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

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.

 

Exploring

On Mondays during the winter the ferry from Mallaig arrives before lunch and so there was still time to settle in and get my bearings before dark. I am staying in a self contained annexe to a house lived in by Eric who met me at the ferry in a brand new sparkling white car, so quiet you can’t hear it. Some of you may know that one thing about the buyout is that it instigated the first joined up green energy supply in Europe and now provides electricity to every house on the island, replacing diesel generators. There are wind turbines to maximise the most windy aspect, there are photovoltaic panels in a ray as well as on almost every roof as well as hydro to catch the rainfall. Eric has a micro hydro on the burn outside the house and can now run his smart white car on almost no fuel. He generously offered to drive me round the island to understand where I am. There is one road, owned and maintained by Highland Council, the remaining routes are unmade tracks full of potholes and mended with crushed basalt from borrowpits at regular intervals. First we went to one end of the tarmac and looked over the crofting ground of Cleadale and across the Sound of Rhum to the majestic island itself and then to the opposite end with views of Muck. I was able to see the huge boulders fallen from the cliffs of the Sgurr and the columnar geology that has left a crest of rock sticking up way above the rest of the island like a sleeping Iguana, the iconic feature of the island and visible from the summit of almost every hill near our home on the mainland. At the feet of the sleeping reptile are the remnants of a crofting community where you are able to see examples of the stone, so hard it looks like glass and with occasional columns placed through the walls of old black houses tying the outer layer to the one inside to provide strength and prevent the wall from falling down. Some of the walls are still standing, showing the expert skill of the men who built these simple houses. I expect they have been there largely unaltered for hundreds if not thousands of years and inhabited until relatively recently.

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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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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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