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Artists and Makers Show Superb Work

by Alastair Hamilton -

Eight artists and makers, all of them with Shetland connections, are currently showing their work in an excellent exhibition in the gallery (Da Gadderie) at the Shetland Museum and Archives.

Jeanette Nowak and Anne Bain were born in Shetland; Mike Finnie and Aimee Labourne, have settled here. Chris Rigby and Carolyn Dixon have been regular visitors. Bill Brown has recently returned after a long art-teaching sojourn in Glasgow; and Brian Henderson, after teaching in Shetland for many years, now lives in Edinburgh. What connects them is that they’ve all found Shetland a very agreeable and stimulating place in which to pursue their creative careers.

It’s a varied show, embracing painting, drawing, ceramics and basketry, but the quality is impressive throughout.

the quality is impressive throughout

Apart from spells away at university, where she trained as a psychologist, Anne Bain has lived here all her life. She has drawn and painted for as long as she can remember, constantly inspired by the ever-changing light and colour of the Shetland landscape, though she has painted as far afield as Morocco.

She mostly works in water-based media, often acrylic, and sometimes in mixed media. She tries, as she says, ‘to capture the atmosphere and mood of the moment’, and the essence of a place, in her initial sketch. She’s been exhibiting for more than twenty years and her recent work is perhaps a little more dramatic, with striking lighting.

Anne has also recently undertaken painting expeditions to the Faroe Islands with Mike Finnie, where both have sought to explore new avenues.

Mike, who hails originally from Kirkcudbright, moved to Shetland from Edinburgh in 1986. An architect by training, his first experience of art was with the Kirkcudbright artists and, at school, he sketched and painted buildings in the town and the surrounding countryside. He says:

“My paintings reflect my architectural background and I try to capture the relationship of the ground-hugging traditional buildings to the land and sea. I work from sketches, mostly done outside in winter when the sky is often dramatic and the light horizontal.” Mike is also a silversmith, creating beautiful jewellery. You can see his paintings and other work on his website.

Carolyn Dixon is based in Sanday, Orkney, but has been visiting Shetland regularly for the past eight years. She’s fascinated by the differences and similarities between the two island groups.

“Shetland’s landscape is so varied and dramatic, especially compared to the low-lying fields of Sanday: a thousand places in one archipelago; and yet, away from Lerwick, the scale of human activity is very similar.”

She finds new places exciting and exhilarating, but it takes time to find the ‘story’ of any place.

it takes time to find the ‘story’ of any place

Chris Rigby is also a regular visitor rather than a resident, but he has been coming to Shetland since renting the Booth, a shoreside studio in Scalloway, in 2010. He puts his fascination with rock down to his native Lakeland fells, but really began painting cliff scenes in earnest on trips to the west coast of Ireland. As he says, Shetland has coastal cliffs in abundance and they continue to provide much of his subject matter, though he has recently spent more time exploring inland lochs and ridges.

Chris explores the nooks and crannies of coastal features, hoping to gain “a deeper understanding of the play of light, dynamics of rock formation and the subtleties and myriad workings of water.” Several of his Shetland paintings can be seen on his website.

Shetland has coastal cliffs in abundance

Brian Henderson’s subject matter is at a very different scale. For decades, he has been astonishing gallery visitors with his intricately-painted still life studies, taking simple objects such as bowls, fruit, glass marbles or cartoon figures and rendering them in exquisite detail.

It wasn’t always thus, however. In the 1980s, he was known for portrait or figurative painting, though these, too, were remarkable in their detail. However, as he says:

“Painting still life gives you complete control over content, composition and lighting. The only constraints are gallery deadlines and the sometimes too-rapid decomposition of perishable objects.”

Brian works slowly, beginning with a rough, bright underpainting and gradually adding progressively finer detail using thinner and thinner brushes. He uses very thin glazes or cross-hatching with small brushes, or tiny dots. The textures and tones he achieves are remarkable.

intricately-painted still life studies

Aimee Labourne’s drawings are also intricately detailed. She moved from Lincolnshire to Shetland about 18 months ago and she is fascinated by the materials and equipment used in weaving. She has made studies of weaving equipment in England but is keen to draw what can be found in Shetland, the remnants of “the islands’ often overlooked but once very active weaving industry.”

She is also exploring drawing as a way of learning about the way that weaving equipment works and indeed as a means of understanding in a more general sense.

Not all the work on display at Da Gadderie consists of painting and drawing.

Jeanette Nowak does paint, but her work also includes jewellery, made from sea glass and beach pottery, and creative baskets, several of which feature in the exhibition. She says that most of her work is a direct response to living in Shetland. It’s nurtured and inspired by the dialect, the weather, “the huge skies, the sea, the wild remoteness”. These are the common elements that connect what she does, whether it involves painting, soldering, gathering, weaving or making.

The baskets are made from a wide variety of plants and leaves that she harvests. Some are functional but most are for display. Many kinds of plants find their way into them, including Shetland oats, willow, grass, floss, bent, heather, hairmoss, nettles and seaweed. Her recent experiments with rhubarb skins and beetroot leaves are strikingly successful.

her work is a direct response to living in Shetland

Bill Brown spent many years as a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art but has returned to Shetland and has a workshop in the village of Voe, in the north mainland.

He recognises a rich tradition of making in Shetland, not least because, as he says, everyone was a maker of things by necessity. However, that tradition never really included pottery, and he therefore feels that he’s starting “with a clean slate”.

Coming back to Shetland, he has noted the contrasts between the islands and ‘away’, and finds a different perspective in living much closer to the natural environment and our own history, both of which provide “interesting resources for any designer and maker.”

interesting resources for any designer and maker

The gallery at the Shetland Museum and Archives continues a tradition established in a much more confined space in the building’s predecessor. However, there are several other gallery spaces in the islands. Shetland Arts operates the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale and there are two private galleries, the Shetland Gallery in Yell and Vaila Fine Art in Lerwick. Some space is also available elsewhere, for example in Mareel and the Peerie Shop Café, and pop-up shows in other venues are occasionally held.

Shetland’s diverse creative community has expanded considerably over recent decades, welcoming participants from other parts of the UK and overseas. Many are linked by the Shetland Craft Trail.

This really enjoyable exhibition hints at that diversity, in which this group of artists and makers represents just a small part.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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