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Reviews / Review: a celebration of island life

Artist Vivian Ross-Smith making island connections at her Bonhoga exhibition - Photos: Alex Garrick-Wright
Artist Vivian Ross-Smith making island connections at her Bonhoga exhibition - Photos: Alex Garrick-Wright

Having grown up in Fair Isle, local artist Vivian Ross-Smith has always been fascinated by islands and their residents. Her new exhibition, Island Connections, is an ode to island life, and a celebration of the “island mentality”, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.

Lerwick-based Vivian said that the original concept for the exhibition was going to be inspired by the differences between Shetland and the Finnish island of Korpo, where she spent a two-month artistic residency and did much of the work for the show. “I thought to compare [Shetland and Korpo], but it ended up more of a conversation than a comparison,” she said.

Vivian explained that despite the geographical and cultural differences between the tranquil, tree-covered Finnish archipelago and the jagged, storm-battered islands of Shetland, the two populations had the same “island mentality”.

“What makes an islander?” she asked. “Islanders tend to gravitate towards other islanders, islands or the sea… They’re more aware of nature, and their surroundings.”

The island inspiration was evident for most of the exhibits. Most interesting of all was a pair of bronze nets, one far more oxidised than the other. Having hand-woven nets out of natural fibre, Vivian explained that she had cast replicas in bronze while working at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden. One net went to Fair Isle, where Vivian exposed it to the elements (submerged in the sea all day, out on land all night) every day for a couple of months – and repeated the same process with the other net in Korpo.

The result is startling – the Korpo net, by virtue of the low salinity of the Baltic Sea that it was placed in, is mildly tarnished, while the Fair Isle net is Statue-of-Liberty-green, and looks decades older. Side-by-side, the nets produce a captivating effect, “reflecting the elements, the isles and shores of the places.”

A large patchwork tapestry of shimmering salmon-skins catches the eye.

A projector casts a short, looped film of the tarnishing process at knee-height, although without any explanation. The art of this piece, surely, was the effort of making them, with the nets merely being the end result. It seems a shame for a work that had so much meaning and work put into it to be displayed with such little context, leaving visitors who don’t have Vivian on hand to explain things left staring at two (admittedly very nice) metal nets.

Vivian noted that the Finnish coastline, owing to the tideless Baltic, is far smoother and gentler than the cliff-edged, ragged coasts produced by the harsh North Sea. One of the other works was a meticulously hand stitched map of the Turku archipelago, where Korpo is situated. The brown thread on crumpled linen shows hundreds of islands – some large, some tiny – scattered across the fabric like a spilled drink on a tablecloth. With no names or notations, there’s nothing to identify the map as being Turku, or Finland at all, but that’s Vivian’s point. Islanders are drawn to, and comforted by, islands, no matter where they are.

For several of the pieces, the Shetland-based inspiration is immediately obvious. A large patchwork tapestry of shimmering salmon-skins catches the eye. Preserved in the manner of leather to cut down on the fishy scent, Vivian described the work as an attempt to evoke a ‘sense of the traditional’. Somewhere on the tapestry, Vivian said, was a small word stitched into one of the skins, a sort of piscine ‘Where’s Wally?’.

A model of a windmill provides a touch of the controversial, a very interesting illustration of the various ways to cut sheep’s ears to mark them (in the pre-spray paint days) and a piece made of wool and found objects round off the Shetland-inspired pieces.

The exhibition was rounded off with a number of abstract paintings that just didn’t stand out against the more interesting pieces, and are ultimately difficult to remember compared to the salmon-skin tapestry, stitched map or bronze nets. Those pieces that do stick in the memory, however, are genuinely evocative and interesting, and are definitely the driving force behind the exhibition.

Vivian clearly has a love of the isles that will resonate with many Shetlanders. Island Connection is a celebration of island life viewed through a contemporary lens, and is well worth taking a trip out west to see.

Island Connection is in Bonhoga Gallery until 5 March.