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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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.

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.

 

 

The first week

 

I have been on Eigg for a week and have been extremely lucky that it has been dry, sunny and crisp until yesterday. After a winter of unusually wet weather, even for the west coast of Scotland, it feels as if I have struck gold with the rain stopping and instead, there has been a beautiful golden light that has bathed the island and cast inky black shadows. It is also interesting in different ways. Obviously it has made my visit much more pleasant. I have been able to work outside for several hours at a time and to explore the island on foot without getting too cold or wet. The chill factor in the wind has allowed me about two hours at an exposed site but on Sunday I was able to work outside for six, which is long enough for February. I came home with a bright red face so must have caught the sun; luckily my rosy cheeks have faded! After such a dismal six months of wetwetwet it is amazing how quickly the mind forgets the ordeal once outside, bathed in a stronger light. It’s almost as if the brain plays a trick because along with a change in the light comes total forgetfulness of what we have just had and instead a heartwarming celebration of what we have now, a re remembering of why I live in this part of the world and a re connection with how beautiful it is. A good way to start an intensive period of creativity.

The week has been taken up with feeling my way into a response, seeking a subject and a language with which to describe it.Within the first half day it was obvious that the iconic feature about the physicality of Eigg is its geology. It is clearly not the only feature of importance and must be the obvious response of every casual visitor. However, I am not here for very long and the geology is remarkable. An extension of the Giants Causeway and Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa, it is a geological phenomena. An Sgurr is a crest of a hill made from extraordinarily hard rock, Pitchstone, the broken surface of which looks like glass. From the cursory reading I have done, the stone is younger than others on the island but being so much harder than the surrounding basalt which has been heavily eroded by the ice-age, it has left the Pitchstone ridge standing proud of its surroundings and the iconic feature we all recognise from afar. It is constructed from hexagonal columns, so consistent that it is like looking at an enlarged three-dimensional honeycomb. In the surrounding landscape there are giant boulders more like shattered remnants of a cathedral than a natural creation. The rocks have rolled down towards the sea, and those without sufficient momentum, lie abandoned with their architecture jutting out at unexpected angles. People then settled the land, a brown fertile basalt soil and using fragments of the stone, built simple dwellings amount the giants rubble, joining blocks together with carefully constructed dry stone dykes that sit like delicate necklaces enclosing small yards or fields surrounding the remains of each blackhouse. Sunday was the second visit and my landlord, Eric, was kind enough to give me a lift with all my kit, leaving me only one way to walk home. On closer inspection I noticed the black houses had no chimney at either end unlike the derelict crofts I had explored on Tiree or elsewhere. Maybe the ones on Tiree were later but with no flue it implies that the houses here on Eigg had a fire in the middle of the floor and so no real way of drawing the smoke away from the building and the family that lived within. They must have become kippered and imagine the chest complaints that would have developed in such an atmosphere? There is no doubt that the existence must have been unremittingly hard, scratching a living from the land and sea but it has left a hauntingly beautiful place full of atmosphere and possible ghosts.

I spent the day there alone, saw no one and felt held by the land and reassured by the structures, the ruins of ancient homes.  The only life I witnessed was that of the pregnant sheep to whom I talked and they got used to my presence and grazed quite near. I also listened the conversation of a pair of Ravens who seemed preoccupied with preparing for busy times ahead, and most intriguing of all, witnessed a pair of very large brown birds, (Eric suggests they might have been Golden Eagles,) literally taking to each other in an unrecoginsed call, moving from perch to perch in unison until they took off into the thermals at the cliff edge and moved out of sight. Not before a Hooded Crow became alarmed at their proximity and started bombing them to encourage them to move further on. I wonder if they were Golden Eagles, it was a fascinating sight? I thought at first they must be buzzards but one flew by at the same time and the scale was quite different. The one thing I missed was the Hump Back Whale reported to Eric by a boatman. (I have never seen a Whale and would love to do so) The Whale had been sighted in the sound between Eigg and Muck two days earlier and apparently is easily identifiable because they makes a lot of splashing whilst feeding. Sadly, he was not there for me to see or hear last Sunday.

 

Visiting islands.

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When planning an expedition to the Hebrides it always surprises me how different each island can be. Although part of a chain or cluster of land emerging from the water, it is extraordinary how, separated only by a narrow strip of water, the configuration of what is visible can be completely different even from its close neighbours. It is like this with the Small Isles. Although not very familiar, except as part of a distant view from the mainland, I have now been to three of the four islands that make up the archipelago of the Small Isles. Rhum, with its souring peaks and apparently the inspiration to Tolkien for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, famous also for creating its own weather, shrouded as it often is with heavy cloud and mist, and on a personal note, for the discovery by my father of a charlatan botanist who tried to contend a new version of the ice age by growing plants in his greenhouse and transporting them to the island for secret planting, only to make the astonishing discovery that, Oh Look what I’ve found……

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Canna, where I went to an open air opera of a Gaelic choir dressed as oyster catchers and standing in the sea singing “Away with the Birds”

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“Hanna’s vocal composition, Guth an Eòin | Voice of the Bird is the heart of the project. Written for a female vocal ensemble, it reinterprets archival material, fragmenting and re-weaving extracts of Gaelic songs into an extended soundscape. The music emerges from, and responds to, island landscapes and lives. It explores the delicate equilibrium of Hebridean life, the co-existence of tradition and innovation, and suggests the ever-present inter-relationship between bird, human, and ecology.”

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And now the isle of Eigg, famous, if not infamous, for being one of the first community land buyouts on the west coast of Scotland almost twenty years ago and run by its inhabitants. In a part of the world where landowners and large estates are the norm and with all the old arguments of why primogeniture is the only way to preserve our rural economy, it is refreshing to be here and sample a small part of the workings of another way of being a community. The reputation is controversial in an otherwise conservative part of the world. In the short time I am here I will not find out what the community is really like but am very attracted to an approach to governance, not by personal ownership, wealth, and preference but by democracy.

Getting here however, was not easy. On a painting expedition I need quite a lot of kit. I never know exactly what I will need by way of materials and at this time of year can never predict the temperature and the weather, so I have quite a lot of luggage. Along with the ability to get around and have a dry place in which to work if it were to rain, not unusual in this very wet part of the world, the obvious answer was to bring my car. However that is not easy. I had to apply for a licence through our local council and after a two-week delay was declined. Apparently there is another way of getting things here. Phone the Calmac office in Mallaig I was told and book my luggage onto a van as light freight. I was again declined and told there would not be room! Never mind, I will stack up my stuff on the pier and walk on and off the ferry until I have it all. But NO you are only allowed to take what you can carry in one load as there is an automated passenger counter which doesn’t allow reboarding several times. I was now ready to give up, especially as I have a film maker friend who had none of these troubles with her equipment and came, with car, to take her kit wherever she needed. As with so many Highland communities, it seems to be more to do with who you know than following a procedure. Once again Lucy Conway came to my rescue and within five minutes of receiving my despondent text saying I had reached the end of my initiative, she informed me that she would be passing our door within twenty four hours and would take all my painting materials with her if I could pack it into easily liftable parcels. Drawing boards and paper fitted in a wonderful box that you receive from Jacksons if you order on-line and paint, brushes and general paraphernalia went into a second. I am lucky to have married a man who worked in the film industry. He has an obsession for gaffer tape and is seldom seen without a role of extremely strong and rather too sticky tape with which my kit is now covered. Bound up to avoid accident, we met Lucy early the following morning at the Corran Ferry as she rushed home after a trip on the mainland. Lucy has turned out to be a lifeline!

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