Taigh Chearsabhagh

1 Apr 2011 in Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

CATHERINE TURNBULL looks at the remarkable success of the adventurous Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre in North Uist

THERE MAY be only 1300 residents on the Isle of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, but Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre draws 35,000 people through its doors every year.

Since the thriving museum and gallery with its café, gift shop and busy post office, opened in 1995, the centre has been a focus of island life and has played a huge part in regenerating the community, both culturally and economically.

The Morning Star moored in front of Taigh Chearsabhagh

The Morning Star moored in front of Taigh Chearsabhagh

The art arm offers a creative programme through residencies, research, commissions, events and public programmes with an environmental focus.

Meanwhile, the museum, with its collection of over 1000 artefacts held by Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath (North Uist Historical Society), supports a huge range of heritage activities and events through imaginative interpretation of the heritage and culture of communities in North Uist.

Artist Chris Drury on Eaval, North Uist 2009, as part of his Land, Water & Language project at Taigh Chearsabhagh

Artist Chris Drury on Eaval, North Uist 2009, as part of his Land, Water & Language project at Taigh Chearsabhagh

And the stimulus for islanders and visitors goes way beyond what goes on within the walls of the renovated building, dated 1741 – one of the first buildings in North Uist to have a slate roof – through outreach and educational programmes, promotion of a studio trail and a centre of excellence for environmental art – including notable collaborations with Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury – that is spreading a message far and wide.

Arts officer Andy Mackinnon says Taigh Chearsabhagh is a very popular place, and one which is not only a huge focus for the community, but also lures many visitors to the island.

Taigh Chearsabhagh at night

Taigh Chearsabhagh at night (photo Stephen Carter)

“There is no other café in Lochmaddy and we are right next to the ferry terminal,” he says. “There are two distinct sides to the centre. The history and heritage of the unique island culture and the contemporary visual arts are presented in the gallery and museum spaces.

“Uist Arts Association was instrumental in setting up the centre and plays a major part in running and developing the programmes. We have had ­ and will have ­ some amazing residencies here. For example, textile artist Deirdre Nelson used crofting and domestic artefacts from the collections of Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath and Gaelic proverbs about working life as inspiration for a large scale knitting project that culminated in the exhibition A’ Fighe a Cheo – Knitting Fog, elements of which are still on tour in the UK.”

“We have a cycle of exhibitions amounting to about a dozen each year, and the Uist Arts Association organise a Uist-wide summer open studio trail.”

Lews Castle College UHI leases space in Taigh Chearsabhagh as its Lochmaddy campus, where students can study a BA in Fine Art levels 1 & 2, and an NC in Art & Design.

“Students get a lot out of feeding off our programmes and show their work here in our exhibition programme,” says Andy.

Taigh Chearsabhagh has fostered creative partnerships such as a collaboration between Tero Kontinen from Finland and Trine Pedersen from Denmark, who started drawing together in autumn 2008 on North Uist at an international artists workshop hosted by Taigh Chearsabhagh. This is a continuing activity, and the pair will exhibit ‘Island’ at the centre from June 4 until August 27, 2011.

Organic Growth, a work by Trine Pedersen & Tero Kontinen 2010

Organic Growth, Trine Pedersen & Tero Kontinen, 2010

The artists say: “Each drawing has been created during certain period of time by layering different elements together and the work is finished when both of us agree about it. During the process the drawings can be filled up with spontaneous traces of pencil or brush together with more accurately and slowly drawn elements. Each visual element and color might have a reference to our daily lives, to our conversations or to a purely imaginary world of ours. The works have always double title from both artists.”

Also coming up is the inaugural Uist Eco Film Festival. The event is a collaboration between Taigh Chearsabhagh and Sustainable Uist which presents a weekend of screenings and related events focusing on climate change and sustainability issues in island and maritime contexts.

It aims to explore what we have got, what we stand to lose and how we can change the situation. The festival will show international documentary and fiction films and videos at Balivanich Community Hall, Benbecula between April 29 and May 1, 2011.

Chris Drury's Vessel, an installation in willow, ash, heather, and salmon skin

Chris Drury's Vessel, an installation in willow, ash, heather, and salmon skin, 2010

“The main focus of our arts programme is environmental, with artists working in the landscape and creating work about environmental issues,” adds Andy. “We are dependant on our unique environment here in the islands.

“We have an in-house production company for film, collaborating with artists on film projects, creating interpretative materials and training in editing, and we have a regular film club. We have been working jointly with Sustainable Uist on the Eco Film Festival. This will include the UK premiere of Climate and Change, narrated by Tilda Swinton, and a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land.”

An example of Taigh Chearsabhagh’s video work is the feature length Millennium documentary Passing Places – The Real Outer Hebrides. Contributors made short films about their lives and communities with support from the centre, and the result was a non-stereotypical view of island life with a soundtrack produced through workshops led by Fred and Deidre Morrison.

Now a sequel is planned, and the original filmmakers and new contributors will be asked what has changed over the last decade. Expected themes include community buy-outs, environmental issues, new technology, transport and outward migration. The film will be marketed locally and internationally to film festivals and will be accessible online to reach a global audience using social networking media.

There are many other community events hosted in the arts centre, from poetry evenings to a writing group, and facilities range from a print workshop and dark room to video editing. Outreach and education offers the Start programme of supported visits and workshops for school pupils and has led to work being shown at festivals and other galleries.

Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum’s 1000 artefacts represent the heritage and culture of communities in North Uist, mainly dating to the 19th and 20th centuries. Currently the artefacts are held in a museum store on Benbecula, but the goal is to create a permanent home with a viewing area. The collection is currently being digitally catalogued.

Gold Sheep Skull by artist Deirdre Nelson

Gold Sheep Skull - Deirdre Nelson, 2008

Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath also holds an amazing photographic archive of around 3,500 print and transparencies and a smaller sound archive.

The largest artefact held by the museum is the boat Morning Star, which operates regular educational trips for the public between May and September round the special marine habitat of Lochmaddy Bay. Built in 1928, the vessel served the community as a mail and supply boat and was restored between 2002 and 2007 by the Grimsay Boatshed Trust as part of a heritage, craft and community training programme.

The museum’s current exhibition is Communication and Transport, which will look at how people travelled between islands. This will include sea routes, traditional footpaths and track as well as air routes. The exhibition runs until January 31, 2012.

© Catherine Turnbull, 2011