More Night Painting.

Having made a decision not to edit my palette monochromatically, I am selecting the materials by tone. The hue of the material is part of the decision, made differently.

I divide an assortment of oil pastels into three tins, Dark, Mid and Light tones, all marked on the lid for identification in the gloaming. The Hue will not be visible whilst I’m working so you may wonder what I’m doing? After a few experiments I have discovered that the sensory deprivation of not being able to use my eyes to gather the usual information about the subject, has unexpectly led me to a more spontaneous way of working. It is literally as if I have tricked myself into being less self conscious and more intuitive. A resetting of creativity embracing chance perhaps?

So far I have enjoyed the unexpected and am now playing to it when I make my selection and pack my bag. Red mountains or an orange sea carry a potent symbolism and lead me to the much loved painting of Emile Nolde, someone whose work I have admired for forty five years.

Night Painting.

Over the last few winters I have determined to find an activity to see myself through these long hours. Last winter I focused on cutting lino blocks based on the decorated old Chinese porcelain inherited from previous generations of Norries family which I found stuffed into a cupboard. I became fascinated by how they told a story of their history and that of their previous owners.

When the clocks went back and what were already shortening days became long and ever lengthening nights, I embarked on a new project – painting in the dark!

The work started by going out onto the beach either before dawn and working until the light levels rose to be able to see colour, or in reverse, at dusk and working until it is completely dark. Sitting in the same place every time and with no light, I connected with an instinctive part of myself and my response when denied familiar references. Often it is unclear what colour or tool I have picked up but I am developing a second sense to having a limited number of tools around me and placing them carefully so I pick them up without having to check. I carry a small torch incase I drop something and to find my way home if it is too dark!
I started with work on paper and water soluble materials, pen ink felt pen watercolour but as the weather is so changeable have moved over to oil based pastels.

All detail and colour is lost in the darkness and the hills appear like huge whales rising out of the sea. The sea and the sky meet as I look south towards the isle of Lismore and the Firth of Lorn and onwards to the isles of Mull and eventually Jura. I know this because of familiarity with the geography but of course these masses are not visible in the darkness; I simply feel their presence. The subject becomes an emotional response to somewhere I inhabit frequently during the daytime and in day light.

Keen to increase the scale, I moved up from postcard to A5. On days too wet to go out, I have been experimenting with mono print on sizes up to A4.

Ink on Khardi paper A4

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.

9.10.17

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.

 

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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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another island Odessey

Every new expedition produces different challenges and distractions however hard you plan to avoid them. Today Norrie set off to deliver my car to the islands of Shetland. Rather than hire a car I decided it would be better to take my own, partly as a shelter to nest in and partly because I am liable to make a mess; after all I am painting. Shetland is on a latitude with Norway. The sailing is long and often rough. I suffer from seasickness. I am continually amazed by the kindness of my husband and after several people volunteered to help me with car delivery, Norrie stepped forward. As a result I can fly tomorrow and so we planned a quiet weekend away from it all, armed with binoculars to look for puffins and enjoy thirty-six hours on our own. Imagine my surprise therefore, to receive a phone call when Norrie could not have got any further than the A9 driving towards Granton on Spay and on to Aberdeen. There is no floor in the bathroom of the Studio I have rented and so I have been booked into a Bed and Breakfast.