Tempestuous Painting: Janette Kerr’s ‘North’ Exhibition Opens In London

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland is home to many practising artists and one of them is Dr Janette Kerr, widely admired for her dramatic and energetic seascapes, who spends around half of the year in the islands and about half in Somerset. Janette’s latest exhibition, entitled “North”, is at Cadogan Contemporary, an independent art gallery at 87 Old Brompton Road in South Kensington, London.

The show is formed of two bodies of work. One records a three-week period that Janette spent on board a three masted schooner sailing up the coast of Svalbard in Norway up to the Arctic Circle; the other derives from Shetland.

Janette is a painter of the northern landscape, a foul-weather artist who enjoys being out in, and working from, the landscape at its extremes. Although her work is influenced by the Romantic tradition, her practice is contemporary and experimental. She doesn’t seek to create meticulous studies of the landscape, preferring instead to respond to what is sensed rather than what is seen. Her paintings explore the boundaries between representation and abstraction whilst embodying the power and immediacy of both land and sea.

Before she visited Shetland, Janette had often travelled to the west coast of Scotland, making work there. “But in 2009,” she tells me, “I found Shetland. I looked it up on a map and said, ‘I want to go there’. She discovered that it was possible to undertake residencies at the Booth, in Scalloway, a small residential studio. She first stayed there in February 2009 and “I was kind of bowled over, really. I just knew it was a place I had to be. You’re never very far from the sea and you can always smell the sea, wherever you are.”

I just knew it was a place I had to be

She returned for another month’s stay at the Booth the following October and “I got drawn in. I got to know people.” She began to listen to fishermen and storytellers and, the following February, spent time in the Shetland Archives, partly because it was so snowy that she couldn’t get to the seaside locations she wanted to visit. “I found all this stuff about storms and I really felt that I needed to be there more and more. For the way I work, I feel as though I have to be embedded in a place to actually work with it.”

She was offered an exhibition at the Bonhoga Gallery in 2011 and undertook a project about the fishing stations that were once a vital part of the local economy – places from which fishermen would set off in six-oared boats to catch fish with handlines far out to sea, a hazardous occupation even in the summer months. She visited ten fishing stations, the remains of some of which were quite difficult to discern. “Sitting and drawing and writing and photographing and collecting seemed a natural progression.” Soon afterwards, she bought a house on the west side of Shetland. “I’m there a lot of the time. I like it in the winter best, because that’s when it’s wildest.”

What’s so special about Shetland? “It’s the light, it’s the sudden changes, it’s the big open spaces, it’s the sky, it’s the sea. It’s a place that you can walk, and you can’t see anybody for days. It’s just perfect!”

In order to help her understand the islands and their weather, she has also listened to the scientific explanations of oceanographers. Indeed, she says, “you might find an extreme wave formula hidden amongst the waves!”

Whilst her larger works are created in the studio, Janette prefers to paint and sketch ‘en-plein-air’, whether on a boat or the shore. She says:

“This is integral to my working process – immersive experiences of observing and experiencing changing land/seas, extremes, physical and meteorological shifts. I draw while out in boats with waves washing over the deck, crouched with my sketchbook and paints on rocks by the sea, in snow painting with freezing fingers; blown across hills by gusts of wind, drenched by spray and sleet, going home with salt-encrusted hair and skin. This is all part of how I work.”

The insights from her conversations and her reading combine with that direct and very physical contact to create the poetic, tempestuous story that the viewer experiences. Reflecting this part of her practice, “North” also features a selection of these sketchbook drawings, displayed around her paintings.

Of her experience working in the Arctic Circle, Janette says:

“I felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of such an extreme environment on the peripheries of the world. Landing and walking beside glaciers, up into drifting mist hanging in dark snow-strewn mountains, standing on deck watching a thunder grey and pale blue world passing, and trying to capture all this on paper was an impossible task.”

Painting the Arctic landscape brings all kinds of challenges. “How,” she asks, “do you make work that reflects the muted palette of the Arctic landscape – a thunder grey and pale blue world? How can white be so many different shades?”

In the exhibition at Cadogan Contemporary, we can see Janette’s wholly convincing responses to those questions and engage with her experience at first hand. Brian Fallon, formerly chief critic and literary editor for the Irish Times, said of her work:

“Janette Kerr, in my estimation, is the best painter of the sea in these islands... one of her greatest assets is the quality of her brushwork...it is dynamic and suggestive, and has an organic life of its own.”

The exhibition is open from 3rd – 21st December and, if you’re in the London area, a visit is highly recommended. You can also pay a virtual visit by viewing this two-minute feature produced by London Live, in which Cadogan Contemporary's Director, Freddie Burness, talks about Janette's work. Meanwhile, those of us in Shetland hope that it won’t be too long before we can experience her painting again at first hand.

Posted in: Creative Scene