I’ve never thought of fish skin as warm before. Preserved, scissored and sewn into new shapes, cod skin takes on the mottled fuzziness of a hand-me-down sweater. Its warm greys hold the hues of a street lamp in fog, its tiny scales have the texture of knit yarn. Translucent, it lets light through a little grudgingly, the way clouds do.

Vivian Ross-Smith and Jane Walker’s project titled ‘islandness’ (note the lower case nomenclature) builds a dialogue between their respective homes of Shetland and Newfoundland. At Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s, Ross-Smith shows me how Newfoundland cod is darker than Shetland cod. Haddock skins have a distinct line along the side, like a seam, and that this was what got her thinking about the skins as textiles. 

One of her pieces, Goddamn Water, is composed of seven fish skins stitched into a jagged rectangular shape. Its grey surface is crossed by a diagonal line of light thread, and Ross-Smith tells me it’s the angle of a line drawn between Scotland and Newfoundland. Suddenly the stitched skins become a map, taking on the shape of the North Atlantic.

Walker has been making ‘imagined islands’. She’s unravelled a piece of burlap and hooked it into a square of the same material, its subtle warp and weft suggesting an amorphous topography. At one point, Walker tells me, it looked too much like a cow. What makes a random shape resemble an island, instead of an amoeba or a dapple of mould? It’s all in the edge, which requires a kind of restrained whimsy. You have to be able to imagine yourself nestled in the coves and bays of its coastline. You have to think like a glacier.

 
Vivian Ross-Smith ,  Goddamn Water , 2017. Shetland cod skin with hand stitching.

Vivian Ross-Smith, Goddamn Water, 2017. Shetland cod skin with hand stitching.

 

Oceans are often perceived as negative space; we don’t recognise their silhouettes the way we know the shapes of continents. The Atlantic is a vast expanse we pass over or overlook. Similarly, materials such as burlap, linen and lichen are easily discarded, so plentiful they are almost valueless. Fish skin, too, is considered a “waste product.” Walker and Ross-Smith embrace these materials, as well as techniques associated with repetitive household labour; sewing, quilting and rug-hooking. The artists take these historically undervalued materials and experiences, these “negative” spaces, and remap them. Their work draws lines through these spaces because they are places worth being in.

 
Jane Walker ,  Usinea , 2017, Lichen rug-hooked on metal mesh.

Jane Walker, Usinea, 2017, Lichen rug-hooked on metal mesh.

 

The labour of rural life is imbued in the work. Three bronze and copper net needles lean against a wall, their surfaces worn shiny from time spent in a net-maker’s hands. Across the room, a row of bronze haddock skins have been treated with seawater from Bonavista Bay. Even photographs, printed on linen and drawn on with thread, have a handcraftedness, and I’m reminded of a passage from John Berger’s wonderfully titled book And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, where he writes about Vincent van Gogh:

“When he painted a small pear tree in flower, the act of the sap rising, of the bud forming, the bud breaking, the flower opening, the styles thrusting out, the stigmas becoming sticky, these acts were all present for him in the act of painting. When he painted a road, the roadmakers were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labour of existence; and this labour, recognized as such, was what constituted reality for him.”

This shared labour is in the hands and the heart of islandness. Their artefacts gesture towards larger, collaborative endeavours. ‘We find ourselves contemplating the melding of social leisure and labour,’ the artists write, ‘as an important aspect of community in island contexts.’ To this end, they have organised workshops, making nights and community dinners. At Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland, their skill-sharing workshop was a hubbub of busy hands. I hooked scrap fabric into a metal mesh, and a man named Leo taught me how a wooden “card” and net needle are used together to tie a net. Quick easy movements that require long hard hours.

 
Supper at islandness publication launch , 4 October 2018, Shetland.

Supper at islandness publication launch, 4 October 2018, Shetland.

 

At many of their community events, Ross-Smith and Walker have initiated discussions about how islands shape lives. When asked ‘What does being an islander mean to you?’, some participants penned evocative appreciations of fresh ocean air and resilient traditions. A place that can remain apart, yet part of the whole. Others lamented feeling stuck, the sometimes-exclusionary nature of small communities, and the frustration of still being considered an outsider after decades on an island. Being of a place. Not necessarily from a place. The written responses are full of contradictions: islanders can be close-knit but closed-minded, isolated yet innovative, both cultured and uncultured. Oh, my island home. It defines my confinement.

The Newfoundland instalment of islandness was festive, coinciding with summer extravaganzas such as the Bonavista Biennale. In 2018, when their collaboration took them back to Shetland, the late-season light gave islandness new dimensions. ‘In Shetland we launched just as the tourist traffic slowed, and daylight began to compress,’ they write. It was often made known at our events that while the thought of the darkness and weather was an incentive to stay in, the idea of gathering would be more worthwhile.’

 
Fair Isle Making Night , 20 October 2018

Fair Isle Making Night, 20 October 2018

 

During making nights in Whiteness, a village in the Tingwall Parish of Shetland, and on Ross-Smith’s home island of Fair Isle, participants were invited to bring along whatever they were working on. The result was a cosy cacophony of neighbours knitting, talking, drawing and painting, writing, sharing tips and techniques, playing music, and preparing straw for woven chairs. This kind of communal gathering is itself a tradition for many islanders, and a natural fit for the islandness project. In a Lerwick workshop, Walker offered demonstrations of traditional Newfoundland rug hooking using unconventional materials, with attendees encouraged to try hooking wool, scrap fabric, old clothes, grass, string, rope, and flowers. In keeping with the collaborative nature of the work, the idea was to create a welcoming space with an emphasis on process rather than product.

Jane Walker ,  islandness , 2016. Burlap rug-hooked on burlap.

Jane Walker, islandness, 2016. Burlap rug-hooked on burlap.

Following the Shetland stage of the project, Ross-Smith and Walker then undertook a Bothy Project residency on the island of Eigg, where they organised a similar evening of craft and conversation. The first iteration of islandness outside their home islands, Eigg offered the artists a chance to imagine how the project might expand beyond Shetland and Newfoundland. What happens when craft traditions cross-pollinate across oceans? What role does contemporary art play in bridging the distance between far-flung solitudes? ‘In its essence,’ the artists write, ‘islandness is a gesture to island places and communities, and an effort to creatively meditate on commonality in the face of distance.’ Art offers a space outside the constraints of commerce and tradition, where the rules – such as how to hook a rug – are pliable enough that they can be bent without breaking.

From quilted fish scales, to burlap and bronze, to lichen rug-hooked on wire, Ross-Smith and Walker’s work offers a tantalizing contrast of rough and softened textures. It’s easy to realize that many of the artists’ chosen materials – the fish skins, the lichen, the jute and flax – all used to be alive. They have life in them still. At the islandness exhibition at Eastern Edge, I wanted to pick things up, peer at them closely, lift them to my nose. As it happened, I got even closer – during the workshop, someone remarked that the lichen called “old man’s beard” tasted like sugar, and so we all tried licking it.


Based in Newfoundland & Labrador, Matthew Hollett is a writer and artist. His recent book, Album Rock, is published by Boulder Publications. (Banner Image Credit: Photo of Vivian Ross-Smith, An Sgùrr, Isle of Eigg, by Jane Walker.)