a rare sighting, is now flourishing due to the number of gardens that provide bird food? Surely there is ample evidence that wildlife does engage the public and if funds are needed to maintain these places, then the obvious answer is to market the enjoyment of the biodiversity, not market the permission to kill it?

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Indirectly, this concern for conservation and the role art has to play within it, is the reason I am here on Tiree. As you know, I have been invited to do this self funded residency by Nick Turner and Mary Ann Kennedy of Watercolour Music. The Kennedy family come from Tiree and this is their family croft. A couple of years ago Nick and I made separate applications to Creative Scotland to work on a collaboration between science and art. Mine was about botany and painting, based at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Rahoy Hills Reserve and was made in conjunction with someone with whom I went to art school and who is now a botanist with a speciality in bryophytes. Nicks application was about the marine soundscape. At that time neither of us were successful but Nick has since developed his idea and has been given seed funding to develop a more detailed proposal. He has bought himself a little boat and is to be seen trailing a microphone underwater in all sorts of places round our way. It coincides with a more national concern of the Scottish Government with the development of fish farming. Outside Oban there is a fish research centre that is doing work on noise pollution underwater and its effect on our sea creatures including the whales and dolphins we are lucky enough to have on the West Coast. Did you know that a blue whale in the western Atlantic used to be able to hear another one swimming off the east cost of America? Those of you who know Ardgour may also know that we have a fish farm in the village, so mechanised that you hear the rattle of the fish food being pumped down tubes, which continues all day and I expect all night, although I haven’t been to listen. Son John worked there for a summer at the weekends before the mechanisation and a round of redundancies and has never eaten salmon again! In testing his sound equipment, Nick took his boat several miles up Loch Linnhe to opposite the isle of Lismore to see if he could start his recording. You may be surprised to gather that the only sound he could detect was the underwater seal alarms from the Ardgour fish farm. The seals are so adept at stealing salmon through the nets that they eviscerate the fish by sucking and at the end of the growing cycle the nastiest job of all is that described as Deading or the removal of body-parts of decomposed salmon from inside the nets, the bits the seals don’t eat.
The conversation Nick and I are having is what role art has to play within this debate? It is clear to me that you cannot make painting about conservation, that would either be propaganda or the job of a graphic designer. I think my role is to continue to engage with the places that are so fragile and on the edge of the recent waves of development and finding the poetry within the subject, try and engage the participation of an audience to prevent further corruption of our natural world. There are several places up and down the west coast asking the same question but many have moved away from painting and into conceptual and community art. Perhaps that is seen as less elitist but I am of a generation who still likes making painterly images.
Two other friends are also engaged in this dilemma, this time as aerial photographers. Pat and Angus MacDonald use their backgrounds as academics at Edinburgh University and the ownership of a light aircraft, to photograph much of Scotland from the air. During this summer they took me to a glen in the Grampian, where Pat had worked with my brother Andrew, on a large deer cull in order to enable the afforestation of the old Caledonian forest. Pat showed me with total glee, how the granny pines, as she called them, in fact had no children but after the deer cull under Andrew’s leadership, now had hundreds of grandchildren, great grandchildren and subsequent generations. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my brother’s untimely death and so my visit with Pat and Angus to Glenfeshie was on my mind. The question Pat wished to discuss was how her photographs from the air of what is known as a braided river, could be used visually to describe the process of soil erosion and landscape degradation which occurs through deforestation without the work becoming propaganda. She had taken some photographs twenty or thirty years ago of the river and everyone responded to the beauty of her images. With her understanding of what it shows about degradation, she wanted to discuss how to use this work in a more fine art context. Pat knows how to give a scientific lecture…. what she muses over now, is how to use this knowledge to make art.

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As well as working out and about as I usually prefer, I am also working in a small byre next to the house. It is rather spartan as studios go but with a plastic garden table, which I have shrouded in an old sheet and several deck chairs adapted with drawing boards into side tables, I have established a good work place. After each outing, I return to the byre and look at what I have achieved, seal the work with a stinking fixative, so best kept out of the house and then mix colours. I have remained totally alone whilst doing all this and am accompanied by the gentle soundtrack of bird life. With my Heath Robinson bird table, I have been putting out scraps and even forget to eat a bag of pears which became over ripe and mushy. I don’t think starlings had ever seen pears before but the fruit slowly disappeared throughout the day. Starlings are very conversational with a broader vocal range than most of the garden birds we have at home. I often sit outside at home and try to identify birdcalls and although I don’t know more than three or four, have noticed many are repetitive. Not so with Starlings. They even have a bigger range than our hens, one of whose charms is how chatty they are. Perhaps starlings need a broad range, given the size of the flock? As the time passes the number of starlings seem to have increased, not because of my measly offerings; it seems more likely that it is the time of year. As I worked after lunch this afternoon I heard the loud rustle of silk like a grand lady making an important entrance. It was an entrance but that of hundreds of starlings coming into land on the field next door.

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The next project.

Hello MA,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gradually some themes have emerged which inform the next decision.

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

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

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

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

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

Each time I was drawn to the beach.

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

But it isn’t the same sort of sea.

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

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

The beach at Lagandorain is altogether different.

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

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

Dear Anna,

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

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

Is mise le meas

Mary Ann

Mary Ann Kennedy

Watercolour Music Limited

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A short Film

A friend, Nick Turner, who lives locally and with his wife, Mary Ann Kennedy, runs Watercolour Music, suggested that we combined forces and had a collaboration. I was very excited at the offer and here is the result. It happened to coincide with the preparation for a one man exhibition at our local gallery, Resipole Studios and so celebrating all things local, the film will be run during the show.

Working in collaboration with Watercolour Music.