“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Strong and content I travel the open road.”
How could I say it any better than Walt Whitman? I came with such eagerness and a sense of adventure with a simple desire to work in solitude and quiet. My children worried about me coming to this tiny remote island alone. It is not easy to get here. It takes 2 ferries and a bus ride across the desolate island of Mull before you see the soft turquoise waters and white sand shores of Iona. It was late October when I arrived. I had too much luggage and too many art materials.
Thousand of pilgrim’s feet trample over this little island especially over spring and summer. Most of them come only for a day trip and to see the Abbey. But now it is winter and they are gone.
I arrived to a hostel packed with travelers from all over the world. Who were these people finding shelter at the hostel from the winds and rain of November and December storms? Who travels the world in winter? I sat around the table at dinner mesmerized by their life stories. Free Spirits, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, story tellers, a whole plethora of folks sat at that table out on the north end of that tiny wind-swept island weaving magic in their combined stories. The air was perfumed by their shared humanity. I was drunk on the richness of their lives.
When I was not in the common room visiting, I was feverishly working in my room on the small seascape pastels I was creating. The biggest problem I posed for myself was, “Could I make postcard-sized paintings with any sense of movement and life?”. How do I translate the flow and energy of 12 foot long paintings with all their gesture and sweeping line into a 5″ x 7″ painting? My favorite painter, Emily Carr, said, “Let my talent be in service to my vision.” So I was asking myself what was my vision? What are my themes? Can they be universal and am I able to make art that exists as a metaphor for the larger cosmic energy that animates all things? Energy that I sense, but could I translate that into form?
I did 25 paintings while I was here. I achieved my desire to breathe life into them. Yet I struggled with the dichotomy of my working life in my small cell-like room with the pull of wanting to hear traveler’s tales out in the common room. The view of the ocean and the myriad islands out beyond the parameters of my window kept calling me, but I pulled the landscape in devouring it, sucking it in like air, like candy, and transmuting it into art. Some of my questions were answered. Some were not.
In the two and a half months that I’ve been here, there have been chapters to this experience. Besides the random traveler, there was a time when the hostel was filled with women. All of them were artists and all of them were authors as well. We had stimulating conversations about art and being artists. We sang together in the Abbey and St. Oran’s Chapel.
We made meals together, it felt like we were a community of nuns, save the one lone male Marc who lives and works here. For him it must have felt like his own private harem. After our nightly soirees, we would retire to the quiet of our “cells” to read, create art, or sleep.
Often, the owner of the hostel, John invited us up to his home, a traditional white croft house where we watched movies. One was about Gertrude Stein. Lively discussions always came out of these visits. Gradually over the weeks the other artists did their work, gave a presentation to the community, drifted away and went home. I was the last one left.
Christmas happened with a great tempest raging outside. The wind howled so much and beat against the side of the buildings and shook the roof until it became the talk of the village. Complaints about the inability to sleep became commonplace. Marc, at one point, left the shelter of his little bothy, swearing and cursing the wind and its bombardment. He even slept in the hostel for a few hours to get relief. Collette’s parents were here during the big Christmas storm and had a hard time sleeping. Out in the great room, the table was filled with nuts, fruit, and gold candles. Everything looked festive and opulent. Marc and Collette put up a willow branch and put some small white lights on it and hung seashells from its branches. The windows were decorated too with Christmas lights and cut out snowflakes. One pilgrim, Heli who was from Finland, made a gingerbread house. It was perfect. Simple. Meaningful.
The ten weeks I spent on Iona impacted my work profoundly. It was an experience that unexpectedly changed me. Iona’s ancient rocks and mystical landscape cannot be denied and it’s beauty reflects the beginning of the world. It has a sense of timelessness and light like no other place in the world.
Even though I wrote here about life in the hostel, there was another reality outside which impacted me as much as the people I met. It was the landscape. Ancient. Vibrating with energy and unseen forces. It was not only the power of the weather, I’m speaking of here, but the power of place. How does history impact the character of a landscape? On this land, I never walked alone. Just as the vivid stories inside the hostel infused that place with life, so too did thousands of ancient pilgrim’s stories of saints, sinners, Scottish Kings, Viking conquerors and mythical beings enliven the land. I heard their voices in the high winds above me as I walked and I still hear the low rumble of the ocean in my dreams. In some peculiar way I hear Iona call to me, like a song. Like a yearning. This is the power of place.
Vicki Folkerts-Coots is a landscape painter based in northern California. She works in oil, pastel and watercolor. She received a Master of Fine Arts from California College of the Arts, a Bachleor of Fine Arts in Painting and a Bachleor of Science in Applied Arts from Oregon State University, and three teaching credentials from Sonoma State University. Her work can be found in many private and public collections. She maintains a studio in Petaluma California. To see more of her artwork please visit her website here.