Diverse exhibition presents fine art and textile students’ work

by Alastair Hamilton -

A new exhibition at the Shetland Textile Museum displays the work of students approaching the end of their third year on courses at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shetland College. More than that, the show underlines the diverse backgrounds of those involved and illustrates the range of opportunities that the college’s courses present.

The staging of an exhibition forms part of a module in the third year for students on both the BA (Honours) Fine Arts course and the BA (Honours) Contemporary Textiles course. As is normal practice in Scottish universities, the course lasts for four academic years.

When I went along to the exhibition, I spoke first to Faye Hackers, who is Programme Leader for Contemporary Textiles. She praised the way in which the students had worked together across course boundaries and pulled off such a successful display.

“This group has worked really, really well by themselves. There’s definitely an option for quite a lot of hand-holding but this student group have done fantastically. They’ve taken really well to working together as a group, considering it’s the first time we’ve had fine art and textiles together. I must say it’s been a huge success and I’m really happy with what they’re doing.”

this student group have done fantastically!

Faye explains that there are modules which are common to both courses, so there’s quite a lot of crossover. She sees a group exhibition like this as particularly beneficial where the numbers of students on each course is relatively small.

That said, Faye adds that there are “healthy numbers” of applicants for both degrees next year:

“We will continue to have small practical classes on both cohorts, which gives us the ability to teach face to face with students very successfully. Both courses are still taking applications for September 2019/20 and welcome applications from a range of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds; you don’t need to be a school leaver with set qualifications, life skills are just as important to us at UHI and we look at each applicant individually.

“This is the fifth year that we’ve had the BA Honours level for textiles. At the beginning, we had a lot of people applying, fantastic students who were Shetland-based and that maybe were quite established in textiles, but wanting to learn more about the business side of things, or how to continue to develop their work. Now there are many students coming up from the south, both mature and school leaver students.”

Faye says that students come from far and wide. “We’ve a couple of students from Slovakia just now, and we’ve had students from all over Europe and from the UK mainland. We have mature students who have families and are based in Shetland, school leavers – it’s a really nice mixture, and a quite inspiring atmosphere to be in, when you’re working with people with lots of different ideas. There are also practising artists outside the course, who are just here to improve and learn, and critique each other.”

students come from far and wide

Faye explains that some of these are people who’ve been up for Shetland Wool Week and, as she puts it, “where else would you want to learn textiles? When I came up for the job, I was thinking, ‘I’m coming to the home of Fair Isle knitting: how fantastic is that?’”

Before Faye came to Shetland five years ago, she was living in Shanghai, a city of 26 million. “I remember getting off the plane. I had a friend who was living in Shetland. Just by chance, she’d moved here just a month and a half before me, and her mum came and picked me up at the airport; she’d said to me ‘it feels like coming home’ and that really stuck in my head. “Because it does. Everyone is so welcoming and it’s such a lovely community.”

Faye and her friend were both, for a time, living on the island of Bressay, a seven-minute ferry ride from Lerwick, and was struck by the fact that she’d moved from a huge metropolis to somewhere with 250 folk, in a matter of weeks. “It was amazing, and it’s been a really good journey. I really do love Shetland.”

it feels like coming home

Marcia Galvin

Moving around the room, I came first to some textile pieces by Marcia Galvin. Marcia has lived in Shetland since around 1994. She came to the textiles course via the college’s intensive, one year National Certificate (NC) portfolio-building art course, an ideal foundation for further study.

“I was interested in textiles and I’d looked at the course, but I’d not done anything in a college setting for a long time. They suggested that I do the NC course first to get an idea of what kinds of things I was drawn to, so I did Paul Bloomer’s class for a year and then I went on to do the textiles course.”

She had knitted from when she was taught as a child. “My grandma and a lot of the family are dressmakers, so I knew how to use a sewing machine and patterns. I’d done a lot of quilting and making purses and bags. I did have some understanding of textiles, materials and how they’re put together.”

Marcia says of her work: “In Shetland, there’s the Fair Isle tradition and a lot of very colourful and exciting combinations and it was quite a risk to do something that’s very monotone, with a colour that’s not usually used in fashion but more often in workwear. But I had to follow my heart, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s not a very colourful palette.”

The work she has on display was, interestingly, inspired by road markings. “I became interested in how this visual language of instructions is part of everyday life, yet at the same time so familiar that it becomes unseen.” She used lines and road surface texture as a basis for the design, wanting to challenge how the perception of something mundane and ordinary can also be a thing of beauty. She also focused on the tactility of textiles and on how the experience of touch should equally be demonstrated within textile design.

What’s really novel about the fabric is the inclusion of hi-vis material, again flowing from her observation of road markings. The scarf might prove particularly appealing to those who need to go out at night, for instance for dog-walking, and want something both stylish and safe. There are two yarns involved in creating the effects she uses in the scarves. “Lambswool is this dark, black; and in between it is a thin cotton.”

Normally, she’d wash a fabric like this on a wool programme, but she experimented by washing on a normal programme, and the result was that it fluffed up the lambswool. “It looks like it’s felted, but it’s not. It’s good that you can just throw it in your normal wash, it doesn’t need any special care. It’s quite light, too, probably because half of it is cotton.” It fits very well with her aspiration to create contemporary knitwear that’s also thoroughly practical.

Like many others who’ve taken the textiles course at the Shetland College, Marcia plans to create a business after the course. “I definitely want to continue pursuing the kind of textiles that I’m doing, but I just think I need to reflect: where I go with it, where the market is. Do I promote it here, or do I take it outwith Shetland to promote? I need to do a bit of market research.

Tracey Cassidy

Tracey Cassidy’s two paintings occupy the next wall and her participation in the Fine Art course represents a long-nurtured ambition.

“When I was young and left school, I’d love to have gone and done art at college or university, but of course it meant leaving Shetland and that wasn’t something I could do, because I’m quite homesick, I suppose. When I heard about the Fine Art course, I thought ‘this is my chance’. It seemed like a dream come true, to think that I could do this. It’s been absolutely fantastic”.

Tracey lives in the hamlet of Billister, in the parish of Nesting, part of Shetland’s north-east mainland. “Where I stay, I’m outside all the time. I love going out walking, among old ruins. I love Shetland history, folklore and family storytelling. When I’m painting, I’m quite an emotional painter.”

“I was reading these really old Shetland books, and me and mam were speaking about family stories, and one of them that came up was the Delting disaster, in which my great-great-grandfather was lost. I was looking at that story and thinking that it must have been a terrible tragedy, and such a terrible loss of life, and so that was when I started drawing, thinking about colours and emotion. There was an emotional connection to it.”

The disaster, on 21 December 1900, resulted in the loss of 22 fishermen from the parish of Delting when their small open boats were overwhelmed by a sudden storm. 15 women, five of them pregnant, were widowed, and 51 children lost their fathers. Among those who contributed to the disaster fund was Queen Victoria, who gave £20 shortly before she died a month later. In Tracey’s painting, a woman is standing by the sea, a shadowy figure.

Another traumatic phase in Shetland’s history, the clearances undertaken by lairds in the first half of the 19th century, is the inspiration for the other painting on display. The practice of removing tenants in order to expand sheep farming had spread to Shetland from the Scottish Highlands. Tracey had been reading about kishies, the traditional Shetland baskets.

“Somebody recalled how, as they left their croft, their mam had put them in a kishie on their back; and, as they walked away, their croft was set alight. So, this is where this painting came from. I was visualising this wife and family – you’re walking out into the future, but you don’t know what’s in front of you.”

There are two other paintings in this series, one a story about home, featuring a croft house, and the other one is about working the land, and learning from granny. But, as Tracey says, the two on display work very well together.

you’re walking out into the future, but you don’t know what’s in front of you

“It’s oil paint on board, and what I’ve done is put on thin layers, and take it back with cloths and sandpaper, to build up these layers of colour, to bring in some emotion and the movement of the sea, the land and the dark sky. I’ve really enjoyed doing it. After the course, Tracey says she would like to continue and become a professional artist. She loves painting.

She’s been amazed and stimulated by the creativity on display every day in the College, but points out, too, that there’s a huge amount of creativity in the wider community, and in many forms, including of course music.

Gemma May Hoseason

Moving on, I meet Gemma May Hoseason, who, it turns out, is Tracey’s daughter. It was Gemma who persuaded her mother to do the course, and, as Tracey points out, they’ve been on a journey together.

Gemma’s chosen medium is photography. In this exhibition, she focuses on Lerwick’s main street, Commercial Street. “It stems from me working there, part-time, in the Fort Chip Shop, meeting the tourists for the whole of last summer. I see how the street lights up when the tourists are there; and there were all the conversations I had with tourists visiting off the ships.”

“So, when I went to do the photography, it was when the cruise ship season had finished, and it made me realise how much the street was brought to life by these people visiting. So, what this project stems from is trying to see the street in a different light, and how solemn the street has become without these visitors. I was looking into the emotions and connections with loneliness and that kind of aspect, tying it in with the photos.

Gemma took photographs at different times of day, some at seven in the morning and some at midnight. “No matter when I went, the street was always just the same, the same kind of atmosphere, the same sort of space”.

Her next project, this summer, is to record the other side of life on Commercial Street, when the cruise liners are in and the town is busy. She has a list of all the visiting cruise liners: “that’s my summer project!” This time, though, she’ll use colour rather than black and white. “Photos of the street full of life and people, and all these different cultures, wouldn’t fit with black and white, it would be best in colour.”

“Photography is what I’ve always been really interested in, and what I’ve always wanted to do. Definitely, I’m going to continue with my photography in fourth year”. After the course, she may go into curation of exhibitions, another area that very much interests her, or possibly writing about art.

Sean Boyle

The fourth and last of the student exhibitors is Sean Boyle. He explains that he’d begun by enrolling for the one-year National Certificate portfolio course, rather than wait a year to start the BA (Honours) Fine Arts course. When places became available on the BA course, he applied.

Sean’s piece, an installation, is very different from anything else in this show. “It is quite surreal, I suppose! I’m very used to doing larger pieces so I just thought I should use as much of the space as possible.”

When Sean refers to the available space, a little context is necessary. The Textile Museum in which the exhibition is displayed is housed in the 18th century Böd of Gremista; it’s an essential visit, particularly for people interested in Shetland’s unique knitting tradition but also for all who are interested in Shetland history, for it was here that Arthur Anderson, co-founder of the P&O shipping line, was born. As is typical of Shetland houses of that period, it had box beds set into the wall and it’s in a box bed that Sean has chosen to place his work.

He explains that the display is his attempt at showing different examples of artistic techniques as well as making something site-specific. When he chose the box bed, he wanted to make as much use of the space as he could. Hence he decided to use the back wall, sides and centre. “It incorporates some of my skills as a painter, woodcarver and sculptor to create a surreal setting. Here I have painted an imagined landscape, fragmented floating plateaus and long dead giants embedded in the rocks.”

Sean sees his future as being pretty much in art. “I can’t really see myself doing much else, really. I don’t see any job descriptions that require stuff like this!”. Stage design is one possible outlet for his talents: he’s already worked with the Shetland-based Open Door theatre company.

I don’t see any job descriptions that require stuff like this!

As my visit was drawing to a close, Paul Bloomer, who leads the BA (Honours) Fine Arts course, told me more about it.

“It’s a four-year degree course. The students do painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, film, sculpture and history of art. There’s a chance for students to specialise and there’s also a crossover with the textiles degree course in terms of skill-sharing, so fine art students have access to knit and weave, and vice versa, so textiles students have access to fine art facilities. We still have vacancies for the course and we’ll be taking applications almost until the course re-starts in September.

We still have vacancies for the course

Paul explains that the professional practice module offers “life skills for artists and designers. As part of this module they work together, they put blogs together, they make business cards and they prepare an exhibition and invite the public, so this is part of the module. Having textiles and fine art together is what makes this course rich and unique, bringing a cross-fertilisation of ideas”

He emphasises, too the value of the National Certificate course, particularly for those who aren’t quite ready for the Fine Art or Textile degree courses. “It’s a portfolio course, which is a one-year, intensive course where students get to do a bit of everything, to discover what they’re very good at”.

On the evidence of this exhibition, the Shetland College courses do indeed offer excellent opportunities for students to explore their creative abilities and develop them, at degree level, to serve them for the rest of their lives. Shetland is a great place to study, with a beautiful and stimulating environment and an extraordinarily strong creative tradition that embraces all kinds of media. Many practising artists and craftspeople have grown up here and many others have moved here.

There’s information about the courses online, where you can find out more about the one-year National Certificate Course, the BA (Honours) Fine Art course and the BA (Honours) Contemporary Textiles course.

Having textiles and fine art together is what makes this course rich and unique

Posted in: Creative Scene

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