A Gem In Yell: The Shetland Gallery

by Alastair Hamilton -

A particularly enjoyable diversion on a trip through Shetland’s north isles is the Shetland Gallery, which lies just off the main road at Sellafirth, in the north of Yell. Shona Skinner, who founded the gallery with her husband Alan, told me how it came about.

Although regular visitors to Shetland, the couple were living in central London. However, Shona had inherited her great-grandparents’ croft house, which was “very much our holiday home” and they’d decided to add an extension. As she explained

“The draw to the islands became stronger and stronger. Eventually, we decided to give up our lives in London and live full-time in Shetland. The gallery certainly wasn’t part of the original plan.” However, Shona is an artist and had had an exhibition at the Old Haa in Burravoe, in south Yell. It was so successful that she immediately began to enquire about possible venues for another one.

“The museum was interested, but I’d have had to wait four years; it was very frustrating not having anywhere to show work. So, one night, Alan and I were having dinner; a couple of glasses of wine and we just looked at each other and said ‘why don’t we open a gallery?’; which sounds pretty mad, but I had met a lot of the other artists up here by then and they were saying the same thing: lack of wall space. We knew this building was sitting empty and we got the keys the next day. We walked in and we just thought, ‘this is perfect’ and that’s how it was born.”

2015 is their fourth season. The gallery is open from Easter until the end of September, except on Mondays, and at other times by appointment. Shona says:

“It’s amazing how many visitors we get through the door. It’s the middle of July and we’ve had over 700 already. The majority of our visitors are tourists. They’ve fallen in love with Shetland and they want to take a representation of Shetland away with them; but they’re travelling, so we end up posting work literally all over the world.”

We walked in and we just thought, ‘this is perfect’ and that’s how it was born.

The exhibition gradually changes as work is sold but all of it very much reflects the Skinners’ preferences, coming from artists and craftspeople that they know and like. The list of past and present exhibitors includes a number of artists and craftspeople displaying painting and work in wood, textiles, jewellery, basketry, sculpture and pottery.

“When we set up the gallery, we said that it must be very much about the artists, so we must be the only gallery on the planet that charges only 20% commission; most galleries take 50%, even above that.” As an artist herself, that’s something that Shona feels is important. All exhibiting artists are featured on the website and each has their own page. “We really like our artists and we want to support them. Nick Barnham doesn’t have his own website, so we get lots of requests about his work and sell lots of his prints through the website.” Shona has her own studio and workshop in the gallery, its walls covered with inspiration and ideas.

Shona feels very happy with how the gallery is going. They have no plans physically to expand the exhibition space, but they are always interested in taking Shetland art to a wider audience; for example, they put on a show two years ago at the Caledonian Club in London. She and Andy Ross, of neighbouring business Global Yell, also attended the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace , where she was able to show some of her work. She could have taken up other offers, but has to bear in mind the logistics of transporting work from Shetland. Art fairs are another possibility, though they are, Shona says, very expensive to stage and they’d have to charge a higher commission.

Another aspiration is to offer space for a residency.

Another aspiration, which they’ve been working on for more than a year, is to offer space for a residency, which would attract international artists. The adjacent building on their site is vacant and, if they could put together funding to buy a croft house, there would be accommodation available. “This wouldn’t just be about the visual arts”, Shona explains, “it would be about poets, choreographers and others”.

With Andy Ross occupying two of the four available units at Sellafirth and Shona and Alan already occupying one of the others, the addition of a residency space would cement this corner of Yell as a “very exciting art hub”. Shona adds “It would be fantastic to see the empty unit being developed, in some way, for the arts”.

Shona and Alan are welcoming and engaging hosts and I really enjoyed my visit. As well as a very appealing selection of work by many of my favourite painters, I was particularly taken by some beautiful scarves by Joan Fraser. I didn’t leave empty-handed, falling (not for the first time) for a painting of my house by my near neighbour, Mike Finnie.

A visit to Sellafirth is highly recommended.

Posted in: Creative Scene