1 Dec 2006 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Joanne B Kaar, No 1 Bard Terrace, Durness, until 10 December 2006


AS THE culmination of a three month residency in Durness, ‘Journeys’ reflects a process of cultural excavation and interpretation “over land, sea and time”.

What is so extraordinary about this exhibition is both the expansive scope of the project and its intimate scale. For those who participated in ‘Journeys’ during its development as part of the residency, and for subsequent audiences of the exhibition, ‘Journeys’ reveals much about its location.

The artist has thoroughly immersed herself in uncovering, sifting and merging creative process and technique with the natural environment. Taking joy in the everyday and the unique character of place that is so often taken for granted, such a project makes us all examine our own place in the world with fresh eyes.

I spent close to three hours thoroughly engrossed by each bound work which integrates natural materials and papermaking techniques with layers of history, archaeology and human experience.

Each piece is fascinating, filled with the landscape and its stories, the beautiful tactile experience of handmade fibres, the smell of natural elements mixed into the pages and the wonderful skill of artist Joanne Kaar in binding all these layers together.

The exhibition will tour in Mackay Country in 2007, and is cleverly displayed in a portable case made from an old canoe by Alan Herman in nearby Balnakeil Craft Villiage.

Journeys … is a model for integrated work in rural communities with few resources and arts infrastructure

It is gratifying to see a project extend its life and legacy by touring, and visitors can add their own journeys to a log book as part of the display. A Powerpoint presentation of images from some of the paper works in the landscape compliments the contents of the book boxes and helps place the work in context.

The creative process in ‘Journeys’ interprets and reflects a community and its environment by use of materials, content and active involvement. It is a reflection of the way that our creative influence as individuals can extend beyond any idea of isolation that may confine us geographically.

The residency unfolded online in tandem with activities on the ground and connected artists as far away as America and New Zealand with the whole creative process.

The original starting point, the origins of ships log books, was transformed into the modern blog as a document of the journeys taken within the project. The linking of Durness as a creative community to a potential worldwide audience through the internet is not only an important form of documentation, but also a means of communication about the unique qualities of the area.

The series of book boxes naturally invite the viewer to experience them – opening every wooden toggle is a discovery! They record a wide range of interpretations and the act of looking at them is immediate, personal and tactile.

Made from coffee grains collected from Mackay’s Hotel in Durness, ‘The Shipping News’ combines local history, with intoxicating smell and the image of a three mast Barque, a type of sailing ship wrecked in the area during a time of merchant voyages.

The image of the ship is simply and beautifully realised using a watercut technique, drawing through thin pulp while it is still in the papermaking mould. Personal and local history combined in the reading of the ‘Shipping News’ was recorded photographically on site.

Closed in 1947, Achiemore Primary School or Cape Wrath Academy assumed the familiar role of a mobile service in the artist’s interpretation of its foundations which are the only part of the building to remain. Those services currently visiting the area include a mobile bank, library and cinema, and are part of life in far north communities.

An impression of the foundations of the old Cape Wrath building formed the basis for the ‘Academy’. Folded up inside binding and created from made papers with banana skins, the piece was then unrolled, temporarily installed and photographed in the playground of Durness Primary School.

Local Ranger Donald Mitchell was invited to choose ten wildflowers from the local area which the artist translated into stone carved seals bound and presented in layers of precious white parchment and red ink.

Another part of the project took prints from marks made by man and nature in stone and presented them in an intricately folded binding perfectly in tune with its contents. These are not just surface rubbings or beautiful fibres but tangible links with human and natural history that an audience are invited to touch.

The delicate pink tinge and texture of kelp papers in a long binding imitate the wave of fronds in nature. Embossed key words from the history of the Kelp Industry in the area (1760’s to 1940’s) are visible on their surface in relief.

The experimental nature of creating art works using paper in the landscape are revealed in ‘Message in a Bottle’, based on the story of the Canton shipwreck of 1849. On 12 August (the date which commemorates the wreck), six message bottles were thrown into the sea off Fariad Head. Joanne explains: “I wanted to discover where goods from the ship would have been taken by the sea”.

Another work inspired by the wreck of the Canton is ‘Balnakeil Bay Bank Notes’, separated for security and cut in diagonal sections. Bank notes were washed ashore in 1849 inspiring a site specific work that was created from handmade paper with embossed watermarks and then photographed.

A work taken by the sea and returned by waves is ‘Sango Sands Sea Papers’. This has a wonderful soft texture created from herbs, linen fibres and elephant dung, encrusted with sand and partially formed by the action of sea water. Now dried and rediscovered by opening a book box, “it looks like it has been on an exciting journey”.

In an area of rich archaeology ancient marks on the landscape were retraced by imitating the markers used by archaeologists during excavation this time using dried pods of yellow paper pulp. The predominance of hut circles in the region inspired a ‘Grow Your Own Hut Circle’ for peat (acid soil) and Limestone (alkaline soil).

These circular rolled papers with wildflower seeds buried in the landscape extend the artist’s experimentation with the effects of different soils upon natural materials.

A Viking burial uncovered in 1991 provided the inspiration for another work using waste linen from a weaving shed on Scalpay in the Western Isles.

The action of the wind creating “boat like hollows” in the dunes and related finds from the burial of a boy in the 9th or 10th century influenced the creation of a linen paper shroud. Two metres long and bound with a stitched brooch pin, this work reminds us that there is always human history waiting to be uncovered by the elements.

Joanne Kaar’s work incorporated research, creating new temporary work in the landscape and permanent work for exhibition from natural elements collected in the parish of Durness. A series of workshops for adults and children in skills such as silk papermaking and stone seal carving extended the reach of the residency in the community.

Primary Schools in Durness, Kinlochbervie and Achfarey participated in the project, producing their own fold-out books of journeys. Their travels to school, the long journey into Inverness for shopping, the excitement of visiting a parent in Kinlochbervie, seeing eagles and deer on a day out in the hills, flying to America or a trip to nearby Balnakeil beach provide a window into the daily life of children living in the far North of Scotland.

Additional workshops for Durness Senior Youth Club, Kinlochbervie After School Club and a ‘Meet the Artists’ talk with fellow Mackay Country artist-in-residence Deidre Nelson actively engaged with all ages. The artist’s skills in Eastern and Western techniques of papermaking, use of recycling and inspired creative imagination left their mark as the comments of workshop participants testify.

Each book box informs the other and the artist’s own blog book account of meeting local people, describing the environment, landscape, weather, historical and personal influences on the work as it was being made adds to the overall experience of viewing the exhibition.

The sum of all these parts was inspirational to me in terms of the process of the artist residency and the far reaching affect such a project can have. It is wonderful to see a small community committed to creative engagement and self determination, and Durness Development and Mackay Country are to be congratulated on initiating this landmark project.

As part of a series of three, three-month artist residencies in Mackay country it is a model for integrated work in rural communities with few resources and arts infrastructure.

Tackling many of the problems faced by communities in the Highlands and Islands at local level, the scope of this project as a model for future projects in the area is positively inspirational.

Supported by the National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council and Highland 2007 I hope that it will be the first of many cultural explorations of our past, present and future realised for the long term benefit of residents and visitors to this unique part of the world.

For information about Journeys touring in 2007, contact Ronnie Lansley,

© Georgina Coburn, 2006