Calgary Art in Nature

Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull – a breathtaking beauty spot that draws visitors from all over the world. In 1999 resident artist Matthew Reade undertook the regeneration of a stretch of woodland that reaches from his home down to the bay. He began by planting trees, and then went on to commission a number of artworks to ‘be discovered’ within the woods. The artworks are discreet – almost hidden – and the aim is that, in looking for them, you observe the woods more closely.

There are twenty works altogether, almost all by local artists, and the project has been entirely funded on a local level, by donations from artists and the public, proceeds from art courses and collaboration with Tobermory’s art centre, An Tobar. It is rare in these times to find an art project that has been conceived entirely for its own sake, and there is something very special about discovering these works by oneself, as part of this untamed, intimate wood. Unlike other sculpture parks, which often feel ‘tended’, the woodland is wild and has been left to its own devices. The artworks age organically within it, and both art and nature are viewed afresh, each enriched by the presence of the other.

The Spring Exhibition is the latest development in the Calgary Art in Nature project, and features three artists, all working with natural forms, but using completely different media and techniques.

ANDREW MORTLEY is best known for his paintings, though he also works as a sculptor. He has long had a passion for birds and wildlife, and these paintings – mainly of sea birds – are clearly the work of someone who has spent a great deal of time observing nature. He never allows the detail to dominate, however, and the paintings are informal and expressive in style. He works in oil on a variety of surfaces including linen, paper, canvas and stainless steel. The technique of painting on steel evolved from making steel sculptures, which then led to experimenting with it as a paint surface. The presentation of the works is unusual, as they are unframed, and stand out several inches from the wall. The lack of any kind of frame or border contributes to their sense of informality, and the shadow created around them gives a three-dimensional, almost sculptural effect.

MATTHEW READE’s works are large-scale carvings in wood featuring seaside forms such as shells, seaweed, sand and stones. The titles of the works – String of Pebbles, Mussel Rock, Sand Castle – are evocative, and indeed these works conjure up the minute, almost obsessive observation of childhood. The wood is all sourced from around his home at Calgary, mainly taken from a single wind blown ash he cut up a year ago. Creating panels around two inches in depth, he carves into them using chisels, chainsaws and any other tool that comes to hand, then scorches the panels to bring out the natural grain. In some pieces he uses white paint, partly rubbed off with steel wool to give the effect of liming. Nothing is added – all forms are carved, and any natural imperfections in the wood are maintained as part of the finished piece. The forms seem to emerge from the wood, almost as if they had grown there rather than been carved out, giving a satisfying, tactile effect.

MICHAEL WARNER is a potter who has been working on the island for five years. His studio is at Glengorm, in the north of Mull, and he makes work that is chunky and organic in feel. He uses natural colours such as greyish greens, taupes and browns in these pieces, which range from small sets of bowls to large pots. He deliberately retains any irregularities of size or shape, with the titles (Square-ish Bowls, Big Wobbly Pot) showing that he doesn’t like them to be too highly finished. Sometimes he incorporates found materials, such as slate lids for some of his large storage jars. On one large brown pot, titled ‘Glengorm Rain’, he has added rough white brushstrokes that conjure up all too effectively Mull’s slanting, relentless winter rain.

Reade and Mortley plan in the longer term to extend Calgary Art in Nature to create a dedicated gallery space where they will show their own and others’ work. The exhibition and associated work at Calgary is another demonstration of the wealth of artistic talent that currently exists on the Isle of Mull – something picked up on by Channel Four television, when they recently selected Mull as one of the six chosen sites for their ‘Big Art Project’. Whether that will add to the reputation of Mull for its creativity remains to be seen – either way, its artistic credentials are firmly established.