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By Alastair HamiltonApril 10th 2024
Alastair Hamilton

The gallery in the Shetland Museum and Archives has hosted many notable exhibitions over the years. These have often featured local artists, of whom there are many, but works by Hans Holbein and Grayson Perry, among others, have also been shown.

In the current, very special, exhibition, Lesley Burr's wonderfully evocative paintings, sketchbooks and ceramic pieces capture not only the extraordinary landscapes of the rapidly-changing Canadian Arctic but also the interactions between humans and nature.

Before Lesley’s move to Shetland, where she lived for ten years, she was already a well-established artist. She studied at Glasgow School of Art between 1981 and 1985, one of a group of women who came to be known as the ‘Glasgow Girls’. She then moved to Dundee, graduating in 1986 with an MA in Public Art and Design.

She has exhibited widely across Scotland and in London, Leicester, Bath, Amsterdam and Denmark. Her work features in a number of public collections and her public art commissions include works in Argyll, where she now lives, Shetland, Dundee, Glasgow and East Kilbride. Lesley has been the recipient of many awards and has undertaken several residencies.

Shetland lies just 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle and Lesley’s experience of living in our islands only increased her fascination with northern lands and seas. In 2019, a long-held ambition was realised when she travelled to the far north to study in the Canadian Arctic. She had been selected for the residency by the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute. The exhibition includes a sketch map identifying the places she visited.

The work on show in Da Gadderie is the product of that remarkable journey, which inspired a substantial body of paintings, prints and ceramics. Her concern for the Arctic environment and its communities is a thread that connects every element in the exhibition.

Lesley explains: “My artist’s residency provided me with a unique opportunity to view the Arctic landscape and nature at first hand, and to meet Inuit artists and communities. It enabled me to experience a vast wilderness that is the polar arctic, the breathtaking physical beauty, remoteness and increasing vulnerability as the environment changes. I have often wondered about the challenges that face these Arctic communities as the ice melts and changes are made to embedded patterns. The visit added to my long-standing fascination with life in ‘the North’ and has been a catalyst for a period of prolific creativity. Polar North is a collection of around 50 pieces inspired by my polar journey.”

Karen Clubb, exhibitions officer at Shetland Museum and Archives said: “We are honoured to have Lesley Burr’s work on display in Shetland. Polar North is a remarkable and sensitive exhibition which portrays the vastness of the Arctic, its bold colours and beauty, whilst capturing the silence, luminosity and fragility of the natural environment. This extensive exhibition, which is filled with drama and light, will appeal on many levels.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully-illustrated book, Painting the Polar North: Arctic Paintings. As well as reproducing a generous selection of the works on display, it contains commentaries by Colin Greenslade, Charlotte Connelly and Alison Harper.

Colin Greenslade is Director of the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts and Architecture in Edinburgh. He writes:

Yes, these Arctic works explode with the most beautiful, rich colours, but their message is stark. This polar environment is changing, and it will affect us all….It’s a terrible story with which we are all too familiar, yet it seems distant enough from some parts of the world for many of us to feel safe from it – for now. Communities in the Arctic are, however, experiencing these troubles today. Climate change has already led to a shift in habitat across the Arctic region.

Charlotte Connelly was, from 2015 until 2022, Curator of the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute and is now Head Curator at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. She recalls conversations with Lesley following the Arctic residency in which it was:

….wonderful to hear her talking about her experiences, her impressions of the Arctic environment and especially the information shared with the indigenous people she met’.

Alison Harper, who is one of the ‘Glasgow girls’, is familiar with Lesley’s work and understands her fascination with nature. Alison is Artistic Director of the Essential School of Painting in London. She says that Lesley’s landscapes are ‘not pretty pictures, but they are truthful’:

Each one of Lesley’s works feels like a singular, concentrated revelation. These are ‘punch you in your gut’, real experiences of landscape….Lesley doesn’t just illustrate what she sees of the landscape, taming it through a narrow lens of aesthetic considerations into something palatable – she surrenders to it. She is not only seeing with the naked eye, she sees with the naked soul.

The power of these images is unmistakeable, thanks in part to the empathy Lesley displays towards her subjects and in part to the bold but perfectly-calibrated use of colour in beautifully-judged compositions. No visitor can view the exhibition without appreciating the challenges that face the people and wildlife of the region.

The display perfectly complements the UHI 6th International St Magnus Conference, which will take place in the museum in April and is themed ‘North Isles and the Arctic’. Lesley’s work is sure to make a profound impression on delegates.

As part of the museum learning programme that will support the exhibition, Lesley will be leading experimental monoprint workshops for both children and adults in April. An illustrated artist’s talk will also take place during the exhibition period.

Polar North is a selling exhibition and most of the pieces are available to buy, together with Polar North greetings cards. The book, ‘Painting the Polar North’, can be ordered from the Shetland Heritage Shop.

The exhibition runs until Sunday 26 May 2024.