It was a great pleasure to be visited in my Birsay studio by Kirsteen Stewart last week. Kirsteen wears so many creative hats it’s hard to keep up with her! She is a designer of fashion, textiles and homewares, is well known as a skilful and enabling art educator with her own YouTube channel, and she also creates the arts programme Makers for BBC Radio Orkney. The monthly show will start broadcasting again in the autumn. During the summer break Kirsteen has been out and about interviewing some of the many creative artists, writers and craft makers around Orkney for the programme.

I confess I’ve been a bit of a hermit the last few weeks, keeping my head down finishing a new body of work for the RSA William Littlejohn Award, as you will know if you’ve been following my Instagram account.

So it was great to have an unhurried, thoughtful conversation with Kirsteen about the work that has been occupying so much of my time recently.

She’s a great interviewer, interested in everything.

 

We talked about how living next to a loch and stream, watching water’s movements every day, has soaked into all my creative work over the last six years and become a continuing fascination.

We talked about the materials and processes I’ve been using – silver leaf, chrome ink and mica and how these create an iridescent, shimmering surface that’s always changing with the light, moving when you move, like water.

 

We talked about how I’ve been using a deliberately slow and repetitive drawing process to capture it, one that becomes almost like a meditation, and about how the complex patterns it generates are unexpectedly calming for the viewer.

 

‘Water Rhythms’ 2022, aluminium leaf and acrylic on cradled board, 41 cm x 51 cm 
We ran out of time before we ran out of talk.

So I’m not sure we talked that much about one particular motif that has begun to appear in a lot of my recent work – the sea horizon.

So I’ll talk about it now.

‘From Marwick Head’ 2022, Aluminium leaf and acrylic on aluminium panel, 90cm x 110 cm
I resisted the horizon in my work for a long time. Including it felt too representative, too obvious, too ‘seascapey’. But I kept thinking about it. I kept noticing how something shifted in me whenever I looked out to the western horizon. I saw how the North Atlantic meets the sky so differently every day.

I kept wondering what it is that draws our eye to it? What it is we feel when we look out to the sea horizon? Why is it that in these anxious times, when calamities seem to bear down on us one after the other with no end in sight, that simply looking out to sea can feel so rebalancing?

I started to find some clues, here and there. This one appeared in the form of a poem, in the TLS I think, that I kept and folded, tucked in my pocket then lost and found, unfolded and read again, still perfect, now safely kept in my notebook.

I found a second clue in another poem, one that I’d guess is well known to most Orcadians. Robert Rendall is not well-known beyond these shores but his poems are much loved here. I have this one more or less by heart now, as it considers the horizon from the very shore I walk most frequently, just a mile from my home.

ANGLE OF VISION

 

But John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea –
Giotto’s tower and the dome of St. Peter’s?

 

No, but I’ve seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

 

Robert Rendall (1898-1967), Orkney poet
From Shore Poems (1957). Also in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse.

‘Edgelessness’ 2022, acrylic, mica and chrome ink on aluminium panel, 90cm x 110cm
Both of these poems get close to the sensation of looking into the distance to that place on the horizon where the seeable falls away from us. For a moment, our chattering mind is confounded and silenced. Insinctively, we pause, take a few deep breaths and just gaze. It feels…good. Calming. As if something is coming back into balance. As if we are reconnecting with something still and expansive in ourselves, that gets drowned out by our internal chatter and anxiety.

These phrases echo back to me:

‘the body opens into an idea…a boundary that has no boundary’… ‘this empty feeling’…’a cosmic tide…’

 

I think that when we look out to the sea horizon, or even just pause from our work and look out the window at the sky, it’s a momentary reconnection with what Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh called ‘our true mind’

‘When we release our ideas, thoughts and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions and is so much vaster than our mental constructs.’

 

That’s why looking out to the sea horizon feels rebalancing. It’s reminding us that we are so much more than the thoughts and worries that generally clutter our mind. It’s that simple and that profound.

And that’s why the horizon is going to be making further appearances in my drawings.

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