I am back from my residency on the small island Eilean Shona off the West Coast of Scotland where I spent the whole month of March. It is a breath-taking place, with so many different landscapes packed close together. It was dark when I left Euston Station on Feb 28th on the Caledonian Sleeper. I woke up early to see the beautiful sunrise over the Scottish landscape whizzing by.
My little cabin was very snug, particularly as it was crowded by my very heavy luggage: a large suitcase full of tools and some clothes, a big rucksack with more tools and more warm clothes and a duffle bag with sundries, plus a big roll of paper. I was greeted at Fort William by Ewen who drives almost everyone to and from the Island. We drove for about an hour through an incredible landscape, all the way to the dock where I was met by Alistair and Boe.
My luggage, plus my Morrison’s food order were put onto a small boat and we crossed the Loch to Eilean Shona where I was shown around and introduced to my lovely new home…. Timber Cottage. I moved into Red Cottage later during my month there. I had limited wifi and no phone signal, but I was not completely abandoned - as well as Alistair and Boe there were also Jack and Niamh who take care of the island and the cottages, making sure that everything is ready for the guests during the season. During my first week Vanessa Branson hosted a very convivial soiree for all of us in the Big House with photographer Alex Baxter.
As soon as I had put down my bags I started walking along the different paths and exploring as much as I could. Most days I would pack a small backpack with drawing materials, some tools and my sandwich, and set off on a walk taking photographs, drawing and carving on fallen trees. I followed various trails including the one up to the summit (265 metres) where the view was incredible. And then later all the way to Shoe Bay, which is a beautiful beach with white sands.
I explored woodlands, beaches, grass fields, boggy marsh lands and craggy mountain sides. Wellington boots are highly recommended, particularly after I soaked my walking shoes in the boggy mud. This island is jewel like, so luminous it positively glows, the light bounces off every surface from the surrounding water, the babbling brooks, the waterfalls, and lily ponds, to the sodden wet ground, and the beautiful quartz that is sprinkled everywhere. I had all weathers while I was there: beautiful sunshine and clear skies, to light rain, big rainstorms with hail, thunder and lightning and even snow! The silence is far from absolute, it is so quiet that you can hear nature…. birds, insects, the wind in the trees and water gurgling. The smell of the sea at times and then the smell of pine trees. I was in sensory overload!
The landscape is carpeted in a beautiful cushiony moss. I picked up treasures from the landscape: shells, seaweed, stones including quartz, small pinecones, twigs, sticks, moss and lung wort. In the evenings I would sit and draw some of these finds. I made over 100 drawings and watercolours.
My mind was full of ideas and thoughts on sculpture, and how to express myself more directly with and on the landscape. Initially, I felt quite precious about the island, not wishing to disturb anything in case I undid the equilibrium. However, I quickly noticed hoof prints in the ground and how the deer disturbed and moved stones, moss and tree bark. I realised that I was leaving my big footprints everywhere. I started carving my new imagery onto fallen dead trees, taking inspiration from my drawings and carving pinecones, ferns and seaweed, as well as my handprints and footprints, creating my own trail markers. Some of these I used to make block prints, printing directly outside. On one of my early walks, I encountered a little frog, in fact I almost stepped on the poor thing. The frog was so frightened of me that it froze and was the perfect model. This little Leopard Frog became watercolours, and a woodblock print. I used the Village Hall’s big ping pong table to print a 1x5metre wallpaper/wall-hanging.
As the time unfolded, I experimented with the natural materials that I had found using thin copper wire and book binding thread to combine tree bark, mosses, and twigs to make small Forest Sprites. My final piece on the island was a group of 3 sculptures. Natri Eileamaidean: The Three Elements are a small pinecone, a long piece of seaweed and a more complex piece that is a combination of the first two, and it is a more human like. I carved them outside in a clearing near a small brook and installed them in the muddy bank with Jack’s help next to the brook and clusters of trees. I added colour using oil sticks which is made up of pigment, oil and beeswax. They are like a small shrine, reminiscent of those you might see in Italy or France along roads of saints. Placed along a walk that leads to a mossy forest in one direction and in the other to the large water reservoir. They are three elements that inspired me during my residency and combine the other elements that make up the island - the mud, the wood and the water. I have no idea how long they will remain standing, nor how long it will take for the moss to grow and cover them up.
After leaving Eilean Shona, Jim and I explored more of the west coast of Scotland going all the way to the Isle of Lewis. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. My stay on Eilean Shona will stay with me forever, it was an incredible adventure and a very personal experience.