For the Songlines project (part of a cultural initiative called Bealach) I was commissioned to make permanent works for an arts trail on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides in the Western Isles of Scotland. The brief called for artworks that drew from the cultural life of the island and its geographic context, and took transformation and passage as themes. I responded to the landscape and sea colours of this beautiful place with artworks made from waste plastic found on beaches there, a challenging but evocative material.
Artworks on the trail are located between Stornoway and the west side of the island at Uig, where a new museum Ionad Hiort (St Kilda Centre) is planned. The artworks have been jointly commissioned by An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, Glasgow School of Art, and Ionad Hiort Development Group. The location of my work is a semi-derelict ‘watcher’s hut’ next to a river in Uig, and the work was installed in September 2017.
The watcher’s hut is in a stunning location with waterfalls just off the road between the Uig shop and Ardroil beach, where the Lewis chessmen were found. The shelter is not weatherproof, but a window frame was made and installed to house the bottle works.
I’ve visited Uig regularly over the last 7 years, getting to know the landscape, history and nature of the area. The story of St Kilda is fascinating – a small isolated island about 40 miles west of the Western Isles with it’s own culture, inhabited by up to 200 people from the Bronze Age until evacuation in 1930 when numbers had dwindled to 36.
I had St Kilda in mind with the bottle pieces in my installation. The bottles were salvaged from an old midden in Uig, where glass waste was disposed of under boulders. I filled the cleaned bottles with pieces of sea plastic, cut, scraped, ground, and sliced from flotsam washed up in the area and in Western Harris.
Most of the waste was collected myself, but I also worked with the Valtos beach clean-up team and took tips from numerous people on where the rubbish typically lurks in remote locations along the coast of Uig.
The colours and textures I used mimic signature combinations from specific beaches, cliffs, hills and natural forms of the local area. They act as memory jars or essence vessels, carrying away a souvenir of places left behind. But tension can be felt in the surprising beauty of these materials, processed from pollution discarded into the sea.
I also made fused plastic panels using the same approach to colours, but melting together the plastic in artworks resembling painting. These have been installed on a wall inside the hut, floating away from the wall and attached with copper roof nails.
Back in Kent I was invited by arts organisation Ideas Test in Sittingbourne to exhibit a window display at their venue No 34, documenting the installation in Uig. In October 2017 I shared the test pieces created while working on the project, photographs of the textures and colours I worked from, and installation shots.
I ran a workshop at Ideas Test where adults and children made their own essence vessels. I was struck by how attractive the public found the bottle works, and how soothing it was to handle them and the fused panels.
After the Ideas Test display I installed the work in a window at INTRA in Rochester. I’ll be continuing to make the sea plastic works for inclusion in a Songlines exhibition at An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway on Lewis.