A Year of Covid (2020/2021)Part 1.

At the beginning of March 2020 I went to see the Paula Rego exhibition in Edinburgh and, on returning home, I realised that I had been drawn to the expressive way in which she depicts hands. Almost all the characters were posed with their hands visible and they were portrayed as a microcosm of the expressive mood of the whole – I was fascinated. This led me to refer to the drawing of the Old Masters, from Leonardo to Van Gogh, and I realised that the depiction of hands in the history of art tends to be hands in action, hands gesticulating.

Since the first lockdown in 2020 I have been lucky enough to have much more time in my studio. Our business ground to a halt and this proved an opportunity to engage more fully with my creative practice. Inspired by Paula Rego, someone whose drawing and powerful feminist vision I admire, I asked my husband to pose as my model and began a series of drawings of his hands. Hands, not in action, but in repose.

As the spring continued, I created a series of drawings of hands, from sketchbook to large imperial sized drawings, some created by tying chalk to a cane. It became clear that hands had become a powerful icon for the sensory communication we all need and that haptic communication is a crucial part of our human experience. We were prevented from touching our loved ones and had to wash our hands continuously. For me, hands had became a symbol for our experience of Covid and of lockdown.

During the summer of 2020 I was invited to take part in a local, funded project based on the concept of ‘Consequences’ named ‘Highland Whispers’. It was commissioned as part of the Royal National Mòd and I was one of five creatives from different disciplines asked to respond to the five senses whilst in isolation. In turn I received work from the others. I chose the concertina format, partly because it was easy to post, but also because it is a favourite form which enables me to work en plain air with a compact kit of materials. By the end of the project I had made five concertinas of the same size but of very different subjects and mood.

They now appear on a website being launched on April 26th to coincide with an exhibition in Ullapool at

https://www.antallasolais.org/ 26.4-20.5.2021 or online www.highlandwhispers.co.uk.

Here are three of the concertina books I made.

My father died forty years ago. We have a pair of ravens nesting near our house and every time one of the pair sits in a tree, calling, I like to imagine it is my father keeping a protective eye over us. We frequently see them, either together or as singletons, flying over the garden. You can hear the rustle of their feathers as they pass. It always surprises me how close they sound, especially when you see how high they fly.”

“I worked on top of a set of old drawings that I had torn into the correct size to give a sense of the past and layers of experience.

We live next to a glen that is said to have been the home of more than three hundred souls but which now has no evidence of habitation except for one ruin. I started my work by visiting the ruin. Local mythology tells of a murder committed there. By spending the day, walking and then drawing, I opened myself, with the help of meditation, to the atmosphere. I sensed a feeling of dis-ease but who knows what I already carried with me in terms of expectation and projection.

People often visit the Highlands with the belief that we live in virgin landscape, wild country with no past  except for nature. How wrong they are. Our hills are filled with human history and they have probably not been as empty as they are now for millennia. Human intervention is in evidence everywhere and now often managed by people who don’t venture out and enact government policy with drones and a computer from a desk. New fencing marches across hills as grants are administered for landscape restoration with little knowledge of the specific place. Humans were replaced by sheep but the sheep have now left and are replaced with deer as a few privileged people galavant round the hills in the name of sport. The flora is impoverished, the fauna dwindles and the Highlands fulfils the saying of Frank Fraser Darling when he described it as a “wet desert.” 

I have chosen to accompany my piece with a recording of the call of the curlew, a bird now placed on the “red list” as a bird of conservation concern, category 4 (the worst).

“The most noticeable thing is that we’ve got a number of new upland species on the red list. So we have increased concern there, particularly for curlews as our UK population is internationally important. We have about a quarter of the world’s curlews breeding in the UK and we know that they are doing badly elsewhere as well. So there is real international concern for curlew.” (www.rspb.org)

So this piece is dedicated to the people and the birds who once lived in the Highland glens and in particular Glen Gour in the parish of Ardgour, Lochaber.

‘In Love With Moss’ in response to the sense of smell.

I have chosen to make my piece about moss and its evocative smell.

The concertina book is laminated with the pages of the International Oak Society, Membership Directory 2003-2004. I chose to use these old pages as a reference to the concept of the past and of memory.

The subject is the Oak Woodland that we have here and the piece was made from drawings done in the Ariundle Nature Reserve, part of the Sunart Oakwoods Initiative, Ardnamurchan and Morvern.

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.

 

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.