11 Dec 2003 in Outer Hebrides, Visual Arts & Crafts

Promoting understanding and communication

Còmhla was a major International Artist’s Workshop that took place at Taigh Chearsabagh Arts Centre in Lochmaddy, North Uist, in September. JULIE BROOK was one of the participating artists, and now reflects here on her experience.


Còmhla Artists Shelter in Julie Brook's Work

CÒMHLA (“Together”) was initiated by the Triangle Arts Trust, and took place over a fortnight at Taigh Chearsabagh.  Founded 20 years ago by Robert Loder and Sir Anthony Caro, the Triangle Arts Trust enables artists from all over the world to meet in their different countries and exchange ideas and methods of practice.

It has also created longer term residencies and studio buildings.  Audiences and local communities have participated through workshop open days, open studios during residencies, and exhibitions.

Taigh Chearsabagh is a vibrant arts centre set in the wild and dramatic landscape of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.  It runs an ambitious programme of exhibitions each year, residencies, a number of educational workshops and a one-year diploma course with consideration now being given to a further education course in environmental art.

It provided an ideal base for the Trust’s first workshop in Scotland: ideal for its unique and exciting environment, for the dynamic and efficient organisation of the centre, and for its relationship with the local community.

Anne MacKenzie, Arts Officer for Taigh Chearsabhagh, responded enthusiastically, raising funds through Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), Western Isles Enterprise, and the Scottish Arts Council, as well as providing an ideal location for the workshop to take place and organising local people to help with cooking and other practicalities.

Catherine Chan discussing her work with Melina Berkenwald

Ten artists were invited to participate in the workshop from Scotland, and ten respectively from Tibet, Brazil, Nepal, India, Japan, Argentina, South Africa, Indonesia, Cuba and Trinidad.  Travel and living expenses were paid for, plus materials.

The artists lived together in Newton House, a big homely place situated on the machair between a long sandy beach to the west and a group of rugged hills to the east.  The first few days were spent exploring the island, which gave everyone an insight into the geography, landscape, history and culture of the island as well as helping to form a relationship across the group, which then developed.

On the second evening we participated in an event at Taigh Chearsabhagh where the artists met local people.  In a Gaelic-speaking community mutual curiosity about each other’s cultures was graciously satisfied through conversation, music and song: Gaelic waulking songs demonstrated with a piece of St Kilda cloth, a Xhosa click song, an Indian love ballad, a Japanese drinking song.

Things like this made the artists feel welcomed guests amongst the community and landscape, realising the ambition of the Trust to promote understanding and communication of the arts across the world.

Langa Magwa at work

A natural rhythm evolved where daily experiences with one another became an integral part to making work.  Sharing meals, helping one another out with practical creative issues, walking, sailing, razor fish gathering, swimming in the sea, and plenty of open exchange.

For some artists there were intense periods of working alone, complemented by rejoining the group. For others it enabled a genuine ongoing collaboration.

The presentations given by each of the artists in the evenings of the first week demonstrated the differences of creative approach, providing stimulus for lively discussion, debate and ideas. These were usually followed by a kitchen ‘ceilidh’.  As one Scottish artist said – “ The amount of cultural exchange that took place at this time had to be experienced to be believed.  Both serious and light-hearted expressions of music, art, dance, and hunter-gathering techniques flitted across the floorboards in dazzling fashion.”

I found the whole experience inspiring. Having come directly from working in solitude on an uninhabited Hebridean island, I had reservations.  But right from the start a sense of ease was felt amongst us all.

The presentations were rewarding and interesting – a privilege to hear other artists speaking about their work, allowing a greater depth of understanding. Inevitably, given our recent acquaintance, the discussions tended towards the positive and friendly – in retrospect I would have appreciated a more rigorous and critical discourse. Perhaps this is unrealistic within a two week period; or perhaps this simply reflected the particular dynamic of our group.

Windbreak/Notched Wall, Diameter: 3.00m Height: 1.5m by Julie Brook

On the second day, many of us climbed the ridge of hills above where we were staying.  It was exhilarating to be up there – the sea on both sides of the island, the Harris hills to the North and below the myriad of lochs that break up the flat plains of moorland in North Uist.  Enhanced by seeing it through the eyes of the landlocked South African, Nepalese, and Tibetan artists and sharing it in our different languages.

I chose to work on an exposed shoreline nearby with a good source of broken stone.   I wanted to make a sculptural work that addressed the continual presence of strong wind in North Uist.  Windbreak, Notched Wall, proved to be more ambitious to realise than I had anticipated.

I worked intensively every day eventually finishing the work with local help.  The workshop significantly influenced the conception and scale of the work and it was wonderful to return at the end of each day to stimulating company.

The open day was a celebration of our time together.  It was remarkable to see how much work was made in a relatively short period. The local audience engaged fully with the process as well as the work itself.

Live performances punctuated the day and one of the artists had compiled and edited a film from each participant’s short video diary made during the fortnight to give a more intimate flavour of what we had exchanged.  Another open day was organised in the Glasgow Sculpture Studios for a wider audience, and funding for a residency is already in place for one of the international artists to return to Glasgow.

The combination of disciplines and inclinations in our practices clearly helped to create a good balance. Whether urban or rural based, many artists do experience isolation in what they do.  I felt the sense of communality and team spirit surprised and delighted us all, forming continuing friendships. In the context of so much global conflict it is good to experience the similarities of our human concerns and observations on life in spite of coming from such apparently diverse backgrounds.  And how art can provide the common ground for this.

Julie Brook is an artist based on Skye with current projects in Ireland, Glasgow and on the island of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides.

Taigh Chearsabhagh plans to publish a catalogue and CD to document the workshop. If you would like a copy or wish further information, please contact Andy MacKinnon, Arts Officer, Taigh Chearsabhagh T: 01876 500 240 email: andy@taigh-chearsabhagh.org or consult www.taigh-chearsabhagh.org.