Smola, Shetland. One week in.

Thoughts on the 18th day of the 9th Month, 2020.

 Exactly to the minute of one week since arriving at this tiny house.

I am utterly grateful for this opportunity to live in this life changing place by the sea. It wasn’t an easy journey but I am finally here.  

Every moment, I feel connected to the earth and I’m mindful of the days through the ever present wind, the break through of the sun and the pure blue skies, the wetness moving in over the hill – the weight of water moving in a line of cloudy fog, hail crashing onto the skylight at the top of the stairs so that the cats and I run around thinking we were under siege – new sounds, the weather making my face raw and ruddy and my hair in sea spray straw and above it all, this tiny house that is becoming the love of my life.

The kindness of friends and neighbours helping me arrive and settle in:  B – meeting me at the ferry then driving me to the house, flowers and veg from C and H, BD – bringing me peats and coal for my first hearth fire, D brought me a Sunday dinner and E, brought me home grown flowers and shiny wholesome home grown veg last night. 

Post cards from well wishers from all over the world begin to fill the wall.

I hear the geese fly over the house, knowing that they fly in their perfect V formation.  I step outside to watch how they change position and take turns to fly at the point of the V facing into the wind, the rest in the slip stream.  I am learning every moment, every day.  Old stones surround my house. Standing on hand hewn stones is grounding.

I have 3 doors – a front door that is mostly open, a small white glazed porch door and an interior door with a very old square wooden latch opener.  It’s wonderful.  How many people have turned the wooden latch-block before me to open the wooden latch inside? The inside latch clicks and hits the wooden housing and on that recognisable sound I hear the thud of the cats jumping off the bed in the bedroom above to come to greet me.

They have settled so well – now I put them out in the middle of the night if they are talking too much. They roam the area and roll in the sunshine outside the house on the road.  They squint into the wind and rain and change their minds about going out. They are becoming island cats.

I am painting the visible wood in the window frames outside before the Winter sets in, I need to order coals, oil for the heating and any number of things.  I still need to learn how to read the oil tank but I have managed to get the oven clock working so now I the oven works.

I am learning new things every time I turn around – looking at the hedgerow flowers growing with their faces away from the wind, the beach changes by the day, I search for heart shaped stones, I peel slugs the size of snakes from my porch floor, I move plants into a place of shelter, I wake and look out of the window towards the East for the sunrise every day – from the ship that is my bed sailing in a tiny house built into a bank for shelter. My TV doesn’t work but my environment is my TV.

This place will, at times, challenge me but I feel that there is nothing I cannot overcome. I’m beyond grateful for this time to live properly, feel deeply, touch the earth with integrity.

Beach wear – 60 degrees North

All knitting patterns can be found on my Ravelry page here https://www.ravelry.com/designers/tracey-doxey

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Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art …

W.B. Yeats – Preface to Celtic Twilight, 1893

At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience.  My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.  

When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1  I was reading Winterson and he,  Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30. 

Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.    

Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals.  As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2  I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield.  Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.

But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does.   I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou.  He is not my story – I can tell you another.

In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time.  At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work.   He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time.  You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go. 

5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou.  He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.

Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other.  Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day –  both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge.  Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own –  that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link.  I suppose, in a way, I am their story.

Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.

And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’

I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.

I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.

Notes:

  1. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  2. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  3. Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.

This life to the next

Things, objects – why do we keep things?  Things that we don’t touch, or wear, or read or look at or even eat anymore. (go look in my fridge at the jars and see what I mean)

I am packing to leave on an unspecified date and in an, as yet, un arranged manner and it is dawning on me the magnitude of all of this.  Initially, packing is quite exciting – interesting even.  I open the kitchen cupboards, empty things out that have not seen the light of day in the 3 years that I have lived here, dutifully wash, dry, wrap and pack them in boxes that I have been collecting at a rate of two a day from the corner petrol station. I pack in a fine order to be opened up at the other end in an organised fashion.  The boxes grow like interior walls and building blocks under other things – like tables and the bed and I begin to drown. 

Reality of the movement of all of these neatly packed things is brought to a very sharp head when the removal company from Shetland call to say that I have too much stuff for one van and I will need two. The weight is too much and the size is too much – they want to see a video of all the stuff.  A whatsapp video call is dutifully planned and I look around.  It is dawning on me that it might be an idea to burn it all – all this stuff and be free.  The boxes that are packed have things that I might need – a solid frying pan for that camp fire I might have, beautiful embroidered sheets for that guest I might have, my four vases for the flowers I might pick – it goes on and on for things that may never happen and it dawns on me that I am moving things, at great expense, to another place that is tiny where I want to be free. There is an internal argument for keeping these things because replacing them is expensive, they have a history with me, they are good quality – the argument goes on and on but comes to a wonderful crescendo whilst washing a tiny cut glass trinket thing with a battered silver lid with ancient patina going back to Victorian times.  It’s washed, placed onto the drainer but slips gracefully and almost in full technicolour slow motion on to the Portuguese tiled floor and smashes into shards and chunks. Immediately, it’s rendered useless.  It’s neither aesthetically pleasing nor valuable.  It’s gone. And with that simple result I feel nothing and it is let go.  This thing goes in to the bin.

I’ve left previous lives with a few bags and boxes. I’ve travelled to China with a back pack and bag with wheels on. Always, I was starting again and it always felt liberating – cathartic even.

So, when I get time, I will unpack and remove things. Because none of this can come back from that island and no one will want it which brings to mind all of the derelict abandoned croft houses I have been in across Shetland – some containing household objects of the previous occupants; china cabinets with their tea sets all toppled over in dust.  They couldn’t take it with them – wherever they went and no one else took it.  

And, in my case, why would I cover a Shetland life with an English one?

Making Marks. Shetland wall flowers

Dear lover of Yarn Stories and of the tactile art of knitting,

Making marks at the border of two paint colours.  

I have designed a hat which harks back to my wanderings across Shetland.  This hat didn’t just happen.  It has a story, as have all the knitted articles still in Shetland.  I wasn’t born in Shetland but my heart resides there.  I can say that my hat was ‘inspired by’ but that feels too shallow. The hat was made like a recipe, gathering the ingredients by sight, sound and touch. This hat recipe has painted flowers in it, abandoned crofts, tussock grass, boggy land, a home without a roof, a lean-to kitchen and women and their creativity in it.

Painted by a woman, I think, by a woman with cold hands and an eye for detail.  She will have looked at that wall and maybe, whilst knitting or walking or crofting or cutting peats, or caring for the children or family, she might have thought how she would like to make the walls pretty.  Stencils seem visible in some homes.  Where did the stencils come from to arrive at such remote, isolated homes?  This unassuming row of flowers is deeply moving in its simplicity. Far away from neighbours, with a view of the sea, between the window and the sink is a row of 8 pointed flowers.  The point where the energy of present and past meet are at the end of my touching finger and the disintegrating row of flowers. In some parts they have been painted over, but they are clear and proud.  I ache at the beauty of the most simple stamped design carefully placed in groups of four V shapes to make an 8 pointed flower. 

When did she think this pattern up? How did she do it?  As I step back, I feel the same sense of pride that she must have when stepping back to see her row of flowers in her newly fitted kitchen in the lean to. A sink, a tap inside, cupboards and a border of flowers.  I can see it now.  The cups and plates and pans, with a view of the sea.  This moment of really seeing takes my breath away.  I stay for only a few minutes.  Long enough to touch the woman that lived here long ago through her creativity and eye for detail and the end of my right forefinger.   

Since September 2015, when I first visited Shetland for Wool Week, I’ve revisited the Islands many times.  Over the years, I’ve stayed for weeks and months at a time, including stays with Barbara in her beautiful house built by a Sea Captain overlooking the sea in Lerwick, an R&D trip to Unst, a 4-week artist residency in Scalloway, 7 weeks with Mati Ventrillon on Fair Isle and 2 weeks in Brindister with endless stays in between.  Returning to Shetland has always been about knitting.  During these visits I began to build a strong love for finding the derelict, abandoned croft houses that are visible across Shetland, to see the interiors to in some way connect with the women who once lived in them.  I’ve looked at censuses to find out who lived in certain homes and looked at their professions, I’ve looked at photographs of women in books ploughing the Fair Isle land who are looking straight into the camera lens, then I have gone to the walled old grave yard by the sea at the South End of Fair Isle and sought out those women by their names on the stones. I’ve worn old original Fair Isle cardigans, sat in the Lerwick library for hours and hours pouring over the Shetland knitting books and crossed the seas to touch and feel knitwear created by absolute artists of their time.  All of the knitted pieces that are still in Shetland today, tell a story – a story of the woman who made those knitted pieces – the work bears a story that is woven into every stitch. 

On my walks across Shetland, I found and looked at many derelict croft houses which were the homes of knitters, crofters, mothers, fishers, daughters and ‘spinsters’.  The more I looked at, and went inside the homes, I felt more of a connection to the women who had lived there through visible signs of the past. My most favourite croft houses, which I visit each time I return, bear the marks of flowers, and leaves painted onto the walls. Each design is carefully and beautifully made by the families who used to live in those homes. I can imagine a woman carefully stencilling or stamping the flowers in a border around the wall of the lean-to kitchen. Some wall painted decorations particularly move me because they are so deeply powerful in their simplicity.  I gently touch the patterns to feel through history to a time when a woman painted them long ago in a past that I long to know about. 

As I walk away, always, the lasting memory is of the painted walls and it is these that I am honouring within this pattern. This hat pattern is inspired by the disintegrating flowers and leaves that I have found painted on croft house walls and the hat is made as a testament to the gendered craft of knitting, home, and to the beautiful women of Shetland, who knitted all of their lives and made homes a welcoming place.

here, you may find the Shetland Wall Flowers pattern.

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/shetland-wall-flowers

Fair Isle grass knitting

Fair Isle grass – a knitting resource to hand.

The light in the croft house dims sooner than at Mati’s house.  The croft’s windows dictate the change in the amount of light within.  Two – feet deep walls hold the place up. The deep walls narrow into the windows – each of which look out to every corner of the globe on this island which is only three miles long.  I look out south-facing to the light house and gauge the weather by the grass waving or whipping in the wind and by the waves crashing or ebbing on the sea.

home for a while – Fair Isle

The intention is to leave no rubbish after my 9 day stay here.  Everything has been bought at the one and only shop at great expense.  Everything has come a long way and been handled by much transport – even from Lerwick, either by the local plane or boat from Grutness. I hand picked all the vegetables and packed them in brown bags.  All of the peelings will be saved for the pigs at Mati’s, which are owned by four people and brushed by Saskia.  I’m learning about animal behaviour from those pigs.  They have grown from shy piglets arriving in a cage to grunting and squealing with anticipation at their one and only priority – food.  One even bites the other.

Even after 3 weeks, Fair Isle is now so deep in my soul that I already miss it and yet I am still here – how can that be?  I miss the island when I am deep in the moment of it.  It’s like I don’t want to lose it or I can’t lose it for to do so, would be to give up on a life less ordinary.

I’m here with Mati as a knitting intern, (maybe the oldest intern in the West at age 56) I’m learning a lot, not only about knitting but island life, the sea, the wind, the land, grass, animal behaviour, the sun rise and whether the plane will come. Where can ‘A Body’ see an unbroken horizon at every window without hesitation.  At every lift of the head, a huge deep basin of silver sea greets you.  Seeing the sea, hearing it, tasting it makes it seep into your soul.  The nights are so pitch dark that my heart quickens at the deepness of the darkness, when I open the door. Nothing can be seen when ther is no moon, except the light house light but even so, it adds to the eeriness of being able to cut darkness with a knife.

There is a book full of old images of Fair Isle islanders here.  I look at the women’s expressions and how they stand unquestionably, stoically face on.  They are all working hard with oxen, ploughs, knitting, or peats.  Maggie Stout of Shirva is the woman that interests me the most. I cannot stop looking at her looking at me.  I can almost feel the middle parting of her black hair with my finger – it is so pronounced.  This place I am living has a long history. You can find it easily. It is written across the stones in the grave yard. On a wet Sunday afternoon, I look for Maggie on the stones.  It’s beautiful.  The names are listed on the stones, where they lived and who they married. Women appear to bear their maiden names even though they are married.  History is tangible here, as across all of Shetland.  How many women moved a curtain aside to look out to sea and wonder about their men out there, wondering about their safety and return. The weather changes at a pinch. The stones bear many stories of death at sea.

In this place are larger than life ship wrecked items of great beauty –  two identical figurines and two mismatched simple chairs which add character and richness to this small croft house that I am staying for 9 nights. 

On the second day, Marie and I cut tussock grass, which is growing just below the chapel, with house scissors.  We bag it.   I want to knit it and make a lace curtain from its yarn. I’ve long since loved Shetland grass which grows at great length untouched, untrodden on and forms in dune-like shapes carved by the wind. We cut it without knowing its possibilities or strength.  I spend 3 days and evenings plaiting the grass into a long length and a ball of grass yarn. The grass is strewn across 3 floors and stuck to everything.  When knitting and unknitting, because I am dissatisfied with the results, the grass yarn bears the memory of the stitch.

I am using the resources of the island to create something to connect both with the island and with the age old practice of knitting in order to make site specific / site responsive work back in the Shetland landscape.  It will be about the women knitters and a skilled craft  that when placed within the landscape, will create a personally constructed context or narrative. My work is created around the theme of gendered women’s creative knitted work that is often undervalued and underpaid. I work within a place to learn the skills embedded within that area and I position my work back into the landscape to connect place, time, history, women’s craft and that pure moment in the present. If it works, for me, there is a distillation of experiences.

As I am working with the materials to hand – grass – and the thought of the women who lived in the croft houses here and how they knitted to subsidise the crofting income and how they dressed and looked in haps –  I will choose to knit a hap lace edge and find the right window to place the lace knitted grass. It will be a window that women will have looked out of many times, over many generations whilst working on a croft in Shetland.

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections and belonging. 

The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015.  The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone.  The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children.  It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.

march 2017

Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of the build. 

For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace design.  This wallpaper has been a couple of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design.   Material process and practice led research has always been the core of the development of my art practice.  I have long questioned – is it craft or art and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic craft of knitting and narratives of those women.  

The world is speedily changing and what can we say through art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and feel.

Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house.  As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit.   I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was.   It felt like meeting an old friend.  Returning to make work here is not a safe option.  It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’.   I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person.  I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.

On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper, paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own personal journey to this point.  

I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process.   A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see.  My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.

After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.

leave no trace

Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal.  What is this work – is it Art? Textile art? Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories?  I’m trying to understand it in a way in which textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific art in order to tell a story.

from Shetland to Sheffield Institute of Arts

Dear Gentle Reader,

In your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of cut paper or printed ink.   

This place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.

I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return.  The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.

Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.

The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m glad to have met you.

Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.

Unst – R&D trip – part one

 

18 May, Saxa Vord, Unst, Shetland.  Day one. 

 

 

 

At 4:20am, I’m woken by an American guy banging cupboard doors in the communal kitchen which is opposite to my room, at the hostel. No chance of returning to sleep.  A great ball of bright sun sitting on the window sill which is faces East, illuminates the room as if it’s mid-day.   The Simmer Dim is almost fully upon Shetland. The time of year when there is hardly any darkness – only daylight and half-light.

My mind goes over previous conversations / words / unspoken words –  Will this R&D trip work? Work for me? The funders? As a project development? For my Creative practice development?  I’m putting pressure on myself to deliver when R&D should be calm.

What does it mean to make this trip work?   Is it for me or for the funders that I am thinking of?  I’m aware that it is both.

It’s a learning curve and I’m on the edge of my comfort zone – a place I frequently put myself because I feel really connected to life and living.  I once heard – ‘ Life begins at the End of our Comfort Zone’ and I agree with that notion. Keep learning, keep trying, keep taking risks because it brings challenges and surprises –  if you do nothing, nothing happens.

So, I get up at 5am which equates to 4 ½ hours sleep but Norwick Beach is calling, I can hear the sea almost a mile away.

 

 

Vod

Vod (Vod, an adjective meaning an unoccupied, empty place) derelict Croft houses lie littered across the landscape as misshapen pebbles and boulders across a beach. The old, falling-down places have interested me since my first visit to Shetland over two years ago – they have become the focal point of my research in Shetland lace knitting, women’s craft, authenticity, heritage and of my site-specific work whereby I place my own designed textiles and paper laser cuts into the old croft houses.  (The original site of inspiration)

 

The houses interest me because I can feel the life that has once been lived there.  It’s written across the walls, or by something left behind, or a paint colour still present on a door. On more than one occasion, I’ve stood in an old doorway, without a door or looked out of a window without glass and looked towards the sea, knowing that countless generations of women that have lived in these places all over the North islands will have done the same thing – they would have looked seaward but they could have been waiting for their men to come back from deep sea fishing – sometimes waiting until all hope of their return disappeared.

 

 

I have been in many derelict croft houses in many different weather situations over the past two years toing and froing.  So much so,  that I am able to sense the being of a place that once was a home – now abandoned and falling down but, the more I learn, the less I seem to know, though, my intuition is good.

DSCN4339

 

Oral Histories:

I thought we would meet instantly, on the first day – myself with the kind, honest woman who is going to tell me stories of her female ancestors who lived on the Island of Unst – most famous for its long and renowned lace knitting and fine yarn spinning history.

But, we will meet tomorrow.

Time moves at a different pace here on Unst.  Today is for learning the local area and for visiting the Heritage Centre to build relationships in the hope that I might be able to record oral histories of the knitters still living here.

 

I have never before been able to reach this most northerly tiny island just 12 miles long.  But, I do know about the authenticity of lace knitting here and the croft houses that were lived in by knitters who subsidised the family income and I do know about the truck and barter system, of old knitted spenser vests and their patterns, of kishies used for carrying peats for the fire and many more details.  I know enough of the life here to feel comfortable in any situation with any person from building up an understanding from previous visits in Winter, spring, late Autumn but never in May and by being respectful of this place and its heritage, I hope to build stronger relationships.

I have been funded by a Making Ways, R&D Grant to travel to this most northerly Island of the British Isles – Unst Shetland, to continue to experiment placing new work in to derelict croft houses in different light conditions to create photographic site-specific work which is different to the work that I had created on previous visits, and to interview the women who keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst.

This trip is about not being afraid and really embracing who I am, what my work is about and what I can achieve to develop my practice further.

 

On the way to Norwick beach, I go over and over what I want to do and the conversations that I have already had, whilst trying to learn how to use a fairly sophisticated borrowed Dictaphone from the university.

This time is a precious gift and I’ll not waste it.

My thoughts turn to the vod croft houses which are in different stages of dereliction.  Some scare me – if they have their roofs on, they’re dark, dank places that are rotting, if they have had no roof for many many years, the shells of the places are very beautiful and some have treasures – like a fire place, or wood in the windows or even a stove. Initially, I just liked everyone of them but now, I’m more discerning. I fall in love with a few instantly and that love grows on return trips. Then, I start finding out who lived in the tiny house – either by researching censuses or contacting heritage trusts and if I am lucky, someone will get back to me to say that they had been born in that tiny croft house, as with the one in Bressay.

 

A prize vod croft house for me will face the sea, without a roof, with a porch, or stone wall surrounding the place but best are with traces of a past – either paint or door or even a nail in a wall.  These are the things that draw me in.  Then I sit with the place, take in the view, feel the fabric of the building – look at the stones used to build the place and wonder how they were carried to a place high on a hill without a track or a road to the door.

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Thank you to Making Ways, Sheffield for supporting this Research and Development Trip.

 

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The 8:55am link bus leaves Scalloway in the half light.  It waits at the first stop in case there are any passengers from the Lerwick link.  There is only one body on that bus and he doesn’t leave it. 

The link bus travels through Trondra towards Hamnavoe. I have an aim but first, I must see if there is snow on Meal Beach.  The 300metre path to the beach leaves high from the road and descends gradually. It is peppered in polystyrene type, small, snow balls. Hard, small hail stones over a thin salt like snow. Meal Beach lies below – a perfect crescent of sand and, as if in a wish, it is covered in snow.  How often do you get to walk on sand covered in snow with the roaring sea backing off in waves of perfect blue? Until arriving in Hamnavoe, the sun has not been seen for over a week.

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I only have an hour and a quarter before the bus will arrive from its round trip journey down to Houss, so I take in the sea view then leave, returning up the small path to the corner of the road, high on the hill, by the old tiny church, over looking the beach to a small croft house that lost its roof in the winter of 1993.  There’s very little left but it’s a fine place.  When I  encounter this building, all structure falls away and I actually meet the being of the place. If all components are right, a deep feeling of connection greets me immediately – something way beyond intellect or reason or history or architecture. What comes to greet me is purely intuitive. I look and really see the place, every detail and if I am lucky, for a few seconds or even minutes, time stands still and I am able to capture something by fluke or will. 

I place something in the croft, always in a window – either a lace knitted curtain or an engraving on aged paper or a laser cut of my lace patterns.  I’ve tried to figure out why I need to do this. It’s an urge that needs to been seen through by travelling 8 hours on two trains to get from Yorkshire to catch a 14 hour ferry from Aberdeen that can make me sick then a journey from Lerwick to a tiny Booth built into the sea in Scalloway.  And all the recent constant bad weather and a storm and power cut then an evacuation back to Lerwick for a night,  to return to Scalloway to catch a tiny link bus, miles and hours from the place I come from  in Yorkshire to a place that until today, I didn’t know existed.  There’s something special seen through a croft’s broken window that has probably not been looked out of for over 20 years. The grass surrounding the place has grown in to over knee high tufts, wind-swept into Icelandic-like grass mounds where my feet leave traces – What is it this urge to find a far off place and leave art?

 

I place the work, stand still, wait and if I am really lucky, all of my learning and thinking and knitting and talking and creative spirit comes together in that one moment and I am able to capture something of a world, partly created by me but joining with location, time, season, light, home, architecture, time lost, history and this present moment.   It’s freezing, it’s sleeting, my hand is red raw from being gloveless but that moment arrives.   It’s rich in colour – a celebration of something past and something living.  Each place has its own colour palette. 

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In that instant, how I relate to this place is a real poetic encounter. And sometimes, it goes further than that, getting a sense of the wholeness of time comes into focus. And I become totally aware.  So much energy and effort in making the knitted lace-work that all of those energies become concentrated in the croft at that moment and symbolise all the different aspects of women knitting, crofting, working, home – call it nostalgia or rose tinted glasses or history itself but this is the core of this arm of my creative work.

I’m knitting stories. At this moment of the coming together of all the components, the lace that I have made that was initially inspired by Shetland lace patterns has merely becomes the bi product of an art practice. An emotional, poetic, living encounter. A long travelled road to arrive here. 

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Leaving, Arriving, Returning

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Arriving can be overwhelming.

Even if it is not my homeland.

On the deck of the ferry, the ever present wind carries something extra; a raw, beautiful, self-awakening brought on by the boat arriving into Lerwick. It hits you at the point of seeing the Southern tip of Shetland.

Hold tightly onto the white painted, thin railing or the sight is too overwhelming.

And then, after a short time, there is the light house to your right, sitting proudly on the tip of Bressay and all is well enough.  At this point, without even coming in to dock, I’m already aware of the power of these small Islands.

Every day, I try to live in the moment, but, at this time of arriving, I usually feel a hint of sadness because I know I’ll leave.

Time moves forwards.

It’s an overpowering mixed blessing.   Before that, there is the long train journey skirting the East coast of England to Aberdeen. Then the overnight ferry – all in all – 24 hours From Sheffield To Lerwick.

You never know who you will meet on the ferry, in the shared bunk cabin room, on the deck watching Aberdeen being left behind or watching Shetland come into view, or at breakfast time or at checking in. There’s a life on the ferries that is quite extraordinarily simple.  People leaving, arriving, returning and I will once again do the same in a few weeks.

I know the journey so well, it’s almost as if I can hear it, feel it.  I know where the sun rises and sets on a flat-lined horizon behind a slow-moving boat.

Sometimes, someone meets me. More recently, someone sees me off for the return journey. Happy Sad Happy.

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Shetland can be a place of extremes although I have only scratched the surface.  The more I go, the less I know.  The more I see, the more I want to see. The more I wait, the more comes to me.

Shetland has embedded itself deep within me and added another story to my life.

Shetland offers surprising things to learn about, if you’re new to it all.

I ask many questions whilst looking out of the windows as the little pink car drives us from one place to another.  The Plantiecrubs draw me every time, second only to derelict croft houses and the beautiful spoken words of the Islanders.

 

Shetland offers an endless line of uniqueness –  the knitted lace and the knitted yokes and the music and the sea and beaches and seals and otters and sea urchins and fire and vikings and the seagulls that stamp at the edge of the tide and all the things that open your heart and mind to a realness that is rare these days.

PLACE 

I find places that become my favourite places to return to. Places to think and feel and work with. Places – To knit about.  Places to register the movement of time.

Sometimes, I feel at home in these places, sometimes a little scared because of the sheer isolation of it all. Sometimes, I purposely isolate myself. But always, I feel something special.  I notice most every detail.

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I begin to wonder, who lived here, who made these homes and crofts. And who painted these walls that have been left to dissolve into thin air after the months of harsh Winter weather.  There are lives written across the walls and in the dust.

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Sometimes I return to I honour a place by placing something in it. I mentally note the changes since the last time.

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In December, I don’t quite know what I will do in Shetland but my time will be taken up by walking, writing, knitting, thinking, being, taking photographs, feeling – really feeling, and reflecting,

I’ll start from a point of knowing something of a place but it really not being anything much.

I’ll ask questions, hitch a lift, go to the library, listen to folks.  Not much to write home about really. But I know I’m looking forward to living in a place that sits in the sea – A place where I will feel a strength and vulnerability and find things I never knew existed.

A Shetland Self shaped by place and others.

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