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The Orkney Museum 8-29th April 2023

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I wrote a song a few weeks ago, just before the exhibition started, and I’d say Seal Guy was a big influence for this song.

I’d love you to have a listen...

SEAL GUY

This collection of paintings is given the name ‘The People of The Sea' after a book by the same title by David Thomson, published in 1954.

I love this book.

The author tells of his travels around the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland and up to Orkney and Shetland in search of oral telling of local accounts of the legend of the selkies.

In the book he not only retells the selkie stories he comes across on his travels, but he also invites us into the lives of the folk he encounters along the way. There’s a beautiful seesaw between the worlds of what feels solid and documented facts alongside what could be seen as imagination and fable.

I am constantly drawn to this line. It is also the line where the land and sea touch, where the underworld and the overworld rub against each other and where danger and safety intersect. It feels alive and makes me imagine anything is possible.

The imagery in the paintings is my interpretation of these thoughts and feelings. In some of them I wanted to express the power of the bay, and the movement that constantly happens between the bay and the wider ocean, while also thinking about what is happening under the surface of the sea as well as in the air above.

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THE GREAT HEART

1100mm x 700mm (1125mm x 725mm framed), 45mm depth.

The Great Heart has a natural spruce frame.

ON SALE FOR HALF PRICE - £650

I loved the process of painting this one.

It started off with layers of watery paint lying on the paper in great pools which took days to dry. Then I’d do the same again, building up a wonderful watery depth of blues and golds.

But it didn’t seem a finished painting like that as much as I loved it.. and so what happened was I got stuck. I got precious about it’s loveliness and got scared of ruining it. So I rolled it up and never looked at it for a few months. When I came back to it I felt ready to be bold with it again.

And I was surprised that what it wanted to be was a more illustrative image than the majority of my work of late, which I would describe as abstracted landscapes.

The title I took from a song written by the late wonderful Lise Thomson of Fair Isle. She wrote a song inspired by a story from George Mackay Brown. It tells of fishermen going out from Rackwick in Hoy on a fine day and getting caught in a freak summer storm. Only one boat makes it back to the shore that day, and the name of this boat is The Great Heart.

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BAY (no.2)

1000mm x 410mm (1030mm x 440mm framed), 36mm depth.

Bay no.2 has a natural spruce frame with a white painted edge.

These next 3 were worked on simultaneously, and so in some ways they are ‘of the same’ - the same time, the same thoughts, the same emotions… but in the end they finished up fairly different from each other.

I absolutely love this about painting, and I guess the act of creating in general. Things start to take on a life of their own and ask for things that their brothers and sisters ain’t asking for.

I have called these ones ‘Bay, Number 1’, ‘Bay, Number 2’, & ‘The Sound’.

 

BAY (no.1)

1000mm x 400mm (1030mm x 430mm framed), 36mm depth

Bay no.1 has a deep dark blue painted frame.

I was looking back over a notebook and found this alternative title for this painting which I'd forgotten about, it is 

“We Stared At The Seals And Sometimes Imagined They Stared At Us, But It Was Impossible In The Moonlight To See Their Eyes.”

This, very long alternative title above, is a quote from the book ‘The People Of The Sea.

It speaks to me and bridges some kind of a gap between this painting and the deep roots of where it comes from.

Nothing is very clear, and perhaps that is what it is.

Clarity is a wavy state which goes in and out of focus.

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THE SOUND

1000mm x 400mm (1030mm x 430mm framed), 36mm depth

Bay no.1 has a deep dark blue painted frame.

The Bay is my favourite expanse of water, if I was to have to pick one. For me it symbolises so much. It reminds me of home. I was brought up in a house at the end of Longhope Bay in Orkney. Right at the safest end you could say, farthest from the wide ocean at least.

I used to play on the rocky beach all the time, and canoe out to the skerries in the middle of the bay at low tide and hang out with the seals who would bask on top of them. I was fine with this and loved it, till one day someone asked if I wasn’t scared that they’d come up under the canoe and bump the underside. After that I had a bit of the fear… which was a pain!

The bay also symbolises for me a going out and a coming in, a leaving and returning.

THE PEOPLE OF THE SEA

1165mm x 1110mm, 40mm depth

This one takes the title!

I felt tremendous amounts of joy while painting this one, and also having it in my home on the wall.

In fact the creation of these paintings has been such an amazing journey. I feel pretty fucking passionate about the power of creativity and how pushing paint around can help in so many aspects of life. It helps me understand what I am feeling, and who I am, and who I want to become. It’s a process of skin shedding and opening up and becoming vulnerable with ourselves and accepting ourselves for who we are, warts an’ all.

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THE SPIRIT OF TARVA

This painting takes its title not from The People of The Sea, but instead from a Mongolian story told by storyteller Dougie Mackay about a boy called Tarva who was very ill with the plague. So ill that all his family thought his time was short on this earth and so gathered around him crying and wailing. Their grief convinced him his time was up and so his spirit accidentally visited the underworld. Here he met with the great Earl Elrik Kaan who gave him a bollocking for coming down here, for it wasn’t yet his time to die..

Young Tarva explained his misjudgement and confusion and Earl Elrik Kaan took pity on him and said he could leave and go home but he would have to take a gift with him back to the overworld.

There were many shiny gifts to choose between but something flickering and moving caught Tarva’s eye and he knew this was the gift he wanted to take home to his family, and before he knew it his spirit had flown back to his body in his bed in his home, where all his family were still around him.

They were still at the crying and wailing when Tarva awoke. But joyous tears soon turned to fear when two black crows flew in the window and sat on the bed posts and pecked out Tarva’s eyes eating them up for their breakfast.

The horror was hard to take but Tarva’s blindness didn’t stop him reciting his vast tale of his travels to the underworld and all he experienced on the way and while he was there… This telling of his tale led to him telling more stories and becoming the storyteller of his area. And even though he was blind, he was guided by the light of his stories for the rest of his life which took him on many an adventure.

It felt right to include this painting in this series because it fitted well with everything else despite being influenced by a story from a different source.

Waterways are often associated with crossing over to the other side, where that fine line between the worlds is crossed through the substance of water.

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MERMAID (no.1)

MERMAID (no.2)

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MERMAID (no.3)

410mm x 410mm (435mm x 435mm framed), 36mm depth

All 3 Mermaid paintings have a natural spruce frame with a white painted edge.

ON SALE - 35% OFF - NOW ONLY £260 each

Mermaids & selkies are symbols of freedom and imagination, where many of their stories describe how they become trapped in earth's mundane reality and lose their creative powers.

I’ve come back to this word ‘Therianthropy’ - the ability to change from seal to human by shedding of the skin.

 

And I found a wee poem I’d written at the same time as painting these so I’ll share it here too.

A dense weighty sound

Can a noise be weighed.

The bowl is a strong design

Oceans flow & fill

Filtered sounds fill & empty.

What colour is that distant thud?

I describe the silver pink in my ear

As near

Can a tragedy be silent

Can an ecstasy be weightless

Is silence something that can be felt in the palm of my hand

Or does it not

Really exist

Or does it

Disperse

And seek to mix with noises

Near by….

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CAVE BABY

680mm x 480mm (730mm x 530mm framed), 36mm depth

Cave Baby has a natural spruce frame.

ON SALE - £150 OFF - NOW ONLY £350

It made me think about a story from the book The People of The Sea where there’s a fisherman who sees it’s a good day for going out to the seal caves and going seal hunting, and so goes past his neighbour to see if he’ll come with him. But his neighbour is home alone with the baby as the wife is away somewhere. So the man says he can’t come out today. But his neighbour convinces him that the baby will be just as fine wrapped up in his cot in the boat as he would be at home.. in fact he may even sleep better!

And so they set out to the caves. When they get there they put the cot with the baby in it on a ledge in the cave where he’ll be safe while they get to catching a seal. They’ve not long started on their day’s work when a huge swell comes in suddenly and floods the cave making it impossible for them to get back into it to get the baby. In fact the wind gets right up and the only thing for it is to head back for home, leaving the baby to the cave…

They spend the next few days mourning the loss of the baby.

Once the storm has passed enough they decide to head back out to the cave to see if there are any remains of the baby’s body. When they get near the entrance to the cave they see a great seal nursing her youngster before she slips off the ledge and disappears under the surface of the sea. They reach the ledge and to their astonishment it is not a baby seal who is lying on the ledge, but their human baby. And he is warm and happy and around his mouth is the milk of the seal mamma.

HOY & WALLS PARISH MAP

These paintings are now on permanent display in The Hoy Heritage Centre. But there are a range of prints available, including close ups of some of my favourite sections.

Central to the exhibition are the Hoy & Walls Parish Map diptych, & the

Hoy & Walls cranky made with the children of North Walls School. This

was a commission from TRACS (Traditional Arts & Culture Scotland).

I was asked to make a Parish Map which would reflect what the folk of

Hoy & Walls claim as their own locality and what they value in it. It did

not have to be precise or cartographically correct, but instead illustrate

locally distinctive activities and features which would draw attention to

the everyday things that make Hoy & Walls significant to the locals and

different from the next. Through gathering thoughts and stories and

ideas from as much of the community as possible, and through working

with the kids in the school, I gathered lots of nuggets which I then

formed into the two paintings which make up the Hoy & Walls Parish

Map.

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Thanks so much for                              visiting!

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