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Beautiful Craft Work Impresses At Bonhoga Gallery

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland has always been known for beautiful craft work, especially of course knitwear and lace. But today’s creative community has many strings to its bow; to see just how many, the best place to start is the downloadable guide, just revised, to the Shetland Craft Trail.

Some artists and makers have lived in Shetland all their lives. Others have gone away for a time, perhaps to train at art colleges, then returned. Several have moved to Shetland from elsewhere, finding kindred spirits and, of course, inspiration from Shetland’s rich heritage and dramatic landscapes.

The Bonhoga Gallery is attractively housed in what was once a water-mill in Weisdale, a valley roughly twenty minutes’ drive north-west of Lerwick that’s also home to Shetland’s largest tree plantations. The gallery has hosted many exhibitions over the years, showing work by local and visiting artists. This summer, there have been three exhibitions, each of which has brought together a diverse group of artists, designers and makers. All the work is for sale.

The third show has just opened and it’s immediately appealing.

Moving around clockwise, we come first to the work of Bill Brown, who has been practising as a ceramicist since he left college in 1974 and recently returned to the islands after retiring as Head of Ceramic Design at Glasgow School of Art. In his new studio in the north mainland village of Voe, Bill focuses on creating distinctive pieces, pointing out that, “in a world which is increasingly ‘global’, most of the articles we buy and use look no different to those made and used anywhere on the globe.”

Bill also wants his work to be specific to a place. “Since returning to live and work in Shetland, I have been exploring the possibilities of making things using locally sourced materials such as clay and Kleber (soapstone), as well as looking to our own past traditions of making, our stories, culture and environment as sources of ideas.” Some of the pieces on display are made from a quite sandy clay found at Voe and Bill is hoping to find other, different clays elsewhere in the islands. The work ranges from ceramic jugs to plates and pots, all of it beautifully executed.

Margaret Hamilton moved to Shetland more than thirty years ago. In those days, she knitted as a hobby, but, as she says, “where better for a knitter than living in Shetland with its rich textile heritage and abundance of knowledge and skills?”

Like a number of local textile practitioners, she studied contemporary textiles on the highly-regarded course at Shetland College before starting her own business. She also began to teach students at the college. Based a few miles south of Lerwick, Margaret looks for inspiration to the weather, windblown grasses in the fields and the changing moods, colours and shapes of the sea and its flotsam and jetsam.

The work on display perfectly demonstrates Margaret’s skill in both design and execution, with an exquisite colour palette complemented by beautiful textures. Two completely new designs, Shell Fossil and Sand Ripple, are included.

Our journey takes us next to the island of Whalsay, north-east of the mainland. Julie Williamson hails from there, but she spent some time away from Shetland, studying for a degree at Galashiels Heriot-Watt School of Textiles. She was missing home, and “as a way of coping, I decided to try and incorporate home into my work, by drawing images that related to Shetland such as Fair Isle patterns, Shetland ponies, birds and fishing”.

In doing so, she began to recall old stories or childhood memories relating to those images, and to try to capture these within her designs. She has continued to work in that way, but uses computer design software to create repeat patterns resembling scenes. “I love creating designs with a narrative to which others can relate”, she says.

The work Julie is showing certainly evokes some of those Shetland themes and there’s a delicacy and lightness of touch, allied to carefully-chosen colour, that’s very attractive.

Morwenna Garrick is another Shetland designer who has returned to the islands after a spell away. She studied Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, where she also lectured for a time. Morwenna came back to Shetland in 2014 and started her design company, establishing her studio in the area where she grew up, Sandness, which is in the west mainland and is a perfect, very peaceful place in which to capture inspiration.

It so happens that Sandness is also the home of a firm that spins 100% pure Shetland wool, Jamieson’s, and that’s where her colourful blankets, cushion covers and other items are woven.

Morwenna does work in other materials, too. She uses mercerised cottons, silks and lambswool in handwoven scarves, baby blankets and jewellery. The work on display is varied, but Morwenna’s distinctive style shines through in pattern, colour and texture.

Helen Robertson works in the north of Shetland and creates striking jewellery and other kinds of applied art. Like many of her peers, she knitted as a child and she has continued to hone and develop that skill; but she later added metalworking to her portfolio and her jewellery – in fine and sterling silver – is beautifully conceived and crafted.

Helen’s ‘Life Boy’ is an excellent example of the way in which Shetland designers draw on local inspiration, for it commemorates the boys and men who were at the mercy of the Press Gang during the Napoleonic Wars – and the women who tried to save them. In a wider sense, as Helen, explains, the piece reflects continuing struggle, be it against poverty and the inequality of power, or in the survival of island communities.

All in all, this is yet another exposition of the wealth of creative skill that is so much a part of Shetland. It underlines, again, the potential that’s realised when local or incoming makers and artists find stimulation in the islands’ environment and culture. The flourishing of art and craft work over the past thirty years or so has been remarkable and it shows no sign of slowing.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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