As the wind whips its way around the solid stone keepers’ cottage, I start to think about the mainland. Does Edinburgh experience gale force storms in the same way? In all my years of living there, I have to say no. Apparently it is only 60mph gusts, feels like more.
Why did I come to Shetland for a month? Why did I choose October to visit? The short answer would be “I was granted artist in residence” and “I wanted to see how the late autumn light would affect my work.” This is the kind of application worthy spiel that started this journey but certainly not what drove it. I had lost my energy. In working hard and loving the purpose and passion behind my day to day job, I was empty. I had no energy or creativity left for me at the end of the week. This has never happened before, if anything creating art usually tops up the reserves.
I would be lying if I said that was it. Truth is that I have been in need of an adventure, a pilgrimage if you will. I don’t think I am alone in this. Taking a block of time out to go find something, not being altogether sure what. There is no way this was a bad idea, right? As it happens, I was not keen on what I found in week one. Complete block. And not just block but complete and utter crisis of confidence. Who did I think I was? Sailing off to Shetland to play at being “artist” for a month. This kind of thing was for “proper” artists.
Immersing myself in island life, I went to a gig at the arts centre. As the young girl sang and played fiddle with such ease, I was filled with a combination of awe, jealousy, fear and doubt. She was spectacular to listen to and no doubt had worked hard to get to this place, however it seemed effortless. She had this magical substance called “talent”. It reminded me that I have not possessed such a thing. I liked art at school. I had ideas that my skills could never live up to. I spent 4 years at art school learning how to change that and now have adequate technique. If someone asked me to draw a cat, you could tell it was a cat (however I am still shockingly bad at Pictionary). Driving back to my lighthouse with the CD playing as a reminder of my lack of “talent”, I continued to feel completely deflated. I came all this way to find something lovely and fulfilling, a spiritual revelation! Here I was, feeling like a fraud. I don’t know if this experience is unique to me, maybe others have been there too. Arriving home that night, I prayed about it. My prayers are something of a Dear John letter. Dear God, why am I here? Why am I here on this earth and why am I here in this place? Please give me some talent or help me to create it for myself. As with so many of my prayers, I felt nothing afterwards. A silence as response. Unpacking some art materials in the studio I started to rearrange the space. On the bookshelf sat umpteen copies of Ann Cleeves crime novels, a thick hardback on lighthouses of the Atlantic and this-
Talent is Overrated. An answer to prayer. For those who wonder about God having a sense of humour, I can confirm that he does. In fact it gets even better when you see who the quote of recommendation is from on the front cover. Bloody Trump!!
The next day I took a long drive to North Mavine. Multiple people had recommended seeing Eshaness. For pretty much all of my travels, I relied on the opinions of the people. Books and internet info is a bit thin on the ground anyway. I reached Eshaness. Enormous rusty pink cliffs plummeted into turquoise froth. Amazing. That combination of fear and awe returned. As I clung to the coast I looked down into whirl pools and vast chasms cut into the rock, I was lost for words. BOOM!! The sound of a gun or car door slamming came from the caves. I later discovered that this was the Canon. It was a blowhole that bellows out the water, aptly named I would say.
Anyway, after many hours of cliff side adventures, I headed home. I began to draw. I then drew some more and some more. I churned out 3 drawings in a oner. A couple of things I should mention. 1) I rarely draw. I prefer paint, it covers a multitude of sins and I am more confident at manipulating it. 2) I knew when each one was finished, no dithering. I just knew. 3) I did not imagine them beforehand, I just let them happen in the moment.
After this, I felt better. After this, I stopped caring about what kind of artist I could be classed as. After this I was knackered and needed to sleep.
The remainder of my time on Shetland was spent being greedy to see and experience as much as possible. Grabbing pockets of safe weather and maps, I covered a lot of ground. I sketched as I went. Sketchbooks have never been my thing. I would buy many sketchbooks and do one picture per page. I have cupboards filled with half completed sketchbooks. From this one month, I have one completed sketchbook and another half filled.
Once I stopped worrying about not being productive on this trip, I became productive. I have produced several canvases and multiple large scale pastel drawings (I should also mention that pastel is my least favourite medium) as well as a completed sketchbook and additional studies. Even at art school, I struggled to produce this amount of work, always apprehensive of the “theme” or “story” that would tenuously link it altogether. This body of work has grown out of a lived experience over a short period of time. I have created it without caring about giving it a purpose. In my head, its purpose to exist. To have been created. That's good enough for me.
Some of the attendees at the small exhibition I held in the lighthouse inquired about its purpose. Where will you exhibit this body of work next? Will you make a book of it? Is it for sale, can I buy one today? Do you have prints of them? While all of these suggestions and questions are valid and something I may explore down the line, I am happy just to say “I spent a month in Shetland and I made art.” That is enough for me. For now.