Friday, March 17, 2017

The Islands are calling.

Mid-March and the islands are calling, I’ve been away for over four months and still I must stay down south for another two months. If I didn’t have an exhibition in progress that requires my attention I’d be heading north right now. If April turns out to be dry then the call will be even greater as I have peat to cut this year, but I must wait until mid-May before the van is packed with my art materials to set my new studio.
 2016 saw the building of my very first purpose built studio and during my absence Steve has carried on through the dark winter months to get the interior insulated, electrics and plumbing fitted and the walls dry lined with larch boarding for the workroom.
There will be little signs of life in the garden as yet with buds firmly closed for at least another month before the risk of bitter winds subside. Two years ago I sowed masses of foxglove seed which gave a wonderful display during the summer months and into autumn. This year the show should be even more spectacular with the new planting area around the studio liberally scattered and good deal of daffodils planted. Unfortunately the bulbs will be over by the time I arrive. 
I planted about sixty beech trees, around forty as a hedge down the north side of the vegetable garden and the rest scatter in places that I hoped would afford some shelter. Gardening this far north and with harsh winter coastal gales is not without certain restrictions but all is dependent on shelter. One row of shrubs will not suffice as a wind break so a band of planting three to five meters in depth is required before it begins to act as protection for more tender plants. 

The orientation of the house and barn at No 17 New Tolsta is south facing which does little to interrupt strong winds from the North West however the land slopes down to the east and the croft which means I have selected that lowest area to create my vegetable garden. Even so it requires some protective netting and one year I recall a late summer breeze so strong it blew the cabbages out of the ground, since then I’ve learnt to heel them in well and bank them up. Fruit bushes seem to do quite well and I have high hopes for the gooseberries that put on good growth. The best production however seems always to come from the rhubarb although they do need checking that no rabbits have tunnelled under and made their nest. Rabbits are a continual problem for gardeners and crofters when even in the village cemetery the long buried are at times no longer at rest. Last year I waged war and managed to trap and dispatch a dozen or more. Two made a delicious hot pot and the rest went to feeding the local hoody crows and buzzards. This year I’ll be late to arrive so while the man’s away the rabbits will hopefully not do too much damage.

I try each year to let out the house and during the summer months hope to welcome those tourists who venture this far north, however while five years ago they came now there are no takers. I realise times are harder and people will often elect for guaranteed sun, but judging by the amount of television interest I would have thought someone would have wanted to discover that true croft house experience. Escape to a world were coastal wilderness is paramount and television, telephones and internet connection simply don’t exist. Or are we all wired up?        

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Time to name the animals.

                                               “Give me the serenity to sit with canvas and wool,
                                                           the courage to keep stitching,
                                                 and I will show you what a difference time can make”.
Luckily I have never found a blank canvas, paper, room or computer screen threatening. There has always been ideas right from my very youngest years and my attention has always been drawn to the visual. Finding things to fill our time is never a problem today, there is always someone keen to beg steal or borrow whatever we have available. Our allotted time is precious to us but also profitable to others. What we choose to do with it is often not straight forward as a living has to be made. Finding free time is often the first step to creation itself and it is often the question people ask when they see one of my stump work embroideries for the first time, “how long does one like that take?”
The rough sketching started for Adam naming the animals with a potentially crowded image but that would work within the medium of woollen stump work tapestry. The foreground would simply be crowded with life and some would indeed be emerging from the ground. Since this is from a time before the fig leaf I felt it prudent as with all other historical images to place one animal strategically in front of Adam. This animal turned out to be a small horse-like creature but before the development of hooves and now only found in fossil form. To give a sense of the process of naming Adam holds aloft that comical little bird the ever popular but now endangered puffin on his left hand. God is in the top right quarter and during the drawing I felt his outstretched hands must be presenting the next creature to be named and it turned out to be in alphabetical order with a python. As usual nothing was written in stone and during the assembly many things would be altered, added or removed. During this constructive process it is important the work out the three dimensional or raised nature of the image and in this respect it is very much like creating a stage set with backdrop and side wings to give depth.
Having completed Adam and the adjoining creatures I drew out the next batch of creature to be stitched on the separate small frame and included in this was the head of God. Faces are always a delicate part of an image and to obtain an expression in wool over a matter of a few square centimetres is not always evident and can significantly change during the padding out process. I had already decided that the bird life would play a major role in adding colour and while the brilliant red flamingo stood to the right before the golden robes of God there would perhaps need to be a counterbalance of colour to the left over and above the striking white horse. Having stitched and stuffed the animals in the lower right corner I found that there was significant room within the central ground into which I would be able to fit a goodly amount of life by raising the horizon and coastline. My aim now was to fill the image with as diverse a mix of wildlife as I could manage. I worked from the foreground back placing animals and birds wherever there was space and with an eye on colour and contrast. With each rise and fall of the needle there is a precision that influences where the next stitch will be placed and while focusing on such a small area I retain a consciousness of the overall picture.
As I look at the image before me that has over the weeks been slowly revealed I find myself impressed with the work and the beauty of something that demands such a high input of my time. There seems today to be a tendency for exhibitions and installations to be extra ordinary impressive events on a grand scale that more often than not are one artists idea carried out by a large team of out-workers. The pace of life today is often at a break neck speed and so to catch the eye of the public, critics or press it is assumed that large scale plays an important part. However one must never forget the small gem like icons with an intimacy that pulls you into a magical world.  What I find impressive with my current work and which I hope will impress those who eventually see it on exhibition is that it is the creative hand stitching work of just one person over a three year period.
If you had shown me this work several years ago and told me that I would be doing it I would have said no way but then life and creativity is never a straight forward predestined path.     


Saturday, March 11, 2017


My wool work embroidery exhibition “Following a thread” was opened on the evening of February 24th with well-chosen words from Polly Devlin. I’m told the evening was a roaring success by those who know about these things. To go by the genuine comments of marvel and wonderment of my stitching during that evening and what I’ve heard since I have to believe that it is true, those viewing my work and who are the type to voice an opinion seem all to be enthusiastically positive. The comment “these are amazing!” came from the far corner of the gallery as a middle aged man in long raincoat spoke to no one in particular but all within ear shot. He later congratulated me with a sense of real joy and said he would most definitely be back.

I’ve spent a couple of days each week in the gallery talking to visitors stitching when possible and signing books and it has be very satisfying to hear all that has been said. The first evening when returning back to friends by bus it hit me, the culmination of three years’ work in virtual isolation and the intensity of that effort spilled over into tears; the times I caught myself thinking I must show a particular piece to my mother like all children do when they recognise an achievement in whatever medium. There are so many people no longer with us who I know would have loved to have seen this work. There is no call for praise but when a young punk says “respect due man” my chest swells. Who would think that woolly biblical illustrations could provoke such reaction and yet when I look back on the extra ordinary amount of hand stitched work even to me it seems jaw droppingly remarkable that I could have done it. The most often voiced comment is you must have tremendous patients and I have to reply no, anyone who has been in a queue with me whether that be traffic jam or supermarket checkout will know I have a very low threshold for the non-creative but for the process of creation thankfully I have that patience in abundance.  I also have to reply in the negative when people ask me if I am religious as in having a belief. I suppose not believing in God could in itself be regarded as a belief but there is disbelief in their voices that anyone who has created such time consuming and intense “Old Testament” images was not driven in some way by a religious faith. The only faith I have is in knowing that I have the creative drive required within me to complete the task. Yesterday I gave an hour long talk to a packed audience in the gallery and at the end one woman took it on herself to thank me and there followed a round of applause, so from that and many other comments I take it that the talk was a success.

None of this would have come about if it had not been for the encouragement of my good friend Deidre Mc Sharry who skilfully managed to convince the Victoria Gallery to give me a show. It dawns on me that they too must have recognised a talent that over rid the need for qualifications when they didn’t question the fact that I possessed not even “O” level art. Proof if proof be needed that in these days of becoming indebted by further education there is, certainly within the art world nothing like simply getting on with it and doing the work.