Asked how long a particular piece of work was in gestation, many artists could legitimately claim that each has taken an entire lifetime to come to fruition. Certainly, in the latter stages of life, people tend to gravitate towards the stories and themes that reflect their time and place of origin. It is almost as if the passing years bring childhood and youth into sharp focus. Alternatively, it could be that early happenings are lived vividly, in the moment as it were and that it is only through the lens of accumulated life experience that such experiences can be processed, both intellectually and creatively.
Perhaps, when seen from the point of view of preoccupation, many lives are circular in nature. That is certainly the case with artist Mike McDonnell. He worked as a medical doctor, spending decades running a one-man practice from Mid Yell in Shetland. For the last 20 years, since taking retirement from a career which demanded constant dedication to the job, he has developed his art work, and although quick to issue a disclaimer, he says, “I create conversation pieces rather than works of art.”
While still practising medicine, McDonnell had little time to read novels, but he was able to digest poetry in short stints. His current exhibition at The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is comprised of a series of works celebrating the work of W. S. Graham. Graham was a poet who, like McDonnell, came from Greenock; although Graham belonged to an earlier era (b. 1918 – d. 1986). The work is conceived in wood and paint and also incorporates objects such as geometrical instruments, tickets, and other ephemera. It could best be described as sculpture within a frame, or a form of three-dimensional relief assemblage. Each piece within the exhibition pertains to a phase in the life of the poet to which it is dedicated.
McDonnnell has an enduring affection for the way he remembers Greenock and for how it was really two towns combined into one – the wealthy residing in the west and others corralled in the east. These two districts were separated by Nelson Street. There was a similar duality at play on opposite sides of the River Clyde. One side was developed and the other deeply rural in nature. These observations are woven into Graham’s poems about the town. A piece entitled ‘The Children of Greenock’, for example, incorporates lines from a poem of the same name. It refers to this social divide. “Town clocks striking two towns and fed its flocks.”
Another piece in the current exhibition, ‘The Voyages of W. S. Graham’ (see top of page) contains nine panels within a large frame. It illustrates the seismic shift Graham undertook when he forwent a career as a draughtsman’s engineer to dedicate himself to becoming a poet. To declaim that anyone has the ambition to be a poet is almost an oxymoron. The pursuit of poetry could be said to be more of a calling than an aspiration, and one that often compels the poet to relinquish the possibility of material wealth.
Graham’s union sponsored him to spend time studying at Scotland’s residential adult education college, Newbattle Abbey. His time there influenced his life-changing decision to devote his life to the creation of poetry. It was a decision that sealed his economic fate. In fact, one of the consequences of moving to St Ives in Cornwall was that, for weeks at a time, he and his wife were forced to subsist on a diet of limpets and flour pancakes.
Throughout his life, Graham gravitated towards other poets. At one time he moved within the same circles as Dylan Thomas, whose work he greatly admired. Another poet of his acquaintance, George Mackay Brown, known as the gentle bard from Orkney, described Graham as “a gull climbing the Greenock sky, rivet in beak.” McDonnell’s ‘Rivet In Beak’ which forms part of the exhibition, is a literal translation of that quote and it incorporates many lines of poetry from Graham’s piece within it. He also numbered many artists among his circle of friends. One of these was Alfred Wallis, whose work is imbued with great importance retrospectively but who died in poverty. There is also a piece by McDonnell dedicated to him, too.
Another feature of a long life is that happenings which could be written off as coincidental become imbued with meaning. A few years ago, McDonnell attended Ullapool Book Festival where he made the acquaintance of Jean Urquhart who worked at The Ceilidh Place for many years and who was an MSP at the time. Urquhart is now retired from politics and a full-time resident of Shetland. She arranged for the first showing of McDonnell’s work in Ullapool and commissioned a large piece of work outlining the story of the hotel-arts-centre that hangs behind the reception area.
Another chance encounter was to be key in shaping McDonnell’s second career. He met writer Alice Greenway on Shetland, and she told him of a charity with which she is involved – the Friends of Samos, which exists to ease the plight of economic migrants who find themselves on the Greek Island awaiting asylum. All the proceeds from the Ceilidh Place exhibition were donated to the charity. McDonnell is happy to forgo profit; “If you and your family are provided for, then it does not make sense to hang on to extra money,” he says.
It took six months to gather together the twenty-five pieces for his exhibition, but does this indicate that McDonnell has fully undergone the transition from doctor to artist? As he himself says; “I think now that people have seen me skip diving for materials, my standing in the community has been somewhat diminished.” Be that as it may, he is committed to staying on Yell where he has many friends and acquaintances and where he gleans daily inspiration.
Mike McDonnell | 'W. S. Graham Centenary Exhibition'
The Art Gallery at The Ceilidh Place
14 West Argyle Street
Tel: 01854 612103