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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The Struggle.

The trouble with electing to come away from home to focus exclusively on making work is that you are putting yourself under pressure to produce. It is wonderfully uplifting when all goes well but there is light and dark in every part of life and when an authentic voice is hard to find, you are left in a wilderness. I know this is true of a second novel and have come across a prize especially designed to assist those engaged in that struggle. The experience of going on a creative retreat is that it puts everything on the plate. At home there is so much distraction, the weeding, the leaf sweeping, the henhouse that needs cleaning and oh so much more, that the pendulum swings the other way. Away from it all, you are faced with every creative uncertainty and insecurity you are able to dream up. But I am experienced enough to know that this too is part of the process. Somehow, however, you invent the notion of an audience for whom you are performing and thus you create your own pressure, especially by electing to record the experience as it unfolds, which I am doing here.

Those of you who know me, know too that one of my closest held principles is a determination to uphold the truth, even at the price of discomfort. Of course it then begs the question, whose truth do you seek? The answer has to be that you can only pursue your own truth and it is only you who really knows if you digress. I can almost count on one hand the number of times I have knowingly told a lie and I have instilled this quality into one of my sons who has tried other more socially acceptable forms of being, only to know of himself that he is transparent in his mistruths! Of course if you get good enough at lying, you also lie to yourself but that is the route to self-delusion and eventual mental illness and not one I wish to examine. The world of managing your own PR, to release only the glossy and upbeat is not truthful. Life is not real if only equipped to acknowledge the light. Where have the shadows gone? Oh, but now that is described as Negative. Not negative, just balanced. I include this personal paragraph here in order to create a context to describe my experience of the creative struggle. As a postscript I would also add that a disadvantage of this trait is that you get the reputation of directness which some people find discomforting. But it is not possible to create authentic self-expression if you do not pursue the truth; that is why so much art invites the observer to move into more uncomfortable territory and probably why so much landscape painting results merely in the picturesque.

This island of Tiree has confused me and perhaps I need to stay longer to find a language that speaks of it. I was brought up in East Anglia and disliked the landscape there throughout my childhood. In those days, the sixties, there were still elm trees of cathedral like proportions and the fashion for sweeping away all rural character that was not in production, had not quite wreaked the havoc it has now. In preparing to come here to the isle of Tiree, I read somewhere that it is described as the East Anglia of the Highlands. I must say that sentiment filled me with anxiety. It is true that it is pretty flat and that the skies seem very large. The impression of the landscape is horizontal. However, the similarity to the landlocked part of south Cambridgeshire that I grew up in, ends there.
Much of the interior of this island has given way to deserted fields of rush. There are the remains of abandoned peat cuttings and except for the outcrops of low knobbly rock breaking through the surface, everything at the western end as I am, except for three low hills and the buildings, are in the horizontal plane. In drawing, that is where I started and began by thinking of the stripped landscape of light and dark, water and land. On the coast this translates into sea and sky. So, I have been playing with where to place the horizon. The horizon is the meeting of one form with another, where one element meets another. That has led to the next concern. How to find a path to a form expression that lies between the representational and the expressive. It is too easy and seems irrelevant to set out to draw this landscape in a figurative manner. Perhaps the horizon is best described merely as a line? The meeting, or is it the dividing, of two elements?

In order to find a route into this language I have been playing!

I have supported strips of paper and trickled paint down their length. Laid flat and by turning them ninety degrees they suggest the horizontal elements of sky, land and water.
I have tricked glue and drawn with sand.
I have taken paper and paint out onto a beach in a storm and thrown everything at it only for it to get sand encrusted and then washed off in a shower. Weather Painting, the suggested title!
I have gone out at dusk and traced the horizon so only the outlines are clear.
I have sat on a beach with watercolour and bottles of water, wetting sheet after sheet of paper to create the richness of tone and hue.
I have eaten porridge every morning, gone for long walks and drunk a lot of coffee
And still I don’t know where I am going…
The antidote to the film we often watch, Carl Pressburgers “I Know Where I am Going” set on an island off the west coast of Mull!

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