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In Celebration of George Mackay Brown

The story behind a collaborative Public Artwork commission for Orkney Islands Council.

In the Beginning

In 2021 Gabrielle Barnby - an Orkney based poet - was looking for a visual artist to collaborate with to create a public art installation for Orkney Islands Council. Through the good fortune and chance of mutual friend Katherine Wren, we were put in touch, and after a series of enthusiastic emails, we had decided to work together on this special and open project, with the dauntingly simple brief: Create an outdoor artwork installation to celebrate the life and work of George Mackay Brown, to celebrate his centenary anniversary.

Rackwick Bay, a frequent source of inspiration for George Mackay Brown

Our aim, shared values and finding a direction - Visiting Orkney

To kick start the project, I headed up to Orkney to get to know Gabrielle and learn about her ideas, to form a joint vision for the project. In the application we settled on a theme of ‘Travellers’ connecting to George’s collection of writing by the same namesake. There are several more thematic layers which build into this foundation, connecting out to community, journeying, welcome, refuge, and of course - the sea! We had a week together to consolidate ideas, decide on materials and process, and get thinking about the artwork’s location:

We met with Emma Gee and Ruby Merriman to explore Stromness, the town where the work was to be sited. After a day chatting about what the project could be, and where it might sit, Ruby shared the phrase ‘George’s End of Town’ - referring to the South End where the writer lived. It made sense for the work to be located in this area, and pull people out towards the South End and around the beautiful Ness Point coastal walk. A sense of location was established, but it’d be many months later until the final site was decided. We also discovered that week that a GMB art trail was being established, and would be launching in June 2022 - so we had our goal deadline, to be included in the art walk and broader discussion of George’s work.

This idea of pulling people together was an important purpose of the artwork: unanimous for both Gabrielle and myself, and across the board of commissioners. We wanted it to attract visitors to the lesser visited part of Stromness, to involve the community in the making of the work, and for the piece itself to offer a space for poetry recital, gathering, or quiet contemplation.

Sharing and creating work with community is a passion for both Gabrielle and myself. To bring George’s writing into discussion and creativity once more, Gabrielle led a series of workshops with local pupils, exploring our theme of Travellers, focusing in on a selection of George Mackay Brown’s writing 'To the Tibetan Refugees' 'Waters' and 'The Friend'. The result of these workshops was our beautiful interactive poem Aqua Benedicta, which has been hand lettered across our artwork:

smell the sea…feel the breeze…be free
So wishes one with a house beside a cold northern sea.
All gathered earth lucency seeps on and out
To the seven bitternesses of the ocean
voices screaming to be heard
a tangled net of nerves
All gathered within one circle
Of light and fire
keep going until it gets better
keep up with friends

at home…in the fields……feel safe
So wishes one with a house beside a cold northern sea.

George Mackay Brown

Advanced Higher English students Danny, Liam, Charlotte, Kadence and Aida

Original text on left, new writing on right.

Arranged by Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney Flag in the Boat Shed, Stromness

The turning point in our collaborative research week was meeting with the Orkney Historic Boat Society (OHBS). We were welcomed into several of their treasure troves of boat building & restoration workshops across Orkney mainland: to watch some of the process, meet the volunteers and discuss the potential donation of a series of boat hooks, oars and tiller. This collection of broken and mismatching pieces had been gathering over time in the OHBS HQ, coming from various boats with unknown stories and backgrounds. Now we had our base oars as a starting point, we needed to learn the process of restoration which was kindly shared by Ian Richardson. The pieces we were donated were looking for new stories, purpose, and in need of some love, which was agreed we would be able to provide within our artwork. It has been a delight restoring and repurposing these pieces, and giving them back to the community for passers by to read, enjoy and to create their own new stories.

I was really excited to learn how to apply my painting and colour skills to this project, which were the most transferable skills to work with to create an outdoor artwork. We now had our beautiful oars, poetry, and an understanding of the restoration process to help direct the design of the project - a very productive collaborative week all round.

Oars, Rudder and Tiller for scale - Portrait of Orla outside the Boat shed, Stromness, Orkney

Artistic Direction - The Creation of Artwork, Writing and project development

With the main decisions made together on Orkney, the designing of the project from here happened remotely. I squeezed the oars into our tiny van and drove them back down to central Scotland to my studio. Materials were gathered from the brilliant (and very patient!) store Duncan Yacht Chandlers in Glasgow. As we were still unsure of the artwork siting, the design of our artwork needed to be flexible and adaptable to suit various positions. After lots of head scratching and back and forth ideas, Gabrielle had the bright and final idea of incorporating the pieces upright into gabions.

Process of Restoration in the studio

From here, with our bench design in mind, I developed a colour palette and series of illustrations to accompany the text, that respond to George Mackay Brown’s life and writing. Inspired by the beautiful stone carvings and windows of St Magnus Cathedral, a series of icons were illustrated, and painted across the oars, tiller and boat hooks. The overall vision for the project was to have a playful, welcoming and joyous feel, which I chose to reflect through the bright and bold use of colour. Seeing the finished work upright as part of the landscape was incredibly rewarding, and lovely to see the same maritime colours of the traditional paint used in the artwork reflected across the maritime landscape behind.

Illustrated Icons for the GMB artwork

Launch Day - the Real Beginning!

We were gifted with a beautiful sunny day for our launch, and members of the community and public came. The artwork was celebrated into its true beginning, with speeches from the many many people who helped us along the way. We had poetry recitals, with George Mackay Brown’s original writing, and a series of new poetry written by Gabrielle that were inspired by this project and process. To finish in true community spirit, the day finished with a group recital of Aqua Benedicta, to bring us full circle.

Launch Day, Stromness

It is lovely knowing that the artwork has been a success for the people we have designed it for, and now sits as a positive addition to the community space in which it will be hosted for the next ten years.

Please read Gabrielle's beautiful collection of poetry in response to the GMB project, and read her words on this collaboration on her blog here.

I am excited to be showcasing new paintings in response to Gabrielle's words at the Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling. The exhibition runs from 19th August - 25th September.


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