Forty Toblerone boxes in the air

18 Dec 2012 in Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

THE RE-CREATION of a whole group of schools in the Western Isles, in rural, semi-rural and semi-urban locations, presented huge opportunities for a programme of public art.

AS ALL the commissions were advertised together and artists selected by the same panel, you might expect to see evidence of a policy. There are of course many different possible approaches to this often controversial field.

The artist might reasonably be expected to engage in a genuine investigation into cultural aspects of the locality. He or she might be seen as part of a team with the architects and indeed with the staff and pupils of the building. The pitfalls often are that the process of engagement has come too late in the project for the consultation to be meaningful. You can often see evidence of this in public artworks which do not result in a sense of ownership by the community they serve.

A view of Donald Urquhart's installation

A view of Donald Urquhart's installation

I’ve recently had the great pleasure of being able to take a close look at a work which has been made in consultation with the architects of the Nicolson secondary project in Stornoway, but with a genuine input from the pupils of the school. I do have some ‘inside knowledge’ of the process and not because I was a pupil of that school. The artist, Donald Urquhart, is a mate. I can claim that this does not at all affect my ability to be objective because we have also been rivals in applying for commissions.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first because I can say right away that the Nicolson commission seems to me a completely successful work. But how can you judge that, with regard to art which is part of a public building rather than in an exhibition where you can take it or leave it? As always, only by comparison. I know of two other examples of public works made in the Western Isles as part of the umbrella scheme of commissions.

One is pretty much what you would have expected the artist to make. There is no contesting that this is an artist of great skills but often the idea of community involvement is ticked as a box with no real sense that it has significantly influenced the essentials of the work in question.

The installation

The installation

Another is a pre-formed idea, made to the budget and installed with no sense of the cultural implications of the representational icons mounted at the approach to the school. As a storyteller I was asked to justify one work by finding a relevant island story for it, after the rather sinister image was already produced. Now as a poet, I would have to question that such a retrospective process could meet the requirements of the words “consultation” or “dialogue”.

So why do I think that the Nicolson work works? Donald Urquhart is vastly experienced in this field and it shows. His installations in Stobhill hospital have been an integral part of the international regard the Reiach and Hall project is held in. Then there are the painted timbers installed at Dysart, an intervention on the shoreline which encourages an altered focus on the seascape but with allusion to the human heritage of the place.

A closer view

A closer view

The cornfield wall and the painted towers at the redeveloped Eden Court Theatre in Inverness are quiet in one sense, but a large part of the aesthetic of the building visible to the outside world. In all of these, colour is the essential element. A draughtsman and painter by trade has carried his obsessions and skills into the multiple dimensions of the public works, interior and exterior.

As a mate and one with a head for heights, Donald asked if I’d give a hand touching up some minor post-installation damage to the paintwork of the abstract three dimensional work, newly installed in the Nicolson. This makes use of the high open hallway in the now occupied building. As one of the labouring team, following Donald’s instructions, to touch-up some minor scuffs to the paint finish, I gained an insight into both the final form of the work and the process which greatly influenced one aspect of it.

What do you see when you walk in? A closely hung grouping of painted three-dimensional shapes suspended from the roof structure to continue below the line of a mezzanine area, into the void space below. They are a bit like Toblerones, but a lot skinnier, in proportion. The bottom ends are not in line but slightly staggered, though not in a uniform way. Instead, you immediately get a sense of a connection with landscape, rather than with the more logical shapes of a designed building.

A longer view

A longer view

The range of colours is on the point of being shocking and yet it is also harmonic. Donald had brought 120 plastic bottles, each carefully numbered to match a plan. Each ‘Toblerone’ has a different shade on each facet. There is some chance for the works to swing very slightly from a single-point suspension on a tensed wire. But this will be more like a very subtle shift of light in landscape than anything like a kaleidescope effect.

So where did the colours come from? If you’re familiar with Donald Urquhart’s work you’ll know there’s a reason for the choices. This is the link to the locality. The artist commissioned a former student of his, now living in the Western Isles, to conduct a series of workshops at the school. These generated great interest, due to enthusiastic participation of the head-teacher, the art-department and other staff. Thus a significant proportion of the school population went out on field trips to identify particular shades in the flora and fauna of the natural environment.

The artist acting as assistant but also with a passion for colour, worked with the pupils to produce a large panatone palette of observed shades which could be reproduced. These might come from the beak of a puffin or from a frond of the complex shading roughly summarized by the word “moor”.

These then gave Donald the basis for his eventual choices of which shade to paint on which face of which of the many suspended shapes. And yes, a measure of chance occured, as when lighting-tracks were not fixed exactly where the plans said they would be.

So the original idea of creating a flush lower line by exactly matching the lengths of suspension-wire to the pitch of the roof, could not be achieved. Donald then chose to go for a random grouping which of course is in sympathy with an inevitable random element in the colour selection. So the work suggests landscape and the asymmetry in much of the observed natural world.

To make it work, he had to consult with the architects to change their choice of colour-scheme for the surrounding area. Its present subtlety is calming and throws focus on the abstract work.

Another angle

Another angle

I feel that the process has led to a sense of ownership in the work but don’t take my word for it. Ask the cleaners, the staff and the pupils. More than once, in the few hours when our squad was dabbing paint from the said range of bottles, someone came up to say how much they liked the piece and how it contributed something to the space though they couldn’t say quite what.

There we go. To make successful public art, I think the process of commissioning the artist has to allow a space for the factor which is very difficult to score. I’m reminded of a local crofter’s reaction to a temporary installation of painted marks in the landcape during Comhla, the first Triangle Trust artists’ workshop in Scotland. He couldn’t quite say why but somehow he didn’t mind that being there. He looked up again at a place he saw most days. Somehow his line of sight was temporarily altered, that little bit.

I do know that Donald Urquhart would welcome a further dialogue with the wider community which surrounds the school building. It would be a fine and fair thing if all the artists, involved in this series of commissions were invited to a public event where they could each present their work and the experience behind it’s finished form.

The work, COLOUR LINES, takes as its starting point the Hugh MacDiarmid poem, Scotland Small ? ( 1943 ). In this work MacDiarmid urges a way of seeing in the landscape which allows the appreciation of detail and colour. The pupils at the Nicolson Institute were asked to adopt that way of seeing in the development of the work.

Through a series of workshops conducted by the Stornoway based artist, Christine Morrison, a range of over 70 pupils, from across all the year groups, went on visits to the Castle Grounds to photograph and record colour in the landscape. Further computer-based workshops looked at extracting colour samples from digital images.

Each pupil was then asked to think about their favourite colour from a detail of the natural environment of Lewis and to suggest these for the work. The pupils sourced imagery from the photography archive of Scottish Natural Heritage to select individual images of their chosen subjects – from waxwings to puffins and ladybirds to sea campions. Individual pixels were then extracted from these images to form the final pallette for COLOUR LINES.

Urquhart discussed formal options with the pupils for how these colours could be introduced into the space in an appropriate form. The work is intended to form a cluster of colour within the atrium space and if of a scale appropriate to the height of the ceiling from which it is suspended. The triangular section of each element of the work is intended to allow the visible colours to change as the work is viewed from different angles. The forty elements were fabricated to Urquhart’s specification by Inscape Joinery

With forty individual triangular elements this allowed one hundred and twenty colours, selected by the pupils, to be used in the work. Each colour was mixed to match the pixels’ colours before Urquhart hand painted each face of each element. One hundred and twenty colours from the landscape of Lewis brought together by the pupils in one work at the heart of the Nicolson Institute.

© Ian Stephen, 2012