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Reviews / Review: Lasting treasure at Home & Away

The Home & Away exhibition is on until Christmas.

ARTS and crafts abound in shops and galleries at this time of year, unsurprisingly. At the Shetland Museum and Archives exhibition space, Da Gadderie, John Hunter has managed to curate a diverse range of products – paintings, drawings, pottery, and basketry among them.

 The artists all have links to Shetland – they either are or have been resident here, or are frequent visitors. The former comprise Anne Bain, Bill Brown, Mike Finnie, Brian Henderson, Aimée Labourne and Jeanette Nowak. Painters Carolyn Dixon and Chris Rigby are the latter.

Anne Bain, Mike Finnie and Brian Henderson are all familiar painters. Anne and Mike treat similar subjects – very much traditional or “vernacular” architecture and landscape – in different styles.

Anne highlights dramatic contrasts of light and colour, and movement – in her Whitewash, the leaning house (reminiscent of one that stands out on Lerwick’s Old North Road) could almost be hanging on the same washing line as the sheets that are tugged by the wind) while Mike records, with more of an architect’s hand, a skyline of croft houses, whose gradual disappearance from the landscape he laments.

Brian’s extremely accurate and detailed still-life portraits are often described as examples of photographic realism. The high definition may be what one would expect in some photography, but there the comparison ends. An inner light emanates from fruit, and inanimate objects, even from egg shells. Brian wryly comments that he struggles sometimes to complete a painting before the subject decomposes, as he adds layer upon layer with ever finer brushes.

Aimée Labourne has moved to Shetland relatively recently. Like Brian, she has an incredibly steady hand, but the intricate works here displayed are done in monochrome with graphite pencil. They depict various aspects of traditional, pre-industrial weaving in Shetland and Cumbria, and reveal in their detail much ingenuity. A homemade loom from Unst, for example, incorporates bicycle parts. Her warp of wool is a masterpiece of concentration and skilled draughtsmanship.

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Jeanette Nowak has recently been in the news, as her basketry featured in Pringle of Scotland’s latest London fashion show. Multitalented as she is, this handicraft represents only a fraction of what her magical Shed in Yell offers to the world, under the trade name Hjarta (= Heart).

Jeanette, it seems, is on a permanent voyage of discovery: consider some of the materials from the natural world she uses for her baskets, casks and handbags: Floss (rush), bulrush, grasses such as bent and marram, and from the garden montbretia, rhubarb skins and beetroot leaves. Who would think of using the deceptively diminutive and fragile hairmoss (Polytrichum), which grows among sphagnum on the moor? Or, in a playful mood, and not being averse to artificial material, a string of fairy lights?

Slightly confusingly, part of Jeanette’s exhibits is on display in a museum shop display cabinet: her exquisite jewellery – silver-encased, sea-worn fragments of pottery and glass that she has combed from beaches.

Bill Brown retired to Shetland from his job as a ceramics teacher at Glasgow School of Art, and has “set up shop” in Voe. He shows an imaginative mastery of his profession, whether he is, like Jeanette being playful – in Deep Fill the handle of a ceramic frying pan is wittily crafted into a border collie’s head with tongue licking the pan – or creating egg-shaped, mottled bowls or a Fair Isle patterned plate.

He has also investigated different types of Shetland clay and Kleber (soapstone) – I overheard one percipient observer remark that the textured patterns of these almost look like slices of salami…

Kleber features as a title of one of Carolyn Dixon’s paintings, but this time it’s the name of the soapstone cliff in Fethaland (which has been inscribed by folk over many years).

Caroline hails from Sanday in Orkney and finds both similarities and contrasts to her home in Shetland’s landscapes. Her bird’s eye views are particularly striking and colourful, as in The 14 Knitters of Burrastow – intriguingly, only eleven appear to be visible – are some hidden from immediate view?

Cliffscapes are what Chris Rigby, from Yorkshire fell-land, excels in here, though he says he is extending his palette into moorland, which will be worth waiting for.

One really feels one is in the presence of, and almost overwhelmed by, these giant rock faces, which have been sculpted by the even more massive ocean. Chris’s almost chiaroscuro depiction of light and shadow works to good effect in this respect.

This show runs at Da Gadderie until 22 December. Many items on display will surely be bought as seasonal gifts, by both the wealthier and less wealthy citizens of Shetland, and, unlike so many mass produced goods, will have the virtue of being lasting treasures.

James Mackenzie


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