I am an artist living and working in North Uist. I moved here nearly 5 years ago to study on the BA fine art degree with LCC UHI that is based at the Taigh Chearsabhagh campus in Lochmaddy. I paused my studies after the second year, but continue to practice and am actively involved in the local arts association.
This blog post is based on a Petcha Kutcha talk that I gave in early March 2020 (before lockdown) as part of a series of events being organised by Rosie Blake alongside the BA Fine Art Course at Lews Castle College UHI at Taigh Chearsabhagh campus in Lochmaddy. I’ve kept largely to this format, with 20 illustrations throughout that are referred to directly in the accompanying text.
On the Rocks – A Journey Through My Sketchbook
Looking through my sketchbooks I realise that there are some forms and places I return to time and time again, and one of these is the edge where the land meets the sea. Most of these drawings are done in situ, usually tucked down in a nook out of the wind, often on the rocks, at home in Uist, but often also in one particular place in Cornwall where I’ve been going for many years. So what is it about these locations that draw me? And what is it about this kind of drawing that is important to me, and how does it inform my wider art practice?
In his poem, “Between Mountain and Sea”, Norman MacCaig ends with the lines:
the salt of absence,
the honey of memory.
And for me this is part of the process of drawing in situ: what is there, what’s not there, what have I left out, what is behind me/out of shot? how can I use the drawing to describe not just the literal of what I can see, but also to some essence and memory of how it was to be in that space at that time. What is the absence and what is the memory?
Edge: When you say it aloud, it’s a hard word in your mouth, there’s an implication of something inflexible and finite. To be on edge is to be anxious, to be taut or tense. Something that is edgy is controversial, testing, risqué; but in reality the edge is often a soft and dynamic place, where it is tricky to pin point exactly where the boundary is; a place of compromise, and negotiation; a place of meeting, mingling and coming together but also a place of transformation and change. This is no more so than at the shore, where tide and weather create the littoral zone, a blurred region of water, land and air.
I’m also really interested in point of view, and how that affects your sense of where you are. Most of my sketches are from the land, as I haven’t yet worked out how to sketch while swimming and have had limited success from my kayak, but the waterproof camera is a marvellous thing! I use photos to aid my practice, to help remember, but nothing beats the sitting and being of physically sketching. It takes time, you slow down and bed in, you notice things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it’s about capturing more than a frozen snap. Where you chose to sit informs. Out of the wind, a comfy rock, dry, in the sun if its there, somewhere you can lay out your materials…all of these are as important as the view itself, and define your place and point of view.
A friend of mine often talks about the difference in Uist between the landscapes of the moor and shore. On the shore, so she says, the time is fast, the tide coming in and out always changing – swoosh swoosh – and on the moor, time is slow. This is true, but on a rocky shore, fast time is meeting slow time. Geology, the rocks formed eons ago, once liquid themselves and now slipping slowly into the sea, succumb to the slow dynamism of erosion by wind and waves.
Weaknesses in the rock are sought out by time and worn away, so you are left to imagine what was before, an absence filled with water. Rock that seems so hard and solid and fixed, but it is shaped and formed by slippery soft water. That’s the same stuff that when frozen into glaciers has gouged its way through the landscape to leave vast glens and erratic boulders in its wake. Don’t underestimate the power of it.
There’s a watery transformational power of the tide too. When you are at the shore you are part of two worlds: at low tide the seaweed sits slumped and flumped like a tired skirt to the land;
but then the tide comes in and you are in a perky upstanding world, with a different buoyant gravity.
What does it feel like to be there? Can the drawing convey that. For me the drawing in image 10 is all about breakfast, early morning, late summer, salt on my skin after a swim, sat in the sun out of the wind with a croissant and a cup of coffee. The honey of memory.
And image 11 is about arctic terns, birds that occupy that third element, air. It’s high summer in the Hebrides, with long days. I’m sitting on the rocks of the Atlantic, and for a change there is no wind. There is a colony close by and the birds screech overhead back and forth between the sea and the nests they are feeding. They have come from the other side of the world, chasing the sun and the sand eels, coming ashore only here in this place to breed for the short weeks of our northern summer. They are the soundtrack and memory for me of this drawing.
Birds are another recurring feature of my sketch books. Last winter I spent many hours on the beach trying to capture the movement of the flocks of sanderlings on the shore and their clockwork beetling back and forth in at the waters edge, easily spooked into flocks of flik flack flight. I was trying to follow their movements with my pencil, not looking at the page, just standing still on the beach, watching and drawing.
So what do I do with these sketches? How do they inform my wider practice? How to cross from that boundary of sitting and being and drawing into the studio?
I love it when the days lengthen and the summer breeding seabirds arrive on their own river in the sky, no visas or tickets, just an instinct and knowledge of their own world. They live in this edge where the elements meet, at home in the air and water, and settling on land to breed. Seabirds are special in the bird world, they form less than 0.05% of all the bird species in the world, and while they are all specialists in their own way, they share a number of common features. They tend to live long lives, often 30-40 years, with some albatrosses living up to 80 or 90 years. They are slow to mature and to breed, and faithful to their partners for many years, forming strong relationships where they raise only one or two chicks a year. They spend much of their lives at sea, only coming ashore, at the edge, to breed.
I have had the joy of kayaking along under guillemot cliffs, and perhaps because of this they are one of my favourites and are the force behind my current work.
Several ideas have been rattling round in my head for a while, one is how to find a way to portray this crazy living wall that is the guillemot cliffs, humming, rasping, buzzing, crying, chatting, shitting, screaming, a microcosm of a densely packed city perched on tiny ledges up the cliff.
In Adam Nicolson’s ‘The Seabird’s Cry’, he asks you to:
Look up at the jammed up life of a guillemot shelf….a densely tapestried network of longstanding relationships which have already lasted and evolved over the generations which have been continuous over the generations for thousands of years, on this cliff since the end of the ice age, perhaps 8000 years ago.
When you approach from the land you hear it first, but from the water, you see them first; bobbing on the water, and swimming below your boat, and in the air, legs akimbo crash landing on the surface.
So, this spring I’ve been drawing guillemots, firstly in anticipation of their arrival and the cacophany of life, and secondly to realise a concept for bigger work.
I’d had a proposal for an installation piece accepted last year for the cafe space in Taigh Chearsabhagh. It was to be exhibited during this summer as part of the wider Scotland’s Year of Coast and Waters theme. I was looking for an opportunity to increase the scale of my work, and I had a vision of a drawing that would be monumental in the busy cafe, filling up the height of the space with the social noise and clatter of crockery and tables to support it and help bring it to life. I planned a work that celebrated our seabird life and coasts and the heady days of high summer on this Atlantic edge where the elements of air, land and sea meet. Largely abstracted, not literal, but drawing on all that drawing and observation and being on the rocks, as well as the honey of the memories of being in the sea among them in my kayak and looking up. I wanted to create a sense of the towering weight and space of the cliff for people sitting under it; to make them look up at the jammed up life.
But then I found myself in lockdown, trying to make a piece that had been conceived in a different world that might not even get exhibited, in a cafe that might not be allowed to have any customers.
Through lockdown, I’ve been lucky, though, to be able to continue to walk on the shore, to take my sketchbook with me and to sit on the rocks and draw, and this has continued to inform my studio practice. Space to sit and engage with a simple physical activity that stills the covid noise. But in the studio I struggled at first to focus and direct my work. In the end nothing beats a deadline, regular drawing helped me cross the boundary between observation and imagination, and in time the work took on its own momentum.
I’m not sure when it will be able to be liberated from my house and be seen as intended. Another form of edge, that of a piece of work moving from the private to the public realm. For now it sits in my small home studio taking up the whole wall with no one able to cross my threshold to view. There are photos and virtual ways to see it, but it’s not the same as the real thing. The room it is in is so small I can’t even photograph it properly.
I cannot visit this summer, but the guillemots are still there on their shelves. They may not be impacted by coronavirus, but they face their own edge; the past half century has seen a catastrophic decline in the numbers of sea birds globally, and guillemots are not immune. Over the last couple of months working to develop and realise my initial concept, these gregarious birds have filled up my house, kept me company, and populated my world. I feel as though I have drawn them into life. I did not plan or expect to make a piece about lockdown, isolation, and loneliness, but it turns out I have.
The salt of absence.
Catherine Yeatman, May 2020.
All images are copyright © Catherine Yeatman
Nicolson, A, (2017) The Seabird’s Cry: London: William Collins
MacCaig, N, (2010) The Many Days, Selected poems of Norman MacCaig, Ed. Roderick Wilson: Edinburgh: Birlin Ltd.