Tuesday, July 9, 2024

 

GONE FISHING AND THE GENTLE ART OF FAKING.

Tottie here, your roving Western Isles Wanderer, reporting again from New Tolsta.



It was only when I got back to Stornoway that I realised I hadn’t got Tom’s mobile phone number. Not a problem I’ll simply phoned An Lanntair, however having left a note about those wonderful fish I realised I’d forgotten to leave my phone number, so I wasn’t going to be hearing from him unless I made the first move. I decided to stay with the written form and send him a text. Having done that I then wondered if he knew how to use text messaging since he professes to be such a novice with his mobile, preferring to call it his flat camera. I needn’t have worried, the reply came back later that same day. I’d been more specific in my reply asking a price for the larger group of four fish. They were £45, and so I messaged him immediately to say I’d be round the following day if that was OK. My prearranged visit found Tom in his workshop hacking away at a piece of wood. I think Tom must work on the principal that out of chaos comes beauty, because whatever he was up to in there only he would have known. There was scraps of old floor boards and stuff that looked as if it might as well be chopped up for kindling, but Tom assured me that everything can be used and that the fish I’d bought were a fine example. Made entirely from scrap wood and even the wire holding them in place was from a disused mouse cadge he discovered buried in a hedge. I took a closer look at them and began to see past the price I was paying to the real piece of unique artwork. On producing a fifty pound note Tom looked rather shocked saying he’d have to get me some change. I should have stopped him right there, considering all the free admissions I’d had to his studio. I felt a little embarrassed when he returned from the house with a five pound note, but by then it was too late to return it, and so said “it’ll go towards my next purchase”, feeling myself flushing with embarrassment, as if my little contribution was about to change his miserable monthly sales figure. However having made one purchase, like those fish I’m hooked and I will be saving my pennies for another piece of his work.

 

Tom.

She’s been back and bought one of the fish. Sent me a text message and I actually managed to write and return a message. It was only afterward she whipped out a fifty pound note that I felt I’d totally under-priced the fish, she must be loaded, but hay-how there’s no going back.



I was in the workshop when she appeared and I tried to explain what I was doing, but I could see it went way over her head. I can well see why most people would only see a pile of useless old wood. The difference is a bit like cooking. One person will work from a recipe book and will purchase anything that they don’t already have in the cupboard. I work in the completely opposite way, yes maybe consult books for ideas, but then it’s a matter of looking what’s in the cupboard or garden and concocting something with that. So, with the Hebridean chairs I look at my stock of wood and see what it might make. I learnt this skill when in my early twenties I opened an antique shop. That first winter was a hard one with the sales for December not even covering the rent. When talking to a friend David he suggested I should take in some restoration work. I put three old chairs in the bay window in varying states of repair with one fully restored. The work flooded in, but only chairs, so within three weeks I had to redo my window display such was the backlog of work. Every Saturday afternoon I would go over to see David in his large workshop and learnt all about faking furniture. He was a master at forgery, and it was from him that I learnt how to look at and piece together various wrecks. From the remains of a gate-leg table, the top of a coffer and some old backboards from a wardrobe would come a Welsh dresser. Highly desirable back then, but today almost worthless.


 That same method of working applies to my chair making today, only now it is the principal of recycling that has become of primary importance. If I see a pile of old wood that has obviously been thrown out for burning I’ll stop and ask. The answer is always, help yourself, and I do. There is, and never will be any question of payment. If I can make something from other peoples rubbish, then the knowledge that what they have discarded is to some extent being recycled is no different to when they put it in the recycling bin, they feel better in having done their part.

So Tottie caught me at the very beginning of the process. I’d already got as far as putting bits of wood to one side and seen the rough idea of what was possible, but now it was down to cutting up and bashing together what would have been quite common place for people living in the Outer Hebrides a hundred ago. At that time the reuse of old wood produced its own vernacular style based on rational needs. The need for a chair to support ones weight is still a rational need for us older folk. When I was young I tended to always end up on the floor to drawing.

Several years ago, while searching for sea glass in Stornoway harbour during a very low tide I found some old bits of wood under the pier. I’d already used part of a wide plank for the top of a book case and what remained would be ideal for a chair seat. I had plenty of old flooring boards, back boards and sarking for the rest, but a bunch of old hinges, all that was left from a burnt drop-leaf table caught my eye and gave me another idea. Why not add a little side flap extension for resting a wee dram. The robust construction is done almost entirely using screws and glue, while the paint finish is another case of whatever leftovers I have to hand, and what colour they will make if mixed. Painting furniture made from a mixture of reused woods was a common practice throughout the 19th century, and particularly so in Ireland and the west coast of Scotland.



To my chair I wanted to add some history, not only with a goodly amount of wear and tear plus dirt, but also a little childlike artistic experimentation, scratched into the surface of the paint, perhaps when there was no paper to hand.


The initials on the front could well be that of the owner, and that again was a common practice, to brand furniture with the old branding iron used on horns to mark ownership of sheep, but also tools and furniture. When I started work on repairing the old barn I discovered masses of initials scratched and carved in the roof timbers and in particular an old door. These were made by itinerant sheep shearer from as far away as Glasgow. Proud to be able to write their name and leave their mark. Although what you see here is invented history and a total fabrication, my signature is discretely placed out of site. It tickles me to think that in years to come they might find their way into a museum with no doubt a somewhat spurious description.           


 

 

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

No artist in residence.

 

Tottie Nadin, roving reporter for the Western Isles Wanderer..

I looked everywhere for Tom on my latest trip to Tolsta. The open sign was out but there was no sign of the man himself. The studio was open and no artist in residence. I tried the garden, did the full tour. Looking wonderful despite the terrible weather we’ve been having. I’m always amazed how foxgloves can withstand such a battering, and don’t the bumble bees just love them.


 I knocked on the front door, peered through windows but no sign of life. Ringing the studio bell produced no result so I decided to take a free peek anyway.  The place looked more crammed than ever and there was no sign of any sales as far as I could tell. He’d finished the cemetery painting with the addition of a raven. Not sure that I didn’t prefer it in the unfinished state.


There was a new painting on the easel, a bit more saleable in subject matter with brightly coloured crofters cottages and rusty tin roofed blackhouse barns. I also spotted a shoal of fish, which must be a new line since they are so eye catching I’m sure I would have noticed them during my previous visits. I’d have liked to have bought one but as usual there were no prices. I left a little note so he will at least know I called.

I assume he was away at the peats again. The front door was locked but why leave the open sign up. This place is so infused with Tom’s creativity that got the strangest of feeling that somehow here and watching me, just a feeling. I must phone first next time although I somehow doubt he’ll answer. Last time he told me he could now get a weak mobile reception from his bedroom window.

 

Tom.

I’m not proud of myself. When I heard that Tottie woman calling my name I didn’t reply, but remained hidden in the makeshift plastic greenhouse tucked away behind the walls of the roofless lambs shed. She hung about for a good while, even rang the studio bell, but I stayed put trimming side shoots from the tomato plants. She presumably thought I’d wandered off somewhere, but I gave it a good fifteen minutes before returning to the studio, only to find a note by some painted fish I made last week and wanting to know the price. I suppose that means she’ll be back!


 

 

Why the hell do I bother? After another no visits week and a dreary miserable start to the day I decided to do some baking, that usually makes me feel better. I’d made a good start, got the pastry ready and just needed of Swiss chard, sage and parsley from the garden. As I stepped outside I was met with growling and barking from two Labrador dogs being walked by their owner. I did the friendly social think and said good morning even though it patently wasn’t, and he replied with a question, could he put the plastic bag of dog pooh in my bin. “No problem” I said, although I’ve never understood why anyone would want to bag up dog pooh, not way out here, just flick it into the ditch or better still train the dogs to go in the ditch. I must have said something about opening up which led to him asking about Studio 17 and saying he’d call in after the girls had come back from their pony trekking. So I thought in that case I’ll put the open sign up and show good willing. Needless to say they didn’t call in.


By mid–day I’d baked a fruit cake, quiche, and two pasties and was assembling a rhubarb custard tart when a blond haired woman passed the kitchen window. I popped out and explained I would be with her and was just putting a tart in the oven. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes when I saw her pass the window again, and assumed she had maybe gone to collect her husband. No sign of her returning I looked out of the parlour window to see the little red car had gone. No acknowledgement or thanks, and dam it no £5 entry! It was all over so quickly I suspected a smash and grab, but not even that.

Is that’s all my creative effort is worth, three minutes and a bag of dog pooh?!

The doctors have repeatedly said I should avoid all forms of stress, so it looks like I’ll have to go back to strictly by appointment only.      

Sunday, June 30, 2024

ANOTHER VISIT FROM TOTTIE.

 


I’ve had another visit from Tottie Nadin, the journalist from the Western Isles Wanderer. I’m not sure what to make of her, or why she called in again. She crept up on me when I was down in the fruit garden weeding the strawberries under plastic. I felt a bit of an idiot having to crawl out backwards and presenting her with my rear end. She wanted to know if her article about the award had made any difference, but I wonder now if she might have had some hidden agenda. I mean she was only here the other day, or was that last month. Time seems to fast forward these days and no sooner have we started the week and its Sunday again. Her arrival was well timed if one is hoping for a cup of tea and a slice of that particularly fine fruit cake I’d made earlier in the day. When she asked about my latest work I felt another tour of the studio was in order, but once again I totally forgot to ask her for the £5 entry fee. Perhaps if I had done she might have bought some little thing to redeem her fiver, but as before she left empty handed and escaped without making a purchase. The long dry spell of no visitors is finally over with the sale this week of two of my “One man and his needle” books and an early 19th century blue and white ladle for the grand total of £48.

Tottie did have a good look around and seemed very interested in my latest painting of Berneray cemetery, although I think she thought the subject matter totally unsaleable. It was by no means completed, but people often seem more interested in seeing the process rather than the finished article. I finished it today with the addition of a raven just to add a little life, or should that be death to the scene. It’s strange how these images I’ve had in my head as well as sketch book are only now finding their way onto canvas. On the easel now is group of buildings on Eriskay that I sketched back in 2011



.

 


Although that sketch was at the time a very quick loose one there is sufficient information that will allowed me to turn it into an oil painting. The studio has become increasingly crowded as I continue stockpiling. That’s the term I’ve used in the past, for those barren years when living in Brittany, and I’ve had no exhibitions organised or customers calling.





I though it odd that Tottie once again came by bus, surely a professional journalist would drive a car. I didn’t think to ask to see the article she’d written about me and my gallery, and have since wonder about the magazine itself. I know there are a multitude of glossy magazines about the Scottish Islands, but I’ve never heard of or seen the Western Isles Wanderer, and imagine it to be one of those journals only obtainable by subscription. From the start I’ve taken her at face value and it seems a bit churlish and certainly way too late in the day to start asking her for ID. I suppose I could have been a bit more inquisitive about her work, as well as that rather strange award. At the time I was rather flattered by the idea that someone had recognised my presence here at the end of the road, but then how did they known I’ve had nobody visiting. Now having given it some thought it does seem rather bazar, although why would she go to so much trouble just to get into my studio for free. Maybe she had a bet with a friend that she could get in for nothing, but that doesn’t explain the second visit. Is she after my body? I should have made it clearer form the outset that these days due to my cancer treatment I’m brimming over with female hormones and find it impossible to grow a moustache let alone a general election.

No, I’m letting my mind run away in flights of fancy, she’s a fine looking woman, probably a good fifteen years younger than myself. I’m reading way too much into her visits, but who knows she might be a gold digger. If she turns up again I’ll have to do some digging of my own.      

Monday, June 24, 2024

Trees.

 


In 2005, having scattered my father ashes on the island of Davaar in the mouth of Campbeltown harbour I decided to follow in his footsteps and take the ferry from Oban to the Outer Hebrides. During the summer of 2000 and at the age of eighty my father had visited the islands in his little Mercedes camper van, travelling from Barra up to the Butt of Ness. On June 24th of that year his roaming took him as far as Garry beach and he spent the night at Traigh Mhor. Before leaving he stopped at the village shop and took a photo looking down to the peat stacks opposite.


 My father was not a good photographer, but what he captured in that image illustrates to me just how the landscape has changed over relatively few years. Historically the impression of the outer islands is one devoid of trees, and that apart from an area of woodland around Lews Castle the place is barren mountains, moorland and machair. An elderly neighbour informed me that when he was a boy the sycamore over the road from the shop and one up by the church were the only trees in Tolsta, and when driving into Stornoway the first and only tree was another sycamore at the Newmarket junction. Since then the tree beyond the church has gone, but there has been considerable if somewhat sporadic planting of conifers and deciduous trees throughout the island. Today the top end of Glen Tolsta has a mature stand of pines, although at the far end many of those have toppled with the north easterly gales. A later planting was almost entirely destroyed by fire during a dry summer when a portable barbeque was abandoned. Since then I’ve taken seedlings from the top side and planted them along with a mix of spruce and alders around my own home at 17 New Tolsta.

 My planting was inspired by Muriel and Andy King who 30 years ago planted a large amount of trees around their own croft house at No 13 as well as on the top side of Croft 15. When I first arrived here in 2006 the old white house and larger modern house on croft 14 were clearly visible, today only the dormer windows and roof of the white house remain visible. The far end of New Tolsta has become a little oasis of woodland before the vast open tract of moorland and in time my own planting of beach, birch and oak will help expand that. The visual aspect of these islands are changing with increasing speed, particularly with the building of massive houses. Gone are the days when ten children were raised in the dim smoky interior of a blackhouse or a two up two down croft house. Today houses that look to me more like a community village hall seem to sprout up overnight like mushrooms, demanding that sea view and dominating the horizon. My hope would be that in years to come some considered planting might soften their visual impact, meanwhile I will continue to plant trees, for surely a little shelter can please both man and beast.



When pushing my mother, then aged 93 in a wheelchair through a stand of fine beach trees she told me she’d spent most of her childhood climbing trees. I did the same, climbing as high as the branches would allow, but never told her. I thought my daring might frighten her and I would be grounded. In one particular section of woodland I could traverse from tree to tree like a chimpanzee never touching the ground. In later life when living in Brittany I would during the stormy winter months climb as high as I could into the old oak tree just to feel the twisting and creaking of branches beneath me. I cannot imagine a life that didn’t include the planting of trees. I’ve planted hundreds over the years; seen birds nest in them, gathered fruit from them, coppiced them, felled them for burning and building, as well as the making of furniture.

I will not live to see the trees I’ve planted here in New Tolsta reach anywhere near maturity, but the pleasure I derive from seeing their yearly growth is immense, and in my imagination I am once again walking beneath a fine stand of mixed woodland with limbs large enough to suspend a hammock that can cradle me.

Monday, June 17, 2024

SOLD II Australia.

 


Looking back over the past thirty five years I find it admiral to think that I have managed to survived through my artistic output. There have been many lean years, some when I’ve had no exhibitions and earned nothing at all, some that have seen surprising sales, and others where I’ve managed to travel the world and pay my way. During this time I’ve taken on no commissions and I have painted entirely for my own pleasure. For two decades I took biannual trips to Western Australia, initially to see my old friend Charley, but during that period I made many more good friends. Along with my sketch pads, I took with me to WA that sense of intimacy I found within Breton countryside. The skies seemed so big down under and the horizon so flat. I found myself searching for a way to create some sort of foreground interest that would lead me into the vastness of the outback. 






The south west corner of WA still retains some wonderful natural forest, and like so many other things Australian trees can obtain great heights. I climbed the 78m high Bicentennial Tree taking sketch book and pens, and spent many happy hours sketching massive tingle trees. I visited many well-known places, but I also discovered others that one could imagine had not seen a human being pass that way in decades or even centuries. 










There were privileged close encounters with nature that still rest vivid in my mind. I wandered along coastal paths, bashed my way through seemingly impenetrable bush and swam with dolphin from beaches that I was told were only accessible by boat. I discovered aboriginal sites that even locals had no knowledge of; trod carefully along fisherman’s coastal paths that required the nimbleness of a mountain goat, trudged up the vast white sand dunes beyond Duns Rocks to watch male emus and their young silhouetted against the setting sun, clambered through crumbling granite rock in a cave on Hammer Head that brought me out, like some strange rodent onto the top of the headland and a view to the archipelago of islands off the Cape Le Grand National Park. I made ascents of Mount Le Grand, Frenchman's Peak, Bluff Knoll, Peak Charles and many more often than not in staggering heat. 


I swam every day and never gave a thought to sharks, slept under the stars and discovered my own miniscule presence in the vastness of the universe. My creative output during these trips gave rise to several exhibitions and sales that allowed me to return. 






















      

Friday, June 14, 2024

A SECOND VISIT By Tottie Nadin.

 

 


It was one of those beautiful Hebridean days, somewhat rare so far this year, but a day never the less to be out enjoying a stroll along the beach. The easiest for me is to hop on the W5 bus to Tolsta and ride it right to the end where I can amble around to Garry Beach or trudge the full length of Traigh Mhor beach. I was sorely tempted to stop off at other beaches along the way but there is something about being out there at end of the road that made me sit patiently for the extra ten minutes ride. Alighting along with two other beach lovers at the last junction before the bus made its return around the New Tolsta loop I noticed that not only was the Studio 17 sign displayed on the fence, but clearly visible outside the house was an open sign. As all three of us set of down the hill I got chatting with the couple from the bus. They’d both read the Peter May trilogy and had spent the previous day up at Ness. They’d identified the shed where the body had been discovered and visited the Harbour Gallery where they’d bought a pack of brightly coloured cards. They were now keen to discover this Bridge to Nowhere. Purely out of curiosity I asked them if they had seen the sign for Studio 17 back at the junction. They said they had, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would come all this way out just for a haircut. I explained it was an award winning art gallery, but we had reached that point in the road where Traigh Mhor beach displays its vastness and their attention had been drawn to their phones and taking snap shots. On rounding the bend to Garry they strode off down the hill, while I cocked a leg over the broken fence and took the cliff edge walk down to the beach. The tide was well out as people made their way around to the castle stack and the cave, but my mind kept drifting back to Studio 17 and Tom sitting in his gallery busy on his latest creation. Had he started painting again as he said he wanted to do, or was he still embroidering his tweed remnants. I would have to pay a visit before I caught the bus home.

There was nobody in the studio on my arrival so I rang the house doorbell, still no reply. Had he just wandered off and forgot the open sign? I ventured down to his barn workshop and beyond to the fruit and vegetable plot, still no trace of him until I came to a low homemade plastic tunnel, and here protruding from the open end were two feet. He was on his hands and knees weeding the strawberries. There is no easy way to interrupt someone who is deep in concentration and believes themselves to be totally alone, so I went for a cheery hello. A head jerked up against the plastic and then he shuffled his way out. “Oh it’s you again, did you forget something?” I explained I was simply curious to see how things were going and if my article had made any difference to his foot fall. “No, not a jot”, he replied with a grin, “Haven’t seen a sole”. I suggest that his award for the least visited attraction on the western isles was well place and he could only agree.

“Do you fancy a cuppa and a piece of cake, I was baking this morning, and I need a break from this?”

I was intrigued, the man also baked. Before I left I also discover he was a jam maker as he sent me off with a pot of last year’s blackcurrant jelly. I asked him how the creative side was going and he guided me back out to the gallery. He had indeed started painting again and on the easel was his latest unfinished work. I was somewhat taken aback to see the jumble of stones and what I would have considered to be the least saleable subject matter. “My favourite graveyard on the island of Bernaray”, said Tom, sits up on the hillside with an outer wall covered in brilliant orange lichen.

“Is there any calling for pictures of graveyards?”


Tom looked at me sideways “I’d never given it a thought, but aren’t they beautiful”. There is something very appealing about the naivety of this man, living in a world of his own, and as I stared at the unfinished picture I caught a glimpse of the beauty he spoke of. There was not the slightest trace of painting for anyone else other than himself, which I found refreshing. It was only during the bus ride home cradling my pot of jam that I realised I had once again not paid that £5 entry fee, which made me think I will simply have to call in again and see if I remain his only visitor.      

 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

SOLD.

 



Chuffed as I obviously was at winning this year’s least visited attractions in the Western Isles, it has like all awards, accolades, and advertising changed nothing. Life has remained blissfully peaceful, and my total lack of interest with the outside world means I simply bumble along from day to day, pottering in the garden or playing in the studio. My ignorance of world affairs is staggering as I discovered when talking with a friend that I’d totally forgotten, not only who our first minister was, but who the prime minister was. Has this man no shame, well since I’ve never voted those sort of things carry no more significance than yet another award. I remember when a friend from Brittany was staying and he saw a photograph of Boris Johnson in the local newspaper. He was shocked to see that Boris was white, very white. He’d heard the name and thought he was the first black mayor of London, presumably getting confused with a world heavy weight boxer.

 I’ve stacked a lot of stuff away in the store cupboards, but that doesn’t seemed to have created any more space, and I mistakenly thought making very small items might help. I was asked recently why I don’t put more of my creative works on line, and here was me thinking I perhaps put too much on line. However it did get me thinking if I should show more of my work. Looking through my photographic records I realised there has been a vast amount of creative output over the past thirty five years, and some of it not half bad. For twenty of those years I had a website, and during all that time I had not a single enquiry. Since dispensing with the website I’ve published a multitude of posts on this Hebridean Dreaming blog and shared that to Facebook. This has often resulted in a few thumbs up responses, while others have left enthusiastic comments as to my talent. Beautiful, amazing work. There has however not been a single enquiry as to the price. I’ve been assured by some who are presumably in the know that certain of my work should sell well. That’s useful to know, but for how much and where. Over the years I have managed to scrape a living from my art while leading what many people would describe as a very frugal life. I’ve run my own gallery both when living in Frome and later in Britany. I’ve had many one man shows concentrating on a single aspect of my work, or a theme that I set myself, but the exhibition in 2019 at An Lanntair surprised many with the shear variety of my creative output. Since then I’ve had two highly successful shows in London of my needlework, which have raised the prices of my folk art embroidered images to a very different level. Some might say why do I bother putting anything on line, and the simple answer is that my art is made to be seen and preferably by as many people as possible. Since there are very few who are prepared to travel this far north the most practical way to allow them to see my work is on line and through social media. Now at this point I have to be careful, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone, but I very rarely read comments that refer to my work. Sure people have opinions, likes and dislikes, but frankly I’m past caring, everything I do is for my own amusement.

 


When on the very rare occasion someone does come to my studio, like today, and purchases one of my works, I still get an extra ordinary buzz. Thank you Laura. I often find myself looking at my battered old hands, rough and grimy from gardening without gloves, and think someone just parted with real money for an item made by those hands. Two weeks ago I started charging a £5 entry fee to my studio/gallery with money back on any purchase. Not counting today’s customer I had up to this point had one visitor and two snooper, so I can’t draw any scientific conclusion. However the first couple decided that it wasn’t worth both of them going in, assuming the entry fee was per head. The entry fee purchases my time, and is not a head count. The husband remained outside and fortunately it was a beautiful day for a wander around my garden. The wife decided to purchase a rather charming mid-19th century child’s potato print mug for £12, and in doing so got her fiver back. This week I noticed a woman passing the kitchen window, but heading in the wrong direction. I popped my head out the front door to see if I could help. She told me she’d arrived a bit early for her pony trekking, but maybe she’d call in after. I never saw her again. Then two days ago, a filthy wet one, I lit the fire in the studio and put the open sign out on the road. As I sat stitching I caught site of someone passed the window. Having a snoop, or missed the entrance, I wasn’t sure. I took a look outside and discovered her standing in the drizzle, but nothing was going to persuade her to pay £5 to come in. She informed me that at her age she no longer bought anything. How sad I thought, so what on earth was she doing at my door. I was baffled, but at least the interruption was brief.     



Since there is no question of anyone wanting to buy my work from images they might see on my blog or on my Facebook page I thought it might be fun to looking back over some work from past decades, starting with a few island images. They  are all sold, (ranging from £90 to £2800), but their price is irrelevant, they require no comment, just your consideration. The best compliment an artist can receive is gobsmacking silence. I have achieved it a couple of times, but it will always remain a rare and beautiful thing to witness.