The ties that bind, the roots that ground us …

Each of the deaths faced since the start of this year have thrown up feelings associated with those that have gone before – it’s inevitable. I had already been thinking about my late father more than usual before I left for Scotland, having re-found pyjamas which had once belonged to him – and then, shortly afterwards, rediscovering a box in the garage, crammed full of all sorts of things connected with him and his beloved Scotland.

Family, roots, identity, connections, loss and remembrance are matters that have pretty much preoccupied my thoughts since returning from a recent visit there. As ever, it was a joy to immerse myself in the beautiful Ayrshire countryside where my Dad was born and to speak with my relatives about updating and distributing copies of the Shields/Murdoch family tree that we had given Dad for his 70th birthday, the year before he died.

I also finally got to take the HAME letters to his ‘proper, real’ home in Ayrshire, something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first took them to the border at Carter Bar and subsequently, to Edinburgh and its surrounding countryside. Even though he lived in England, away from his place of birth for many years, Scotland was always home/hame to my Dad – and Muirkirk, specifically. I really enjoyed revisiting childhood haunts with my own children and sharing the placing of the letters in an area close to my Dad’s, his family’s and my own heart. I was struck as I always am on my visits to the area, by the lushness of the vegetation, the abundance of wild flowers and the unique colours of the landscape.

On the basis that everything’s connected, it felt uncanny to spot a small cluster of thistles on my way back to the studio on Tuesday; I felt compelled to pick a small sprig from the tall stems and return to the studio with it. I had just spent the morning collating the various images I’d cut from old gardening books. The black and white image of a man’s hands holding roots had jumped out at me; the purple flowers likewise, really stood out in the middle of massive construction work, currently going on around Lewisham station. Their surroundings here were in stark contrast to the environment I’d last seen thistles in, in the wild countryside of Ayrshire.

A simple tribute, I’ve given it the title Och, Daddy. My mind has been flooded with memories of the many hours I spent with my Dad as a child, helping him in his allotment, digging and preparing the ground for planting – and eventually, pulling up roots like those in the black and white image; those hands could be my Dad’s.

More work is likely to develop from this initial image, I’m sure – certainly, I feel I’d like to dig deeper (ironically) in terms of thinking more about the importance of family roots and connections; our identity and what we inherit; our place and our history. This leads me nicely to another experience I had while in Scotland – a visit to the Ties that Bind exhibition as part of Document Scotland. It’s true, everything really is connected …

… seeing the Document Scotland/Ties That Bind exhibition in Edinburgh during this recent trip inspired me enormously. So much of what the photographers present in the show is pertinent to what I’ve written about here and the things I’ve been thinking about. Four brilliant photographers depict the very essence of what it’s like to be Scottish – and coming a year after the Referendum, the images seem ever more poignant. On the basis that every picture tells a story and no amount of words can conjure up what the images do, here’s a link to details of the show, one which if you happen to be in Edinburgh, I thoroughly recommended you see:


Thank you to artist Emma Barnard for alerting me to this Wellcome Collection blog post on the creative power of collections. From Wellcome himself, to Henry Moore, William Morris and Joseph Cornell, it’s an interesting insight into the impact of collections on these respective individual’s creativity. Click on link below if you’d like to read more:



Death inevitably rakes up a lot from the past – all those universal feelings associated with loss and mourning, as well as forcing us to face our own mortality.

Besides the obvious issues that come up when thinking about the end of one’s life, for me, the what happens if I die question raises, in particular, issues around the amount of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Selfish, unfair, inconsiderate are all descriptions that come to mind – derogatory terms used to describe classic hoarders.


I resist the idea of considering myself a hoarder – apparent when I recently met with a fellow artist for the first time. As we talked through our respective work, I found myself correcting her use of the word ‘hoarder’ to ‘collector’ every time she said it. Being referred to as a hoarder clearly touches a nerve. There are all sorts of psychological issues associated with hoarding, after all – and none of them positive.

Feelings of guilt and shame are emotions frequently experienced by collectors, it seems. On my part, I’ve felt fine about collecting over the years – just accepted that I had a lot of ‘stuff’ for want of a better word. But bringing my collections together for the first time ever this summer meant confronting exactly how much I do own. The transparent boxes purchased especially for the purpose of storing it all are now crammed full of stuff; one hundred 30 litre boxes (and counting), there’s no longer any room for denial about the volume of it.

This recent revelation, plus ageing (my own) and rising storage costs have made me think differently; made me think about being more discerning about what I collect in the here and now, and about the things I want to keep from existing collections. It’s a common response, I’m sure, as are the questions I find myself thinking about: at what point does collecting turn into hoarding and how fair is it to leave behind such a mass of stuff in your wake – stuff which is so deeply personal, that it’s unlikely to mean very much at all to anyone else. What percentage of this stuff really is raw material for my art work? How far is the sheer volume of it a reflection of how hard it is for me to let go?

These are all questions that I will continue to address as the cycle of sorting, re-evaluating and making decisions about what to keep/let go of persists. For now at least, I can see more clearly what I do have and while it occasionally overwhelms me, I never seem to tire of the sorting process – from writing about it, to the actual physical sifting itself; what the sorting unearths in terms of past memories and how I respond to the feelings they evoke. Some items just make me laugh, while others can stir up a whole host of deep rooted emotions.

Small wonder then, that I have a tendency to flit from one piece of work to another, the butterfly approach I take to the work I make being as much about survival as it is about maintaining a keen interest in what’s going on around me – not getting too bogged down in the past, especially the sad parts – and maintaining a keen interest in the present; what’s here, right now, in front of me. A couple of weeks ago, I rediscovered a pair of my late Father’s pyjamas, carefully packed away – momentarily forgotten. They will be the subject of a future blog post here, I’m sure – once I’ve allowed myself time to properly digest and process the impact of finding them again, that is …