May. It’s faintly snowing. The old ginger cat sits upon the second rung of a ladder to get off the cold ground.
Puffins are everywhere about the island, particularly at the north end, so I walk to sit with a hundred or so, amongst their burrows just above north haven beach. Three are in a huddle, clattering their beaks together. Their movements and sounds make me smile.
From the hill, a ewe is calling and calling for her lost lamb. It’s not long before I come upon it. Stomach ripped open by a black backed gull, its innards freshly eaten and its ribcage picked clean. What can I do?
At the croft, the caddy lamb and the orphan lamb are in the garden hard box pen, bleating before the four hours’ time up for the next feed, just as a baby does. They follow us clattering around the kitchen floor on their hoof toes, their stomachs bloated from the formula milk, ready to pop.
The dog is barking at nothing in particular.
The woman is in the kitchen and the man has gone to sea.
Familiarity of the small flock as if family.
Early evening, in the lambing park, when the heaving of the birth pushing and the pulling of the lamb that could not be born, I sink in the mud to sit at the head of the ewe to stroke her forehead between her bulging eyes, making comforting noises to sooth an animal that would normally run away from me.
Any woman who has given birth would empathetically feel the movement of the heaving and grunting of the ewe against or with each contraction. The young man, having not yet been a father, gently waits for the contraction to subside, allowing the ewe to release so that he may pull the unborn lamb again. The ewe pants and groans repeatedly at the man aiding the birth of the big lamb, too big for the mother, having been crossed with a huge texel. I cannot look at the sagging birth hole, the birthing sack coming away, the placenta hanging like a blood liver that she will turn to eat, to stop the buzzards from coming to feast, first on the blood sack then on the new born.
She turns away, so, her head is forced towards to the limp new born to lick a love connection but the ewe, lifeless from the shattering, traumatising, experience, lies unmoving with fearful and unknowing eyes, neither lifting her head nor licking the new lamb. The limp new life in front bleating –
you are both alive,
you both still live.
The woman pushing and pushing for hours and days in labour, at the young age of 23 years, her first child, big in the womb, stuck back-to-back, until she is lifeless after the rupture and eclamptic fit. Surgeons cutting, nurses monitoring, air is given, the baby is ripped out with forceps, mother unresponsive slips into unconsciousness. Two days later, after finally waking, the baby is passed to me like a lamb wrapped in the skin of another, with the words, ‘this is your son’.
At the side of the lamb being born on FI, I think of Levenwick last week, where the young man, without any feeling or kindness grabbed the new mother ewe by the scruff of the neck, her back legs skidding on her blood and urine collected in pools in the back of the truck, she, pushed into a pen in the lambing shed that was once a house. The new lamb is brought in behind her, hanging by its back legs.
Welcome to the world young one covered in yellow sticky sack of life only minutes old, blood threads entwined bleating for dear life.
Red gloss makes me look away. It’s the first inherited colour that I paint over. Red, raises stress, draws the gaze, takes over the place especially when on the focal point of a room like a fire place. Layers and layers of gloss over an old iron fire place makes my heart ache. The iron cannot breathe through paint. Here, I had so many other things to do that the red paint was far from the first thing in this room that was removed. I have been spending hours sanding, painting, oiling floors, nitromorsing and brushing iron, stripping wallpaper, painting ceilings, walls and stone. Slowly, the south bedroom of my small house, with an unbroken view of the sea has grown subtle, more natural, in keeping with the elements. Yesterday, as I was leaving, I stepped back to look at my house with the disbelief that I actually live within it. I actually looked at the house and thought, ‘Man, I did it’. It has taken me 6 months and one serendipitous moment to stand back and admire my home as an achievement. Within the first few days of moving in, the house became a love of my life – not the – because I have Jess and Patti but this house sure is a love of mine. I shared this view with a woman from the village who trod on my joy by saying, ‘you never would have guessed’ she said she was being sarcastic. After that, I began to hide my love, my joy and retreat to the sound of the old wooden latch, the view, the light, the tangible history within the house, which have all become a deep evolving love of living here.
To get things done, I have been compartmentalising my life by working an admin job, teaching online knitting workshops, writing a business plan, designing knitting patterns, buying a car, writing online pieces and I have been working on my guest room in order to prepare it for guests. Everything in the house has been shifted around to make space for this room to be restored, lovingly. I find things to dress the mantle, to converse with the room, view and light. Shetland sea urchins, I found in Brindister, the old wheelbarrow wheel from my barn, a bird’s nest from Martin’s lambing shed and one from Sumburgh farm, a bird’s wing from St Nininan’s beach – tiny shells and large shells all found within 3 miles of here build a story of local nature, Shetland life.
I yearn for an old iron and brass bed for the guest room – much like my own. I have sourced one but it is in London and I cannot get it here. There are no deliveries off the mainland. I will wait to get the right bed. I hear the Oceanic sank just off Foula in 1914 and there were 3 days things were removed from the liner and afterwards, when it sank, many things were washed up on the West Coast. The Oceanic was the sister of the Titanic and it carried many ornate iron and brass beds now on the sea bed.
I’ve restored many homes but this room has been a pretty big job – I have shed blood, sweat and tears – at one point, I knocked myself off a chair when the belt sander chewed up my trousers when I lowered my arms whilst trying to sand the ceiling (yes, really) and that was really scary. I did the risk assessment, I knew the biting of the sander but it still happened. Finally, the sander has stopped. The screw and plate had worked lose. I spent an hour trying to fix it but could not – so I finished the floor sanding by hand. The guy at the paint shop is on first name terms with me because I’m a weekly customer. The paint is the best I could buy. It’s inspired by a sample of wallpaper that I’m completely flattered that Emma has agreed to print. When the paper goes on the walls, if Emma agrees, I will share its story – because event the wallpaper has a story.
I’ve just closed the bedroom door and realised that it is only 60% stripped. I forgot about that. But when it is finished, this room will be an unassuming, living, breathing room to gently connect to Shetland in more ways than one.
This weekend has been all about a northern Winter, blue light, snowfall, walking to the top of the hill, and scraping the ceiling.
Two of us have had an attempt at sanding paint off the ceiling now. I bought a fairly expensive belt sander and duly plugged it in and hit the ceiling with it. Holding 3kg up above your head whilst wearing goggles and a face mask, standing on a chair, is testing to say the least. It didn’t work. So I started scraping the paint with a ‘magic scraper’ but it wasn’t magic at all, then Nitromorsing, then I paid a man to have a go at sanding and in one hour the entire room was filled with paint flakes and dust but there was nothing in the dust bag and some areas were sanded but more paint was still left on the ceiling and it was all looking very intact with 50 years of rippled paint beaming down at me. He said it couldn’t be done and to go over it with another ceiling. I thought about it. I poked and wiped a little area clean on the glass in the window so that I could see out, heart slightly sinking at the magnitude of it all – then shut the door for two days.
Saturday, I returned to the ceiling with fresh vigour, armed with new paint stripper and optimistic hope. Somehow, I had forgotten the midweek sinking feeling. Two hours later, there is little effect on the paint from the paint stripper and scraping so I pick up the sander again. Whilst sanding above my head, I can feel my stomach muscles tightening to hold the weight of it all and to balance – maybe this hideous act of restoration can be exercise too. Saturday tea time, I close the bedroom door and shower off the dust.
Sunday, I wake to more fresh snow and decide to ignore the bedroom ceiling until I have walked to the top of the hill which overlooks both Levenwick on the East and St Ninian’s Isle on the West side of Shetland. On passing Jimmy’s, I catch him feeding the birds and mention that I’m walking to the top of the hill and the abandoned mast – just in case I never return and I’m either in a blizzard or lost or slipped or dead – I’m on the hill, right? I’ll call in on the way home to let him know I survived. Living alone risk assessment – it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going when it’s remote and there’s bad weather. In my bag I packed a little back up 1. a newly recharged domed torch that sticks to the fridge and can flash. I figure this is a good idea in cases I need to flag down a helicopter. 2. a foil blanket in case I get caught out and need to hide under something. 3. a flask of tea. No money and no chocolate.
I’ve not left the village before the first blizzard of sharp harsh hailstones, bigger than pepper corns, lashes across the land from the West. I take shelter against a wall in an old, roofless shearing shed.
Even I think it’s a stupid idea and I know Jimmy will be looking out of his window wondering where I am. After ten minutes, there’s a seasonal change from harsh winter blizzard with hail to calmness and a speck of blue sky so I set off again. The blue light is reflected on the new snowfall, which reflects back a whiteness. Pink edged, dark grey filled clouds begin to surround me, there is a faint sound of wind but it is positively calm compared to 5 minutes ago. Out to sea, a snow storm rages. I can see it pouring, sieve like in vertical strands connecting cloud to sea. I’ve begun to watch the shape and colour of the cloud formation indicating the weather in that particular spot.
Only two sets of foot prints have been before me – one of human and the other of a large dog. The pink frills edging the clouds become peach then fiery gold – the sun, suspended in the moment, is hiding somewhere behind the snow clouds colouring the cloud edges burning them into a golden light. Whilst writing, the paper page turns pink from the reflection of the clouds many, many miles away.
I am the only living human on this great hill – I know this for sure because there are no other footprints. Sheep follow alongside. Abandoned snow topped peat banks to my right marking what would have once been a busy place. To the north, the sky is one sheet of orange/ grey, as if fire smoke and to the South, dark rolling fog coming towards me. It is magical to see the earth’s weather system for miles in both directions – doing different things. The southern weather becomes quite frightening to watch – as if a harsh storm is rolling uncontrollably covering everything in its path. On the hill, I’m hoping for a view of St. Ninian’s Isle but the likelihood is becoming slim. I now begin to look for possible shelter – not even a building but a wall.
The ice on the road is frozen like the waves of a sea. Frozen ripples with small snow drifts at either side. The light is blue – not the sky, but the light itself. The ice is too slippery so I walk in the snow alongside.
Slowly, slowly, not entirely walking but meandering, Bowie on a loop in my head, I reach my goal of the abandoned telegraph masts at the top of the hill with 360 degree view at exactly the same time new hail as sharp as nail points stab my face. The wind howls and whistles around the masts. Briefly, I look over the edge of the cliff to St, Ninian’s way down below – a perfect natural tombolo beach visible from above.
I turn, to face away from the instant hail storm then start the return journey. It’s easier going back downhill.
Bleak blue light
Coldness on my back from the chasing wind. The sea, way below, ahead of me is now a deep Navy Blue. The storm sky has coloured it. At ground level, snow falls gently, sheltered by the hill and for now, the wind has subsided.
Saturday, Sitting in this old house, with the doors open for this fine Shetland sunrise, listening to the sparrows and starlings mutter and chatter over the breakfast seeds on the wall, the red light pours sharply in to the house as a shard of light, hitting the back wall at an angle in the corner – a different place from even two weeks ago where light hit the middle of the sofa. I am learning a cycle of annual shifting light.
Light, so commonly taken for granted, is a big thing here. Its appearance is being squashed into a smaller opening by the darkness of Winter speeding in to borrow light’s hours. The night darkness is squeezing out the daylight day by day but sunrise is putting up a spectacular morning fight.
For a brief half hour, I listen, wait and watch to see the magnificence of a new day writing its signature across my walls, through my windows and refracted through the old lead chandelier prism crystals that now become brokers in this arrangement between sunrise and light. The crystals throw rainbows of light across the walls and ceiling. The moment is enchanting. Why not be enchanted? – if only briefly.
I have always noted shifting light, where it hits the walls of my homes, how it affects me, how it shifts around the room at different times of year, how I wait for it to appear at certain times of year and how it slips away. I have rejoiced in it for years. But here, here it is more powerful because being so northerly, the light is extra precious during winter. I have yet to learn of its daily power during living here through a summer where the light fights back to take over the hours of darkness.
This morning, all my world stopped to be in this November moment. Grateful at being able to see the pure light and to feel its powerful healing properties.
Pure Moon light.
A moon beam paints its light in the whole shape of the window across my bedroom floor. Unbeknown to me, light is also painted across the floor in the room downstairs.
Outside, the moon world is brought together by a party of present and missing elemental guests. The sharp light is here because wind and rain are missing. The moon is the main guest of honour. A moon so bright and full that it creates a pool of light in the basin of the wide and deep sea. The fold of the earth, visible through the window, as horizon line between earth and sea, marks a line between moon light and night darkness as if drawn by a spirit level.
After the storm, after the Orcas, the moon paints the sea silver and my bedroom floor with a faint but clearly defined light in the shape of a window resting on the old wooden floor boards.
How can I turn away from this natural visual world that is lit by a full moon guest? To sleep is to miss it. I cannot sleep, or read and although knitting beckons me, the moon light pulls my gaze and I see nothing but tones of grey, silver, slate, graphite, black, white. A boat sails on the horizon trailing its own white light.
To be alive at this moment, here, now, with all the elements in perfect harmony is priceless. Except for the personal cost of noticing, taking time, being aware, being in the moment – given freely.
I write in the pure darkness, not seeing the pen or the words. The white page is faintly highlighted by the painting moon light.
Suddenly, rain arrives at the party, accompanied by blowing wind and bringing cloud. Other natural elements join the party, breaking up moon’s isolated glow. Rain, wind and cloud cover moon – he leaves the moonlit party, taking with him light.
Black ness returns accompanied by rain on the roof and wind down the chimney.
If you would like to receive a monthly newsletter on living in Shetland, I have started a Patreon site for unpublished stories – which will only be available to Patreon supporters. If you would like to receive monthly newsletters, stories, updates on research on this old house and Susan Halcrow, discounts on my knitting patterns and information on Shetland, please consider supporting me through Patreon at £3 per month or £6 per month. The link is here. https://www.patreon.com/TraceyDoxey
This story is the first one and it is free. After that, my Patreon supporters will receive exclusive stories and I will dedicate time to my writing on that page.
If you are interested in staying at Smola in Shetland, the link to Air B&B is here
6:25am. A calm, slightly damp, silent, start of a day, with a waft of wind around my bare legs.
The one star left, after the star-studded sky has evaporated, is high and to my right – it may be a planet, I need to learn. Last night, at 3am, the Plough, ploughing amongst a sky of stars, I, noticing its different position to that when I was in Sheffield.
Here, 60 degrees north, the tilt of my view is different, sharper, present. On opening the door, in dressing gown, slippers and down coat, I’m greeted by a peachy ribbon hugging the sea top and sky bottom, falling temporarily in its homemade fold in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since moving here, it has been my greatest pleasure to be greeted by a line of colour dividing earth from sea – this is on lucky weather days. Some days, there is no differentiation between either. Almost seven weeks since I arrived and my first waking moment has never changed. I look out to sea, to the horizon, in search of a sunrise.
I have renamed the bench a Thinking Bench, rather than a Procrastination Bench. I procrastinated in that quiet garden in Sheffield, here, I view the changing light, devouring its fleeting moments.
This place is not an easy place to live but I am alive by its weather challenges and gift of light because it is becoming briefer at this point of the world. Nothing is missed, nothing taken for granted, nothing is sure – the changing light is a gift.
The door is open. Shetland
If you are interested in visiting this part of the island – bookings are open from spring time for single traveling, exploring ladies who want to experience this part of the world in a safe, unique house by the sea. Air B&B offer 20% off for the first 3 bookers. https://airbnb.com/h/levenwick
I pack the bike paniers for the beach – a place that I know is today in a wind storm. Laying the blanket upon the fine sand, making ready to start knitting the gloves with my online Ravelry Knit group is wonderful moment. It is THE perfect location to sit and knit, think, feel – the sea rolling and heaving in front of me, the bike tyres being quickly buried under small sand drifts behind me. I dig into the bank of the crescent beach and unpack a speckled banana and Christmas biscuits in an old tin, my 5 year old Thermos from Japan, my note book, pen, yarn and chart.
I sit as if a child on a picnic for no one and watch the weight of water lift the surface of the sea in front of me. Waves break and reach the shore line as if they move along the keys of a piano – right to left along the entire long beach.
Sand grains settle on the surface of my tea as if in a grain huddle, in the base of the open biscuit tin, on the blanket in the shape of the base of my shoe, in the threads in the ball of yarn, on the canvas yarn bag that travelled a thousand miles, in my hair, on the scarf.
I scan the sea for whales – the whales that came in to the bay last Weds when I was at St Ninian’s. The weight of the sea water, rising and sinking, ebbing and flowing – covering secrets below its surface in the cold, cold depths of ancient sea sounds.
Today is the first day of my online Ravelry Knit Along where you can join me until 12th October in a group to knit the Smola gloves – named after my home in Shetland. You can ask questions, add photos, let me see your projects. THANK you to all those who have bought the pattern for the gloves already.
Happy knitting, happy sea and beach thoughts – If you’d like to join me on the beach next year, I will be offering Air B&B for single lady crafters, artists and explorers. Message me if you are interested in staying in my 200 year old house by the sea.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
This quote, for me, is not only empowering during my trying to sell my home in Sheffield and move to a tiny house in Shetland, without seeing or feeling it, but it sums up my story.
I feel that there are critics of what I am trying to do. I feel there are non supporters, and worse, I feel there are people who say they want to help but really don’t BUT and more IMPORTANTLY, above all that, I have such love and support from friends who listen, ask how it’s going, check in on me because, as with most great risks I have taken, I am doing this alone. I am grateful for that support of those people
In the meantime, I am trying to get to this dream of a new life in Shetland – a life built on over 6 years of returning and building experiences. It is not easy selling a property in lock down, recession, fear, job losses and a pandemic but I am trying with everything to make this happen.Here is a link to the original post
I sure know that I am in the Arena and if I fail, I will have dared greatly.
Around the 18th March, I began to receive multiple messages from friends on different platforms with a link to a tiny house in Shetland. On that day, I should have already been in Lerwick, but I wasn’t because the hostel had finally closed on 16th and the interview on 19th that I was going for, was finally agreed to be a skype call because of the Virus which we are all now well familiar with. I’d been looking for a little house in Shetland for some time, having looked at one myself, in the old lanes in Lerwick, in November. Then, a friend, went to look at another for me in January. But March, the little house in the sunshine-flooded image didn’t just speak to me, it shouted my name which appeared to be written all over it.
I called the agent who had a viewing day of Smola, on Saturday 21st, the last of all viewings of properties before lock down. As I couldn’t attend, I was sent the house report and two small videos – one of inside the property and one of the byre. Although the tiny house is basic, it is perfectly formed and without question, it seemed ideal for me and the dreams I have of living in Shetland, but on the Monday 23rd , one of the Saturday viewers had put an offer in on the tiny house and I lost hope and duly whined about it on FB on 25th March. This was not just a house to me, it had become a dream filled with ideas of sharing it, offering artist exchanges to exchange and share skills with each other artists and the wider community, artist retreats, workshops, air B&B to friends and people who have connected with me on Instagram, but most importantly, it would be a home where my (art) work / and life would become without borders – indistinguishable.
I was screaming inside, it should have been me because during the preceding developing 7 days, I had been booked to be in Shetland and could have been there, seen it, felt it, put the offer in but instead, I was in my tiny flat in Sheffield forced in to lockdown feeling helpless.
Then, Beate, a friend of mine, messaged and said, just put an offer in. It was the most practical and real advice I had been given, so I spoke to Emma, who put me in touch with Barbara, who in turn, put me in touch with Chris, who had rented the little house for 3 years and he told me about it. So, the house was more known to me and some questions were answered. And, in any case, I had already fallen in love with Levenwick last August
Are you still reading? After all the chronological dates and lost hope? Here’s Levenwick when I was there last August
That weekend, I thought about nothing other than the tiny house and artist exchanges and workshops on knitting and design whilst all the time mentally composing a letter in parts to the owners of Smola, in order to compete with the offer on the table already. Without seeing, smelling or touching the house, the letter flowed. I was honest, direct, clear and shot from the hip on the financial offer. On Monday 30th, I emailed it to the agents with the letter and offer, then promptly let it go. I went to work at Ryegate Children’s hospital where I’ve been a temp medical secretary since early Feb. Just because of a pandemic, the children don’t stop being ill with severe neurological issues, so I didn’t stop going to answer calls from worried parents, arrange medication and type consultant letters from clinics. I got on with my week. The pandemic gathered steam and I started knitting. Below are some of my recent designs.
On Thursday, 2nd April, I got a call from the agent. I assumed it would just be a rejection call. But it wasn’t. The sellers had accepted my offer on the proviso of a non refundable deposit to take it off the market and that they would wait for me to sell my flat. Since 2nd April until 17th May, two Shetland solicitors have been involved in writing the agreement for this non-refundable deposit, which I signed, in a wood in Sheffield on 8th May, honoured by my friend Deborah witnessing and co signing the document, and Lola the jug waiting as patiently as she could tied to a branch.
So there you have it, just over 8 weeks after seeing an image, both moving and still of a little house in Levenwick, I have signed a document to say that I will pay the non refundable deposit, deductible from the cost of the house, if I finalise the Scottish missives and all the papers to purchase within 3 months – an IMPOSSIBLE task. After the initial 3 months, I have a further 3 months agreement with the same terms but the first non refundable deposit isn’t carried over – that becomes lost. I was asked by a friend, – ‘what do I get for my non refundable deposit?’ and I said TIME but my wise friend Deb added, security . So, I have 6 months to turn everything around, still in lock down, during a pandemic and a recession to sell my flat and to purchase my dream.
I have 6 months to make this dream come true.
A dream to truly live a life fully in Smola, without borders between creative thought process and daily life, with my 2 cats, to go swimming with Barbara D and the Selkie swimming group in the sea, to write the book with Shetland knitters – of their mothers and mothers’ mothers and their knitting patterns and the homes they lived in, to make site-specific art, to offer air b&b to friends and artist whom I have come to know over the years through my artistic practice.
I can imagine the artistic exchanges that I hope to offer twice a year to share skills and art with other practitioners including and open call to hand block printers, wallpaper printers, basket makers, knitters, painters, writers and I can see it all happening in that tiny house. I am keen to be part of the village of Levenwick, keen to give and not take by being a supportive member of the local community and I want to make art, knit, share Smola with other artists, create exchanges and opportunities for others to come and work in and draw creativity from the fine little unassuming place.
This is my dream.
If you are interested in supporting this idea, please contact me.
If you are interested in future residencies or exchanges, please sign up to this blog so that you will see further progress on my move to Shetland because if it does not happen with Smola, then it will be another place.
If you are interested in coming to share skills, stay in the tiny house with me as an air B&B, also please let me know by contacting me through this website then I can see how many people would like to share of this dream.
If I do not make the exchange within the time – I will realign my dream.
In the meantime, if you would like to support me, you can do this by buying one of my knitting patterns here.
I am also looking to create a website for Smola and the creative business I will carry out there and I am looking to buy a new camera to capture the beauty of this place and to capture the offer to others.
I also have started a new Instagram page for Smola, which is here and where you can follow progress.
I’m hoping to share this dream with many people. When we are allowed to take visitors, I will be offering Air B&B for single travelling women – I’ll also be offering residencies and looking to create artist exchanges. If you are interested in any of these ideas, please email me on the contact form.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this new move
If you would like to keep up with my move to Shetland, please sign up to the blog here.
It’s strange and deeply moving, how a small, sea-facing
house that I briefly occupy on a tiny remote island which is firmly planted in
the North Sea, is so far removed from a home that I once occupied deep in the
Chinese ancient hutongs of Suzhou, but that it can so vividly and completely
remind me of that other place in another country, in another continent so
powerfully that it is as if I am back in the middle of the dusty, noisy hutongs
themselves. How can this be? This small
house on Fair Isle does not have any of the same look, smells or sounds from as
that place in Suzhou but as I am unceremoniously dropped off and left alone
here, I turn around and instantly feel China, India, the old Vicarage at Chatsworth
from 20 years ago and an old house in the hutongs of Suzhou. All at once past places and people surge back
and I am hit in the chest by the power of a sensory connection that I haven’t
felt in years. How can I feel that I am
in China or an old library in an old vicarage when I am in a tiny area in the
middle of a tiny house on Fair Isle?
Initially, there is nothing immediate about the place this
is fundamentally Chinese, though these things appear later. It is not about a brush or Chinese paper or
mark or anything tangible. It is the scent
of it all, its essence.
When I arrived here, quite tired and late, I cared not about eating nor for food and certainly not for unpacking, because I had to just sit and take in my new surroundings.
One week there, one week there and now one week here. Three weeks
on this island and three very different places to sleep – all creative in their
own way but this tiny place has something other than creativity.
Stepping into this place is an intense, pure moment where nothing else really matters. To someone else, it would appear totally differently but to me, everything here is placed precisely to create a space entirely conducive to creative thought and drawing. I can see the sea, hear the wind and the clock ticking but mostly and above all, I feel intensely and acutely aware of my surroundings – so much so that I am winded. So much detail, so much accumulated stuff. There is not one pen but over a hundred, there is not one sharpened, labelled, categorised pencil but over two hundred. There is not one book of antiquity but countless and the same with paint brushes, ink pens, nibs and tools, glue, tape, light bulbs, bags. A sea of multiples. Everything is used and reused and used again and mended. Most things here bear the scars of being broken and mended or of having a long journey and life – this being pans, pots, cups, plates and all manner of utensils. This tiny place in an ocean of stuff bearing the memory of past lives and other countries. Every single thing in this home has a visible memory. It is a simple place with an intoxicating, hugely complex interior.
No place has made me feel so deeply and powerfully inside my
chest and belly since living in China. but this is not China, it is a small,
tiny house on a small tiny island in the North sea.
How many years did this place take to evolve? It has the same enchantment as Lao Wang’s one
roomed home in Suzhou. The walls are closing in from the towering collections
of brushes, pens, pencils all in neat rows in jugs, pots, tins, jars. Everything is magnified through sheer volume and
a scent of far, far away. There is no internet connection. I am so disconnected that I can only become
connected. I decide that I shall live in a very small way here.
Tools, oil paint, inks, books and more books, Indian textiles, Chinese ink stamps and brushes, old tins, new tins, tea boxes, old rugs covering bare boards – so little floor space – the walls encroaching in. there is no space for any of the doors to the rooms – these now being used as shelving above the bed to store artwork. The single bed is encased beneath the doors, beside bookshelves and pillars of 4×4 to hold the doors, next to a small table and sofa.
In truth, I am a little cold. I will have to wear my feather coat the whole
time, as I did in china. I care about
nothing practical. I care not that I am
cold and will get colder, not that my finger is sticky nor about the wind
gathering momentum and speed outside, nor do I care that there is not one comfortable
chair because I feel that all the world is here. The freezer whines. I open a flask of tea that I made 11 hours ago
and feel at home with a tepid drink. I’ve
been left with instructions not to touch any of his things. His things, not being his personal space or
intimate space – bed, nor even his books.
I know instantly what his most precious things are – its his tools to
create art, though this was never mentioned. The tools that support his practice are the
things I cannot touch. I respect that but
am drawn to his drawing desk. This point
of clear sharp focus will focus me. Amidst
a million small things, I decide to stick to 4 physical places within this sea
of things only because a fear of putting things down in any other place, that I
will certainly not find it again. I allow myself to use the single bed, the
small sofa bed for bags and clothes, a square foot on the kitchen works surface
to prepare food and one square foot on the desk to write. I am getting to know
the man through his things before I have ever really spoken to him.
After sitting for some time, on a garden chair by the desk, I finally understand the power of this place – there is a combined memory of three wise men that I have known before who rise among the books and brushes here.
Mr Beddoes and his worldly library of first editions at Chatsworth, Lao Wang in his old Chinese one roomed house with walls lined with hooks for bird cages and old fur skins and with an old Chinese bed surrounded by a sheet with small boxes pinned to the inside containing a pen and his glasses and other small important things, and then there is also Cai Gen Lin – the wisest man of all who owns no material objects and who lives a simple life as a devout Buddhist and cuts the hair of the locals for 8 kuai. The qualities of those three men are tangible but not visible in this tiny house decades and thousands of miles apart. It is a special place lived in by a man I do not know at all, on a tiny island 3 miles long, in the North sea.
I’ve never had an Artist studio for a number of reasons:
– it is an expense that I cannot really afford, I live a 4-mile cycle ride from
town so to get to a studio and back is a chore, and in the summer, it felt odd
to call myself an Artist. One miserable,
wet, dark, raining night in August, I did look at a studio at Kelham Island,
but it wasn’t right. I couldn’t find the right place, at the right price.
In the end, I did buy a desk and was delighted how
that desk, in my home, made me feel and instantly became my work space. It was enough. It is enough. My flat became
exactly how I wanted it – a live/work
space at any time of the day.
Then, in November, when I was accepted on to the
AA2A Artist residency programme at Sheffield Hallam University, I moved old
papers and prints into the MA studio at Sheffield Institute of Arts (The Old
Head Post Office) It is a small space with a perfect wall area to overlap
things, put things up, leave things, remove things, reflect. So, until the end of June ‘19, that is exactly
where you will find me every Monday and Tuesday. Take
this as an open invite to come visit.
There is nothing not to like about this gorgeous,
strong building which was, for many years, The Old Head Post Office in
Sheffield. The floors in the large exhibition space are mosaiced, the walls are
still tiled in dark rich brown and cream and everywhere is conducive to creative
thought with old remnants of a by gone postal service in town which litters the
walls, floors and views. The technical resources are second to none. Space is
The AA2A residency came at exactly the right time. I applied 2 days after the closing date, the
submission was accepted, I was interviewed and proceeded to naïvely cover the
interview table with examples of processes and work. It was a shamble of words
and lace knit and photographs and, of course, laser cuts. I was over the moon
when I was accepted.
Now, is a new phase – a progressive time to learn,
experiment and develop by using the resources available to me. In return, I will show work to the current
students, do presentations and workshops, be around in the space, ask and
answer questions. I’m also mentoring a
little. Alongside that, there are countless
students doing their thing, and we share information. They’ve got used to seeing me and I look
forward to seeing them. In the new year,
I’ll offer workshops and add information to their notice boards of competitions
I did not want repeat my creative practice,
therefore, I expose myself to a very creative environment as what can be called
‘A Young Artist’ and I will add – at an older age because I’m not young but I feel
it. But, to repeat is out of the question
– where do I start?
I could only start the residency at SHU, where I had
left off at Nottingham Trent Uni but I had never used a laser cutting machine
myself as this is done by the technician at NTU. At Sheffield Hallam, the
students use the laser cutting machines themselves. They’re shown how to use them and off they /
I go. I collected all of my files from NTU but they are not compatible with the
software at SHU. So the learning curve of preparing files started.
Initially this seemed daunting but, only 3 weeks in, daunting is a memory. I’m learning by trial and error but the errors are mine and I continue to learn from them, build a new portfolio and a new-found confidence as a practicing ‘Artist in Residence’. Silly mistakes during the process of live tracing an image and digitally cutting it open up steps to understanding what I can try next and how to overcome errors. When I fail, I try again and again until, after I feel that I have some small grasp of the technique.
Students come into the laser cutting room, we discuss our practice and technique, we share learning experiences and own it. Every student fully owns their own work when they create and cut it. After two successful (ish) laser cuts, I needed a location to place the work in order to really see it.
I could hear a voice in my head asking myself why I thought
that laser cuts of lace knitting which were inspired by Shetland could ever fit
into Sheffield. There were no links between lace and Yorkshire. Did it need a
link? Could I create a link? Was it becoming inauthentic or decorative? Or, was
I repeating myself. And, that would never do.
Showing my work has previously been an easy act to
do as I chose remote extreme outdoor locations to place laser cuts or lace
knitting and Only I saw it. In Shetland,
the work merged with the landscape and each relied on the other to give
meaning. Pure Symbiosis
Today, I do not have access to Shetland to continue to place laser
cuts into abandoned croft house windows but I have done that already,
photographed it, shown it and understood it.
Now, I only have digital files that stem from my original lace knitting
CAD patterns. And I am placing them into Sheffield Institute of Art (SIA)
I looked around the SIA building, the stair wells, and corners at the working windows – mostly sash, and mostly aesthetically pleasing. I even used a measure and made diagrams. In Shetland there was no time for a measure of any sorts – not of windows or of place – I came across places and the site-specific work was entirely intuitive. It was placed quickly, in wind and gales and rain or snow. Here lies a clear difference, I have the luxury of choice and measurement – though this may remove the rawness of the work.
At SIA, location can be more considered than in Shetland. The work can be left in situ at SIA and not
blow away. Consciously, I knew I wanted
a window of great beauty, subconsciously, I wanted a window in a location with
great foot fall. I also considered the
view that would be seen through the laser cuts. I wanted people to walk past
and either look or not, to stop or not, to think about the laser cuts or not
but I did want the work have ‘the option to be looked at’. I didn’t want it hidden.
I chose this window on the half floor at Sheffield Institute of
Art, between floors -2 and -1 from the reception to the studios and laser
cutting rooms. A stair well of much foot fall.
I must admit, I put laser cut 1 and 2 up quickly because I had no permission and I felt nervous. Nervous if I could be stopped, or asked what I was doing or, and this was the biggest thing, – was the work interesting enough and would it ‘work’ into this location. Laser cut 3 went up – doing it felt good and I didn’t hide it but I could no longer reach to place the next row. At this point, I tried to enlist the support of Jim, a technician, who was obviously going to ask the question I had been avoiding – Who gave me permission to place this work in this window and had I had it covered by H&S?
So, now after the work has been checked and cleared by H&S,
Jim placed 3 more panels and I am thinking of placing renegade work across the
city and then in galleries. New Goals. But
for now, this window is my canvas.
Happy Christmas. Here’s to 2019 and new things that I don’t know exist yet.