This is my last post on the Iona Residencies blog. (I have transferred my entries onto my own blog at: https://wordpress.com/stats/annaravenartist.wordpress.com.)
I leave to go home on 13th December. December is a difficult month with the approach of Christmas. Snatches of choral music at this time of year inevitably remind me of my father whose life for so much of my childhood was part of Kings College, Cambridge. Nine lessons and carols on Christmas Eve, heard on the radio, have often reduced me to tears as one is meant to embrace family and good cheer. For me this is always tinged with great sadness and this year, 13th December 2014, my father would have been a hundred. He died thirty five years ago but none the less the poignancy of missing him remains.
Spending a month on Iona has in some way been a tribute to him. He believed in me and any artistic talent I may have and it is very likely that I am an artist because of him. Himself a painter of botanical illustration he made a light burn in me to express myself with integrity and I hope these paintings are witness to that.
JER.1914-1980. I love you.
• Plates rattling on the shelf • Hail the size of frozen peas • Howling dog on the beach, terrified • Nets washed up the shape of a dead body • A robin in the byre sheltering • A dunnock hopping through the dog flap • Thunder rumbling like a base drum and lightening at 2am with no time to count in between. Today no phone or broadband • 6 visits to the beach • Waves the size of streets • Snatches of choral music reminding me that it is Christmas.
Holed up in a room in the hostel, John has kindly encouraged me to move from the Shepherds Hut into the building, as we weather a storm. There was a break in the weather yesterday and so after Norrie went home, I rushed down to the beach to make some smaller pieces which has given me something to do today. Too nervous to unwrap the bigger work for fear of the unpredictable direction of water as the wind makes a weather phenomena famous in the West Highlands of Scotland, horizontal rain.
As we walked to the village yesterday, I noticed more island sounds which reminded me of a choral piece I saw on the Isle of Canna this summer. Lucky for me, a friend asked me to join her as her family were unable to, so with an early start, we spent the day exploring the island until in the late afternoon we saw “Away with the Birds” http://www.awaywiththebirds.co.uk, a site specific musical piece based on the bird song heard on the coast. As I heard hail hitting a metal gate, wind whistling through a cattle stall and the thump of the Atlantic breakers, I thought how great it would be to be a musician and just spend all day recording sounds and splicing them together to make a soundscape of the weeks I have been here. At home we have twice been lucky enough to welcome a guest, a composer, David Toop, who does just that. He was so intrigued by the sound of the Singing Sands that he returned with recording equipment to discover the bellow of roaring stages.
The weather has made me feel like a character in one of Norries favourite films. “I know Where I am Going” is about a headstrong woman determined to master the elements to marry a Laird and is based on Mull when a storm blows up as she desperately tries to find someone who will take her on to a smaller island in an open boat. I am glad that my highland experience has led me not only to a highland man but also to respect the weather and to enjoy the cosy feeling of being in my room reading, writing and doing quiet things.
My time on Iona is drawing to an end as I leave next weekend. I was very keen for Norrie to come and see where I have been and what I’ve been doing. I needed someone to talk to about the work and a little encouragement to get through the increasingly irritating discomfort. The boggy path to the Shepherds hut is now UNDER water, my boots are smelly and the daily journey with a bucket full of pee has become annoying as I have a daily dread of slipping on the uneven rocks and pouring it over myself. The pile of finished work is getting larger but there is nowhere to put it without the threat of damp and this morning I found a whole folio of paper that is now soaking wet. So a visit from my husband felt like a necessary essential to keep me going. And then the forecast was for gales and one of the staff was convinced that the ferry service was already cancelled. I set off in a state of despondency knowing that if Norrie couldn’t cross two ferries and deliver my food supply, I would need to shop in the village anyway. At each vista of the Sound I could glimpse the ferry standing off and arrived in the village convinced that the boat would not sail and that we would be unable to meet. I watched it restlessly shifted position convinced that the tide and currents were making the crossing too dangerous but eventually I could see progress was being made and as it got nearer I could see the post van was aboard. When the ferry services of the West Highlands plough up and down on a beautiful summer day often full of seasonal visitors, as we experience living near the Corran Ferry, it is easy to forget the essential nature of the service the ferries provide. Watching the little ferry, a temporary boat whilst the usual one is away for a refit, I felt profoundly grateful to the crew for providing such a reliable service. And then weighed down with shopping and without a proper coat, there was my dear husband, the noble Norrie.
The weather has been severe with the rattling of corrugated iron, swinging gates and knocking metal. The sea has become rougher and rougher as the islands swim in and out of view through the mist. A flash of lightning behind The Dutchman’s Cap, an island Norrie now terms The Submarine, the hostel is freezing as someone insists on leaving the windows of every bathroom open through night and day and even with several blankets and a hotwarter bottle I could not get warm last night. So as the morning dawned it was lovely to sit in bed with a cup of tea having a conversation with my best friend which has fortified me to stay for the last week despite running out of materials, the post being slow so a slim prospect of a new delivery and the Byre, more of a colander than a dry space. And then we had a walk on the beach, leaning rather than walking and found quicksand where the tide is low and the moon full. Finally, studio time and I started to paint. An onslaught of hail which came in through every hole, landing on every surface and threatening to destroy the work I have constructed.
Gave up and withdrew inside, determined to stay the last few days but aware that I have been pushed almost too far. The result is that the work feels authentic and the question we discussed over a cup of tea is whether the struggle is intrinsic to the result and if so, how to bring that into daily life?
We had a gale and lashing rain overnight. Sleeping in a Shepherds Hut made of corrugated iron was like sleeping inside a huge percussion instrument! The various intensities of rain then sudden change of tempo and pace; it sounded like hail and the differing lengths of pauses between gusts of wind. I didn’t mind it at all, wrapped up with a duvet, eiderdown and hot water bottle was really cosy and felt as if I was in the middle of a musical composition of enormous proportions. Of course that’s why I came here rather than staying at home. Feel v comfortable being even closer to nature but am getting fed up with my boots, £20 from a discount store but surprisingly warm!
I wrote this after another night of stormy weather.
The wind picked up during the night and I was woken with the repeated wrapping of something loose blowing in the wind. Reminiscent of a metronome that someone forgot to set, the uneven drumming was enough to drive you quietly bonkers! However, there is a man here called Mark who spends time working on the croft. He must be one of the most gentle of men and when he told me that the croaking of the Corncrake was so load and repetitive in the summer that he had got up and thrown stones at 3am, I thought perhaps I should train myself to ignore such trifles as a rattling chain. After all I am on Iona!
This week has been the hardest. No longer the novelty of the subject and the environment grip me with the newness, excitement and exploration, this week has been much more about the day to day and maintaining a positive outlook, despite occasional mishaps.
Having found a subject and time to only superficially explore one, I am committed and of course that goes with second thoughts and worries that the choice might have been better or different. So maintaining a committment is a challenge in itself.
Living in a hostel where the plumbing is a hundred and fifty yards from your sleeping accommodation is another and sharing a living space with a very few others who have chosen Iona in November, is a third. Everyone who arrives makes a joke about being a nutter to come here at this time of year and of course they include themselves. I have spent some lovely evenings talking to complete strangers but that is no novelty as we run Ard Daraich where we welcome visitors in the summer. But there is an intensity amongst individuals here which throws you back onto yourself and makes you reflect on how you are in the world of others.
Of course all this is magnified by the weather. I was extremely lucky to have arrived here to two dry weeks of warm weather where the biggest inconvenience was the wind. With a specially bought packet of extra strong drawing pins I was equipped to deal with that. The first setback occurred when I became over-confident about working on the beach. I carried my paper, set out about eight sheets all secured with stones to keep them in place, and then started work. I was aware of a gathering black cloudscape but thought I would continue. Of course it started to drizzle and stacking them, one of top the next, all wet and with no time to dry, I started the arduous task of getting them under cover. Having too much to carry, I made two journeys and on getting them back through what became a downpour, unpinned the paper to discover that there was no colour left. Yesterday, four days later, I can still see the paint staining the white sand where they were, propped against a log with enough time to be completely rinse them of any paint.
Since I have lived near Fort William I have been lucky enough to have been taught by Lys Hansen. She has visited Lochaber once a year and given master classes for the local art group. I have found her an inspiration, in both life and painting. Once I spent a week being taught by Lys at a summer school and learnt a great deal. Lys is predominantly interested in the figure and so she usually teaches life drawing. It is how she teaches that is so helpful and most of all, how to open to yourself and the subject, to move into a freedom conventional art education didnt teach, at least not to me in the ’70s. As a painter of landscape this freedom has enabled me to read the subject in a more sensory way and to let go of the desire to make a representation. On Iona this has drawn me to the sea, the beach and the wonderful jade water. I have used the sand as my easel, stones to anchor the paper and collected a number of found objects with which to make marks.
John (Maclean) looked rather horrified when he saw the amount of luggage I had on arrival. I have a very small eco car but none the less it was loaded almost to the roof. The astonishing thing was that when we transferred it into John’s commodious estate car, his car was full too. Once at the croft, the luggage was spread about by wheelbarrow and a not insubstantial holdall arrived in my sleeping quarters, the Shepherds Hut. When packing, fashion was the last thing on my mind, something I might have been wise to think more about, as Iona seems full of well dressed people and John, the best dressed crofter I have ever seen. But I was only thinking of warmth and heeding son John’s advice had already paid a visit to Uniqlo when last in Oxford Street. Having invested in a selection of underclothes, or, what I now believe are called base layers in the mountaineering shops of Fort William, I then only have to think about the number of subsequent layers I apply.
After two layers of thermal basewear I then have a small selection of worn out cashmere jerseys, worn either like another base layer, or in this case, mid layer or tee-shirt or, as today, as a scarf around my neck. (Amazing how a warm neck makes you feel cosy.)
The star piece is…..another jersey; this time bought last Saturday in the Iona jumble sale for £2 and a fine piece of Seville Row menswear. I suppose it is called the Boyfriend look, or rather, too large but given that I am not insubstantial, it is either far too big or flatteringly covering a multitude of sins. Anyway, it is extremely warm and I feel mildly guilty that it is becoming somewhat paint soaked. The next option is a Lidls gillet I bought for son John when working for a highland building firm last year. It is horrible but very WARM and with a hood, keeps my ears warm when on the beach. And on top of that I have my raincoat and water proof gardening trousers. If you see Michelin Man walking round Iona, stop and take a closer look, you never know, it might be me.
Exciting to have a day out. As someone who comes from the south of England, it holds the same excitement as going up to London for the day. I expect that is because I am off to meet my husband for a date. Up before dawn and a forty minute walk. Watch the sun rise over the Abbey and listen to the gossip of geese as they rearrange themselves. The call of buzzards overhead. There are so many rabbits on Iona that there is enough food for several pairs and two birds spend their days quartering the croft. Hundreds of starlings sit on the wires and during the day patrol up and down the beach, combing for food amongst the kelp; piles of sea vegetable washed up by the surf.
I stayed the night with friends and drove back along the coast road, watching the islands change from different angles and so I returned, understanding better what islands there are to the west of Mull. It is extrodinary how on some days you feel as if you could reach out and touch Lunga, The Dutchman’s Cap or Staffa and on other days they are the backdrop to a mysterious world that has the feel of fairytales.