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Exploring islandness through art

by Promote Shetland -

It was Instagram that first connected artists Vivian Ross-Smith from Fair Isle and Jane Walker from Newfoundland in Canada. Vivian ‘liked’ some of Jane’s photographs taken on Fogo Island. At the time, Jane was completing research for her masters at Glasgow School of Art, comparing the experiences of artists living and working in rural contexts in Scotland and in Newfoundland. Jane invited Vivian to be a research participant, which led to many shared emails and a growing friendship.

In July 2016, Jane travelled to Shetland where the artists met in person for the first time. Their mutual ideas about art, island life, traditional methods of making and inclusivity in rural contemporary art discourse immediately bonded the two artists. By the end of their one hour interview the framework for Islandness was roughly laid out.

Three years later, and the Islandness project goes from strength to strength. We caught up with Vivian recently to ask her a bit more about the collaboration, how it came about and what being an islander means to her.

What exactly is the Islandness project?

Islandness is a collaborative art practice between myself and Jane Walker. Working together as a means to connect experiences of living in Shetland and Newfoundland, we facilitate spaces within our island communities that focus on gathering, making, and sharing in a non-hierarchical format.

How do you explore the themes of islandness through your art?

A key part of our work with this project has involved encouraging conversations around the idea of ‘centres’ and breaking down the opinion of remote or low population areas being ‘on the edge’. These feelings, along with many aspects of island life, are then integrated into islandness.

We aim to develop and create rural networks within islandness. The sharing of skills results in a sharing of knowledge, meaning people and place can be explored and celebrated for their similarities and differences. Through the collaborative process of thinking and making, people and place can very quickly become linked.

What does islandness mean to you?

I’m interested in understanding a place through its people and its skills. Through that focus we have developed ‘Making Nights’ as part of our Islandness programming where we ask people to gather with their own personal process skill or craft – knitting, stitching, carving, drawing, painting, or anything else – and simply make in the same space for a while. Every time we gather in this very casual way, those involved feel completely comfortable talking about their place, life and experiences.

It’s that everyday sharing of heritage and culture, where you don’t even realise you’re doing it, that I feel you get so much. I feel privileged to have the means to make work about the islands and communities I’m so fascinated by, and I feel that interest will never run dry.

And what does it mean to you in relation to Shetland and growing up in Fair Isle?

Fair Isle is a working island. People have come and gone, some staying for a lifetime, some for just a few months. Many people have found the reality of living on Fair Isle too much to be comfortable with, while others strive on the knowledge that you must rely heavily on yourself and the small population around you to do well. Just as the island can deal out many difficulties however it gives as much and Fair Isle is a place that truly captures those who spend time there. In the end it doesn’t matter who has resided for a long or short time it just matters that each person has given a piece of themselves to the island. Misconceptions can show themselves however in over romanticised or skewed understandings of such places. To enjoy the good you have to work through the challenges, as a community and a joint effort. Islandness looks to explore these ways of being, asking participants to questions what it means to be an islander.

We want to challenge that the rural is no place to maintain a professional and pertinent art practice; that art and artists should be kept within an urban bubble of art and artists. While we are hoping to challenge some preconceived notions of rurality, I think the purpose of Islandness is to use our art practices as gateways to broaden dialogues and participation in a rural island context. In its essence, it is a living research project.

Are there any plans for any Islandness events or exhibitions in the coming months?

Islandness has had two iterations so far, in Newfoundland in 2017 and in Shetland in 2018. In each location, we came together to conduct research and create collaborative work. We hosted community-based workshops, community meals, and in Newfoundland a collaborative exhibition and talk. Throughout the programming we engaged in dialogues about art, islandness and contemporary rurality in Shetland and in Newfoundland.

The first instalments were on our home islands, where the communities and landscapes were known to us. We are now looking to move the Islandness framework to places not so familiar to us and to the communities we wish to engage with. We are looking to widen our collaboration to include other artists and are interested in hearing from those who would like to get involved with the project.

Visit the Islandness website to find out more about this collaboration.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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