He brought her smooth pebbles and winding shells, such things that girls love

Pygmalion, Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I always found this line charmingly stupid.

But I can’t deny it, I do have a particular affinity for both those objects. Our seaside holiday cottages would end up with piles of shells, stones, smoothed glass and the occasional crab shell (and once a dried starfish-what a find!) pilled up by the front step. Disappointment as the trinkets lost their gleam in the suns heat. Here on the Black Isle I’ve added heaps of sun bleached animal bones to that pile, and the organic shapes and patterns of the ore flecked stones, the pearly shell interiors and curve of the sheep’s spinal bone have been the inspiration for some smaller ceramic pieces. My mood lifted the moment I plunged my hands into the wet clay. After a week of playing with paint, waiting for my sculptural materials to arrive (no I wasn’t dragging 20kilos of clay up on the train) I’m delighted to work the soft pliable material in my hands.

My highland studio is getting cluttered, messy and it’s the way I like it. Paintings are drying on every inch of floor, slightly dryer paintings propped up around the perimeter, I need to dodge the frangible clay work balanced on stools as I duck beneath them to sit on the flag stone floor, chopping out more stencils and cut outs for collage. I’m busy. And it feels good.

What’s been a happy surprise it how strongly influenced my work is by what I experienced and encountered in Firenze. Although I arrived here, ideas of the she-wolf firmly nestled in my mind, a thought perhaps seeded in my Florentine address at Bonfazio Lupi street, which I generously translated as ‘bonny faced wolves’, politely ignoring the reference to the 14th century Italian politician of the same name. The She-Wolf brain child grew as I fed it flickering TV images of scantily clad female chat show hosts, shrines to the blessed Virgin Mary, readings of Dante’s Inferno and statues of the Capitoline Wolf. I talked about this more in previous blogs (is there a way to link directly back or do we just scroll down?)

…… Although I arrived here with the idea of the she-wolf in mind, I’ve been surprised to see many other elements from my Florentine days inspiring and stimulating my current practice. Here in the Black Isle the gardens of the Pitti Palace (that disused fountain, off the well trodden path), the Specola and the graffiti that embellished the side streets and the universities is seeping into my studio work. The vivid colours of the crystal exhibition, the vines reclaiming the ruins and that colossal bone collection permeates the new work.


‘They can’t freeze it ya know’

‘mm what?’

‘The polar bear, they won’t be able ter freeze it’

It’s 7.30pm and 17 seconds of silence had passed. I’d been watching a shrew, bemused by its fat little body tumbling amongst the tall grass, before bumbling back into the foxgloves when her broad southern accent spun me back out of my mesmerised state; ‘ ‘is fur’s too thick’.

I was stranded on the grassy verge of a B road just off the A9 with a middle-aged woman who clearly felt very uncomfortable about silence between strangers. We’d gotten off to a bad start, when explaining that I was out filming the wolves I received the blunt response ‘Don’t like ‘em’, why? ‘just don’t’. Not that I was going to complain about this new topic of animal autopsy.

The bus was now three hours late, the sun was well into its decent and the day was cooling off. I was stuck. Do I begin the 4 mile walk to the nearest settlement or do I wait for the bus? Sods law it would arrive as soon as it was out of eyeshot of the bus stop, and what would I do in the nearest village? Call for help? Who do I know out here? Knock on doors and hope to find some kind soul who’d drive me all the way back? Being two hours from home I concluded I should just wait this out, the helpdesk at Citylink assures me the bus is coming, it’s just late and they don’t know how late. Thanks.

Getting stuck and lost is becoming a reoccurring theme this week. Although I must admit to relishing in it. Wayward wanderings across the cliff tops and farmland have resulted in finds that I romantically like to believe no one else has discovered. Leaps and bounds over the deep clefts carved in coastal rock face lead me, precariously, (would it be as easy on the way back down?) upwards. High up in the rocky outcrop I found a nest, a perfect green grass space, fenced by rocks. It’s as if a rock pool had ascended 20ft in the air, bedded with thick grasses, sea milkwort and sand spurrey, I walked through the welcoming mouth of the nest, a 50cm gap in the rock fence, and plonked myself down. Just enough space to sit with my backpack to the right and my sketchbook and flask to the left. Reclining against the smoothed rock , I peered over the walls at the swirling water below. I spot the Ecoventure dolphin watching boat far across the bay and I knew it must be just past one. Lunch time. Later that day I managed to get completely disoriented crossing sheep field after sheep field and was quite relieved to find a footpath leading me down the densely gorse covered hillside. As I take a second look at the marks pressed into the wet dirt I realise I’m not following a human made footpath, but one by that of cows. Drat. There goes my plan of ‘if a cow charges jump into the bushes, it won’t go in there’ (what is the proper procedure for a cow charge?) Apparently cows are impervious, or not bothered, (unlike my legs) to the gorses myriad of spines and spikes.

Back on the roadside I was continuing to wait. Usually a delay like this would be quite aggravating but the evening light was charming, dappling the hillside and I’d done a good days work. I’d met the wolf.

That morning I’d approached the highland wolf enclosure, moving through the dense fur tree wood until I reach the perimeter fence. From a viewing post I survey the habitat; and then I see something moving amongst the trees. The wolf lops closer. I recognise the wolf as Elara, the female alpha, her mouth falls open in a wolf grin, long tongue spilling out her mouth. Stopping her prowl around the enclosure 2 meters directly in front of me, we lock eyes. Holding the glaze. There’s too much in that wolfs stare. It catches me off guard and distracts me from my purpose. She turns away and the spell is broken. I pull out my camera and sketchbook and spend the next few hours sketching and filming. I’m pretty excited about what I’ve captured so far, what I think I’ve captured, I’ll have to wait until it’s developed and digitised to see the true resulting imagery.

The bus? It did arrive eventually. I crawl into bed at 1am.


June 2011

Black Isle Residency

Funded by RSA Residencies for Scotland Bursary in association with Creative Scotland and the Cromarty Arts Trust

As the bus made its way up the winding highland roads my face split into a grin. I lean out the window craning to admire the waves crashing against the rocks running parallel to the tarmac; the smell of salt air fills my head.

Final stop on the bus route, I alight before the bus turns around and makes its way back along the coast towards Inverness. Pausing for a moment, I take in my new surroundings. It’s a beautiful day and I take off my jumper, then turning my back on the harbour I make my way up the hill with my suitcase to my new June lodgings.

I barely fit through the door, squeezing in I pick up my keys then roughly drag my suitcase to my bedroom on the top floor. The low ceiling beams on the ground floor have been padded out with blue velvet, pinned to the wooden beams with gold studs, but the same has not be applied to the subsequent floors and by the end of the first evening I’ve surprised myself with sharp bangs to the head 2, or was it 3? times.

The first few days are caught in a heat wave. I spent the evenings between studio basking on the beach by the rock pools, lazing in a somnolent haze, half dreaming listening to the waves caress the shoreline and occasionally opening my eyes to watch the swallows dart fervently across the sky.

Yesterday brought a storm; the water seems to have harnessed more power here by the coast as if the rain, encouraged by the waves, beats harder and faster against my legs. Walking home along the beach I feel engulfed by water. A small clip from The Craft plays in my head. (My mind spins back to Susan Hiller’s 1999 Psi Girls installation I saw at Tate Britain while I was down in London exhibiting last month, then my thoughts move to her Dream Mapping 1974. Today I’m listening to the Susan Hiller Tate Talk podcast).

I smirk at the occult-ish nature of my walk; my long skirts whip against my legs, my loose hair is blowing wildly in the wind and I’m carrying a cow’s skull. I’m glad no one is around to confront me as I’m not ready to explain myself yet.

Retreating to the shelter of my attic bedroom to listen to the rain bombard the windowpanes, the noise drowns out the radio.

This morning I awoke to a pale amber sky winking at me from between the tall rocky headlands, the south Sutor shrouded in cloud.

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The Exhibition – wonderful, went like a flash! I met with Elizabeth Shields, granddaughter of John Kinross and daughter of John Kinross who set up the RSA Scholarship in honour of his late father. She was delightful and gave me some very heartwarming feedback, it seems our collective enthusiasm for art became infectious.

Guest queuing to get in, filling the corridors of the basement space as I squeezed past attempting to introduce the artists to those who were taking a keen interest in their work -topping up drinks, stealing a quick moment to chat to old friends – the opening was over far to fast.

My work: bearing the space in mind, I needed to bring pop-up pieces of work, works that could expand inside the basements rabbit warren-esk space.

Miss Cadiere’s Flying Machine – build from lolly pop sticks, a bit of tissue and an old sweeping broom. I also showed my 2010 film ‘My dear, my very dear mistress, I like to rock your child because I myself am a child

And a large composite of photographs, mono prints, paintings and found objects that I titled ‘The Serf Invokes the Spirit of Hidden Treasures

I also took the opportunity to invest in my fellow artists are walked away owning Studs by Ashley Nieuwenhuizen, Three Winters Worth by David Cass and an untitled painting by Sophie Ormerod.

Back from London: Preparing the clay I dug from the local parish last summer, the leaves and grasses caught in it have began to decompose and further discolour the natural material.

The thick black clay is now too sticky to work, instantly coating my hands, so I’ve laid it out in the sun to dry out a bit, reminiscent of making mud pies. I’ll come back to it tomorrow.

(written 05.05.11)