Three artists inspired by the landscape of Caithness & Sutherland
In Art North Issue 1 (Spring 2019), in a thundering essay on the often misunderstood landscape of Caithness and Sutherland, George Gunn writes of The Great Bog of the Winds (boglach mòr nan gaothan), and states: “To stand here and see these bogs, these hills and lochs is to enter into pure imagination, it is to bring everything, the poetry of history, the joy of the future, into the realm of perception. The vanished people are my experience. To write about them is an expression of optimism.” Gunn talks of this landscape as few speak of it today, and connects it directly, in his writing, to the thinking of Patrick Geddes: “The true function of human life is not maintenance or production – but art.”
As he appends to Geddes’s statement, however, “what good is art when there are no people to make it, to see it? Geddes was a keen advocate of observation and from observation comes revelation. From these bogs I get the sense of a coming, necessary revolution in perception. We have to stop, as a society, to stop objectifying and subjectifying a landscape such as this. We have to construct a new, militant geography which understands that these wide-open spaces offer humanity a chance to renew our culture, to make it central to our art. Without art we are just mud.” – It remains for the reader to decide whether the responses to this landscape by the three artists we highlight below might be considered central to the renewing of culture in the way George Gunn alludes to, but certainly we feel that their work merits attention.
In an essay for the RSPB, written in 2018, Lila Matsumoto says of artist Hannah Imlach’s work that it is: ‘profoundly related to human endeavours of gathering knowledge’ – an art that relates to precision, craftsmanship, and, evoking the appearance of instruments used by conservation scientists to, ‘measure, gauge, and calibrate the conditions of the peatland. The sculptures are also playful in their imitation of natural and technological forms, and the way in which they move in response to wind and light.’
Birch Anemometer & Hazel Anemometer are a pair of kinetic sculptures inspired by current peatland research. “They form part of a series of sculptural ‘instruments’ inspired by meteorological devices and peatland flora,” states Hannah Imlach. “The works were created as part of an 18-month residency with the Flows to the Future peatland restoration project, led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the Flow Country, Scotland. The sculptures are inspired, in part, by the groupings of delicate scientific instruments sited within the vast expanse of the Flow Country. These instruments, including leaf wetness sensors, infrared gas analyzers and ultrasonic anemometers, collect data on the atmospheric conditions of the peatland and are part a global network, allowing the creation of complex climate models. The sculptures reference the function of the anemometers, which describe wind speed and movement.”
Jenny Mackenzie Ross
In 1993, Jenny Mackenzie Ross set up her Northshore Pottery in Caithness; a place that she states is, “uncompromisingly Norse, and where everything looks toward the sea.” It’s a landscape that provides inspiration for works such as Aerial (below), influenced by the storm force winds that batter the coastline, and the thermal currents and atmospherics that she perceives as having “different levels of solidity”, often revealed in the way that “birds appear held aloft then suddenly dropped” in rhythmic motion.
Although Jenny works primarily with clay, her work is diverse. She studied Fine Art (sculpture) at Newcastle University in the 80’s, and then worked with Studio Potters in the Highlands of Scotland, before setting up her own studio in 1993. Consequently Jenny’s has roots in both Fine Art and Studio Pottery and correspondingly there are two distict threads in her work. They are seperate but are brought together by the influence of landscape in Jenny’s Soda firing technique. “The Sculpture is abstract,” she says. “It is about nature of clay and geological origins and it is about our own relationship with the earth. I look at structures within the landscape, and at geology, geometry and physics. I also gather a lot of material that I find locally and incorporate it into the work.”
“My studio pottery is about form. Although I am undoubtedly influenced by the landscape, I am honing forms over years, changing them subtly to get them just as I want them. I am also always working on new glazes, trying to achieve the vibrant and rich colours found in the Caithness landscape. I want the completed pieces to contain marks that are left behind by the making process, but the marks must also be vital to the asthetics and form. I also want the pieces to reflect in some way their wet state, as they are when they are first lifted from the wheel.” Jenny’s studio is a converted Oat Meal Mill, which is also her family home. The ground floor is dedicated to clay and the upper floors are the house. It is located on the far Northeastern Coast of the Scottish mainland. Visitors are welcome, and Jenny has a small gallery alonside her workshop. Whatever is current in Jenny’s work is also on display and for sale in the gallery.
Shaun Fraser has created artwork inspired by the Sutherland landscape, in 2018 shown alongside Imlach’s as part of the ‘Flows to the Future Project’. His bronze casts of peats titled Soil Immemorial were the highlight of their exhibition. He has also led field trips on the Moine above the Kyle of Tongue, exposing layers of the landscape. “It’s fascinating to see how different people respond to the landscape in which they live,” he says of his educational work with peat – both a textural and visual feature of the land.
As Shaun states, “My work comments upon notions of identity and connections with place. The Highlands and Islands are a constant source of inspiration for me. It’s where I’m from, it’s where I was brought up and it’s never far from my mind. There’s a certain sense of fidelity which I attach to the Highlands, a sense of belonging. It’s raw and it’s emotive; it’s elemental. What I attempt to do through my practice is to tap into some of that disposition. Including peat and local soils into my glass castings gives the work an innate link to the landscape, something which I believe to be very important in my practice, the ability to evoke that sense of place.”